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 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.
How were the outdoor socially distant Long Center shows the other weekend?
We had all four shows, two weekends in a row: Patty Griffin and Carrie Rodriguez, Billy Strings doing a double set, Nikki Lane and Jade Bird with a local band called Sir Woman. And a local guy named Ray Prim was opening for the Blind Boys of Alabama on Easter and it was incredible.
How did the crowds behave? Did they follow the rules? Were there knuckleheads?
It’s like children, sometimes, when they test limits. They try to do things they know they’re not supposed to, to see how you react. People walk around without masks and you’ve got to tell them to put their masks back on and they’re like, “Oh, well, I’m drinking something.” It makes me so incredibly frustrated.
When you’re talking about how to reopen for indoor events, what new safety measures will you have to put in place, and will it cut into revenue?
Our operations team and box-office team are working through it with our programming folks: “Do we skip rows? Do we not skip rows?” How many seats do we skip, if we skip seats? The CDC says it’s not six feet [of distance between people], it’s three feet, now. How many more people can we get in the building safely? Then there’s a question about masks or no masks. Food or no food? Drinks or no drinks? All of those things, while it seems like a very simple calculus, have an incredible financial impact on profitability. The difference between selling 800 tickets and 1,100 tickets can be the difference between whether you lose money or break even, or break even or actually get some revenue. Most venues are still struggling, so every dollar that you can squeeze is pretty palpable.
How do you go about answering those questions?
When you have seats involved, it’s a terrible game of Duck Duck Goose, going up and down a row: “this seat, this seat, skip a seat, skip a seat,” for a theatre that has 2,400 seats. Then if you get certain productions that come in and they’re like, “We have a particular set that requires visibility in these particular areas and we need to kill these particular sections,” and that takes your capacity down even further and we have to figure out whether the rental rates for these shows even make sense.
What other changes will venues have to make as we go back to quote-unquote normal?
The biggest thing, and this is what I would recommend to every venue if they had the resources, is to fix your HVAC system. Air return, and cleaning your air, is so much more important right now as people are doing stuff inside. That particular challenge is going to be hard for venues that are in older and vintage buildings. It’s just too damn expensive.
Did you get the vaccine?
Yes. I feel 100% more at ease than I was before. This idea that I have some level of protection is really salient with me right now and it’s made me feel better about being out in the world. That’s not to say I’m going to do anything dumb, but can confidently go into the office with a mask on and have a socially distant meeting if I need to or sit on a patio with a friend and talk across the table. Those things don’t feel as scary to me any longer.
What else is going on?
I officially got my brown belt for my martial-arts stuff. Graduated! I’m now officially an advanced belt.
Congratulations! You can officially kick ass!
Not really. I’m still overweight, out of shape and I would run away from a fight quicker than I would try to have one. But my kid started his junior black-belt process. My oldest is second-degree black belt, so he’s still working on his next steps. We went to the dojo this last week and actually worked out there. It was a much better workout, as much as we tried to make the garage work.
How safe did you feel in the dojo?
Eh. Our instructor understood that me and the boys are still anxious about this stuff and said take the three back spaces where you can work on your own. But it was awesome to get to train with other people around in the room.