The Year In Advocacy: Working Tirelessly For Live Industry Relief

Michael Stricklan,d
Jason Squires/Getty Images for Pollstar
– Bandit Lites’ Michael Strickland
accepts the Lighting Company of the Year Award during the 26th Annual Pollstar Awards at Ryman Auditorium on Feb. 21, 2015, in Nashville.

Life often takes us places we would never imagine. This year did that for almost everyone in the world. I began my lifelong journey by starting Bandit Lites at the age of 12. My growth included the University of Tennessee College of Business and Law School. From there I engaged in the Knoxville and the State of Tennessee communities, including chairing the Chamber of Commerce for several years. My life took me into NFL and NCAA football relationships, as well as deep friendships with NASCAR and other such fields. I eventually landed on the board of the University of Tennessee Medical Center some 15 years ago, as well as many other boards and commissions. Leadership and education were always important to me, leading me to participate in Leadership Knoxville, Leadership Tennessee, Society of International Business Fellows, and other such leadership organizations. All these events kept me learning, growing, and changing as life moved on.
I often wondered why I needed all this training and education to lead an entertainment lighting firm. I always knew it was very useful, but I often questioned whether the cost was worth the reward. My role at Bandit shifted to visioning, leading, taxes, insurance, lawsuits, and real estate. Most of my closest friends from my time on the road are retired, out of the industry or no longer with us. It happens to everyone if you live long enough. This brings us to March 13, 2020. Bandit had several tours and events on the road, and 2020 was shaping up to be another record year. The world looked bright for our entire industry. As we all know, in a single day our world forever changed. In a moment we all went to zero income, and that is where we sit now, nine months later. That moment prompted me to call two old friends, Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Lamar Alexander. Both sprang into action and from that day to this they have both worked tirelessly with me to obtain relief funding for the live events industry. 
What started for all of us as “15 days to flatten the curve,” became “30 days to flatten the curve” and, finally, “when will this end?” Initially, our issue was how can we survive until June when we can get back to work. We all schemed and planned. I worked nonstop with Marsha, Lamar, and others on crafting the CARES Act, PPP, and the Treasury regulations around the PPP program. I expanded my field of political leaders and made many new friends. Another old friend, former Rep. Jimmy Duncan was wrapped into my journey and Jimmy introduced me to others in Congress. 

As we closed the PPP legislation, we all believed this shot of money from the Feds was just the answer, and all would be right with the world. The money came in April and was spent by mid-June. But we were not back at work. The government ordered hospitals to stop taking anything aside from COVID patients. I began hospital board meetings daily and began receiving written updates twice a day. Medically we were at conditions critical. By June we in full blown panic mode with the social unrest from the tragic death of George Floyd. I was now talking to all my friends at NASCAR, NFL, NCAA, Live Nation, AEG and other entities. We were all asking one another, “What do you think? What are you going to do?”  I knew that the social turmoil made it impossible to focus on the virus. The only real solution would indeed be a vaccine. I had written a few press releases about the subject, the AP picked up a couple, and I was being interviewed by media and asked to speak on Zoom calls. Several people e-mailed me for information, and I began an e-mail chain that grew to over 1.2 million people. I eventually connected with more than 100 organizations including NAMM, NIVA, NITO, IAVM, NAB, SAG, DG, PG, TPA, Broadway League, Pyro Association, IALD, Catering Association, LEC, We Make Events, Save Live Events Now, LEVL UP, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, CMA, ACM, NGA, Extend PUA, and so many other entities. Everyone wanted the same thing: Good Information. 
By now we had a full-blown global pandemic, enormous social unrest, a vicious election season and more misinformation than good was everywhere. People asked me daily for the facts, not the hysteria they read in the media. A new word entered our world: “Pivot!” We would all Pivot, but, as we all know, our industry really cannot Pivot. Everything we do, everything we know, and every fiber of who we are begins and ends with large crowds. So, until thousands can safely gather, live events remain at zero income. It was at this moment I began working toward bigger, broader relief for our industry. Sens. Young and Bennet had just crafted the RESTART Act, and it was tailor-made to save our industry. I quickly aligned with them and their staffs. Reps. Kelly and Golden carried a House version of the same RESTART Act and I connected with them. From here, my network continued to blossom. 

Friends In High Places:
Courtesy Michael Strickland
– Friends In High Places:
Michael Strickland, with Garth Brooks accepting a Parnelli Visionary Lifetime Achievement Award at NAMM in Jan. 2020 in Anaheim, Calif
The great people at NAMM became a partner with the entire live events industry and started to carry our message to Congress via their lobbying efforts. NAMM is a brand name in DC and has been lobbying for many years. They gave us a voice and a recognition when we had none. NAMM initiated several calls to action on behalf of everyone in the live events industry and have stood with us all along the way. We owe them a debt of gratitude.
Howard Schulz, founder of Starbucks, became involved in fighting for small business and I was lucky enough to engage with Howard and become one of the original signatories of a letter he sent to the White House and Congress. I have stay engaged with Howard up to this day, and he has been a very strong voice for the needs of all small business.
Along this journey I have developed great relationships with all the live event industry media, and they have been invaluable partners in getting messages out to our industry. Pollstar,  PLSN, Live Design, Light & Sound International and PLASA have been the primary partners. The phenomenal men and women I have had the pleasure to get to know and work with have been the backbone of our success. Thank you all.
I worked with We Make Events to deliver #RedAlertRESTART which has an overwhelming national success with more than 2,500 venues and thousands of people involved. Other events and calls to action continue to come from this and many other great organizations. 
The great people at NIVA and NITO teamed up and have gotten Save Our Stages included in almost every proposed piece of legislation. This was a job well done.
Along the way several local and national media outlets interviewed me, with CNBC and WGN America both doing national stories on the plight of our industry. These two stores were huge moments in our journey to relief, as the real world could hear our plight. I and others worked tirelessly to gain additional national mainstream television exposure, but I discovered a glaring fact: there is little sympathy for our industry. The political leaders and the media feel that the wealthy stars we work for should take care of us. We have worked tirelessly to quell this story and will continue to. Restaurants, gyms, and hair salons are thrown daily pity parties in the media, with nary a mention of live events. Please believe me, it is not for lack of many of us trying. Some of the biggest names in the industry have worked with me on this. The political climate since April has been one that dominated everything in the US. Little was achieved on any front, aside from our savior, Operation Warp Speed. But, as to relief, additional funding became a political football that both parties have kicked around up to and including today. The simple act of providing financial relief for the people and businesses that are in risk of bankruptcy has been mired amongst all the other politics. Live events are stuck in the middle, being crushed.
This is not over, but the end has begun, as we now have vaccines and, by all accounts, we should be to 70% herd immunity in the U.S. by mid-May. We will never let up on our quest for relief. We continue to work with Congress to achieve the relief we need.
While my vast understanding of a weird set of things has always helped me, it made me perfect to maneuver this crazy landscape of a virus, a shutdown, relief, and a vaccine. I am not sure if I know anyone with such a disjoined background as myself; and my set of friends, organizations and knowledge has allowed me to play traffic cop, info guide, lobbyist and be a shoulder to cry on for the last nine months. Daily, I field calls, e-mails and texts from people ranging from the biggest managers in the industry to company owners to crushed individuals simply wanting to talk to someone. I have made thousands of great new friends in this journey and I am most thankful for that. I have gained a lot of new knowledge from talking to so many people. My single focus on the RESTART Act and all things related to relief for our industry made me one of the most knowledgeable people about RESTART.
This coming week I have a meeting with the leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell. Next week I will appear in a hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Manufacturing, Trade and Consumer Protection to testify about the condition of the live event industry. Both meetings will be very beneficial to increase the awareness of our situation and the need for federal aid. No business school in the world teaches how to run a business on zero income for a year, yet our industry has been tasked with that. We have all dealt with it in different ways, but we have dealt with it. The spirit, grit, fight and determination of all of you is amazing. You slay me daily with your drive and desire. The biggest take away from all this is simple: It is not me. It never was. It is you. All of you. The thousands of people that came together, wrote letters, sent e-mails, held events, formed organizations, made calls, pushed cases, lit buildings, set up empty stages, talked to legislators, wrote articles, connected me with others, spread the word, and made the magic happen. I wish to thank every one of you for your undying support and effort to keep this crazy industry we all love so much in the best possible shape through an unprecedented global pandemic. Onward and Upward!
Thank You