When the concert business shut down in March 2020, 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 44-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.
Your son, Mauro, is too young to be vaccinated. How reluctant are you to go to shows and do the things other vaccinated adults are able to do right now?
That’s the big, conflicting anxiety right now that is probably the case for most parents. My kid’s 11th birthday was last weekend. Last year, we wouldn’t have done this, but knowing more of what we know about safety, we rented out a movie theatre, and he got to invite seven of his friends and they all watched “The Goonies” at Alamo Drafthouse. Since they’ve been in school, they’re all trained to make sure they have their masks on, until they eat, and then they put their masks back on.
How does that mentality — parents of young kids are more anxious — affect the way you approach events at the Long Center? You have some consumers who are not scared at all, and others who are, right?
We’re not doing a whole lot of kids’ stuff right now. In the fall, if there is a vaccine for kids under 12, the wheels come off for some of that kids’ programming, too.
As concerts start back up again, what do you see as the logistical challenges of getting gear and crews and buses and trucks on the road?
If [venues] are struggling and cash-poor, they have some decisions to make about whether they take out another business loan and try to bridge that in hopes they’ll get a bunch of gigs. For workers, it’s a whole other proposition: “Do I feel safe in these environments?” I wonder how many are like, “Yeah, I’m done. I started doing graphics design, I don’t need to be a gig worker anymore.” There’s this cash challenge that some businesses are going to have and there’s a people challenge other folks are going to have.
Will it be easier for bigger players, like Live Nation, to overcome these challenges and put on shows compared to smaller clubs and others?
I think so. If all the bigger companies that have the cash to be able to gobble up infrastructure are planning to do [concerts] in these next two cycles, then how do these smaller guys find the inventory, much less pay for it?
We speculated about that early in the pandemic — the idea that the strong survive and the weaker players go out of business. Are we starting to see that happen?
Not yet. Graham Williams, who’s been kind of a legendary local promoter that I actually worked for at Transmission Events, he shuttered his operation and started back up again, leaner and meaner. And they’re going great guns right now. If there are other places like that in different cities, if there are other independent promoters willing to give it a go, strong also means stubborn and poor, sometimes. Certain parts of our industry have always been scrappy. It affords you the ability to take some chances.
What about the Long Center? Is it using this unique period to take chances?
Some stuff we put on sale, one was really great and one was struggling a little bit. The popular conception was everything and anything that goes out in the fall is going to be great because people are so hungry to do stuff. I don’t know that’s entirely the case. That’s a bit of a surprise to me. A month ago, I was like, “Everything’s going to be gangbusters.” Some ideas I’ve talked about, people are like, “Oh, that’s interesting,” and haven’t been like, “That’s amazing!”
What kind of ideas?
I love finding new artists and introducing them to a new audience. There’s some really cool jazz stuff that overlaps with hip-hop or R&B. That intersectional type stuff is what gets me super-excited. Some people are excited about it but others are less so than I would’ve anticipated. I think that’s just me being incredibly hungry to go see music. I’m still going to take the chances. I still want to roll the dice a little bit.