Business

Event Designer Bobby Garza In Austin, In a Pandemic: Recovery Will Be 'Slow, Painful Thing'

Bobby Garza
Mauro Garza

Bobby Garza

Garza says "whatever financial harm [venues] incurred over the last year" doesn't just go away because they're re-opening. "It's still treacherous," he says.

When the concert business shut down in March 2020, 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 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 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, which, among other things is working on dispersing emergency SAVES grants worth tens of thousands of dollars to struggling local concert venues. (Read the latest installment here and see the full series here.

Vaccinations are kicking in, people are willing to do more "normal" stuff and I went to a packed indoor restaurant the other night. Is it just me, or are things starting to open up?

Honestly, from last week to this week, the world is different. At least it feels that way. There are venues that are full-tilt going to start opening very, very soon in Austin. That's indicative of the sheer desire and exhaustion of being cooped up in a pandemic that is wearing people thin. In certain cities, vaccination rates are a lot higher, and people feel a lot more comfortable. I definitely feel that way in Austin. For venues, a lot of them can't afford to be closed any longer.

How do you feel about this transition from seclusion to reopening?

I went back and forth on this, in my mind and in my heart. Last Tuesday, the CDC came out with new guidance for people that have been vaccinated -- you can gather in small groups. I was listening to this woman on NPR and she said the virus in an outdoor environment is like a drop of dye in the ocean. That really stuck with me. Every time you get a bit of leniency, it starts to feel like it's not so terrible.

I'm planning a Memorial Day barbecue party in my backyard, and some people are excited about it and others are still scared. Do I require vaccines, social-distancing, masks? That's a smaller version of what event promoters are asking, right?

Our governor has come out and said vaccine passports aren't going to be a thing in Texas -- so that throws that idea out the window. Quite frankly, I have some severe class-equity concerns about things like vaccine passports. For example, if that is an app-based smartphone situation, what happens to poor people who can't afford a smartphone? For our events, we've made a determination: We're still going to require some level of social distance, and some mask stuff, as we continue to do things outdoors. If you're relatively well-spaced and not breathing on each other, you're going to be just fine. The outdoors stuff feels like it's 50 times better than it was last week.

So we're entering a good phase -- will it be good enough for venues to stay open?

It's still treacherous. Whatever financial harm they incurred over the last 13-14 months doesn't go away just because you're able to open up. The financial economics for a lot of small venues was perilous before, and you take a big hit like this and I'm not necessarily sure how long it's going to take for people to recover.

Are we seeing the light at the end of the tunnel? And does that mean you and I have to stop talking every two weeks for a feature called "In a Pandemic"?

[Laughs.] I am incredibly hopeful that you and I can have a beer at some point. But the reality is recovery isn't going to be a light switch that you flip. Recovery's going to be this slow, painful thing, and I'm not necessarily sure people are going to be able to climb out of the hole that this pandemic has dumped them in. There's going to be a lot of people that try and maybe aren't going to make it, and there's going to be some pretty awesome success stories.

I never asked earlierDid you and your kids get to hug your mom after the vaccinations?

Oh, yeah, it was incredibly emotional. She got vaccinated right around spring break. The advice was, even if we weren't [vaccinated], she was fine. Everybody kind of shed a tear. It's helped her mental health. It's helped our mental health -- just being able to not have to be six feet away from her.

How is your youngest son doing on the sousaphone? 

I have to get a new car, which is kind of awesome. He's actually gone up to high school and done some spring band camp. The entire band is outside and he's carrying around a 50-pound sousaphone and then proceeds to complain about the pain in his shoulder for the next four days.

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