Business

Event Designer Bobby Garza in Austin, in a Pandemic: Can't 'Flip a Switch' and Go Back to Normal

Bobby Garza
Mauro Garza

Bobby Garza

With vaccines and federal relief funds on the way, Garza talks lingering uncertainties for the live music space in 2021.

When the concert business shut down last 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. In early April, his life changed even more dramatically: Forefront furloughed 30% 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 former 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. As of early January, he is now vice president of programs and community outreach at the Long Center, a performing-arts facility in Austin. (Read the latest installment here and see the full series here.

How was your holiday break?

I spent all of it working, for the most part, which is actually not a bad thing. Yesterday was my first day as a full-time employee at the Long Center.

Congratulations! What's the job, exactly?

I'm going to be responsible for leading the programming team that does all the talent buying and continuing with event creation and concept-type stuff. The Long Center has contracted with the City of Austin to help distribute a $5 million fund to assist venues with emergency grants and enhanced grant funding, so I've been getting to work on that part of it, too.

You haven't had full-time work since last April. How much of a relief is this to you?

I could take a big, deep breath and not have to feel that incredible anxiety, which everybody in my industry is feeling. If you don't know how you're going to pay your bills or where you're going to get grocery money, it's so hard to put it into context. I don't have to worry about that stuff. I don't even know what to do with myself on some level.

What will you be working on?

The first thing is figuring out how we can continue to help the community, [like] providing administration for the city of a bunch of money for grants to venues. And we're back in a really crappy public health situation, so trying to do what we did in the summer -- figure out what the next cool thing is, when we can actually do it.

You're referring to socially distanced concerts -- when can those happen again?

I'm hopeful that it's March. Realistically, it's probably April or May. That has everything to do with how quickly this vaccine stuff gets distributed and who actually decides to get a vaccine.

Now that the U.S. has passed the Save Our Stages Act as part of the COVID relief package, does that allow concert venues and their staffs to survive the rest of the pandemic?

The devil's always in the detail with administering all of these funds. I'm super-excited my friends will get to go back to work and get a paycheck. But a lot of venues have had to lay off a bunch of staff. Some of this money is going to be breathing room to allow venues to reset and think about what's next. That's incredibly important. But we haven't even understood the impact of touring cycles yet and how larger venues are piecing that stuff together and what that means for local musicians and how they're able to fill rooms. And that doesn't even get into the festival space, which I'm completely confused about.

What's confusing you?

Whether it's right or not. A lot of festivals have announced [lineups] for the last half of this year, which I get, because they have to. I feel like you're sitting at the end of the long dark hallway and you can see that the door is cracked at the end of it and you kind of know where you're going, but there's no definition between there and here.

Are you thinking about a time period for when that door opens all the way -- when concerts return to "normal"?

A little bit. It's probably more real in the last couple of weeks than it has been for the last seven months. I want to hold onto this idea that being safe and prudent is appropriate. I don't think you flip a switch and it goes back to normal. There's not going to be "on July 17, everything is lifted." It's going to be a staggered thing and varied by region and state and county and it will feel less like stuff's turned on and more like stuff's coming back to life. I hope that's the appropriate response, to say "we're going to inch into it," rather than "I'm slamming my foot on the gas to see how much, how fast."

Should bands be thinking about rehearsing now and prepping for tours later this year?

Somebody like the Foo Fighters, it's not like they're going into a 20-by-20 room. There are sound stages for cats like that. The bigger the space, the better dispersion of air, probably the better air-conditioning system. The more well-known musicians that have a lot more stature and ability -- they'll find a space. Where it's going to be tough is, like, the punk rock kid who has a 10-by-10 [room] in some decrepit building. That's the scary thing for me. But they'll probably feel the need to tour at some point, too. So what do you do for that?

I hope the vaccines come quickly.

Dude, fingers crossed, man.

How are your kids? Did they have a good few weeks off?

They're back in school tomorrow!

In physical school?

No, no, no, no, no. We're not doing that. Austin is in the highest stage of "don't do anything right now." One of my kids has asthma and I just don't feel comfortable sending them to school right now. I'm not ready to do that until we figure out this vaccine situation. They're back at virtual school and both applying to new schools -- one to magnet programs for high schools and one magnet program for middle school. All of that had them busy over Christmas break -- which I'm sure was much to their chagrin.