Last year, live production veteran Sandy Espinoza received a late-night phone call from a tearful former tour crew member. After losing all work and his livelihood amid the coronavirus pandemic, the man was unable to feed his children and feared he’d lose them in a custody battle with his ex-wife as a result. Espinoza sent him a gift card for a local grocery store, and when she got another call the next week, his tears were of gratitude.
“I’m somebody you can call if you’re in a pickle and you have no other choice,” says Espinoza, who has worked as an audio engineer for more than 40 years. That’s why last March, she formed the nonprofit Roadiecare to connect anonymous donors with out-of-work touring staff in need of grocery gift cards — or simply help rewriting their resumes and starting GoFundMe campaigns — and her efforts have already benefitted thousands of roadies.
“We wear black for a reason – — so nobody sees us,” she says, noting the standard crew member uniform. “That’s great during a show. It’s not so great during a pandemic.”
The live events industry breathed a sigh of relief when Congress passed the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant providing $15 billion to shuttered venues and independent promoters in December, but Espinoza says it’s “disrespectful” that no legislation passed to support event workers. While venues await their funding, Roadiecare is among several industry-adjacent nonprofits stepping up to feed and employ event workers who are without their usual income for the foreseeable future.
Live event crew members were hit particularly hard by the pandemic due to complicated unemployment guidelines in the 2020 CARES Act. The pandemic relief legislation allowed for freelance workers to apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) unless they had a W-2, which was often not a full representation of what they earned. The weekly $600 federal pandemic unemployment compensation (FPUC) supplement was essential to mix earners until it expired at the end of July and was later replaced by a $300 weekly supplement in the fall. In December, the second relief package added the $100 weekly mixed-earner unemployment compensation (MEUC) supplement to help those who freelanced and had W-2s for an additional $400 a week.
For 19 years, Conscious Alliance has raised money at concerts and festivals to feed underserved communities, but pivoted that mission when the pandemic hit. In 2020, the Boulder-based organization provided 15,000 meals to music industry professionals whose livelihoods had been decimated by the pandemic, leveraging its connections in the food industry to distribute surplus products across the country. Last April, Conscious Alliance partnered with Rhino Staging & Events Services to provide Colorado event workers with weekly bags of meals and snacks from local vendors and throughout 2020 doubled the number of meals it handed out year-over-year to 2.6 million.
“We realized very quickly that many people who supported Conscious Alliance were now finding themselves in need of support,” says Justin Levy, the non-profit’s executive director.
Conscious Alliance also paid event workers to help set up various food banks — a tactic the Touring Professionals Relief Kitchen (TPRF) adopted as well. A partnership between restaurant industry non-profit The LEE Initiative and Touring Professionals Alliance, TPRF launched in December in four major music cities (Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Nashville) to provide 200 meal boxes a night for six weeks to touring professionals, including bites from world-renowned chefs like Momofuku’s David Chang. Brand partners including Makers Mark donated funds from their advertising budgets to help struggling restaurants retain their staff, who then helped provide meals for unemployed event workers.
The additional paid staffing from event workers also created a comfortable space for folks who hadn’t seen their coworkers in months. Lee Initiative founder Lindsey Ofcacek says distribution days have often ended with socially distanced dinner gatherings.
“Our industries are both filled with creative people. If you’re a chef, you don’t do anything else. If you’re a touring professional, you don’t do anything else. You’re passionate about it,” Ofcacek says. “It’s about supporting each other as a community.”