Little Rock Company Goes Behind The Music

by Nate Hinkel  on Monday, Dec. 13, 2004 12:00 am  

Not everyone is lucky enough to know what it's like to strum the first lick of a guitar-band classic as 80,000 screaming fans pump out adoration, but an Arkansas company is making sure those magical moments in music history are presented in the grand fashion rock 'n' roll fantasies are made of.

With his roots deep in music and his teenage dreams drenched with illusions of rock stardom, Mike Pinner has since carved out a niche in the business of staging live special events. Based in Little Rock, Pinner's Concert Staging Services Inc. has been behind some of the most elaborate concerts and festivals ever presented.

Ranging locally from Hendrix College graduation ceremonies to Riverfest and nationally from New York's prestigious Carnegie Hall to the Academy Awards, CSS has earned a foothold in its very specific market. And in an industry known for its cutthroat competitiveness, client trust is the lifeblood of CSS.

"Reputation goes a long, long way in this line of work," said John Pinner, sales manager and son of the owner. "You can't have an event without a stage, so there's a lot of pressure on us to make things happen on our end. Clients tend to want to stick with whoever it was that helped them be successful the first time around, so it's crucial for us to make good first impressions and stay consistent."

But in order for CSS to thrive, there's a much larger scheme involved than just toting a portable stage around the globe and setting up shop wherever the client has the space. There are tons of logistics involved, along with a large helping of raw construction, planning, traveling and bidding, not to mention a small army of manpower and elbow grease to make it all come together.

Start Me Up

In the event that rock superstardom wasn't in his future, Pinner decided shortly after high school that a good fallback plan would be to own his own music store.

It didn't take long before Strum & Hum Music had grown to three locations — one in what is now Breckenridge Village Shopping Center, a second one in southwest Little Rock and a third in Hot Springs. By familiarizing himself more and more with lighting and sound and developing his penchant for tour management, Pinner's business became much broader than selling musical instruments and teaching lessons.

But not long after breaking onto the national scene by managing tours for such musicians as Barbara Mandrell and Mickey Gilley in the late 1970s, Pinner decided he could return to his technical roots and fill a void in the business — and remain in the music industry — by concentrating solely on staging services.

In 1981, CSS officially became a player in the concert staging industry.

"We started out doing local and some regional events," said Pinner. "It just grew and grew until we ended up doing events all over the country, Canada, Mexico and even a tour in Japan."

It Keeps You Running

What began with just a handful of workers has now grown into a tight-knit team of more than 30 full-time employees ranging from construction crews to sales to logistics professionals.

CSS now operates from a warehouse-type facility with plenty of acreage at 9823 Hilaro Springs Rd. in southwest Little Rock. It's there that it all begins and ends, with only piles of scrap metal and stacks of tubing, scaffolding and wood.

The company handles most of its own construction work, realizing the elaborate plans of its clients through contracted engineering firms and sometimes even extra builders, depending on the scope of the project.

"The majority of our gear is kept in Little Rock, depending on what our schedule looks like," said the younger Pinner, who began his career with CSS loading trucks before becoming a crew chief and now works out of his West Cliff, Co., home as a sales manager. "There are times when most of our gear is out scattered across the country in different places at the same time.... It's a lot to keep track of during busy periods."

Some CSS customers simply choose a stage model that's already made available by the company. But oftentimes CSS designs custom stages to accommodate the customer's needs.

"That work is often subcontracted with an engineering firm, then we build it in Little Rock before shipping it off," Pinner added.

Trucking companies are also contracted to carry the modular staging systems across the country. Some-times one truck is plenty, but Pinner said pricing can escalate for shows and events that require as many as 15 semi truckloads.

"Right now, an average cost is about $2 for every mile, which is up there," he said. "That's why contracts are negotiated very carefully. We have to make sure that all of our expenses will be covered and a considerable profit is still out there to be made."

Are You Experienced?

Nearly all staging projects are open to a bidding process, which Pinner said is usually infested with the same handful of companies trying to outdo one another.

But once a relationship is built with a particular production or management company, a level of comfort is built and is reflected in the awarding of a bid.

"They're always going to see what's out there, but sometimes they'll go the extra mile just because they're familiar with how we do things," said Pinner. "Once we're given the opportunity to complete a project, it's hard for customers to want to try somebody else."

Which is clearly the case with the relationship CSS had built around the defunct jam band Phish — the most successful touring band in the world over the past 10 years.

Phish had a longstanding tradition of capping off its summer tour schedule with a two-day festival at odd locations — usually at a remote location in the northeastern United States, drawing as many as 80,000 faithful followers to a decommissioned Air Force base in Maine or an Indian reservation smack-dab in the middle of the Florida Everglades.

"Those projects took weeks to set up," said Pinner. "But they were all very successful and they kept coming back to us for the work, which was good for everyone involved."

And when Phish bid its final farewell at a festival last August in Coventry, Vt., CSS was left humming a somber tune.

"There's no doubt we'll miss that relationship," said Pinner. "That was a huge production we counted on every year. But there are more things out there that can fill that void."

Like the annual Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, held each summer on a vast 700-acre farm in Manchester, Tenn., about 60 miles southeast of Nashville.

The multiday festival, which attracts more than 200 freewheeling bands and nearly 100,000 fans annually, is Concert Staging's largest project to date, requiring 16 truckloads of equipment for one huge main stage, a smaller "B" stage and six smaller stages set up underneath individual tents.

"We have a three-year contract with Bonnaroo," said Pinner. "That's about as large of a scale production that we do."

Bring It On Home

Even after landing such glamorous gigs as an Academy Awards after-party and various concert series in New York City, CSS is hardly recognized in its own neighborhood.

Recently the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra held the Opus Ball at Robinson Auditorium. The event called for a dance floor to be built right over the seats on the auditorium's main level. ASO learned that a company called Concert Staging Services had accomplished that exact feat at Carnegie Hall in New York — and was shocked to learn that CSS was a hometown company.

The ASO hurriedly contracted CSS and the event was a success.

"I think people are sometimes caught off guard by the things that we've been able to accomplish on the national scene," said Pinner. "We stay so busy that it's hard to find time to market ourselves as well as we could."

CSS ventured into the Midwest market by opening an office in St. Louis a few years back, but the market there was saturated and the office soon closed, according to Pinner.

"I think we're happy with where we're at right now," he said. "I don't see us taking on giant growth or cutting back any time soon. We've had a good run so far, and we just hope to keep staying busy."



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