Event Designer Bobby Garza in Austin, in a Pandemic: 'I Can't Gauge Anymore When Things Are Going to Be Done'

Bobby Garza
Mauro Garza

Bobby Garza

With Zoom now his primary method for communicating with co-workers, Garza says getting things accomplished has become a more cumbersome process.

When the concert business shut down in mid-March, Bobby Garza abruptly shifted from putting on live events to tearing them down -- his company, Austin-based Forefront Networks, had to cancel the California food-and-music festival Yountville Live later that month, and massive productions like December's Trail of Lights in Austin are in question, too. In early April, his life changed even more dramatically: Forefront furloughed 30 percent of its staff, including him.

As part of Billboard's efforts to best cover the coronavirus pandemic and its impacts on the music industry, we will be speaking with Garza, a 43-year-old Forefront creative team leader who used to be general manager of festival producer Transmission Events, every other week to chronicle his experience throughout the crisis. (Read the latest installment here and see the full series here.

How was the first week of school for your kids?

I want to call it a complete dumpster fire, but the reality is that the boys are relatively acclimated to this process. They know what they're doing and it seems like the instruction is going well. There's this part of me that feels like I need to focus on work, and future work, but every hour, I feel compelled to go downstairs and check on things. That's even after my family agreed to pick subjects and give the boys specific people to call -- my mom is incredibly fluent in Spanish, [so] if they've got problems in Spanish, they can call my mom. But it's such an incredibly surreal situation. I don't quite know how to calibrate myself for that.

How are you able to squeeze in work through all this?

A lot of it is extending what I used to consider to be my workday. After the kids go to bed and go to their mom's house, I'll jump over to the computer and spend two or three more hours trying to figure out some stuff. It's a big gap in the day that you lose just walking up and down the stairs: "What's going on? How are you doing on your assignments? Can I cook you lunch? Do you need a snack?"

You said last time you might be able to announce some events with your contract job at the Long Center in Austin. Any progress on that?

We're further down that road but not quite there. I can't gauge anymore when things are going to be done. If we were able to get in a room and sit down and say, "We're going to knock this out over the next two hours and have an agreement afterwards," that probably would happen. Instead, it's like, "We've only got an hour for this Zoom call and there are 12 people on the call and we want to make sure everybody's heard and everybody's stoked about it." People are so starved for other human attention that you always want to take a few minutes to be like, "How are you doing? What's going on at the house?" If it were a normal work day, I'd call somebody: "Hey, I need this, I need to talk to you about this."

What are some of the issues about putting on live events in this context?

Most venues are trying to figure out right now: What collection of virtual and live events, when you're able to have them, can you have efficiently in a way that's financially sustainable that thinks about audiences? For example, venues and bars right now are completely shut down, but a performing-arts center can do stuff at 50% capacity. And outside, a performing-arts center can do stuff at 100% capacity, as long as there are socially distant measures.

In Colorado, we've had tiny Red Rocks shows, like Nathaniel Rateliff did 175 people over multiple nights. Are those types of shows worth it?

Venues have gotten to a point where they have to do something, and that's a really scary spot to be in: "If I don't stay open, I'm going to close permanently." Most people, if they're able, would choose to operate at some level of a negative just to get back in the game. There was a drive-in here in Austin a while back and it was like $450 a car. That's my biggest fear right now -- if this environment continues, what does that do for live entertainment, and does it become part of some class analysis [in which] only the wealthy are able to go see live music and experience artists? If that happens, it's going to be a gigantic tragedy. If you're running a venue, you have a certain percentage you have to hit to break even. The rule of thumb's 85%. If you book it at 85%, and you're only able to have 15 or 25% at your venue, what's the other lever you're able to pull? And that's ticket price. Or you ask artists to make less money because they'd be playing for the first time in six months. That's a terrible choice.

Are there any models for live events right now that seem profitable? What about comedians like Dave Chappelle performing in a field?

For comedy, it's a lot easier. You don't have the same type of sound demands and all you've got to think about is microphones. But I have a buddy who's a comedian and he was on the road 300 days a year. You don't get that anymore.

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The Metropolitan Opera in New York recently announced it won't return until fall 2021. At that point, could concerts conceivably start to go back to normal?

If there is a vaccine, sure. If people do what they're supposed to in the interim, absolutely. If we continue to see stuff like those first-of-the-college-year parties and everybody running around [with] no masks and all of that stuff, it's in danger.

What else is going on?

It was my kid's birthday this week. He turned 14! We had the big Zoom call and he got a bunch of Dungeons & Dragons art things. He likes painting those figurines -- he got this huge magnifying glass and thin brushes and paints. He got a new ukulele. And I baked him a tres leches cake from scratch.

I didn't know you had baking chops.

Dude, it's like the easiest cake to make and it always turns out great. it's just math and measuring. It's not a lot of really technical baking stuff. I can stumble through that one good enough.