Live performance graphics

With live music drawing in audiences like never before, Mark Ramshaw takes a closer look at the opportunities for artists designing the posters, merchandise and show visuals that can turn a gig into a feast for the senses.

Ever since the birth of rock 'n' roll, the record sleeve has provided designers and photographers with the perfect blank canvas - one with near limitless creative opportunities and with the potential to be viewed and revered by millions of music fans. From Roger Dean and Hipgnosis through to Jamie Reid to Mark Farrow, the music industry has aided and abetted the careers of countless artists. But the times they are a-changin'.

While the medium has weathered countless musical shifts and even the downsizing that came with the invasion of the CD diminishing sales, diversified music trends and the spiralling costs involved in finding and developing acts means the record industry live performances and long-running or large-scale tours are deemed more important than ever. And just as the industry has always relied on talented artists to feed the cover-art machine, so now their skills are being harnessed for the benefit of the gig.

The history of musical event promotion is, of course, almost as old as music itself. And it's an area that continues to rely on the efforts of illustrators and digital artists. Posters still provide the primary canvas for artists, though other promotional devices, including websites, flyers, print ads, badges and other 'giveaway' merchandise might also be used to flag live events.

"I've always been a music lover, and in the early 90s I forced myself on a few groups and offered to do designs in exchange for the chance to sell stuff at shows," says Vincent Stall, the man behind one-man poster and illustration company King Mini. "I now promote myself through the KMI websites, my blog and some forums. Most of it is probably word of mouth, with band work coming from around the world."

Illustrator Tobias Jones says that increased demand for this kind of design work is down to the bands. "They're going it alone and commissioning most of the merchandise themselves now," he says. "The notion of a record label handling all money matters is long dead. Even good PR can be achieved without labels."

Stall suggests checking out local venues, anything from schools to coffee shops, for potential poster design work. "Most venues would be relieved to have someone offer to do posters for them. It's one less thing for them to worry about," he says. "Or try GigPosters.com. Its forums usually have bands who want people to create posters for them."

Looking beyond merchandising and poster design, there's little doubt that the live event itself has evolved enormously over the last decade. For top-selling bands, elaborate combinations of stage art, animations and light shows are almost considered a necessity, helping to personalise performances in larger venues, reinforcing the band 'brand' and helping to justify ever-higher ticket costs into the bargain. Even those bands and musicians on the first rung of the professional ladder have realised that striking visuals can bolster a modest stage presence and help make the event more memorable for a fickle audience.

Working with event designers such as Willie Williams to create shows for artists including U2, Take That, George Michael and Genesis, onedotzero industries is one of the most influential companies in this field right now. "We oversee the overall show design, forming an outline for the show and tapping into our database of artists to create something very specific to each client's needs," explains onedotzero industries producer Sam Pattinson. "It's an approach that allows us to keep the output varied - we can commission something different for every song. We also try to work with new people, even whose who aren't known as filmmakers or animators."

Pattinson says hardware and software tends to be built to order, as there is no off-the-shelf solution that can deliver the results needed for the sort of large-scale displays onedotzero industries usually works with. "We bridge the gap between the artists and the technology," he says. "It's my job to get everything pixel perfect."

While Pattinson generally favours carefully using pre-generated elements to accompany a band's live performance, there are those that favour a real-time-based approach - using audiovisual mixing and audio analysis video generation tools to splice together graphic elements in a way analogous to methods employed by a DJ mixing records. In fact this latter approach has spawned a vibrant 'VJ' culture, with audiences attending events where light shows are generated on the fly to match the changing structures and tempos of the songs.

British collective United Visual Artists has been developing its own approach to real-time video creation for five years now. In that time it has grown from a team of three to 15 and worked with musicians such as Massive Attack, U2 and UNKLE. "In the studio we use all the common creative tools," says UVA co-founder Matt Clark. "But the content we create using these tools is often not recognisable once it hits the screen, because, since the first Massive Attack tour, we've continued to develop our own toolkit, D3."

While D3 was originally created because no off-the-shelf tools were available to transfer real-time content to screens at up to 60fps, Clark says the decision to develop its own system has also allowed UVA to completely rethink its creative process. "We like to consider the 'screens' first and design everything backwards from there, creating material as elements that can be composited in real-time to the screens or the lights. We often look at the whole stage as one canvas. Writing our own software enables us to use lights as video and video as lights, thus creating more sculptural, immersive designs."

Clearly, the challenge for illustrators, animators and filmmakers who possess a desire to work in this field is not only to demonstrate the necessary skills and talent, but also to understand the possibilities and limitations inherent with this unique medium. "It's a tricky one, as there's no course you can take that will teach you about this work," says Pattinson. "The first thing I'd advise is to go to a lot of shows and think about what you could contribute, and how you could create something that would work in that context, up on stage with the band in front of the screen."

It's also essential to learn just how animations created on a desktop will transfer to a stage environment. "The big difference generally is the limitation in terms of resolution of the screens, as tour visuals are kind of halfway between film and lightshow," says Run Wrake, a designer who has worked for artists such as U2 and Genesis, and with onedotzero industries on a number of occasions. "Something created for cinema or TV may appear as sludge once it's played back on huge but relatively low-res screens up on stage."

As for getting a foot in the door, Pattinson recommends sending off reels to established visual teams. "We're always looking for new talent, not only for people who can creatively fit into what we're currently doing, but also people who can bring something new to the table. Audiences need to be shown something they haven't seen before."

The other option is to go it alone. "Everyone has to start somewhere and often the DIY approach is a good way of throwing yourself in at the deep end," suggests Matt Clark.

"You can find younger bands, ones that don't have managers getting in the way, and try to pull something together for them," agrees Pattinson. "It's not a bottomless pit out there - there's only so much work to go around - but I do think we're going to see more people doing this kind of work and coming up with new approaches. The market is there and the technology is right - it's an exciting time."