"Siberian Sleigh Ride" from the album The Lost Christmas Eve
Paul O'Neill, founder of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, got the memo about the dismal economy, but he apparently didn't care what it said.
He gleefully reports that this year's edition of Trans-Siberian Orchestra's holiday tour features double the stage production of last year, an expanded band, orchestra, and choir — and a weekly expense of a half million dollars for pyrotechnics and special effects alone. And, oh yes, O'Neill hasn't raised ticket prices, which generally range from $20 to $50.
"In the beginning, some of our agents were like, 'Now Paul, because of what is going on in the economy, you probably should scale down,'" O'Neill says. "Scale down? I'm doubling the thing. Agents asked, 'How much are we going to have to raise the ticket prices?' Ticket prices go up nowhere."
O'Neill didn't stop there. He had Trans-Siberian Orchestra's accountants find out which cities had been hit hardest by the economic downturn, and he arranged for special early-bird ticket pricing in those markets.
"In some cities, you can do family four-packs at $25 a clip per ticket, and in cities that were hit the worst, you can pick up tickets for the first two weeks at $20 a clip," O'Neill says. "If you have a family of five, for a hundred bucks they can get three hours of the biggest rock show in the world right now, no exceptions, not even close."
O'Neill isn't blowing smoke — or lasers or flashpots — when he talks about the big-league caliber of Trans-Siberian Orchestra when it comes to a visual production. He often refers to it as "Pink Floyd on steroids."
"It was killing me when we were designing it on paper, but seeing it in real life, it's so realistic," O'Neill says of this year's Trans-Siberian Orchestra stage set. "I think over the main stage alone we're hanging 136,000 pounds of lights. The trussing system will be morphing and moving throughout the entire show. So, you're talking like the biggest lighting rig ever that constantly keeps shapeshifting like a transformer. We've arranged it so that, at times, the rigging lowers itself to the stage and the band members can get on it, run around, and move around on the trussing while the show is moving on. In other words, we're not talking about hanging from a rope. The trusses come down, the band gets on, the trusses go back up into the air, and it's just never been done before. We're just trying to still stay cutting edge, cutting edge, cutting edge."
The bigger-is-better philosophy has been hugely successful. O'Neill, long-time producer of the progressive metal band Savatage, founded the Trans-Siberian Orchestra in 1996 on the idea of combining a rock band and symphony to perform, for the most part, rock operas. The cast of musicians of singers would change to suit the needs of each composition. O'Neill recruited keyboardist/musical director Robert Kinkel and Jon Oliva (front man for Savatage) to serve as his songwriting collaborators for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
O'Neill initially found a niche by centering his rock operas around Christmas themes. The TSO catalog is anchored by a three-disc holiday trilogy, the 1996 release Christmas Eve & Other Stories, 1998's The Christmas Attic, and 2003's The Lost Christmas Eve. The group's other album, 2003's Beethoven's Last Night, is a rock opera based around the dramatic events that framed the late composer's final days. The next TSO release, Nightcastle, will also be a non-holiday work.
Despite huge budgets for the albums and tours, the popularity of TSO makes the financial numbers work. Last year was the most successful holiday tour yet, with more than one million tickets sold and gross earnings of more than $45 million for a tour that saw two touring editions of TSO (one led by Kinkel and the other unit by Oliva) play 90 cities (with two shows a day at many venues). This was enough to make TSO the second most attended tour on Billboard's top 25 tour ranking.
The tour also helps to keep stoking CD sales. Total sales of the four albums have now topped five million copies, with 900,000 of those sales coming in 2007.
O'Neill isn't messing with success too much when it comes to the music on this year's holiday tour. As has been the case for several years, Christmas Eve & Other Stories will be featured as the main rock opera during the first set of the show. The second set will once again be a full-on rock concert, although O'Neill said the song set will be somewhat different, with more songs from Nightcastle (which is due for release next summer) being added alongside selections from Beethoven's Last Night and the other two holiday albums.
"We're just raring to get out there and do it this year," O'Neill says. "We just want to be so over the top it's just like, it just takes people to another place."