ENTERTAINMENT

Event Designer Bobby Garza in Austin, in a Pandemic: 'You're Hopeful Every Day That the Needle Moves a Different Direction'

Looking ahead to reopening, he says music industry leaders "should be having conversations now about what happens next year."

When the concert business shut down in mid-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, and massive productions like December’s Trail of Lights in Austin are in question, too. 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 Forefront creative team leader who used to be general manager of festival producer Transmission Events, each week to chronicle his experience throughout the crisis. (Read last week’s installment here and see the full series here.)

We spent last week’s interview on emotional topics: Black Lives Matter, George Floyd, the protests and the brutality of the police response. It seems like we’re actually starting to see real progress. Do you agree?

Yes. Ta-Nehisi Coates had an interview with Ezra Klein — those are two of my favorite voices — and Ta-Nehisi Coates was saying, “I didn’t think I was going to say this, but I do see progress and I’m hopeful.” That for me was a validation, for the first time, that there probably is tangible, demonstrative progress. The thing I always try to temper that with is “OK, that doesn’t mean you take your foot off the gas.” That’s what happens a lot of times in social political movements: “We got it!” That’s never the case. We’re at that inflection point now, where it’s like, “No, we should be having more and deeper conversations, rather than less.”

Where do you see this discussion happening in the concert business?

The last couple of weeks have definitely been a reflection about what’s happening in the world, and that needs to have some space to breathe. People need to talk and learn and figure that out, and the next part is the tangible things you can do within your industry. I don’t know that anybody’s gotten there yet — and I don’t think that they have to just yet. If we’re going to make changes that are going to last then we have to spend some real, honest time working through all that stuff. It’s super-hard work. I hope what happens is not that somebody puts on a show with people of color, then that’s the end of it. I hope what happens is: “Can you look around and say the people you work with and for are as diverse as they can be, the people that you book are as diverse as they can be?” It needs to be part of everyday conversation.

Shifting to the pandemic, do you see any light at the end of the tunnel? Every few hours I search the word “vaccine.”

I know, right? I had to stop doing that.

I’ve been following this New York Times tracker that suggests a vaccine could appear by the end of the year or early next year, pending a lot of things. Do you feel hopeful?

If it’s tangible, the people that are smartest from a business standpoint should be having conversations now about what happens next year. The Music Cities Together organization is talking to cities about how to open safely, and compiling data from not just this country but from other countries, about what those recommendations are. This idea that things will “go back to normal” — it’s folly. There are things that we’re going to have to do from now into the future that promoters, venues, artists and guests are going to have to be comfortable with. That’s the tough work that needs to happen now — it probably feels like, “I’m not getting paid for it so why should I do it?” or “I’ve got bigger fish to fry because I’m trying to figure out how to feed my kids or pay my rent” or all of those important things. I’m cooking lunch for my kids while you and I are talking.

Coachella recently canceled until next year — what are your emotions about that?

I mean, all of them suck. Not just nationally but internationally. I was talking to some of my friends about Primavera Sound — that’s my bucket list festival and I’ve never been and I love Barcelona. You’re hopeful every day that the needle moves a different direction. Dude, nobody wants to cancel any of this stuff and I think you try to push it all the way up to the edge. It’s not because you’re being careless, it’s because you want to do it. Like I’ve told you before, putting on shows and doing live music stuff is the stuff that feeds my soul. Why would you want to entertain a notion that you’re going to cancel that? What could be more terrible than that right now? Everybody needs joy in their life now, more than ever.

What’s for lunch?

I made pasta and there’s like this mushroom cream sauce situation with chicken. I learned this from my grandmother: I like to express my care with food. Now that I’ve been home and I have a little more time, I’m doing my best to not give them sandwiches.

Anything new on the ukulele or martial-arts front?

We did our School of Rock intro class. My oldest son did a bass lesson and my youngest did a keyboard lesson. One step closer to family band, right?

I think you’re the weak link.

I am 100% the weak link! I know that and you don’t have to remind me.

Coronavirus

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