Rock and Roll Gets Wired (And Wireless)

When The Dave Matthews Band shows up in town to play a concert, they bring a lot of computers with them. At least 45, according to Rudy Arias, the band’s information technology manager, and that’s not counting the laptops that various friends and family members of the band and crew might have in tow.

All those computers have to be connected to the Web. Even on the road, both band members and crew need to send email, and take care of personal chores like paying bills, which many do online.

The band’s business operations need an online connection as well, to access a SQL Server database back at band headquarters in Charlottesville, Va. That database handles tickets which are sold directly to its fans, rather than through Ticketmaster. It also stores information on seating arrangements and guest lists for each show. “We may be on tour,” says Arias, “but we’re still a business.”

The Dave Matthews Band started getting serious about the Internet in 1997. At that point, most of the venues the band played didn’t have ethernet connections, so Arias brought his own network along to each show. Unfortunately, that meant hours laying thousands of feet of ethernet cable for new show.

That was a major headache, says Arias. So the band developed an 802.11 wireless network, using Lucent Technologies (now Proxim) 2.4-Ghz wireless LAN access points. Since most of the band’s computers are Apple Computer Macintosh systems, the band also uses Apple’s AirPort Base Stations and wireless cards. Arias hooks the wireless network into the venues T1 or T3 Internet connection. Where no Internet link is available, he orders a satellite hookup.

Building Droids

Arias modified the off-the-shelf wireless equipment to make it more portable, building what he calls “droids” that are positioned outside dressing rooms, the crew room, the stage, and the accounting, production, and IT offices — as well as outside the loading dock, so band members waiting on the bus can check their email before taking the stage.

Each droid consists of a wireless access point and an antenna, mounted on a custom-built tripod. Setting up a half-dozen droids is much faster than laying thousands of feet of cable, says Arias. The wireless network, he says “has more than cut our set-up time in half.”

Arias can’t roll out his wireless network every place the band plays, however. Some venues, for example, are located too near heliports. FAA regulations restrict broadcasting in those areas on the 2.4-Ghz frequency, which is the same band used for aviation and emergency radio traffic.

Arias also discovered that the massive amount of electric cables used at concerts can create interference for a wireless network. “Wrapping power lines around the metal trusses of the lighting rig and the sound equipment essentially creates a huge electromagnet, which interferes with the radio waves,” he says.

To deal with the sources of interference, Arias surveys each venue before the show, using a hand-held device called a “Grasshopper Spectrum Analyzer.” He can switch channels, move access points more closely to each other, position wireless range extender antennas above the crowds’ heads to help focus the radio signal to where it needs to be.

He also uses special Yaji-brand antennas, which are modified to broadcast on a narrower beam. That helps cut through the magnetic fields generated by the power lines.

Getting Wired

Ironically, the band’s use of its wireless network has decreased over the last year or so. That’s because more and more of the venues the band plays are getting ethernet networks. Other acts are beginning to follow the lead of The Dave Matthews Band and other early adopters, says Arias, and are now starting to demand Internet access and local area networks where ever they perform.

Arias has been working closely with Clear Channel Communications, of San Antonio, Tex., one of the music industry’s largest concert promoters, to get performance spaces hooked up. “We’ve been on a mission,” he says, “to get the venues wired.”

That means that the band is rolling out its full wireless network less and less often. “On our tour this year,” says Arias, “we played 60 cities, and only on four of them did I have to break out the wireless unit.”