Written by Saul Taylor
Having worked with the most famous people on the planet for the last three decades, JB Miller is a legend in the events industry for creating completely immersive experiences on a global scale. Be it big Fortune 500 company bashes, glittering galas for international NGOs or pre and post-show parties for the entertainment industry, Miller and his team at Empire produce truly spectacular spectacles from their bases in New York and Tokyo.
MTV came of age just as I did so I got to unite my passions for music and television when I went to work for MTV straight out of college. But I think my original way into the industry was through talent. I developed a specialty for booking and working with talent communities; coordinating and producing talent in different formats for shows. My first interaction with the events business was booking people like Jerry Seinfeld and musicians like Ray Charles. But then I gradually branched out into production, design, venues and concepts.
What was the first event where you thought: yes, this is it for me?
Oh boy, I’d say around 1994. I’d been hired by People magazine to produce their 20th birthday party so we did a concert at the Palladium, which was a converted nightclub on 14th Street at the time. Now it’s an NYU dorm. I hired Aretha Franklin and we put on this big concert for all the advertisers. Just watching her on stage and seeing the audience and realising I had put all of this together was an epiphany. I was like, yeah this is pretty awesome.
You also work outside entertainment.
I’m very interested in big ideas. I read a lot of history, science and biographies. I’m always curious about people who are working across different fields, whether it’s pharmaceutical development, space exploration or geometric design. AI particularly interests me at the moment. I’ve worked with NGOs, in global health, poverty and gender equality for many years and we are currently working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I’m interested in working with people who are defining or chipping away at the leading edge of civilisation and technology and who are true innovators — people forging new paths. I get to work with those people on a daily basis. It reminds me why I do this, because I’m constantly out of my comfort zone. I’m always learning about something new because I have to present it to large audiences the next day.
Do you have a system you work to?
I’d like to say there’s a complete map for doing things, but it’s much more of an improvisation that’s often determined by the client. I would say that I am a creative person but I’m also an engineer. I’m fortunate that I have two functioning halves of my brain and they don’t overwhelm each other. I recognise that there’s a creative process — there’s some percolation and a development of ideas, concepts and experimentation that comes with it. But at the same time, the other part of my brain is very thoughtful. What are our objectives? What does this look like? What is the date, the time, the place? What is the sequence of events? What are our resources? There’s a nice tension because the right side wants to define things and demystify them as quickly as possible. And on the left, we’re constantly trying to embellish each stage — how can we keep this creative, different and innovative?
Who make the best clients?
I like clients that challenge us; not that we need much prompting. Clients that have high expectations and good taste, who really want to break new ground and give us the room to run. People who are collaborative and clear about what they want and understand that events are special by definition. The word is literally in the name:“Special Events”. This implies that there is no absolute predictability. Some people are like, “I ordered my Uber and it was supposed to be here at 12 noon and it came at 12:02, what happened?” These people fold their arms with this expectation that the world is going to come to them and it’s completely predictable. Events, on the other hand, are very much like, “You know what, maybe we start at 12 or maybe we start at 12:02.”
“I would say that I am a creative person but I’m also an engineer. I’m fortunate that I have two functioning halves of my brain and they don’t overwhelm each other.”
How are you keeping up with progress in technology and society?
It’s funny, every three to five years there’s this reinterpretation of everything. At one time I was called an event planner, then I was called an event designer, then a producer, then an experiential artist. But I do the same thing. I get creative ideas and I try to put together an experience. You might call it immersive today, or a branded installation, an experiential journey or whatever you want, but the same skill sets apply. Since the dawn of my career, everything I’ve been doing has been about influencing people. Often, it’s about amplification and putting it on whatever media there was — a livestream, a broadcast or web content; or slicing it up for social or just photographing it. But always making sure that the event images reach the press. Bill Cunningham had this curious style with the camera for shooting many things, not just events but frequently the social pages for those events. He was like Instagram before it existed. He shot his photos, his photos got wide reach and the influence of the event was in some ways determined by whether people were seen in his photos. That was happening in the 1990s. Really, what is the difference between Instagram today and that?
What influence do events have on contemporary culture?
People always change. They want something new. Yes, we appreciate the music of our youth, but we discover new music, new ideas and tastes all the time. I don’t think there’s an inherent challenge with millennial audiences. All audiences constantly crave new stimuli. Our job as producers is to be in front of that to understand whatever is new — whether it’s comedy, visual design, technology, music or sensory experience — and introduce it to audiences so they get excited by this new thing that they have experienced. In that way I think we influence culture because we are introducing new ideas. Events are great places to demonstrate and try new things.
What makes a great event?
An event is a finite number of people. You put them in a specific place at a specific time. Everybody comes to that event with a preconceived notion of what’s going to happen. They bring their own baggage, their emotional state, they bring a lot. But we bring a lot, too. We create the event around them — what it looks, sounds, smells and tastes like. Great events try to understand the behaviour of who’s in the room and the chemistry that happens when you take those different personalities and blend them with the thing that you’ve programmed around them. You can build a dance party with great music, lights and everything, but without people in the room it’s not an event. You’re just making some noise. And that’s not the magic, the magic is when you get people in the room who’ve been sufficiently intoxicated and inspired. The music has brought them to this precipice, this crescendo, and all of a sudden that magic happens where humans begin to radiate and are stimulated by what you’ve created. There’s this feedback cycle that happens. I’m describing it in terms of a dance party, but this could also be someone telling a poignant story at a gala dinner or a comedy performance. We’ve all seen it where the experience of a mass of humans reaches this tipping point, this calculated, planned tipping point that suddenly takes it to the sublime. I think that’s a great event. I’m being really abstract here, but that’s how we think about it.Back