When the concert business shut down last 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. 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 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.
With so many people getting vaccinated, how optimistic are you these days that we’ll return soon to concerts and festivals with big crowds?
I saw a news article today that said 30% of Travis County residents have had at least their first shot. The state is opening up to any adult who wants to get a vaccine. One cool part about what’s happening in Austin, and I hope it’s happening elsewhere, is the local government here did something smart and started to use event producers and event workers to give them a crowd-management plan so they can get these vaccines done quicker.
What have you noticed, given your expertise, about the logistics of what the vaccine process has done right and wrong?
Everybody I’ve talked to that has gone to get a vaccine has talked about how good and efficient those things are. The biggest liability is the people who believe they don’t need to get a vaccine. I understand everybody has to make personal choices about what they believe, but it just creates another consideration, when we have to think about bringing thousands of people together.
If you have a festival of 25,000 people, and 1,000 aren’t vaccinated, how much do you have to worry about liability as the organizer?
I wouldn’t go so far as to say “liability,” but I think there’s a reputational aspect to some of that stuff. You don’t want to be the place where there was some kind of super-spreader event.
What is your own vaccine plan?
I’m going to get a shot next Saturday.
AEG and Live Nation are starting to rehire their staffs again — that’s an optimistic sign, right?
Yes. I would agree with that 100%. A lot of people are thinking September. Not to be completely Debbie Downer, but I think there’s a big “if” — like capital-I, capital-F — on some of that. If the trend continues and we can have people continue to be vaccinated, I would love to see bigger-scale events that don’t have so much anxiety tied to them.
Big “ifs” aside, if you assume September is when everything returns, what do you have to do right now?
Booking stuff is going to be the hardest. I always thought that when stuff goes back to “normal,” there’s going to be this race to secure as much as you can lock down. For these bigger festivals that need to draw, that’s going to be a race to find the biggest, baddest acts.
I mean, I think so. There are going to be a lot of folks that have a strong desire to get out and perform again. And artists, broadly speaking, are taking it on the chin right now. There’s going to be a need for people to go out and try to make money and connect with their fanbase and that’s an incredibly valuable thing and I’m sure it’s hard.
Do ticket prices go up?
I hope not, but anytime there’s stronger demand than there is supply, it makes it more expensive.
What are the Long Center’s conversations like on this subject, about what happens in September, or whenever?
We’ve been talking to other people in our industry with rooms in the same space, trying to appropriately plan for that level of booking. What’s hard is this idea that we’ll probably plan for capacities relative to some measure of social distance. Last week, CDC released guidelines — in schools, instead of 6 feet [apart], it can be three feet. If we advise that same level of guidance, it gives us more capacity. But we’re still planning on limiting capacity right now in the hope we’ll be able to say, “Hey, we don’t have to do that any longer.” But that changes the economics of a deal incredibly, where you could lose money in one instance, and then in the other you could make a little bit. So it’s pretty risky right now.
How are your kids?
My oldest, Gael, who is 14, got into the high school that he wanted! And my youngest, Mauro, who’s 10, got into the program that my oldest is aging out of, which is a math-and-science-based magnet school. I feel like we closed a really important chapter in their education and it’s only a slight bummer that they’re doing it from home. It’s cool to see them still succeed and thrive in this space.