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% 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, each week to chronicle his experience throughout the crisis. (Read last week’s installments here and see the full series here.)
You’ve spent your time in quarantine talking to people in the concert business, with Music Cities Together and other groups. How would you describe your colleagues’ moods these days?
It runs the gamut. How do you maintain some level of revenue by pivoting into new spaces? That’s a scary thing to do. It feels even more terrible if you’re trying to pivot into something that you’ve never done, on a really compressed timeline, with no anticipation about some potential revenue. On the other end of the spectrum is friends involved in the gig economy and contract work, who work festivals during festival season and bartend in between. Those are the folks having the hardest time getting assistance and they need the assistance the most.
When you talk to people in the concert gig economy, what is the sentiment? Are they hopeful, scared, devastated?
All of those things. Hope’s probably near the bottom. “What the hell do I do?” If you spend most of your day on hold or getting hung up on by some unemployment agency, what time do you have to actually go look for a job?
How many Austin clubs survive the pandemic? Will there be a Stubb’s Bar-B-Q? Will there be an Emo’s?
The two that you mentioned are part of the C3 [promoter] family. So they may have better safety measures in place than some other folks. But if you think about Mohawk or Barracuda or Hotel Vegas, they may not have the corporate backstop or cushion. In other cities, some of these larger music companies are taking control of medium- and large-sized venues, and maybe those are OK. What’s really at risk is “mom and pop or old punk-rocker wanted to create a venue that probably does not have a cash reserve.” Some of those will go away. We’ve seen a bunch of Austin iconic businesses that are already closing. Austin is one of those cities that is almost violently entrepreneurial: If you’re an Austin business, you’re an independent business. I worry about those the most. They provide the most cultural value, but they’re probably the most at risk.
If and when everything goes back to “normal,” what has to happen for music clubs to recover most efficiently?
It’s folly to believe we’re going to flip a switch and everybody’s going to go back to doing business the way they were. That’s Pollyanna and a little bit dangerous. What will make that feel less like a long trudge up a big, steep hill is if we can figure out what impediments venues, musicians and event companies actually face. In Austin, a constant source of frustration is the length of permitting times, your ability to block off parking spaces — fundamental block-and-tackling things that take time, which equates to money. Stuff like “how do we provide property-tax relief?”
Can concerts reopen to some degree already, with social-distancing and masks and so on?
I was reading something about Nashville: You can open at 75% capacity, but you can’t have a dance floor. I was like, “Cool. What does that mean?” There’s geometry at stake here and I don’t know if anyone provides guidance for that. Are there going to be the dance police? If a crowd rushes a stage because they’re so excited, are you going to pull the plug and turn the lights back on and say, “Everybody needs to back up!” You can create policy that makes sense on paper, but the practical application for the live-music industry has not been talked about. That’s the stuff that’s going to slow everything down.
And that’s what you’re working on now?
Yeah. I’ve gone through the process of even drawing stuff out, just for myself, because I’m a visual thinker. What does it look like if you have to keep pods of people six feet apart from other pods of people? How much space does that take up? What happens with your walking lanes? How do you ensure people are maintaining the proper distance and not doing what everybody does at festivals, which is pack as close to the front of a stage as possible?
How else are you passing the time in quarantine?
We converted our back patio into a little martial-arts Zoom studio. We’ve had two months of virtual classes. I’m about to get my second belt in quarantine, which is hilarious. Working on hitting and kicking things is a good stress relief. My oldest son is second-degree black belt at 13, and my youngest is 9 and he’s working on his black belt. You have to demonstrate kicking, punching and holds, but you have to be of good character. Part of their requirements are to practice random acts of kindness — we’ve had these conversations about “how do you do that when there’s no one around?” As much bleak shit as there is out in the world right now, taking the time to be a little present in the moment about the positive stuff is super-important.