Business

Event Designer Bobby Garza in Austin, in a Pandemic: Recent Spike 'Definitely In the Back of Everyone's Minds'

Bobby Garza
Mauro Garza

Bobby Garza

Garza talks about his latest outdoor concert at the Long Center ("incredibly smooth") and reacts to recent vaccine news ("hopeful").

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 did the latest Long Center outdoor concerts you've been working on, featuring Tank & the Bangas and Big Freedia, go?

Incredibly smooth, knock on wood. As people were showing up, or as they were leaving, the words "thank you" that came out of people's mouths and people saying they really needed this was fantastic. People were respecting what the house rules were -- walk in, adequately distance, go to your square, stick in your square, we bring you your stuff. People weren't wandering around, people weren't not following the rules and part of that was because they want this stuff so bad they'll do whatever they need to make it happen.

Were there any snags? You've been worried about knuckleheads who refuse to wear masks and so on.

The only thing we had trouble with: We were selling these squares to pods of four people, and there were a couple of instances where people were buying individual pods for themselves, then realizing they could fit three extra folks. We had originally not anticipated making any extra accommodations for that -- you show up with your four people, don't get in line until your four people get there. That sparked some conversations, but honestly, everybody's been in such good humor about even these small bumps in the road.

The U.S. is on fire right now with COVID cases. How does that affect the upcoming shows?

We're always concerned about that. Everybody's been watching numbers move around with a little bit of trepidation, because it's like, who knows how bad it's going to get when. My particular thought was some of this spike stuff has to do with Halloween and a two-week incubation period and starting to see rises in cases. It's definitely something in the back of everyone's minds, to make sure that we're doubling down on the stuff we're doing and people are safe.

How did you personally react, emotionally, to live music for the first time since March?

Tank & the Bangas was on the 12th, and I love that band in normal times, but she's such a powerful frontwoman that as soon as they came on, I got goosebumps. It was a full band, at night, with lights. This one had a level of electricity to it. It was so exciting to think about the idea that even in these times now we could find a way to make things appropriately safe and enjoy this thing that had been missing in my life for so long.

Where does the recent positive vaccine news put the timeline for reopening the concert business?

I don't think it's smart yet to know. The things about the progress make me very hopeful that we're going to have a solution in the first part of next year. Having said that, thinking about the Pfizer one, the vaccine has to be kept at such an incredibly low temperature that it's not going to get distributed to a lot of people. Honestly, the thing that makes me feel the most good is that my mom is going to be able to come see my kids. That's an incredibly personal and selfish thing, but that was the first thing on my mind.

A friend recently suggested that while it's sad concert venues are closing, it'll eventually be safe for them to reopen and demand will come back. Can you critique that idea?

So many of these people that worked in this industry that developed their craft by foregoing some sort of technical school and actually learning their craft -- those are the people that are going to have to go find another job right now. I don't think you maintain the soul of an industry without those people. Sure, while there's always going to be another widget that takes a widget's place, it's the "what kind" and the "what motivation." If somebody moves into this other space and starts engaging in disaster profiteering and owning up leases for failed venues, is the standard of quality for these beloved venues going to be the same? So yeah, I still worry about it.

Are you letting yourself get to the point of thinking about staffing and resources to reopen the industry?

Not yet. Right now, this struggle to create socially distant shows is a worthy exercise. If a vaccine starts getting distributed, I don't think that means the following weekend there's going to be a 100,000-person festival. We've got a long way to go for some of that stuff. We should always be introspective and look for quality in what we do.

What are your Thanksgiving plans? 

We're all going to get tested and try to do something outdoors or well-ventilated with masks on and make sure my mom can be in the same space as my kids. We're trying to make it work. I'm worried about the rest of the holidays.

My prediction for your family over the holidays: homemade cookies.

Oh, dude! 100%.

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