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 44-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.
Just this past week, friends are coming out of the woodwork and asking to go to lunch. Do you feel the same: Are things opening up again? And what are the implications for the concert business?
Of course. After this CDC stuff, and then Austin released some guidance as well, I feel like, “Cat’s out of the bag.” There are so many people that believe we’re done. Here in Austin, in Travis County, the mask mandate’s gone. They’re essentially saying if you’re fully vaccinated, you can resume normal activities without masks, except when you’re required by a business. Domestic travel’s fine. As a consequence, what you saw last week was widespread announcements from festivals — Austin City Limits, Lollapalooza in Chicago. “OK, cool, we’re good.”
Are those festival announcements being timed correctly?
It’s a race to get your stuff out there and to make sure people understand you’re open for business. I notice Lollapalooza was saying you need to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test each day. Which is interesting, because you can’t do that in Texas. The governor has come out and said, “If you take any state or public money, then you can’t ask those questions.” We had an event for a nonprofit called Black Fret at the Long Center this last weekend. Where we drew the line was to say, “If you come into the building you’ve got to have a mask on.” There were people calling our hourly waged staff “Mask Nazis.” I’m like, “Really? You went straight from ‘I have a little bit of freedom’ to ‘I have so much entitlement, I can be this much of a jerk’?”
Literally, they said “Mask Nazis?”
Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Luckily, the house manager was so good-natured: “They want to say what they want to say to make themselves feel better.” And I was like, “Absolutely not, you can’t treat workers that way.” But this is the perilous place where hospitability and service-industry workers have had to be for the last year, where every time there’s a new change in the environment or dynamics, they have to enforce a new set of rules.
Is the Long Center back to normal?
No. We’re still taking it more conservatively than maybe some other folks. We just announced a concert series starting on the 27th called the drop-in, a free show Thursdays on the terrace. We’re telling people it’s a socially distanced event, so we’re going to get them through some level of a check and require masks as they’re walking in. This is the weird gray area for us. We don’t have to, but should we? Yeah, probably, for right now, to make sure everybody feels comfortable when they get to the space.
How will the rush of concerts reopening play out in a logistical sense for venues?
Some of it may be staffing. Also touring infrastructure, like vans. That’s probably going to be equally as hard, trying to think about how you solidify and secure some mode of transportation, if you don’t have one. And I think venues are going to fill up with their bookings and ticketing, and weekends are going to get crowded across cities.
It’s such an unprecedented thing — a multibillion-dollar industry shutting down and then starting up a year later.
Nobody’s ever said stop, and then go, all at the same time. It’s incredible.
Is the Long Center hearing from artists and agents saying, “We need a place to play, come on!”
Yeah, and we’re the home for Austin’s founding resident companies, the ballet, the opera, the symphony. They sent us their calendars three years in advance. Everybody assumes, in the fall, [the concert business] is just going to be like it was, to some degree. We’re having to do some negotiations between how we prioritize, what we decide to book and where. Holy shit, isn’t that a good problem to have, relative to your doors being shut?
Or getting sick and dying.
Well, I didn’t want to go that dark, Steve!
Sorry. This is an optimistic conversation. The dark stuff was last year.
Exactly. We’re turning the corner, Steve! I’m going to pull you with me.