Michael Strickland, Founder, Bandit Lites

Michael Strickland
– Michael Strickland

The Congress Whisperer

Michael Strickland
Founder, Bandit Lites  

Bandit Lites founder Michael Strickland gets up at 4 a.m., checks email, makes phone calls and probably gets more work done in the early hours than many people will all day.

In addition to running a lighting business and serving on the board of directors of a local hospital network, Strickland became something of a Congress whisperer, educating legislators about the devastation wreaked on the live events industry that most clearly didn’t understand.

His efforts, along with those of many others, helped secure passage of the CARES Act, enhanced unemployment and PPP funding, as well as Save Our Stages and Shuttered Venue Operator Grants to support those in dire financial straits thanks to the shutdown of the entire industry.

Once the stimulus package and legislation was secured, Strickland turned his attention to the COVID vaccine rollout, knowing money alone wouldn’t prevent the collapse of the live business as long as the virus continued to spread unabated.

“As the vaccines approached, I began working with Michael Rapino, Coran Capshaw, Wayne Forte, Jay Marciano, Charlie Walker and Dayna Frank on what would become COV-AID,’ Strickland explains. “We looped in the NFL, NASCAR, IAVM, IATSE, Live Nation, AEG and others. We connected the live event industry with the COVID Task Force, the White House, the government, FEMA, and the support services and venues nationwide. I held regular conversations with the 10 FEMA regional directors and others. This endeavor rolled into VAX4LIVE and the VAX LIVE, both endeavors to encourage people to get vaccinated.”

All told, Strickland estimates that he works 18 hours a day and consumes at least 15 cups of coffee during that time, “not because I need it, but because I like it,” he insists.

What did a day in the life of Michael Strickland look like at the pandemic’s peak?

Besides the early wake-up call and email check, Strickland spends eight hours a day responding to emails generated by an informational email chain he created that now has 1.3 million recipients. He takes from three to 15 Zoom meetings with various industry groups daily, three more with University of Tennessee Medical Center related to his position as a board member, does media interviews, and squeezes in face-to-face meetings with legislators.

“I don’t have a set schedule because I just take it as it comes at me,” Strickland says. “Right now, I’m actually working on two things. There is actually another bill being crafted to provide funding for those people left behind by SVOG, and that should be completed in the next week or two. So I’m working night and day on that with a bunch of legislators. 

“The other thing is that we as an industry have to come up with what I’m calling the Entertainment Association to parallel the Airline Association and the Restaurant Association, because what I heard every day was you don’t have a lobby and you don’t have a PAC, so you’re in the back of the line.”

But while Strickland was working the phones, texts and emails as well as roaming the halls of Congress, he still had his own business to keep afloat despite the lack of shows. And he’s especially proud of that, too.

“Bandit was fortunate in that we never laid anyone off,” he says. “We were blessed financially and kept our great team together. I started a routine of informational emails on a daily basis, and weekly sent out humorous videos of myself via cell phone. We kept the entire team informed along the way and made sure they had a complete understanding of where we were and where we were headed.”

Bandit Lites was also able to undergo a significant expansion during what was otherwise downtime.

“In the first four months we built new offices and technical spaces,” Strickland says. “We then shifted to the world’s largest repair and cleaning operation on our equipment. Our Sales and Integration Division never shut and never slowed. They kept delivering at a high level and a lot of the live show people shifted to support the sales team.”

Strickland marvels at not only the resilience of Bandit Lites, but of the live events industry as a whole.

“We have a large, strong, robust industry full of 10 million-plus great people. The resilience of the people and the firms is amazing. Just as we always deliver shows on time, so a great many of us found a way to survive. For me, the biggest impact is the thousands of new friends I have made along the way. I am more connected to the industry and the great people now than ever. For that I am truly blessed.”

While Strickland, like most across the live events industry, expresses relief regarding the support he’s helped garner and for the vaccine going into arms, he still sees red flags ahead.

“I believe we will all agree that demand will far exceed supply on every level,” he says. “From talent, to venues, to vendors, to gear, to qualified people. Virtually every aspect of this great industry will be pushed beyond the limits. It is how we as humans handle this and deliver with grace under pressure that will define us.”

The pandemic and the response to it, of course, created its own set of unique challenges and “grace under pressure.” 

“The message kept changing on a weekly basis as the pandemic drug on,” Strickland explains. “Perhaps the biggest motivator was the truth as to where the world actually stood in our industry. … Loving people and putting people first makes leadership easy. Humanomics. At Bandit it is truly about the great people we have on the team.”