You Have a Cool Job: Festival Production Designer (See: Coachella, Lollapalooza, EDC)

By Taylor Sienkiewicz | Petersons

On this week's episode

On this week's episode of You Have a Cool Job, we talk to the man behind the magic of Coachella, Electric Daisy Carnival, Lollapalooza, and many more. Steve Lieberman is a lighting and production designer who works on some of the most intricate music festivals and nightclubs.

He talks about the sometimes months-long setup, creative elements, and skills needed to make it happen. Steve gives advice for those wanting to help create these kinds of events.

Steve shares firsthand how the music festival scene has exploded into what it is today, and what production looks like with these new expectations.

About the show

You Have a Cool Job is a podcast hosted by Taylor Sienkiewicz from Peterson's. The show highlights professionals who have a unique, interesting, uncommon, or otherwise cool job.

Our goal is to motivate you and show how interesting, fulfilling, and anything-but-average your career can be, and we'll do this by talking with people who took a path less traveled. We ask these fascinating individuals how they got to where they are in their career based on their education, experience, and influences; why they love their job; and lots more.

Episode 11 Transcript

HOST SHOW INTRO: Welcome to the show! From Peterson's, I'm Taylor Sienkiewicz, and you're listening to “You Have a Cool Job”, a podcast highlighting those who took their profession in a unique direction, and what they did to get there.


HOST INTRO: On today's episode of You Have a Cool Job, we talk to the man behind the magic of Coachella, Electric Daisy Carnival, Lollapalooza, and many more. Steve Lieberman is a lighting and production designer who has made quite the name for himself in the club and music festival world. He first explains what the festivals are like behind the scenes.

STEVE LIEBERMAN: When we're actually on-site backstage it's not as glorious as as everyone may think if you're actually watching the show from an audience perspective backstage is is a lot of stage hands on waiting to move things on and off a lot of heavy machinery electrical equipment you know generators and such and usually a few trailers with with production office personnel in there so it's usually you know for the setup of the event it's a beehive it's very active and then once the events going on it's usually just getting artists on and off stage back there you know maybe rolling equipment on an off stage so we're not partying back there if anybody thinks that that's what's going on it is absolutely a work environment and so when you get that backstage pass and you think you've just you know acquired the Holy Grail you've been very much misinformed.

HOST (LIVE): And what about the setup of these events?

STEVE LIEBERMAN: Well it depends on the show I mean when you get into large-scale and large format events setting up these shows can take anywhere from a few days to two months and it just depends on the scale of the show you know so for instance Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas that's a two months to set up you know by the time we move into the site and then get off the site you know we're there for for three plus months because there's just so many logistics that need to be coordinated in preparation of building these stages and then we have events like we just did rolling loud this weekend down in downtown Los Angeles and we had to design it so that we can get the stage out within nine hours the doors closing so that needs to be considered as well so as big as the stages looked and if anybody that was at the show or saw it on socials you could see the stages look massive but we designed it and very careful it's you know was careful consideration knowing that we needed to get this thing out in eight hours like be gaunt because of the football game.

HOST: For the festivals that have a much longer timeframe for setup and teardown, Steve explained what exactly goes into months of setup for those massive music fests.

STEVE LIEBERMAN: Securing the site bringing in the steel marking off the positions you know some of these structures just take weeks to build and then you know you have all the different disciplines that come in from scenic to video to lighting to staging and and all the other parts the rides merch food and beverage entry portals camping sites there's just a lot going on just moving you know hundreds of personnel onto the site production personnel just getting the infrastructure to support them takes time.

HOST: Steve's company, SJ Lighting, started with just lighting design. Now, the company coordinates the entire production for many of the shows they work on, designing unique stages for each one.

STEVE LIEBERMAN: My office we design and develop you know it depends on the year but anywhere between probably 50 and 70 different stage designs for various shows around the world so some of them are full production design some of them you know we're handed a stage and then we're told ok this is the stage that we're using put your elements in here which is still qualified as a production design and then sometimes we're giving we're given scenic elements say light it and then it might just be lighting design but we have the skill set you know in the personnel with the proper credentials to go ahead and fulfill those requirements based on whatever the client may need right and then you also just mentioned from venue to venue it can look really different so how does that change is it just a matter if there was more stages somewhere like Coachella then there is that maybe a smaller club well absolutely so I mean every job that there's no real like blanket statement that qualifies how you do production design because every environment has its own unique challenges and kind of circumstances that you need to accommodate so whether it's a Coachella Lollapalooza or you know an EDC every site plans different every city is different the weather conditions might be different time constraints might be different so you need to just take all of these these items into consideration when when going through the logistics of what it takes to to produce these events so each show has its own requirements and you have to address them uniquely and make sure that it's bespoke for that event.

HOST (LIVE): Okay and then Steve what is the most interesting then you seem that you've worked on because I would think of the really big shows is just being a lot of work but what's kind of the most intricate planning you've done on a venue?

STEVE LIEBERMAN: you know I'm gonna as far as like special events and festivals I think EDC Las Vegas is probably not only is it the highest-profile but it's the most amount of work with the most intricate details that we develop because that is that's insomniacs flagship and that if every show I've ever worked on you know whether it's their brand or another brand this is the one that really for us kind of takes it to another level when it comes to detail-oriented shows and really trying to create an immersive any immersive experience so when you're trying to do that it's not just the stage design it's a whole environment tying it together so if you come to the kinetic field you go to the circuit grounds there's entry portals that tie into the design and philosophy of the design there is merch and an F and B areas you know food and beverage areas that are tied into the design of each area and we're trying to create this whole experience so you're not just walking through a parking lot or walking through some festival site you know your you're at EDC and it's the experience you don't doesn't feel like it's the Las Vegas Motor Speedway anymore you know it feels like a wonderland you know everything else is kind of gone out the window reality is upside down the second you walk through those doors so when it comes to something like that and you do a show like EDC where everything has a detail that changes it as opposed to doing shows where it's you know you go from stage to stage we try to do cool stage designs but the in-between areas and the transition areas you know are cool but they're not highly detailed as in an experience like EDC Vegas.

HOST (LIVE): Okay interesting and then with all of these huge music festivals how is your job changed as these have kind of blown up with millions of people going to them?

STEVE LIEBERMAN: Well the size and scale you can imagine kind of works proportionally so as the show gets bigger our requirements to produce the show gets bigger right so if you take it back 10 years ago or 15 20 years ago whatever it may be the same resources weren't available to seems the same size crowds weren't showing up and now it seems especially with social media and everything being accessible at the touch of a button and within seconds the audience is a lot more educated and they understand and have certain expectations when they come to an event yeah it's more than just give us a big video wall on a bunch of lights they want to see they want to see curated design details that you know they want this this experience and and they're used to getting it because that's what these a lot of these shows are producing so the job has changed almost exponentially as this community has has grown and become more diverse and also more mainstream so the job just has grown from like I said you know my company started as SJ lighting and now we are full design you know production architects over here from everything from pre-visualization and Renton like photo real renderings and 3d modeling and walkthroughs and vr imaging and and all these developments have just kind of been added in

HOST (LIVE): Yeah and so your team I'm assuming has grown exponentially too.

STEVE LIEBERMAN: You know finding qualified people in this industry is it's hard because it's not really something that's taught in in college you have to you have to learn these things by experience because you know the electronic dance music community in the festival community these aren't classes that are taught even if you have a degree in lighting designer or any of these elements or go to a specialized school so a lot of it is in the field and on-the-job training we try to get guys that you know on personnel that start off with some sort of background but a lot of it's just learned out here so it is hard I don't think that my staff has grown completely in proportion to the two to what's going on with the jobs and the community but we have pretty strong crew over here just internally for design development there's a this five of us total four of us doing design work and one is just office administrative and we managed to get it done with all the projects that come through here but everybody is always very busy at the same time though you know I look at as a gift to be able to work on these kinds of events to where you know you can really express yourself create you know creatively and be involved in some of the larger shows in North America and globally for kind of a community that we really support and and hold close to our hearts.

HOST (LIVE): So when you are looking to take people onto your team whether there just setting up for one festival or those five people that you mentioned how what would you be you said you're looking for experience but is there anything in particular for somebody who would want to get into doing lighting design today like or production like that?

STEVE LIEBERMAN: Well I we get a lot of inquiries for jobs and things like that and a lot a lot of inquiries tend to lean towards hey we really want to work on these shows or be out in the field or a program or an LD there's a lot that goes into learning this trade and getting into it so I would say the skill sets that are required really start obviously you have to have creativity but you have to have a balance of art and science when it comes to this field you have to understand what's available resources and you have to have a basic understanding of how these things go together and the possibilities it's it's one thing to be able to draw a pretty picture it's another thing to know that it can get built within the constraints so whether that's a you know a financial constraint like here's your budget or it's a time constraint or two resources constraint doesn't matter you know if the gift items are affordable if it's not available.

HOST: While those in the fields have to have strong problem-solving skills overseeing it all requires a whole different skill set.

STEVE LIEBERMAN: As far as like working here in our office you have to have you have to have drafting skills you know whatever that may may entail whether it's AutoCAD Revit Sketchup cinema 4d and you know and the list goes on and on you you have to that a very basic you have to have those skills to work at this office because one of the primary things that we do here is produce documentation to support designs so it's one thing to have a great idea it's another thing to be able to put it into a document set send it to the field and then your stagehands electricians you know whoever is contracting to build it can look at your document set and build it without having to call you every three minutes with questions and that there's enough information and then Meishan is in the right order and the right sequence for you to for you to get a bill.

HOST (LIVE): So it sounds like you need some graphic design background.

STEVE LIEBERMAN: Drafting, graphic design yeah I would say drafting is probably at a higher priority but yes both of those are are tremendous and required.

HOST (LIVE): And Steve how did you get into this field?

STEVE LIBERMAN: Well I have been working in my clubs my first exposure was 1986 so I was working at a nightclub in New York in the Hamptons during the summer like on teen night serving soft drinks behind the bar on tee night and that evolved into then becoming a bar back in that same nightclub for a few summers and which just evolved into then the rave scene came to New York in 1990 and I got involved with some friends who were actually doing lighting and from there it just kind of you know kept picking up pace so what to college University of Arizona and while the raves were starting to hit the East Coast and the West Coast simultaneously it was sort of spreading out across the United States still very much a subculture and my I had friends that were involved and doing it I really enjoyed those shows I've always been a dance music fan and I found that I had a knack for lighting yeah so just learned it out in the field so after college instead of continuing with my education which was a consideration I actually took my lsaps and was going to go to law school started applying to school I had this epiphany that I was going to change directions and go work in nightlife which probably at the time wasn't the greatest choices and let's just say at this point in time in my career I've managed to capitalize on bad decisions.

HOST (LIVE): What was your degree in?

STEVE LIEBERMAN: I have a degree in history from the University of Arizona which absolutely has no relevance to the trade but what I would say and I tell a lot of people that we have talks about just getting into this industry college education even if you don't have it in the field that you're working in it proves something to an employer as well and it proves that you can accomplish long term goals so although I have a degree in history I was able to manage getting that degree and figuring out what was required in order to you know to graduate and that's not something you can do in two weeks obviously you know it takes four plus years to get that done so I'm a big believer in getting your education just to prove to yourself and to you know any future employers that hey I can I can take something to the finish line even if it's it's a multi-year experience.

HOST (LIVE): So how did going from those clubs just like right out of college like that and making that decision translate to where you are now?

STEVE LIEBERMAN: Well back then yeah the industry wasn't as popular as it is now so nightclubs raves they weren't called music festivals back then but back then my clubs and raves were really like in the production world almost a dirty word nobody wanted to touch him so my my colleagues that I worked with really looked down on it and let's just say I took a lot of heat and you know was made fun of for working in this industry like you know why do you work in nightclubs you know and they had a lot of colorful words to describe the people in that industry and then the raves was it you know that was a really dirty word like you do raves no we're not interested in that and then as these events grew in popularity and ticket sales and they started to out kind of out produce the rest of the production community whether it was touring touring shows rocking rock and roll or whatever it may be people started taking notice about a decade or so going what the hell is going on over here and how did we miss this these electronic dance music events are doing a hundred thousand people and my rock tour is doing ten thousand how did that happen so it gained you know it was these other these other people in the industry definitely took notice of this but the difference is part of the reason I think that I've had success that you know my company's had success is because you know we didn't choose this industry because there was like these great financial gains and we chose this industry or I chose this industry because I've always had a passion for this music and for the community so that there wasn't a lot of money in it back then so you know we were here just because we wanted to be here as opposed to you know the guys that maybe are getting into it now some of them are seeing dollar signs or now there's just more opportunity in it but we stuck it out at the very beginning and that's how we ended up here.

HOST: Steve has watched the music festival and nightclub scene explode over the years into what it is now while he got into the scene before this he gives advice for those wanting to get into the field today.

STEVE LIEBERMAN: It's pretty spectacular to kind of be part of this as it grows and gets through it but I would say anybody trying to get into this industry there's multiple platforms and multiple disciplines that you can go for if you want to work in this all with different requirements and different experiences and I would say same for anyone getting into this is to just kind of be diversified as must as much as you can and have an understanding of all these different areas and really experience it I think the more experience you have from festivals to nightclubs and any other hospitality and kind of design entertainment will just kind of increase your your value and your education and understanding of what this is and help you grow professionally to kind of pachu ate your own your own career.

HOST: As creative careers in the entertainments business continue to be in high demand, we encourage you to think outside the box when it comes to your artistic passions. We hope you're inspired by Steve's story and can find the creative outlet that fits you. Thanks for tuning in, we'll see you next week.


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