Building Back Live: RESTART Act As The Next Frontier

Timothy Hiatt / Getty Images
– SOS! Restart!
Workers and musicians participate in the Red Alert campaign outside AllState Arena in Chicago on Sept 1. A key call to action for the campaign was support of the RESTART Act, which many are calling for as the final piece to help the live industry get through the COVID-19 pandemic.

When Congress passed the $900 billion federal aid package for individuals and businesses adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, it marked a significant victory in the industry’s fight for its survival, as the aid package included the $15 billion Save Our Stages Act, which provided grants to independent venues, agents, managers, promoters and other businesses in the entertainment industry.

Pollstar consulted a dozen sources for this article and the overwhelming sentiment among them is a mixture of relief that Save Our Stages will ensure the survival of many independent venues and anxiety about what lies ahead for those who do not qualify for its Shuttered Venue Operators grants. Among the challenges facing those not covered by Save Our Stages are the many skilled workers that continue to leave the production industry, businesses and independent contractors continuing to close up shop without enough money to get through the extended shutdown, and uncertainty over how a comeback will be implemented.

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Of these, the human element and loss of a skilled workforce is the primary concern of many.

“These days I go through my day thinking ‘How do I survive with as little overhead as possible?’” Scott Scovill, owner of Moo TV, a perennial Pollstar Award winner, said. “We are down from 73 employees to about 10. One of my main people is now writing financial software, another is an engineer at the local TV station, another is implementing technology in the new wing of the airport.
“Those people have options. They can get other jobs. But companies like Moo TV that have been around since the early ’90s may not be there when they come back. The whole infrastructure that drives this lucrative part of our business is right on the verge of collapsing.”
Scovill recently had to lay off a company vice president as a cost saving measure, and he does not have enough work on the horizon for the Paycheck Protection Program loans – which were also included in the federal aid package – to be the answer to his company’s problems.
The PPP loans provide small businesses with funds to cover expenses for eight to 24 weeks, with 60 percent of the funds dedicated to payroll. Some of the loans can be forgiven based on how the funds are spent. 
Glenn Cleland, CEO of Tyler Truss Systems, LLC told Pollstar the first round of PPP was helpful but didn’t address the core issues the pandemic has created for the industry. 
“We came back to work in the first part of May, we brought basically all of our employees back because we had the PPP money. Because we didn’t have any business, we just continued to build inventory and used PPP money to pay employees because, prior to COVID, Tyler Truss was so busy we were working all kinds of overtime seven days a week and quoting with a 16-week lead time. 
“So we just built inventory and put it in storage. We kept that going until the end of August, even though PPP ran out at the end of July. But things weren’t picking up, so we had to lay a lot of people off before Labor Day. We’ve been working with a reduced workforce since September.
Tyler Truss’ skilled workers may prove very difficult to replace when business does return.
“ We cannot just have anyone coming into our facilities and welding trusses,” Cleland said. “We are hanging huge metal structures above peoples’ heads. Our workers require certifications and have to go through extensive testing. Probably one out of every 20 people we test is actually capable of coming to work for us. … My point is that there are a lot of very talented people that have worked for us and I just can’t hang on to some of them. They have switched industries and I know a portion of them won’t be back.” 
Nearly everyone Pollstar spoke to for this article would be applying for either PPP or SOS money. But accepting PPP money, which can be applied for now, precludes one from participating in Save Our Stages, the details and timeline of which are still being hammered out by the Small Business Administration. 
Uncertainty about how much PPP money businesses get and opaque rules regarding forgiveness, or when SOS money will be available may further slow the recovery process, James Acuna, director of operations and COO at Rhino Staging’s Denver office, told Pollstar. 
“Everyone is placing holds like we are going to have another summer of 2019, but labor providers like Rhino and IATSE (The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories and Canada), we are going to need time to ramp back up because of attrition and loss of employees. Any other labor company will have the same problems,” Acuna said. “We have to respond to resignations from riggers, stagehands, veteran A/V people, who have been working with us for 20 years. They can’t wait it out anymore. They are moving to other industries. 
“I had one guy approach me and say ‘If you can give me some idea about when I can have my job back, I’ll try to hold off a little longer.’ It is heartbreaking not being able to say with full confidence that we are going to be back in June. I have to tell these people ‘When we come back, you will be welcome, but right now, I honestly don’t know.’” 
Christoph Soeder / Picture Alliance / Getty Images
– Save Our Tours
While the Save Our Stages Act’s passage is a huge lifeline to many in the business, the touring production industry has been hit as hard as anyone and sees little relief in the latest relief package.

In an attempt to take care of its workers and others in the industry hit by the pandemic, Rhino has partnered with organizations like Musically Fed and Conscious Alliance to provide weekly food deliveries to industry families.

The term “family” was used by John Juliano, co-founder of Mellowship Entertainment, to describe the people he has been working with for decades and now sees reckoning with questions about their immediate future and long-term futures in the industry. 
“I am well over 30 years into the entertainment business. The folks that are unemployed today, they’re family. These are the people we see year after year on the road – the artists, the bus drivers, the road crews.
“Companies that had 30 or 300 employees are operating with just skeleton crews now. There are fairs that had 30 employees that are down to three or four. We are very concerned that our family is not being supported.”
Live Nation, which doesn’t qualify for Shuttered Venue Operators grants, has acknowledged that the people who make up the backbone of the live industry are suffering greatly.
“The pause in live events has impacted our industry greatly – we don’t have the advantage of flying half-capacity like airlines, or offering our product to go like restaurants – which means workers of live have very limited options,” Bob Roux, Live Nation’s President of U.S. Concerts, told Pollstar. “As the largest employer in the industry, Live Nation’s focus has been on supporting workers however we can, from keeping as many of our employees on payroll as long as we can despite not having revenue, to supporting music industry workers broadly through efforts like Crew Nation and Save Live Events Now. Events will be among the last to reopen and we need to work together as an industry to make sure all workers have a lifeline until shows can return.”
Rhino has not only seen individuals leave its workforce, but has gone from 14 regional offices to five, with the shuttered offices transitioning to do business virtually and no immediate plans to reopen. With those brick and mortar Rhino Staging offices closed, the capacity of the industry to handle touring is reduced and, without access to capital, Acuna says these businesses continue to operate in survival mode, not allowing them to make plans or investments for a return to touring. For example, if Rhino Denver needs extra workers for a show, they may need to bring workers from the Phoenix office. If the act is unable to foot the bill for busing those laborers over and Rhino does not have the capital to cover that expense, these kinds of scenarios may result in an inability to properly stage shows. 
“The one thing businesses hate is uncertainty, not knowing where this is going, what kinds of assistance we get,” Acuna said. “It makes it so difficult to plan for when things do normalize.
“It’s hard to think about taking out loans and finding capitalization if you don’t know what revenue is going to look like in the near and long future. That hurts gear manufacturers, rental houses. It trickles on down the line.”
The financial strain on production businesses and lack of access to capital is another key challenge not addressed by PPP, Stephen Vitale, president and CEO of Pyrotechnico told Pollstar.
“Every company in our industry is struggling with liquidity,” Vitale said. “This is a crucial part of RESTART or similar legislation. Our industry has been severely impacted. Current regulations won’t allow banks to lend us the funding we need. Without that access to capital, we are in trouble.”
Many sources agreed that businesses not having enough money to make payroll for a full workforce for the next six months, or not having funds to invest in projected expenses, limit the industry’s ability to push for a full-force recovery in the summer and fall, but the amounts of holds being placed don’t seem to indicate any understanding or concern that the infrastructure may not be there. 
PPP does address some of these concerns, but sources told Pollstar timing is an issue, as a 24 week PPP window starting Jan. 18 runs until July 5, but taking out loans which may not be forgiven and spending 60% of them on employees for the months of January, February, March and April when there will be no work is seen as a gamble. But if companies wait to apply for PPP, say until early March, they run the risk of the $284 billion well running dry. 
A return in summer and fall does appear likely, but there are still questions about how it will be executed.
“For the late summer we are oversold. We have so many holds down that we have a backlog for requests for equipment,” Douglass Oliver, general manager of Pioneer Coach, told Pollstar. The challenge, Oliver said, is that Pioneer can’t afford to bring people back too soon, as it appears there will not be much work in the spring. And, of course, there is the unspoken fear that perhaps the vaccination rollout is delayed dramatically, or another unforeseen event pushes back the summer touring schedule. All this to say the decision about when to rehire staff is the subject of much anxiety for these cash-strapped companies, and will likely be left to the last minute without additional aid.
“We feel more confident than ever that there will be a strong Q3. When do we pull the trigger, rehire and get our drivers in the door, we will have to do retraining, equipment and maintenance checks. Financial support would allow us to do this earlier rather than waiting as long as possible and things not going smoothly.”
The ability to provide small businesses with access to capital to hire workers sooner and to invest in a large-scale return to the business is what many are pushing for in the RESTART Act. 
The RESTART Act would create a loan program to fund six months of payroll, benefits and fixed operating expenses for businesses.
“I think NIVA (the National Independent Venue Association, which lobbied heavily for the Save Our Stages Act) has done a great job of getting the independents organized and what they’ve done is really important. NIVA has started the process,” says Josh Billue, who owns Marathon Music Works in Nashville, the Truman in Kansas City, Mo., and The Signal in Chatanooga, Tenn. and who is not a member of NIVA. “We now have an opportunity, as an entire industry, to come together and explain how we operate on a larger scale.”
Billue said he is realizing how little the public understands about his industry.
“It’s hard to explain to my own family how our industry works,” he said. “I see now how disjointed we have approached the pandemic. Throughout this process, someone will do something that they think helps the industry at large and then they will assume all the work is done. Obviously we aren’t discouraging any help, but there are other companies that aren’t as recognized and need additional assistance. Production companies, stagehands, transportation companies, just to name a few. We can’t have a situation where only venues come back, everyone needs to come back.”
Amy Sussman / Getty Images
– Seeing Red
U.S. music venues, including the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, Calif., lit up red Sept. 1 as part Of The #RedAlertRESTART campaign to pressure Congress to provide financial help to entertainment and live event industry workers decimated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Eric Todd of BML Blackbird told Pollstar what is needed along with government assistance for the entire live ecosystem, is a level of coordination and cooperation from sometimes disjointed elements of the industry.

“We all agree that business will come back,” Todd said. “What we don’t agree on is when, how much business, what sort of price wars will be fought, and when clients will be ready to commit to live events with significant risk still around at every juncture.”
Brad Mayne, president and CEO of the International Association Venue Managers, told Pollstar PPP was a “step in the right direction, and we are grateful for that step.” Because of the changes made to the program, many IAVM venues qualify for both the PPP and the Shuttered Venue Grants, though the grants program may not cover multi-purpose facilities that host sports as well as music. 
Even the RESTART Act, as it exists, is not a perfect solution for all IAVM members’ needs, but Mayne says it would still be a major step. IAVM is still rallying to try to get government-owned venues eligible for the RESTART Act, as they are for additional PPP.
But Mayne said he is starting to see the live industry begin to develop a voice – albeit while seeing “strange bedfellows in some cases, competitors working with one another” – but beginning to see the need to explain the importance of everyone in the industry as a whole. 
“I think a lot of people don’t realize the massive ecosystem of the event industry, all of the contracted labor and small businesses. So many professionals’ only form of compensation is live events. If any of those companies or individuals go out of business, that’s something that’s going to have to be rebuilt.  The sooner we get some type of legislation to help that entire ecosystem, the better chance we have of not losing people and getting back safely.” 
For Scovill, the battle to try to pass RESTART and to develop some sense of cooperation within the industry is of the utmost importance. 
“My life’s work is in the balance. At 19 years old I was touring and now I am 52. This is all I have done and all I want to do. It is, unbelievably, at a complete and hard stop. I am watching my life’s work slip away. And I am not alone in that.
“I think every company is worried about survival. The whole industry really is on the verge of collapsing. Most of the income from the concert industry comes from touring – venues are [an important] piece of that equation – but most of what makes this industry function is smaller companies that don’t have deep pockets. From the employees to the companies employing them, we are all a sinking ship right now.”