Five minutes before curtain-up at the Barbican Theater in London, Es Devlin is settling down for The Master and Margarita, a play featuring her set design, when Kanye West calls. The rapper is due to perform the first of three shows in Atlantic City in 12 days and, disappointed with his sets so far, needs Devlin’s help reimagining them. Even though she’s traveling overseas with her two children in a few days, and a second play she’s worked on opens this week in Copenhagen, Devlin stayed up late developing a set for West in Photoshop. “Oh, I was worried you were going to hate it,” she says, talking intently until the actors are about to come onstage, and she has to turn her phone off.
Over the last seven years, Devlin’s grown accustomed to West’s tastes—curious, relentless, “maximal minimalist,” as she puts it—and unpredictability. Once, for a concert in London’s Hyde Park, she managed to come up with a set made out of faceted gold polygons in only six days. The partnership between a theater stage artist and a global pop star may seem unlikely, but it reflects the reality of the music business today. As music videos stream online like tap water and album sales represent a smaller and smaller percentage of revenue, live shows and merchandise have become the real moneymakers.