Event Designer Bobby Garza In Austin, In a Pandemic: Venues Still Desperate for SVOG Money

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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.

What have you been doing the past couple weeks at the Long Center?

We’ve been staffing up. We just launched our weekly summer outdoor concert series, The Drop-In. Last week was our first one. It’s a free thing, but we’re asking people to RSVP and get tickets so we can make sure we’re managing capacity on the terrace. And they have sold out, in about 20 minutes.

Does the demand reflect concerts coming back in general?

Man, I feel like the spigot’s just opening. I took my kid to get his second vaccine shot today, and not counting the drive time it took us 20 minutes, and 15 of that was just waiting to see if he’s going to have a reaction. On some level, people are feeling like, “If you haven’t gotten your vaccine yet, it’s on you, and the risk is no longer an unquantifiable, unavoidable kind of thing.” The responsibility lies with those individual people. I’m starting to hear more of that.

So the feeling of “if you don’t get the vaccine, you take your chances” is becoming more widespread in the concert business at this point?

It’s a mix of venues having a really hard time navigating the politicization of public-health regulations by locality or state. Part two is the SVOG [Shuttered Venue Operators Grant] money hasn’t gotten out to a critical mass of venues yet. There are venues that have been closed for 14, 15 months. The desperation is greater now than it was before. Out of 13,000 applicants, there have been 50 grants ordered. So if things are trickling, and you have an opportunity to try to start clawing back some of those dollars to stay alive — this is no longer a style choice for a lot of people.

When everything reopens, which seems like it may be soon, do you think demand will be too high for supply — like not enough shows for the people who want to see them?

Yeah, I do. In certain spaces, there’s going to be a glut. We’ve talked about this internally. There are only 52 weekends in the year and we’re trying to accommodate, what, 28 months of demand? That’s going to push other venues to increase their frequency and try to claw back some of those lost dollars. I worry about it getting super crowded. It’s going to be difficult for consumers to make their choices because there aren’t not as many hours in the weekend.

As a musician yourself, would you feel comfortable getting back in the van and doing festival dates and starting up again?

Comfortable, no. Probably would. If you’re fully vaccinated, the need for artists to connect with the audience outweighs the risk at this point. And different from audience members, if you’re going to Coachella or Austin City Limits Festival as an artist, you don’t have to go out in the general public.

But if you’re contemplating doing a regular tour, you’ll be crammed into vans and buses and have to deal with rest stops and gas stations, right?

Those are usually the fleeting types of indoor interactions that make me less worried the more I have read about things. Indoor shows are one of those question-marky things for me, but it’s hard to say how to find a universal answer other than whatever the CDC has recommended. You have to make your peace with that.

How are your kids?

Dude, they’re out of school! Had a fifth-grade advancement ceremony on Wednesday for my kid. It was a little emotional. I got a little misty. My oldest son was like, “I feel like I’ve lost a year and a half of school.” I was like, “You kind of did.” It’s a very significant portion of his entire academic career. Everyone’s a little worse for the wear. It’s not unsolvable and it’s not something we can’t work through. Little by little, nature will heal.

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