Event Designer Bobby Garza in Austin, in a Pandemic: ‘We’re Still at This Crossroads’
Austin event designer Bobby Garza says that while "there are hopeful things happening" with his job at The Long Center, he has trouble feeling optimistic in a divided nation.
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 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 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. (Read the latest installment here and see the full series here.
[Note: This interview took place Friday, a day before news outlets called the presidential election.]
It looks like Joe Biden has the votes — on the pandemic level, at least, does it give you any optimism?
I don’t know yet. I’m honestly still shell-shocked from the previous few days. It’s hard to feel like there’s good news on the work front when we can’t even get the big things right as a nation. When we talked last time, it was like, “Well, maybe there’s a better picture after Election Day.” I don’t know that I feel a whole lot more confident about that. I was re-reminded of the level of vitriol that people have on either side of these issues and an unwillingness to discuss common ground. So how do you discuss other issues like the economic crisis in the event industry?
That’s depressing. You’re not feeling any hope at all?
There are some hopeful things happening, at least in my neck of the woods: We’re about to have our first show with that lawn series at the Long Center, on Sunday the 8th. That’s helping on a couple of fronts for me, feeling like live music can still play a role in people’s lives, if you are smart about it and responsible and tempering your expectations. Then we’ve got a pretty tight turnaround and another show Nov. 12, and that’s Tank and the Bangas and Big Freedia. There’s a lot of last-minute preparation, making sure we have to fill sponsor requirements and people are arriving safely and know what to do, making sure we have enough Zoom meetings with everybody involved. It’s about 300 people, and that space typically holds 3,000 people.
Have you followed the German study suggesting live events can be held safely during the pandemic? How much does that affect what you do?
We’ve been following just about anything and everything. If we pull these things off, we’ll be able to start talking to other places in other parts of the country to see what they’re doing as well so we can make those personal connections about what’s good and what’s bad and what worked and what didn’t work. [Note: After the concert, Garza said, “It was actually really chill and what I was hoping for.”]
If this goes well and concerts start to resume under these strict limitations, with fewer people, how much does it help with the overall financial picture for the business? Does it help clubs so they don’t have to close?
Any positive step is a good step, but we’re still at this crossroads. “Cool, outdoor events, OK” — what happens indoors, and how do you figure that out? Austin enjoys a whole lot of good weather. We’ve got four months out of the year that you can actually have outdoor events and be confident it’s not going to be too hot, too cold or too rainy. So how many weekends are in four months? You’re still at a finite percentage of the year and club plays are definitely an incredibly important part of this ecosystem. We have to change the way we plan and budget. The last 15-20 years, the trend has been bigger festivals, more people, more dates, more weekends, and I don’t think that’s the reality just yet.
How are you anticipating the emotion of a concert?
The look on people’s faces as they walk through the door and they’re the first to enter — it’s got a palpable feeling that helps me push through the day. I always tried to make a point to stand side-stage, or behind the stage somewhere. There’s never a better seat than looking out from the stage to see the crowd looking back at you, because you get to see that relationship between the artist and the audience that’s so incredibly powerful and really super-intimate. That’s what I’m looking forward to.
How’s your family?
Man, my family’s good, dude. We’re still just doing the virtual school thing. I don’t know if you heard the tuba. My older son is in the middle of jazz band right now. My youngest just got his nine-week report card. He’s doing fantastic at school and now we’re about to tackle this question of “does he apply to magnet schools, and which one’s going to be the best one?” And we finally collectively got up the courage to go back to the dojo for one of our karate classes. It was great because there was nobody else there. We got the studio all to ourselves. It just feels different to be on the mat in the studio rather than in the backyard. It’s all about baby steps, right?