Business

Venues Are Finally Receiving Funds, But Crew Members Are Still Struggling

Dan O'Neil
Jim Trocchio

Dan O'Neil

"We've gotten the shaft," says one touring industry veteran.

Last week, the Small Business Administration finally began awarding grants to independent venues, promoters and talent agencies as part of the $16.25 billion Shuttered Venue Operators Grant. The grant can award up to $10 million per venue and is much-needed support for entities that have been closed for 14 months since the pandemic halted mass gatherings.

The grants will help venues pay back-rent and help them on their way to welcoming fans back as concerts reopen around the country. As the industry braces for a return to live this summer, many live music crew members are still struggling after a brutal year without work.

Despite being an integral part of an industry that was decimated by the pandemic, live music crew members have mostly been left out of the relief process. When additional unemployment benefits rolled out at the beginning of the pandemic "mixed earners" or those who freelanced and received W-2s, were excluded from Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. Crew members, who often work for more than one tour a year, were largely barred from receiving the additional $600 or $300 a month on top of unemployment.

When the second stimulus package on Dec. 27, mixed earners who received at least $5,000 in self-employment income in 2019 are eligible for a $100 weekly benefit on top of the $300 federal pandemic unemployment supplement provided under the new legislation. States were also allowed to opt out of the additional benefit.

"There really aren't any government programs for people like me," says guitar technician Tom Weber who has worked for Billy Corgan, Matchbox 20, Nine Inch Nails, Reba McEntire, Van Halen, The Cult and more since the 1970s. According to Weber, he was expecting to earn $200,000 in 2020 with a Reba tour followed by Poison dates that would have taken him until three days before Christmas. Instead, Weber says he was one of millions attempting to apply for unemployment benefits. "I've been in queue to talk to somebody from the Kentucky unemployment office for about eight and a half months."

Touring veteran Dan O’Neil, who got his start in the 1980s with Modern English and has since worked for Cyndi Lauper and Joan Jett, says unemployment only delivered him $175 a week and the additional aid of $600 or $300 weekly was a "band aid." In addition, many roadies were excluded from receiving the $1,200 or $1,400 stimulus checks because they made more than $75,000 in 2019.

"I know every one of my touring friends makes over $75,000 to $80,000 a year," O’Neil tells Billboard. "I wish I could have made $80,000 in 2020."

Despite living in Tennessee where music is a major economic driver, O'Neil explains that few elected officials understand what roadies do. O'Neil says one official he spoke on the phone with believed stages stayed fully equipped night after night.

"You don't see us because we're not the people you're paying a ticket for," says O’Neil. "We’ve gotten the shaft."

Pivoting to another job during the pandemic also proved difficult in 2020. Geoff Bruce, who has worked sound at Whisky a Go Go in LA and toured with Aerosmith and Gene Hoglan since he was a teenager, attempted to find side gigs during the pandemic and found himself worse off than not working. Bruce says he looked into building Ikea furniture for people and delivering appliances but it was all "piecemeal" and "gig" jobs for businesses like Instacart had waiting lines.

"It was frustrating," Bruce says, adding that even those minor gigs would bump him from unemployment and he would have to start the process all over again.

For live music veterans like Weber and O’Neil, who both started in the industry without a need for higher education, finding side jobs could be even more trying.

"I started filling out an application to drive an Oscar Meyer Wiener car, but you have to have a bachelor's degree to do that," says Weber. "I can build the car, but you won’t let me drive it. I feel like I'm chasing my tail and it's the most helpless feeling."

The obstacles of the past year have left many roadies with similar feelings of helplessness. Even as touring begins to return in the U.S. this summer and fall, crew members still have to grapple with a year or more of being left behind.

"I've talked more people off the ledge and more people have talked to me off the ledge because I've dealt with and I'll admit it, anxiety and depression, the last eight of these 12 months," says O’Neil, who adds that he and many of his fellow roadies have never been ones to ask for anything.

In fact, when the country falls on hard times, it's often roadies who get called on to help out with benefit concerts. O’Neil says he has lost count of how many benefit concerts he's worked on – several of which he has donated his time for.

"We're a community that the world calls on regularly in times of tragedy," Weber adds. "Now we're the ones that have been shut completely off and everybody's so busy trying to get their own lives back in order to some state of normalcy that nobody calling attention to what's going on with us."

The pandemic has not been completely devoid of assistance for crew members. Live Nation established Crew Nation for its out of work touring staff. The Recording Academy’s MusiCares has raised and donated millions for COVID-relief. Weber, Bruce and O’Neil have all benefited directly from non-profit Roadiecare’s Adopt a Roadie program launched by live production veteran Sandy Espinoza.

"We wear black for a reason. We wear black on the stages so nobody sees us," Espinoza tells Billboard. "That's great during a show that we're invisible. It's not so great during a pandemic."