Bobby Garza in Austin, in a Pandemic: 'Here's Another Complication You Didn't Anticipate'

Bobby Garza
Mauro Garza

Bobby Garza

As the newly-named vp programs and community outreach at Austin's Long Center, Garza is helping process applications for the city's COVID-19 relief fund for venues.

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 regularly speaking with Garza, a 43-year-old former Forefront creative team leader who used to be general manager of festival producer Transmission Events, to chronicle his experience throughout the crisis. As of early January, he is 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's the new job at the Long Center?

It's like drinking from a firehose. There's a lot to get caught up on. I underestimated the amount of effort I would need to put in, transferring from consultant to full-time employee. But I'm super-excited.

What are you working on?

We're in the middle of this SAVES grant stuff. The city allocated $5 million for venues. We processed over 100 applications between Dec. 10 and Jan. 11 and awarded 69 $20,000 emergency grants. We're wrapping that up with reporting and coordination with the city. We were able to do that in 30 days, just working really fast. Now we're developing phase 2, so it's taking the rest of the money, over $3.5 million, and figuring out how we can provide enhanced funding to venues that need it -- as well as legal assistance, or if they need to talk to an accountant or a marketing specialist or some other knowledge leader in our industry. The city's going to pay for that.

The Long Center administers the SAVES grants to venues? Can you explain how that works?

When we found out there was this opportunity to be an administrator for this $5 million, everybody on the executive team said, "Absolutely -- we are a venue, so we understand the challenges that other venues might be facing."

Have the venues received their grant money?

Almost 40 members have received payments in the first 30 days.

Which venues qualify?

Venues have to be what the city determined to be at "immediate risk of closure." So, "in the next 30 to 60 days we're going to shut our doors if we don't get these funds." Twenty thousand dollars in the grand scheme of things may be a stopgap for some of these venues. It's not the extent of the funding they'll need to be able to stay alive. The hope is the Save Our Stages funding [as part of the U.S. Congress' recent COVID-19 relief bill] will get rolling and the PPP round two will get rolling. There are questions about whether you can apply for both or not, and I think the answer is "not." We want to accelerate the process. It's pretty dire for a lot of folks. We heard from venues that were like, "This is going to pay our rent for the next few months." It's awesome that venues get to do that, but it sucks because venues are in a position that's pretty bleak, still.

These grants and government funding prevents more concert venues from closing, right?

Yes, in theory. One thing that is still a little bit nebulous is figuring out how tours are going to work. It takes time to be able to work out your routing [and] venues and make sure your tour is profitable. I'm hopeful with the [funding] stopgap, and when venues open, you're going to be able to start seeing touring artists right away. The reality is that stuff is going to come back in kind of a phased approach.

Dr. Anthony Fauci recently said fall 2021 was when live music could start to happen.

Yeah, it's like capital I, capital F, on some of that stuff -- if the vaccine rollout happens the way it's supposed to and if people continue to do the things that they're supposed to. My mom, for example, is in Comal County, which is about 45 minutes south of Austin. She's in her mid-70s, she's had some health issues, she should be Phase 1B. She and most of the people she knows [who] share the same health challenges have not been able to get an appointment or see a doctor or talk to anyone on the phone. We were talking to her yesterday and she's incredibly frustrated.

The Biden Administration is promising 100 million vaccines in the first 100 days.

I'm all about it! if there's a plan to do it, that's great. But if it's like a "we're going to the moon" kind of thing, I'm wondering how it gets done.

It's direct cause and effect. If your mom gets a vaccine, you and your family can hug your mom, right?

Yeah, totally. It's such a tangible, palpable, causal relationship. That type of waiting is the hardest part. Not to quote Tom Petty.

This is the first time you have agreed there would be a timeline, a rough date for concerts opening again: fall 2021. You've never said that before and I've pressed you over the past 10 months.

I think that's fair. I could be wrong, but I hope I'm right.

That's optimistic!

Having said that, and not to be the big turd in the punchbowl, I just got an email from the place where I store all my gear and where I used to rehearse with my old band: "We're closing our doors, here's your 30 days notice." It's like, "Oh, no!" There are only a couple of places in town that have sound stages for bigger touring artists to record and for budding young bands to have performance spaces that are not in their garages driving their neighbors crazy.

What are you going to do with all that gear?

[Laughs.] I don't know, man. One of my very best friends in the world, who I shared that locker with, is in Seattle. I just forwarded him the email and I was like, "Well. So this happened." I've got to think about how to do this during COVID times, too -- renting a van, or something, because I have a super-small car and there's no way I'm fitting all that stuff in there. And then potentially keeping that in my garage until I can find another space.

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It's a project.

It is! "Here's another complication you didn't anticipate." But I'm trying to be a good sport about it and not be frustrated. Maybe having the rest of my gear in the garage will force me to think about starting to try to write more music and play more music. I'm trying to turn the frown upside-down.

You've been doing that for a while!

It's exhausting.

Have you shared the news with your two kids, who play music, that a bunch of awesome gear is suddenly going to wind up in your garage?

They just heard it as we were talking! We were in the car and my oldest son -- I could just see the look on his face. It was like, "I get more toys?" Absolutely. It's going to be great.