Once booming concert industry goes quiet after coronavirus

This combination photo shows country music stars, from left, Chris Stapleton, Brad Paisley and Dierks Bentley performing in concert. The multibillion-...

This combination photo shows country music stars, from left, Chris Stapleton, Brad Paisley and Dierks Bentley performing in concert. The multibillion-...

NASHVILLE, Tenn (AP) — Inside a warehouse for MooTV, a live video production company in Nashville, Tennessee, the floor-to-ceiling shelves are lined with row after row of video screens, cables and rolling cases that normally would be out on the road with Brad Paisley, Chris Stapleton or Dierks Bentley. At one end of the warehouse sits an empty bar with beer taps where fans once sat on stage with Paisley.

It’s starkly quiet in the warehouse that was once a bustling hive of activity just weeks ago.

“We’ve watched within a few days 100% of our calendar clear, which means no income and a lot of mouths to feed,” said Scott Scovill, owner of MooTV.

Live music, concerts, festivals, awards shows and other live entertainment events came to an abrupt halt just weeks ago over concerns of spreading the new coronavirus. For thousands of live entertainment staff who work behind the stages, the world got a lot quieter.

Concerts make up a multibillion-dollar live event industry that has boomed in recent years even as album sales have declined. But that industry went from highs to unprecedented lows in a matter of days.

Workers who live gig-to-gig supporting musicians, sports, festivals and other live events that draw massive crowds are suddenly faced with months of no income and no clear idea of when gigs might resume. Many of them are freelance or contract workers, which means they don’t have the support of a business to keep them going during slowdowns or provide health care or medical leave. The concert business is also very seasonal with the number of shows slowing in the winter months, which means that many businesses and workers were financially depending on an uptick in gigs starting in the spring, just as the virus hit.

Kai Griffin is a tour manager, production manager and sound engineer who has been working for country artist Lorrie Morgan for seven years, in addition to working with several new and upcoming bands. On average, he works about 125 shows a year. But after the virus hit the United States, he’s out of work for the foreseeable future and with very little in savings.

“I didn’t have hardly any work towards the end of the year,” said Griffin, 49, who is a father of three children. “You save up for dry times in this industry. Now it’s absolutely nothing. It’s totally bone dry.”

Griffin sought out financial help from his family as well as MusiCares, the Recording Academy’s charitable organization, which gave him $1,000 to help with bills. “I was so thankful for it,” he said, but acknowledged that he was hoping that the federal government would step up for people like him.

For most people, COVID-19 causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

The first real sign of the virus' impact on mass events was the cancellation of the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, followed by the postponing of Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California. It’s likely that those mass entertainment events and venues won’t be the first to return either.

“In my 29 years, this is the worst I have ever seen,” said Chris Lisle, of CLLD LLC, a show production designer in Nashville, Tennessee, who has worked on tours for Jason Aldean, Miranda Lambert and One Direction.

He started a nonprofit years ago called Touring Career Workshop to help freelancers in the live music industry with education about health insurance, retirement plans, accounting and taxes. Another program, called All Access, connects touring workers with mental health and counseling professionals, which he said will be critical for a lot of out-of-work people right now. “We’re encouraging people to make sure they’re taking care of themselves mentally,” he said.

Lisle said that while many major touring artists have salaried staff — like front of house engineer, lighting director or guitar tech — there are many more jobs like support technicians, video techs and audio techs that work on a freelance basis.

Country artist Zac Brown posted a video on Instagram a day after canceling his tour with tears in his eyes to explain that he had to let go of 90% of his crew and touring staff.

Feld Entertainment, a Florida-based company that puts on arena shows like Disney on Ice, Monster Jam and Supercross, announced company-wide layoffs as all its tours were halted.

Bandit Lites, a large stage lighting company with seven offices in America, Europe and Asia, employs 250 employees and works with 300 clients including Garth Brooks and Jimmy Buffett. Michael Strickland, the founder of the company, said he’s got a plan to get his business through the next 24 weeks without layoffs or pay reductions.

“I’ve now seen three artists with net worths of over $50 million dollars on television crying, talking about having to lay off 20 people,” Strickland said. “That’s a head scratcher.”

He is urging other live event businesses, as well as artists, to avoid immediate layoffs and seek out federal financial assistance under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which was signed into law by President Donald Trump last week. That provides small businesses with tax credits as reimbursements for providing employees with paid family and medical leave.

“But the only way this works is if everyone in entertainment does not lay everybody off,” Strickland said. “They’ve got to keep their people on.”

MusiCares established a COVID-19 fund specially for those who have lost work due to the virus. In the past, they’ve provided financial relief for entertainment workers after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. But Harvey Mason Jr., the interim president of the Recording Academy, said the coronavirus’ effect on the music industry has been unprecedented because it’s been so widely felt across the country.

“We’re getting hundreds of calls a day,” Mason said. “The requests vary from ‘I can’t get my medicine’ to ‘I can’t afford groceries and I need help with my rent.’”

MooTV’s Scovill is keeping his employees on the payroll so they won’t lose their health insurance. He’s seeking out small business loans to keep the company afloat, but said that will put it into deep debt. Like a lot of people, he’s been keeping himself isolated at home.

“The world has absolutely gone quiet for me,” Scovill said. “For myself and everyone in the entertainment industry, we’re hurting.”

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Online:

MooTV: https://www.mootv.com/

MusiCares: https://www.grammy.com/musicares

Bandit Lites: http://www.banditlites.com/

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Follow Kristin M. Hall at http://twitter.com/kmhall