Event Designer Bobby Garza in Austin, in a Pandemic: ‘I Hope We Get Smarter About the Things We’re Doing’

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, every other week to chronicle his experience throughout the crisis. (Read the latest installment here and see the full series here.

You mentioned you had some news to share about your contract work with the Long Center in Austin.

I do. The Long Center’s announcing a collaborative partnership with Luck ReunionWillie Nelson’s property in Luck, Texas, which has started a series of shows around South by Southwest and they’ve got a film crew that’s done some really great livestreams. They’re going to be the official streaming partner for the Long Center and we’re going to collaborate on some rad stuff, the first of which is some outdoor socially distant events here on Oct. 29.

What’s the capacity of the shows?

We have this activation on the Long Center lawn called Park Space and it is a demonstration and art project about how you can provide a safe, socially distanced configuration inside parks and on grass. We’re going to utilize that as little squares that we sell to your socially distanced pod [of] up to four people. We’ve got 75 spaces so it’ll probably be 300 people — which is not a lot of folks over a space that can generally hold about 3,000 people. And we’re going to have a show with some good music, and [food] deliveries to your pod so you don’t have to leave.

What are the economics of this? What fraction of revenue for a 3,000-capacity-concert can you make?

The biggest point is “get some activity to prove the case.” I don’t think anybody wants to lose money on this thing.

If this works out, how much do you see this as a model for other events in Austin or elsewhere?

That’s the hope. There’s this pool of event producers and workers that are out of work, and if we can help provide them some help to “how do you get through this,” well, let’s do that. For me, and other people like me, live music is a thing we need in our lives right now, and we want to figure out how to do that.

Have you announced any artists?

Not yet. We’ll have a lineup probably within a week or so.

What were the logistical challenges of getting to this point?

We had to determine the set of COVID-era guidelines for what people can do and what they expect when they come. We have to make sure we incorporate well-checks — that might increase your wait time. We feel like we messaged this stuff appropriately and people are going to be hungry to see stuff. We had to work with the concessionaires and how we deliver food and beverage to pods through an app-based system. We’re fortunate the concessionaires [at] the Long Center are an asset, so no standing around on bars, stick to your pod, order your stuff, get it there. There are a lot of extra steps that we’re having to think through but they seem pretty achievable.

Is this how concerts will work in the foreseeable future?

On some level, at least for the immediate future, it’s going to be the new normal for a lot of people, having to deal with all these extra things to make sure it’s right.

Is there ever going to be an old normal again at this point?

Some of these precautions are things we’re always going to need to think about — and I don’t necessarily know it’s a bad thing. I was reading some article positing this theory that the trend has been to pack more people into spaces and “bigger, bigger, bigger was better.” Now there’s a quality discussion: How do you balance what’s affordable to most folks and a level of quality to what it is you’re doing? The event industry has always had to roll with the punches of the time — so increased security and increased screening after Las Vegas and, even before that, thinking about ingress and egress and crowd flow and crowd management.

Are you starting to see a timeline where a concert restart comes into view? I think I’ve asked you this question 10 times.

Is there an end to this? I don’t know. On some level, we’re going to have to be thinking about public health and public safety and that’s just another thing we have to reasonably plan for. Some of that is totally achievable. It probably requires event producers to think about their financial model in a different way. I don’t know when the next time you see 100,000 people in front of a stage at a festival is going to be.

How much hope is there that after the election, a new group of legislators can figure out some of these solutions?

God, I sure hope we get smarter about the things that we’re doing. We need systemic health for our industry and I don’t necessarily know that our leaders are appreciating the urgency of what that is. We’ve had some venues in Austin close and that’s a tragedy. The city has responded by creating a $5 million live-music venue fund — while that’s incredibly positive, venues are still waiting to figure out the dispersal mechanisms and the eligibility criteria.

How’s learning music with your kids?

We’ve kind of stopped. The school stuff has been vexing, man, I’ve got to tell you. Every parent has been struggling with the same thing: “I’m going to buy a desk and find another space for the kids to work.” And if you have multiple kids, how can you put them on a Zoom call that allows them to focus? Kids are incredibly resilient. If you can provide some level of consistency [so] they learn to anticipate, there’s a little bit of comfort in, “I’ve got to work on math at 10 a.m.” But it could end up being disastrous. Missing the entire social component of school is a thing I worry about. How do you move through the world only experiencing other people through Zoom?

Anything else going on?

One thing I’ve started instituting with my kids, and for me personally, is some meditation and mindfulness practices. That’s helped me manage and mitigate the levels of stress and move through the world a little more peacefully. We all could use that right now.

Coronavirus