Event Designer Bobby Garza in Austin, in a Pandemic: ‘It Does Feel Bleak… But There’s Hope’
Socially distanced shows are on the rise across Texas, including a series of sold-out lawn events that Garza is working on for the Long Center.
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.
How has your week been going?
Super-busy, man! Working for the Long Center on this new concept of socially distanced lawn shows. We had an announcement and we had ticket sales — sold out in a really, really short amount of time. And we haven’t announced talent yet. People are super-hungry to see live music in a safe way.
I know the finances aren’t what they were before, but it must be nice just to work on live shows again.
Getting furloughed and laid off was a pretty gigantic kick in the pants — we’ve talked about it before, like that existential crisis of what you’re doing and why. And there are a lot of people thinking about whether it makes sense sticking around in this industry, just not knowing what’s going to happen. Now I feel like there’s something that’s more tangible for me, and it’s actually more reason to want to stick around. I was down at the Long Center yesterday with some of the filming stuff [for an upcoming series called the Rollins Sessions], watching the band be excited about performing, even to no audience right now and talking to them a little bit afterwards. They were having a really good time. This is the first time they’ve been able to play in like seven months.
I talked to a college class last week and a student asked if it’s worth even trying to get a job in the live business. What do you think?
If there’s one to be had, of course! It requires us to be a whole lot more creative and stubborn about sticking around. but do I think there’s value there? 100%. People need this in their lives. And I do too. My caution would be: Temper exactly what your expectations are, currently and into the future. People don’t go into this business to get rich. At least, not the people I know.
Irving Azoff did!
Well, yeah, true. That may not have been his initial intention, though!
Given what you’re working on with the Long Center, are you feeling optimistic for the concert business?
Yes and no. There’s something tangible that we’re working towards that could potentially be positive — somebody was telling me the other day that there’s 31 socially distanced shows in Texas that are being played in the next week. That’s a lot. That makes me nervous. [Are] people being irresponsible, in terms of how you produce it, and how you ensure health protocols? Also, venues right now are still suffering. If venues start closing, then what does that really look like? In Austin, there may be a dozen 500-capacity rooms, 50% of which may be around at the time when people are able to tour again. If that’s the case, and people are trying to route tours at the same time, if there were 10 before, and now there are only five, how do you negotiate that? Some people may end up skipping markets out of necessity.
So there may be a shrinking of the concert industry, after this is all over?
That’s the fear. While I feel fortunate to be able to work on some outdoor events right now, the reality of what’s happening in venues and downtowns all over the country is that they’re starving. You’re literally watching a business starve to death.
If that comes to pass, will live and merch revenue not be much of artists’ financial revenues going forward?
We’re going to start seeing that for a lot of [newer] artists for sure. I don’t know that’s altogether different than right now, in that they have to have a square job to follow their passion.
One year from today, what does the concert business look like?
I think it’s still going to struggle. I’m hopeful there’s some level of widespread vaccine distribution by the middle of next year and that kind of helps people feel safer, and be safer, but that may be too late for a lot of people in our industry.
That’s a little bleak! Is there a way we can end on a more upbeat note?
I cannot tell you the joy that I felt watching a band perform. I wasn’t even in the room, but I got to hear monitors and the sounds of a live band performing for the first time in eight months. So yeah, it does feel pretty bleak, but there’s definitely some hope about how to get music back into people’s lives, which is vital to people’s mental health and well-being and sense of community.