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Event Designer Bobby Garza in Austin, in a Pandemic: ‘This Notion of Zoom Fatigue is Palpable’

Now that Austin-based event designer Bobby Garza has contract work, he has to sort out health insurance for him and his family -- which could put him worse off financially than when he was furloughed.

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, every other week to chronicle his experience throughout the crisis. (Read the previous installment here and see the full series here.)


Hey, Bobby!

Can you hear me? Sorry, I’m cooking and talking at the same time today.

What’s for lunch?

Oh, I eat eggs. That’s all I’ve been eating these days because they’re cheap. As people are staying home and trying to find cost-effective ways to feed themselves, it’s cool and a little bit shocking. I used to go out and grab lunch with friends all the time — it sucks that I’m not doing that, but I realized how much money I wasted through that process.

Part of that is positive — is that your where your head is at today?

You know, I’m hopeful, and I also overlay that with everything that’s been happening the last week — and I’m like, “God.” The Senate adjourned. The federal government is not going to have any sort of aid relief. This is when all the venues were counting on something to happen. If 90% of your venues are closing by October, and the federal government decides to take a monthlong vacation, it just feels so out of focus to me. I’ve worked in politics, I’ve worked for officials, I understand how that stuff goes. I’m still frustrated by it.

What is your financial situation like now?

I’m super-thankful to have the contract that I have, and it replaced what I would’ve been losing for benefits. So I’m more fortunate than other folks. The real challenge right now is going through this calculus about health insurance. I’ve either got to get Cobra payments situated or I have to find my own insurance, which essentially means I’m financially worse off than I was when I was collecting insurance and furloughed, because my former employer was covering my health insurance. But what are you going to do? One way or another, one of those things keeps happening every week or two that feels like a gut punch: “Oh, this is great, I’m getting a contract.” “Surprise! You need to pay for insurance now.”


That sucks, sorry to hear it.

That’s OK! I’m in a better situation than some other folks. I fully expect that evictions are going to start happening and people are going to end up on the streets. I don’t know that I should be complaining about this too much. I know that I’m going to be OK. I don’t know that everybody in our industry can say that.

Can you give any examples of people who are struggling in the way you’re describing?

I try to check in on my friends and see how they’re doing but, I feel like if I can extend myself and say, “How are you doing? How are things going?” — that’s probably the extent of how far I should be getting into other people’s lives.

Tell me about the work you’ve been doing with the Long Center.

It’s a really amazing building that built its reputation on performances in their big hall, and then in this black box that’s on [the] property as well. It’s home to the founding resident companies in Austin for the symphony, the opera and the ballet, and they try to mix that with good programming from interesting musicians and speakers. I’ve been trying to help them figure out how the Long Center pivots, since there’s nothing happening in the building right now. We’ve been taking the team through a series of thought experiments and exercises that produce creativity and help provide some level of revenue generation.

Can you share any ideas you’re thinking about? Events or other specifics?

I don’t think we’re there just yet. I’m almost at a month. This concept work generally takes six to 12 months to get any good organization fully vetted and excited and ready to roll, and we’re trying to do that in a third of that time.


What is your day-to-day schedule like with the work?

It’s pretty much all Zooms and phone conversations. I’m only doing 20 hours a week, but this notion of Zoom fatigue is palpable. I always like to see if people are interested or not, and nodding their head and leaning forward. It’s so easy on Zoom calls to just turn your camera off, step away. It’s good if you’re the receiver, but it’s tough if you’re the speaker.

Without crowds of people, it must affect your psychology.

Of course. It’s funny because a lot of times when I talk to friends — and it’s partly because we’re all trying to be gentle with each other — the extent of the conversations is “I miss shows.” It just trails off from there. Understanding that’s not going to be around for a while, that’s just soul-crushing. That’s one of the things I’m excited about in terms of the Long Center: How do I set up virtual programing that turns into in-person programming that makes me feel like there’s an end in sight? Maybe there is. We’ve got to get ready for it.

What else happened in the past two weeks?

It was my birthday on Sunday. So, 44 now. This idea of quarantine birthdays — I don’t feel they should count, you know what I mean?

Like Leap Year?

Definitely anti-climactic.


What did you do for your birthday?

The day before, I got on a call with some friends in different parts of the country and we caught up. The next day, my sister and my kids and I drove down to New Braunfels and had a little driveway session with my mom. In between, there’s this little bakery in San Marcos called City Bakery, which we used to go to as kids, and they were actually open, and we picked out a bunch of stuff to have with coffee.

How’s your mom’s health?

She’s quarantining more closely than others because of her health issues, but she’s doing great, all things considered. It helps to try to get those visits in. For the longest time, we were trying to figure out how to do that safely. I think we figured it out, trying to make sure we create enough distance between us and her and keeping our masks on. Seeing people physically does a whole lot better than seeing people on a Zoom or having a FaceTime call.

What kind of eggs are you making?

I mix in salsa and cheese and some kind of protein. Honestly, it hasn’t gotten old yet. So I’m going to hang onto it.