Business

From CEOs to Caterers: How the Biz Is Coping in the Coronavirus Crisis

As concerns over the coronavirus continue to result in a widespread shutdown of the concert business, every corner of the live industry is feeling the ramifications.

Below, read how a tour photographer, a lighting designer, a talent buyer and more are reacting to the pandemic and its harrowing effects on their day-to-day work operations.

 

Portrait Illustration by Joel Kimmel

Shelleylyn Brandler, owner of Ta-Da! Catering, is facing a big loss of business — and a new set of challenges when shows start again.

We’re contracted to do backstage catering with Coachella, Stagecoach, The Forum, Hollywood Bowl lease shows, the Greek Theatre, Dodger Stadium and all the venues at L.A. Live. The day before The Strokes show at The Forum on March 14, we were out shopping when I got the call from their team that the show had been canceled. We had a super-busy season ahead of us — we’re booked a year in advance — and within 48 hours the calendar for the next two to three months was wiped out.

We have about 50 people on call, with about 20 who work constantly. For Coachella, we do job fairs locally and hire close to 200 people. They work for us year after year, look forward to and depend on it. We have cooks who are fathers. Now they don’t know how they’re going to feed their families. The heartbreak for me is the guys who stay with us all year and count on the work. They make good money and work hard, because rock’n’roll is consistent. But the work’s just not there right now. It has vanished.

I have a little savings and told my workers I can Venmo them if they’re in a bind. But I don’t think that’s going to be enough. Even with Coachella moved, it’s called “Rocktober” for a reason — it’s one of the busiest months for music. We’re quadruple-booked in October. The pendulum is going to swing back, and that comes with its own set of challenges.

This is a massive loss because it’s the kickoff of the season, and most of [our employees] are coming off of months without steady jobs because they were counting on hardcore work from now through the fall. Now they have nothing.

—AS TOLD TO ANDREA DOMANICK

 

Portrait Illustration by Joel Kimmel

For independent venue employees like the Lodge Room’s Raghav Desai, an unimaginable situation could have a silver lining.

Over the next two weeks, we have 13 or 14 shows we have to reschedule [for the 500-capacity Lodge Room in Los Angeles]. We’ve been able to reschedule about half of them. It’s a work in progress. In a perfect world, we would reschedule for the moment that we’re allowed to do shows, but these bands are playing all over the country and the world.

When people look at it from afar, they see, “Oh, Coachella canceled,” or “Ultra canceled.” But they forget about how it affects the independent venue and tour managers and bartenders and security guards. It is this whole network that is being propped up by the assumption that artists and venues are going to be able to operate. This is people’s fucking livelihood at stake.

When you hear that South by Southwest has to cut a third of their staff or Big Ears is canceling and they don’t know if they can come back, those are major institutions. So obviously this is going to have a pretty profound impact on the littler guys. I hope everyone has some sort of piggy bank or rainy day fund they can tap into. Not having 15 shows that you depend on is unimaginable.

As venues, a lot of the time we are battling each other for the same shows and from what I have seen a lot of in the past week from fellow bookers or agents, it feels like we’re all on the same team. It’s actually really cool to see this community come together and try our best to weather this storm and be positive and just be there for each other. It has been kind of heartwarming.

—AS TOLD TO TAYLOR MIMS

 

Portrait Illustration by Joel Kimmel

Brooklyn-based SKH Music co-owner Keith Hagan had to shift entire tours in an attempt to dodge the outbreak.

Management is like every other point on the music business food chain: a disaster. I’ve been spending most of my days moving tours to the fall. If this business gets up off the mat in the summer, it’s going to be fatiguing getting back into things. People are going to be financially hurting. Running out to buy concert tickets or a T-shirt isn’t going to be first on the list.

The tipping point for me was when I saw Italy get locked down. When I saw that, I was like, “We need to take evasive action.” And now everybody’s trying to move their stuff. You have what would have been 12 months of the concert business trying to cram itself into a three- or six-month window — it’s a mess. I don’t know anybody who’s not [taking a hit financially]. All of our artists are touring artists. There’s plenty of tour managers or techs or merch sellers I talk to, and their entire livelihood is being on a tour bus. I’m an asthmatic, so I’m being overly cautious. Luckily, [managers] can do our jobs from our house, our office or a hut in Guam.

We’re all in the same boat, horrified by what’s happening. We’ve never seen anything like this in our lifetime. You try to make the best out of a bad situation. I mean, I have a job still. Income is drastically affected by it, but you have to kind of press on to do right by your artists and to plan ahead for eventually when there’s a break from this — and relief.

—AS TOLD TO DAN RYS

 

Portrait Illustration by Joel Kimmel

A week into touring season, Catherine Powell’s annual spring arena run was cut down to nothing.

We got through about one week of the Dan + Shay tour and had flown to Philadelphia in anticipation for weekend two. Dan + Shay took a night flight, but the band and crew got in in the middle of the day on Wednesday [March 11] for the show the following night. We were playing at the [Wells Fargo Center], and they had very graciously offered us a suite for the 76ers’ game that night. Me and the band and a few of our tour guys went to the game, and immediately after it ended ESPN put out an announcement saying the entire NBA season was suspended.

We thought, “We’re playing in NBA arenas all year, there’s no way our tour is going to happen.” As I was at that game, they pulled the plug on the South American tour with Kacey Mugraves I was going to shoot for. They pulled the plug on [the Dan + Shay tour] by the next morning, and we all just sat on the bus for a 16-hour ride home. Slowly but surely, everything was getting canceled. I’m on a gig-to-gig basis — if there’s no show, I don’t get paid. That’s how most of us are.

By that Friday [March 13], I started reaching out to artists and my team and some friends who I had shot who are in music or entertainment in some capacity. I said, “I know everyone is taking a hit right now. Here is something I am trying to do to support myself. If you are cool with it, can I sell photos of your face?” Everyone has pretty much said yes. So on March 17, I launched a limited print store that I’m keeping open until April 25, which would have been the end of my eight-week touring cycle that turned into a one-week touring cycle.

—AS TOLD TO T.M.

 

Portrait Illustration by Joel Kimmel

When SXSW was canceled, Kelly Ostrander’s packed schedule started to empty. Now the freelancer is looking for a different kind of work entirely.

People started canceling small business conferences about two weeks before South by Southwest was officially canceled. It happened really slowly at first — in the Facebook groups, people were kind of making fun of it, making jokes. Then there was the first post: “Hey, a gig got canceled over coronavirus, this is kind of crazy.” Over the next three days, that’s all you saw anyone post: “My gig got canceled.” It [started to] happen so quick. It was a joke three days before; we had our own stagehand memes about it. Now it’s real.

[SXSW] was going to be 10 days of work and $450 per day for me some days, $250 for others — that’s a decent chunk of income. Probably a fifth of my audiovisual income for the year comes from this week. Unless you work directly with a production crew, you don’t get a schedule. So whenever an event comes through, we’ll get contacted by text usually. But a week ago I stopped getting texts, and I don’t think I’m going to get texts until the summer. It’s kind of scary — when you only have a week or two booked into the future, at the most, and then this happens? It’s upsetting.

[After SXSW] I had one job left standing — a nightclub gig two nights a week for $400 per week, which was the only thing keeping me alive, really. Now that has been shut down indefinitely. I feel like I live in a movie now, and it hurts because I’m losing something I love. I had a dream job. Now I’m applying at Walmart.

—AS TOLD TO NATHAN MATTISE

 

Portrait Illustration by Joel Kimmel

Sean Miyashiro of the Asian music collective 88Rising can handle a canceled festival. Racism was another story.

Our [Head in the Clouds Jakarta] festival was supposed to be on March 7. A week prior, we were all packed, getting ready to get on a plane the next day for Indonesia. At the time, there were no known cases in Indonesia, but we were scared. We took a bunch of precautionary measures; I really wanted to make sure that people were going to be as safe as possible. But then that night we saw a news article about the first case of coronavirus in Indonesia and we were like, “Nah, it’s over.”

The festival was already built, all the people were onsite making the stage, so certainly financially — because we’re doing it in Indonesia, there’s no insurance — we lost a lot. That was hard. We’re a small company, so something like that happening to us is quite drastic. You’re talking millions of dollars. This is still ongoing — we have another date, but nobody knows what the climate will be every single day. I’m of the mind that, unfortunately, this thing might not happen.

But some of the things we’re seeing as Asians, we’ve gotten quite emotional and upset about. Because, look, I grew up here, I was born here, I’m Asian-American. I’ve never felt this way personally [before], and it’s a shared feeling with all of our employees and artists, too. Not to get political, but it was already bad [before President Trump called it the “Chinese virus”]. Going to Target, or getting in an elevator, and feeling like I don’t want to cough. I try so hard to not make other people uncomfortable. I was standing in line and this girl was so annoyed that I was behind her. I was just like, damn. It’s a crazy feeling for us to experience this, in 2020. Some gnarly things have happened to our employees and artists in a restaurant, in a parking lot — things that can escalate real quick if cooler heads don’t prevail. It enhances the danger so much more when you have the leader of the country — regardless of the origins of the virus — [saying something that] puts people in danger. It’s irresponsible. And that’s what we’re dealing with.

It has been a reminder, or a reinforcement, of who we are and what we represent generally to the world, but especially within music. At the same time, it’s confusing. We’re just kind of moving through it. But if anything, it’s an important time to be safe and tolerant and together. This is an unprecedented global pandemic, and hopefully the world can be more careful in a crisis and not single out a whole continent of people for this. Even though this is horrific, I think that Asian people in non-Asian countries, there’s a cloud over us right now. And hopefully we can get through all that.

—AS TOLD TO D.R.

*For more coverage of COVID-19's impact on the music industry, check out Billboard's newest Deep Dive, A Pandemic Playbook, here.

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This article originally appeared in the March 28, 2020 issue of Billboard.