Sitting in an Athens hotel room on a humid summer day in early July, Will.i.am recalls the days when he and his fellow members of the Black Eyed Peas made a collective $150 per show—and were ecstatic about it.
“We would jump up and down because we got paid, even though it meant we had to split it with each other and the band, meaning about $20 a piece,” he says. “Then we got paid $2,000 for a show. And then I remember the first time we got paid a million bucks for an hour. I was like, ‘Wow!’ That was only four years ago.”
Today, Will.i.am, Fergie, Apl.de.ap and Taboo have much more to be excited about. While other marquee acts are canceling shows and suffering from poor ticket sales this summer, the Black Eyed Peas are in the midst of their most ambitious concert outing yet, the E.N.D. world tour, promoting the album of the same name. The tour is sponsored by partners Bacardi and Blackberry, and promoted by AEG Live.
The “E.N.D.” album, released in June 2009 on Interscope Records, has sold 2.6 million copies domestically, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It has yielded a run of Billboard Hot 100 hits including “Boom Boom Pow” and “I Gotta Feeling,” which commanded the top of the Hot 100 for half of the 2009 chart year.
During 2009, the Peas began touring with international dates, including the Glastonbury Festival in the United Kingdom, and a swing of Australian arena dates promoted by Frontier Touring. This year’s trek began with North American arenas in February and continued with European dates in the spring that included four nights at London’s O2 Arena, two nights at the O2 in Dublin and three nights at Paris’ Bercy venue.
The international tour helped further drive shipments of “The E.N.D.,” which have reached 4 million outside the United States with a strong performance in key markets including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Australia and Italy, according to Tom Land, international marketing director at Universal Music Group International.
Although the Peas have a wealth of hit singles internationally, “I Gotta Feeling” emerged as their signature tune for this campaign, according to Land. The track broke a U.K. record last month by becoming the first download to sell 1 million copies, according to the Official Charts Co. It peaked at No. 1 in Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. It also went top five in Germany, the Netherlands and Japan.
The song also became an unofficial anthem for the Portuguese soccer team after coach Carlos Queiroz revealed on national TV that the players listened to the track as motivation before the 2009 qualifying matches for the World Cup. The group’s May 30 concert at the Estadio Nacional in Lisbon was effectively a sendoff for the Portuguese team before it headed to South Africa. The Peas also performed at FIFA’s World Cup Kick-Off Concert June 10 at Orlando Stadium in Johannesburg.
This summer’s North American tour began July 16 in Quebec. After playing the “Good Morning America” Summer Concert Series in New York’s Central Park July 30, the U.S. tour will begin Aug. 3 in Boston.
In a tough live climate, the Peas continue doing sellout business, and it’s mainly due to their attention to their fans, Interscope Geffen A&M vice chairman Steve Berman says. “There’s always such a vision inside the camp to do spectacular things and to give their fans an incredible artistic experience,” he says. “The concept was to be loud, fun and forward-thinking, to deliver something that would blow their fans’ minds. So far, I think that’s exactly what they’ve done.”
When it came to creating a concept for the tour, “Fergie was the one pushing everyone,” says William Derella, one-half of the Peas’ management team and producer of the concert outing. “When her solo [album] came out [2006’s “The Dutchess”] and it was her time to tour, she was worn out. She had been touring with the Peas for four years, and so instead she took a break—got married, made a movie and worked with the Peas. But when it came down to this tour, she said, ‘I want to step this up. We should do a big production.’ ”
Will.i.am agreed. “We wanted to tour bigger than we’ve ever toured before,” he says. “We started off doing California campuses in 1996, and then after our record deal, our first tour was the Smokin’ Grooves tour, our second tour was the Vans Warped tour—we were the first hip-hop group on a punk tour. Then we did the Honda Civic tour. In ’99 we went to Europe and toured in small clubs, maybe 200-seaters, followed by a House of Blues tour in America. We toured on this smaller scale for a long time, so it was important to learn how to do a big production for our fans.”
According to Derella and partner David Sonenberg, a couple of important elements needed to be in place in order to avoid getting caught in the summer touring slump and to take the Peas’ live show to new heights. First, a set list was created that included a large portion of the new album.
“Usually you only incorporate four or five songs of the new album, but this album was so special we felt it had the ability to carry most of the tour even if the songs weren’t singles,” Derella says, adding that 10 of the 13 songs on “The E.N.D.” are performed during the shows.
The production team was revamped, including a new production manager, Tim Miller. Miller, along with production designer Bruce Rodgers and creative director Fatima Robinson, put together the “bells and whistles for each song, including dancers, videos, special effects and cool gadgets,” Derella says.
“The concept of having a futuristic, space-like club feel came to mind almost immediately,” Sonenberg says, and the stage design was tackled next. It includes a 60-foot stage expanse that extends into the audience, as well as a curved bandstand with “big, huge steps that are 20 feet high and eagle ramps on the left and right side of the stage,” Derella says. The group members also have solo turns during the show, like Will.i.am DJ’ing and Fergie performing songs from her solo album.
Additionally, stylist B. Akerlund, who has worked closely with Lady Gaga, was brought in, as was lighting designer Marc Brickman and a video crew of six cameramen. Their images are displayed on two side screens, as well as the stage, the bandstand, a 15-foot-high riser, a high-definition video wall and in the center of the venues on a circular medallion with two high-definition video panels. The medallion allows those sitting further back in the audience to feel connected to the Peas, Sonenberg says.
Two other parts were incorporated into the Peas’ live show this time around: dancers and rehearsals.
“There was some resistance at first, because the Peas pride themselves on being spontaneous,” Sonenberg says about bringing in dancers. “They thought it would make them feel inhibited, but instead it freed them up.”
Will.i.am says that although the Peas have never rehearsed for previous tours (“for the sake of being spontaneous,” he says), they recognized the importance of doing so for such a big production. But they still left “blank spots” at the beginning and end of each song performance to allow for any improvisation.
It was also important to partner with companies with which the Peas had relationships, such as AEG, or which fit their lifestyle, such as Bacardi and BlackBerry.
Bacardi Rum is the official spirit of the tour, served at parties staged in nightclubs in cities on the tour, which “are for consumers, invited guests, people we work with, and the club has a guest list too. We’ve had Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes and Slash from Guns N’ Roses come out to our parties,” Bacardi senior brand manager Billy Melnyk says.
To mark its touring partnership with the group, the company in February announced a new concoction, the Bacardi V.I. Pea, garnished with a black-eyed pea dropped in the bottom of a cocktail glass. Bacardi has served the drink at its nightclub events. In addition to promotions to consumers and parties with members of the Peas, Bacardi’s tour partnership includes support of the Peas’ charitable Peapod Foundation and such digital initiatives as videos, tweets and blogs on TheEndTour.com.
“We have all these crazy before and after parties which Bacardi is sponsoring,” says Wil.i.am. “It costs money to do meet and greets, host websites, download pictures, etc, so we hire people and Bacardi provides us with the funds to do so – to provide jobs for cats. Our goal is not to have a stale show. We want to have a party before the show and after party and provide a whole night of fun. That’s what Bacardi helps us do, create this experience for our fans.”
The partnership with BlackBerry also reflects Will.i.am’s daily use of the device. In fact, he incorporates the BlackBerry Messenger feature into the show.
“I have people at the show BBM me, the BBMs show up on a big screen, and I read the BBMs and freestyle what’s up there,” Will.i.am says. “BlackBerry is perfect because it allows us to connect. Our music connects us to people, plus it’s a tool I use every day.”
Jonathan Levine, the Peas’ booking agent at Paradigm Music, has played a key role in the group’s live development. “What I wanted to achieve [on this tour], based on the Black Eyed Peas’ broad appeal and their ability to really capture an audience, was to develop a global audience base and . . . sell tickets worldwide. I wanted to take what was clearly already there—a great band with great chemistry and a superb live show—and get out there in a very agressive way.”
What AEG sought to do “was offer them a big playground,” says John Meglen, president/co-CEO of Concerts West/AEG Live. “We wanted to show the ability we had on a worldwide basis, so we signed up for 100 shows and are hoping it keeps growing,” he says.
AEG Live CEO Randy Phillips notes other assets the promoter offered the group. AEG was involved in the upcoming Black Eyed Peas 3-D concert movie, directed by James Cameron of “Avatar” fame, set for release early next year. “We produced, shot and will put it in theaters with our sister company Regal and National CineMedia,” Phillips says.
Through the end of June, the E.N.D. tour has grossed $47.7 million and drawn 740,000 fans to 54 shows, including 53 sellouts, according to Billboard Boxscore. The North American summer shows will further boost those numbers, assuring that the E.N.D. run will rank as one of the most successful tours of this year. — with Thom Duffy and Andre Paine