Business

Event Designer Bobby Garza in Austin, in a Pandemic: Staying Flexible Post-Vaccine Will Be 'Tenor of 2021'

Bobby Garza
Mauro Garza

Bobby Garza

What happens to closed venues after a vaccine is distributed? "There are venues hanging by their fingernails right now just hoping to get through the next quarter," Garza says.

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.

You were telling me about the Long Center's Good Vibes Only series of livestreams at the Rollins Center Theatre. How have those gone?

We had our first airing last Wednesday: Superfónicos, this local band that's super-happy-energy-positive stuff. One of the things we found among the livestreams was [artists] were doing them quickly in their living room, from their bedroom, from their front porch, which was great for a minute. We wanted to think about what that next iteration of those types of things would be. We arrived at this stage aesthetic and spent a little bit of money to build out the set almost like variety shows from the '60s and '70s. We feel like we're making progress, which makes me feel incredibly positive about the world in general, because I just need music in my life. The part that scares me, which I hear from friends who are working in the service industry and bars, is people are just getting tired of restrictions and requirements and having to wear a mask. It defies logic to me.

How much hope is the vaccine giving you for live events?

It makes me hopeful and skeptical at the same time. If you see the light at the end of the tunnel, you're less willing to be rigorous in your adherence to public health guidelines -- and you're seeing the results of that with these spikes everywhere. It's frightening. My mom had two people that she was very close to die this past week. And I don't think that's atypical.

What does the concert landscape look like post-vaccine?

It's like running to the starting line of something, for which you have no clue what's going to happen. You have to plan for festivals and larger events mostly months in advance. Those are the conversations we're having with people wanting to use the Long Center as an event center, and we're like, "We don't know what's going on. Nobody knows what's going on." If we can figure out what the future looks like, we'll start planning for it now, thinking we'll have to be flexible. That's going to be the tenor of 2021.

We've discussed all the great indie concert venues closing, like Barracuda in Austin. What happens post-vaccine? Do they come back?

The City of Austin allocated $5 million for live-music preservation funds -- there's a $20,000 emergency grant and some enhanced funding. There's an opportunity for venues to come back. I wonder from the venues that have closed whether people are willing to take another risk again. There are venues hanging by their fingernails right now just hoping to get through the next quarter. There's no way venues will be able to continue to operate at a deficit just to say they're hanging on. That has a pretty short window in '21.

The Osheaga Festival in Montreal just announced its lineup for late July 2021: Foo Fighters, Cardi B and Post Malone. Does that suggest large events might return by then?

Planting your flag right now is probably an important thing, especially for festivals, especially if you've had no income for 18 months. This is a way to gin up the engine again. I don't think that's a bad idea. Producers are going to have to be nimble. But I've got to tell you, the shows we were doing [at the Long Center] that were around 400 people, [and] those were about as close as I wanted to be to that number of people. The idea of being with 100,000 of my closest casual companions is not something that I'm really interested in.

Even post-vaccine?

For a while. But that's just me as a paranoid person. If you go to Osheaga's information page, the first section is COVID-19: Are masks required, what are your safety procedures, can I get a refund? That's going to be the new normal for a minute.

The semester's almost over. How are your kids holding up with all the remote classes?

Austin has done a really interesting job of trying not to fatigue students with Zoom. My youngest has what's called an "asynchronous day," so he gets to do stuff on his laptop and access different websites and programs but he doesn't have to be on camera all the time, and that's incredibly valuable. I am curious about what the school calls enrichment stuff -- what's happening with music and art, and do kids feel enriched enough to actually get it? There's something tangible about handing in a drawing or playing a piece in front of your instructor and getting that feedback. My oldest kid records his tuba and jazz stuff and sends it in and waits for his instructor to find the time, with all the other things he has to do, to give him feedback. That delayed portion of instruction will have an impact. I just don't know what it is yet.