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.
What’s new at the Long Center?
We’re in the middle of the summer concert series. It’s definitely an exercise for our team. We had to pivot to this outdoor model, and that’s not where our folks were necessarily comfortable operating. But we’re getting faster and better at it. Outdoor shows have been an awesome, here-to-stay kind of thing. More people are starting to embrace making investments and infrastructure and staff — like a performing-arts center trying to figure out how we can activate our terrace [more] often. We’re trying to figure out how that works and save money. That’s been an exercise.
This may not be quite as relevant in Texas, where it’s warm most of the time, but will venues fear doing indoor events in the fall?
I think people are 100% less worried about it. You’re seeing that in the number of bookings and show announcements that are coming out, and especially people advertising full capacity and relaxed restrictions. I don’t see that going backwards, unless there’s another big public-health scare.
Are parents of under-12, unvaccinated kids more hesitant to go to these kinds of events?
A little bit. For us, especially with Mauro’s friends and his parents, we’ve found an interesting balance with being outdoors. I’m not going to take my unvaccinated child to some gigantic festival or something, but we’re finding ways to do stuff at home. If we can be on the beach, and be separated reasonably from most folks, we have an ability to have it sort of be like the Before Times.
What else are you working on?
At the Long Center, we’re actually thinking about what a normal fiscal year looks like. [Laughs.] It sounds super-boring, but the opportunity to get back to a level of planning that doesn’t change week to week is something I’m looking forward to. We have to finish booking the fall and have conversations about the spring, too. If we can do that and concurrently plan what’s happening next summer, that’s an important thing.
How much are you hearing that venues in Austin are starting to receive their pandemic grant money?
I hear there’s progress being made. Honestly, I’m worried that as late as the money is getting to venues, that [the public] will say, “Why do they need money at all?” Forgetting the fact that [venues] have been taking it on the chin for 16 to 18 months. People burned through their savings, burned through their cash, had to renegotiate leases. I’m hopeful people remember all that stuff.
It seems like there’s a disconnect between music fans excited about concerts coming back and venues that will still be struggling when that happens.
Isn’t that always the case, though? I have every confidence that our industry is going to figure it out, because we’ve always had to.
What did you do on Fourth of July?
My sister, my mom, my kids and I snuck away to the beach. Instead of doing any of the crazy whole-bunch-of-people things, we did deep-sea fishing, then got completely exhausted and promptly fell asleep, so we missed all of the festivities. We caught our limit on red snapper. We also caught some kingfish. And we caught these things that in Texas they call them ling, but they’re called cobia other places. And we caught one wahoo at the very end of our trip, which is apparently a very special treat that we didn’t know was possible.
Your kids must have loved it.
The prospect of fishing is a lot of hurry up and wait — which is not unlike working an event! They retired into the dressing room and laid down and were like, “Tell us when we’re at the next stop so we can go be there for all the glory.” I said, “Cool, I’m just going to stay here.” It was the best day I could hope for, for sure.