How the Collapse of the Live Events Industry is Changing Our Lives
I’m one of the 12 million unemployed people in live events, one tiny cog among so many whose lives braked to a full stop in March. People across the industry are working to breathe life into it, but will it come soon enough for us?
Coachella 2017: My Festival Transport — photo of the author
When the SXSW festival was canceled, I was just weeks away from working at my 14th Coachella and Stagecoach festivals, among the country's largest music experiences. My colleagues and I watched in horror as, one by one, events were canceled. But the shuttering of both festivals, which draws more than 800,000+ revelers over three weekends in April, was the giant that shook the music industry. Fans mourned its loss, millions were lost in revenue and thousands of us lost our jobs, possibly for good.
In an instant, I lost 100 percent of my income, and I’m doubtful it will return until 2021, if then. Like many, I’ve trimmed every expense I can think of, and we’ve refinanced our home. Without further help, the situation could become even more dire.
More than the financial loss, our close-knit community has been devastated.
A few colleagues were able to pivot to other jobs, taking their skills to entertainment companies that were staffing up. But others, including me, have been on LinkedIn, letting everyone know we’re available for contract work. The problem is: there isn’t any.
I’ve been a freelance event producer for years. The live events industry is filled with us gig-working gypsies who hop from one event to another. As months of quarantine have crawled by, we’ve been nervously watching artists stream from home, events transition to virtual experiences, and hybrid models launch with reduced or no staff.
Will our jobs return when live events can resume, or will this type of industry even exist?
As a patron myself, I’ve been supporting as many artists as I can — donating, watching their live streams, and sharing posts of new artists unlucky enough to be releasing music at this time. But, from a business standpoint — the uneven approach to opening live events has been gnawing at me.
The Live Events Coalition reports that almost 70% of live events businesses will close by the end of January 2021 without further aid from the government.
Think about it.
Before COVID-19, fans were attending concerts, festivals, and theatre productions; attendees were seeing new products in exhibition halls and patronizing conferences; guests were being feted inside venues for private functions or at galas raising money for charity. With rare exceptions, none of this is happening now.
You may be reading about sports events, motorsports and other types of outdoor events (like political rallies) taking place. But the bulk of live events and everyone who work at them are at a complete stand-still.
If you’re not familiar with the industry and its many different aspects, let me fill you in on what’s happening and what isn’t:
INDEPENDENT MUSIC VENUES COULD CLOSE FOREVER
Think of that new band you discovered, that small neighborhood joint you could count on for great music. Those operate on slim profit margins.
Early on, the National Independent Venues Association (NIVA) formed the Save Our Stages initiative to advocate for the smaller stages. To gather money and awareness, they recently partnered with YouTube to host a virtual music festival benefit, which raised $2M for their segment of the industry. This is important and necessary, as 90% of them had been predicted to close.
This week, industry veteran Mark Geiger, who recently left William Morris Endeavor (WME), just announced his newest venture SAVELIVE, which will invest in independent venues as a way to create a touring network. That’s good news for some.
But all of the dedicated staff who work at these venues are still out of work for now. Technology for safety protocols needs to advance for venues to open.
LARGE VENUES ARE EMPTY and BANDS AREN’T TOURING
You probably have some saved ticket stubs from seeing your favorite artists or catching them on tour. All of those large ‘sheds’ and that staff — yep, out of work also.
To support staff at larger venues, organizations including AEG, Live Nation, the Recording Academy, and others joined together for the #SaveLiveEventsNow coalition after President Trump waffled on an industry stimulus package until after the election. They hope to push forward with more clout on behalf of industry workers.
Other upcoming initiatives include LVL UP FESTIVAL, co-founded by industry veteran Eileen Valois, which hopes to attract attention and support to the crews behind live events and, in particular, touring “roadie” staff.
PEOPLE DON’T UNDERSTAND THE LIVE EVENTS INDUSTRY
According to the Live Events Coalition, “ we create a positive experience for our attendees and audience members, without bringing attention to ourselves. We truly work in the background. It’s our job. It is this “invisibility,” intended as it may be, that we must seek to erase today. We cannot afford to be overlooked or behind the scenes at this moment.”
With 12 million people out of work, the ripples of this shutdown affect the entire economic eco-system that supports this industry– including hotels, airlines, restaurants, retail, labor unions, and more. Billions of dollars across music/event cities have disappeared while dust gathers on our nation’s event spaces.
WORKING TOGETHER TO BUILD FROM THE GROUND UP
As the months ticked by with little information, I was thrilled to find hundreds of people connecting within my industry. It’s been truly wonderful to meet colleagues via video-conference, swap stories, discuss protocols, and hold space to share our fears.
Executives from event companies worldwide, many of them competitors, are collaborating on creative solutions to help all of us safely move forward. We have no other choice.
Martha Donato and Marty Glynn, co-founders of MAD Event Management, set up these event industry video calls months ago when it became clear that there wasn’t anyone working toward a solution. They created the opportunity to build strategy for establishing industry-wide protocols.
On a recent call, Nancy Schaffer, CEO/Founder of Bravo! Events and Board President of the Live Events Coalition (LEC) reflected, “We’re in the business of bringing people together. Without us working together, nothing happens.”
To underscore their belief that hosting small regional events is a way to start back, MAD recently produced Info & Interviews Life: Expo Recovery at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.
Following that event, they shared information about the protocols and safety surrounding these events. They also plan to share information with associations, advocacy organizations, and other event producers.
EVENT PRODUCERS NEED TO CONTINUE ADVOCATING
Sue Sung, a senior vice president with Freeman, an events services company, who has also been working on behalf of trade shows, meetings, and conferences under the Go Live Together banner agreed with their strategy, “We all need to stay focused on recovery relief and amplify the work that’s being done by industry associations. We’re making a lot of progress behind the scenes.”
From “Empty Events,” which Live Events Coalition co-founder Jacquie Bernstein first started in Times Square, to the Red Light ReStart (lighting venues in red) spearheaded by NIVA/Save Our Stages, every organization has been finding ways to build urgency for the events industry, so when the pandemic ends we’re not living in a world without live concerts, theatre, benefits, and trade shows.
SALVAGING LIVE EVENTS WILL REQUIRE INNOVATION
Recently, the Independent Entertainment Buyers Association (IEBA) hosted its annual conference virtually.
I was enthusiastic to see two people I’ve worked with closely — Goldenvoice Talent Buyer, Stacy Vee, and Danny Wimmer, President, and founder of Danny Wimmer Presents, speaking about the future of festivals.
Both acknowledged that the hard times aren’t only about the money. Vee noted that festival teams become family, which is true when we’re working together for 16 hour days for more than a month out in the desert. Spread across the country, many of us know each other intimately for a short, intense time.
Wimmer stated it was time for reinvention, “We’re one of the hardest-hit industries, and we’re being overlooked as an industry. We can’t wait.”
DWP is trying out different live event concepts and challenging the idea that the future will look the same. “We may not make money right now, but if we can reduce our losses, it will allow everyone to stay alive longer,” Wimmer added. This is something echoed by MAD EVENTS, as well.
No matter how dark the weekly industry calls have been, Marty always ends them on a positive note.
“Let’s think local,” Marty said. “If we all do this on a local basis, we can advocate more strongly. If we depend on the government to get us going, we’re naïve. We need to move the meter.”
I hope those of us who love this business will still be here before that meter runs out. I’m standing by.