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So Many Questions…Too Much Time

Baker Lee • December 2020FOH at Large • December 10, 2020

Illustration by John Sauer / johnsauer.com

For the last few months, this column has been a vehicle for me to vent my frustration regarding conspiracy theories and obfuscations concerning a slew of partisan issues and schemes, including those about Covid-19. Despite my own political leanings, it wasn’t my desire to be contentious as much as it was to put aside any conspiracy theories and find a way to mitigate the devastation this virus has levied upon our industry. From Jan. 1, 2020 until March 12, 2020, it looked like we were on course for a stellar year servicing the music and event community in and around New York City, and SIR was not the exception. My friends and compatriots in other production companies also delighted in the amount of work coming their way, and mockingly complained about being too busy. I say “mockingly” — because, as we all know, the nature of our industry is one that does not afford us the luxury of turning away business for fear that each gig might be the last.

‡‡         The Day the Earth Stood Still

On March 12, all our fears were realized as the virus swept through our nation. Concerts, events, venues and restaurants shut down, and layoffs were immediately issued. I spent the rest of the day cancelling all future orders for the year and even had to recall a truck that was on route to a gig. Our collective reality had come to a crashing halt as the world as we knew it had ended. Most of my friends and co-workers became unemployed as large and small entertainment companies shut down their businesses and many of the owners found themselves sitting on millions of dollars of unused inventory and monthly bills to pay. Although workers received unemployment benefits and business owners were qualified to receive loans from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), these options were meant to be short-term fixes for something that has now gone on for nine months.

Many business owners have relied on the Small Business Association for loans to keep their lights and hopes from dimming, but SBA loans are intended to help grow a small business and not just pay the upkeep. Without an income, there is a reluctance by the business owner to invest any of the reserves in development; thereby leaving the borrower with just another loan that will come due when the funds run dry. Nine months into this pandemic, some of my musician friends are beginning to sell off their prized gear, and companies that have been operating for many years are placing pieces of their inventory on the market at fire sale prices. If we get back to work by March, the pieces of gear that might have been on the verge of falling off riders the year before will definitely be relegated to the dust bin. The usual course of selling off the old gear and updating to the new has been stalled for the past year, and staying up to date with the cutting-edge, state-of-the-art products has understandably taken a back seat to keeping up to date with rent, mortgages, loans and insurance.

There is no intention here of being maudlin or overly dramatic in presenting the plight of our industry, since I’m sure that we will recover and return to reasonably normal operations in the near future, but the questions are when and how, and what will the landscape look like upon return? Recently, Billboard magazine ran an article regarding the way that Ticketmaster is planning to use smart phones to verify ticket buyer’s vaccination status and their Covid-19 test results. Plans to mitigate the spread of the virus when attending an event are also being discussed, with masking, social distancing and movement within a given venue being some of the hot topics regarding the reopening of venues. This is all waell and good for the attendees, but this doesn’t really address how those of us on the upstage side of the microphones are actually going to be able to get to the venues, load in, set up, do the show, strike and load out.

‡‡         Questions 67 and 68

Do we need to sterilize the gear after each event, and if so, will it require special equipment and a disinfectant crew? How would the cleaning of gear affect our timing in regard to getting to the next show? Could we outfit trucks for cleaning on the go? Most importantly, how would that affect the cost of production, and is it even feasible or necessary? What would be the protocol for joining the tour? Would proof of having received the vaccine be required? Would everyday testing for all crew and band members be the mandate before being able to go on to the next town? What would define bus etiquette for social distancing? How many crewmembers would be allowed to travel on each bus to ensure social distancing? What shape and form will backstage hospitality display? Will a tour still be able to travel with their own hospitality, or will it have to rely upon local providers, or none at all? What is the procedure to follow if a crew or band member should test positive for the virus? Shut down the tour? Leave the infected person on the side of the road? Quarantine everyone who came into contact with said person and, if so, where? Fourteen days in a local hotel could be costly.

Can a local crew of six teamsters be allowed on a truck? If not, more trucks would be required to do a flat pack. What’s the new decorum for a local labor call, and how can eight to 20 stagehands be socially distanced without compromising the timing of the event?

There’s a very good possibility that the price of staging a post-pandemic show will increase. If venues can only allow partial capacity, the price of admission will need to adjusted accordingly, but with ticket prices for major artists already in the hundreds of dollars the question remains, how much of an increase can ticketing endure? Will bands accept less of a guarantee for their performances? Will crew wages and crewmembers be cut as a way ensuring the show must go on? Would these cuts compromise the safety and efficacy of a tour? After being on leave for a year, will technicians accept lower wages just to get back to work? Many techs and stagehands I have spoken to have moved on to other jobs and careers, so the question remains, will there even be enough qualified technicians to hire once we can get back to work?

These are some of the questions that need to be addressed in regard to getting us on the road to recovery and the next show, but the bottom line is still the bottom line. In the case of any live event, finding creative solutions to seemingly impossible issues has always been part of the job. And together, we will get through this as well.

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