Ken Welker, owner of 13th Floor Booking, has not let the challenges of the year get in his way.
With the booking agency, Welker has found that adaptability is the game to play in the fight to keep the live-event industry afloat. Drive-in, virtual, outdoor, socially distant and intimate shows are just a few examples of the ways the concert industry has had to reinvent itself in the past few months.
Despite these adjustments, the struggles of the people behind the scenes of your favorite shows in Deep Ellum and beyond are still going unnoticed. Ninety-five percent of live events have been axed because of the pandemic, according to We Make Events, an advocacy group looking to shine a light on the growing loss of live events during this time.
Layoffs, career changes and venues closing their doors for good are part of COVID-19’s impact on the entertainment world. Even with lessened regulations and patrons going back to almost “normal,” it’s been tough for the music industry to maintain a business model that mirrors the past. Crowded venues and touring shows are now uncommon, and as a result, the people who ensured we were entertained — such as concert promoters and industry crews — are now left in the dust.
Yet there is still a glimmer of hope. Utilizing outdoor venues, like in the case of Dallas’ The Rustic, advocating for government assistance and adjusting to social distancing protocols are part of a bold plan to ensure the industry stays intact and that the music never stops.
Getting to Work
Once venues began closing in March, Hyacinth Belcher, president of Onstage Systems, knew she had to move quickly. Onstage Systems is a family-owned company operating for 41 years setting up production for concerts, conventions and other events in North Texas.
Onstage booked drive-in shows at Fair Park and daily virtual shows in its former breakroom to show that the industry was still needed and could adapt in changing times. Extreme measures — like operating 50 computers for livestreams, ensuring staff members follow COVID-19 safety guidelines — are also part of day-to-day work.
Despite a 90% revenue loss, Onstage continues to look for ways to adapt. The longstanding company, which bought an 80,000-square-foot office building a year ago, doesn’t have much of a choice.
Welker, for his part, has always looked to work with nontraditional venues from restaurants to hotels to anywhere with a space for live music. Because of that vastness, which included working with major venues, there were more opportunities for 13th Floor to succeed as an agency.
Any plans to focus on corporate and private events this year were scrapped after many Americans began working at home.
“We were in touch and in tune with what our capabilities are and where we can go next,” Welker says.
Refocusing their strategic planning allowed 13th Floor to give more attention to fostering relationships with clients, exploring virtual reality events and collecting in-house data. For businesses that were willing to host events, Welker was there to help. To his surprise, there was a high demand for shows, with great results in terms of attendance and profit.
“I think there’s a whole new level of appreciation,” Welker says of concerts. “I think the venues recognize that this is something people kind of need in their life.”
Thanks to lessened regulations, 13th Floor is booking more than 300 shows a month as of September. This time last year, they were booking around 400.
Some events are smaller, usually consisting of duo and trio artists hosting intimate gatherings. Others are being housed at the Toyota Music Factory in Irving. Yet there is an abundance of caution within the agency. Investing in marketing new bands on their roster is one thing they've postponed.
Adhering to social distancing guidelines, a practice enforced by each venue, is a small piece of the large picture; the industry is still facing endless challenges, leaving many to advocate on a bigger stage.
The Other 2020 Campaign
In July, next to the Omni Hotel downtown, the iconic red pegasus stood as a witness to an event that had no one in attendance.
In place of crowds stood tables with name tags of the unemployed: a concession worker, bartender, makeup artist, stagehand and electrician.
The event put the people who work behind the scenes in front of the stage. Belcher, who is the vice-chairwoman of Texas Live Coalition, used the event to advocate for additional assistance from local, state and federal officials. The list of demands included extending Paycheck Protection Program funding and an additional stimulus for workers who have been furloughed or laid off.
Though the event did not gain as much attention as she wanted, Belcher continued to advocate for worker protections, including a virtual summit with Sen. John Cornyn. Cornyn supports the Save Our Stages Act, which would provide grants for live event venues that have been affected by the pandemic. Despite the bipartisan support, the act has yet to advance.
Additionally, venues such as Gilley’s Dallas participated in the national #RedAlert campaign by lighting their businesses in red to show support for the workers who were affected by the live event setbacks.
For Belcher, this investment in advocating and campaigning for these proposals and grants are personal. Without it, her company, as well as other venues and agencies, are at risk to shut down for good.
The Invisible Losses
At the beginning of the year, Onstage Systems had 50 employees. Now, it has 10.
According to polling by the national Live Events Coalition, 7% of the more than 1,200 businesses that responded have already shut their doors. In the next 30 to 90 days, an additional 27% are expected to fold.
While booking agencies like 13th Floor are finding ways to adapt, concert venues, production companies and other event promoters are in the midst of a struggling transition — one that may just end the only line of work they know how to do.
Jeff Brown, president of local booking agency King Camel Productions, has also struggled to adapt his agency. Searching for some steady financial income, Brown began to work at a restaurant as a shift manager.
Though he admires other agencies for their resourcefulness and ability to roll with the times, virtually and distantly, Brown is not looking to follow suit. Because of that, work has been nonexistent for King Camel Productions. Taking away that social accessibility for Brown has been difficult. Gone are the days of gatherings that would feed his desire for social interaction. As an extrovert, he says live music events provided an opportunity to focus on his friends, nightlife and his work. These days, he’s living day by day.
“It’s hard to say goodbye,” Brown says.
Finding a Way to Heal
Welker, Brown and Belcher, all in their own, distinct journeys, know the path to normalcy may be a long one.
As much as Brown misses the atmosphere of a crowded show in the middle of a local bar or venue, he knows the reason why he’s home most days may be a matter of life or death. He doesn’t see the necessary reforms being made in battling the pandemic and wants that to change.
“I hope that we as a society can come together and put a stop to this bullshit so people can get their livelihoods back,” Brown says.
Settling into an unconventional life seems to be one of the few ways the public can heal. Drive-Ins, virtual gigs and using wide-open spaces give the public what we all naturally yearn for: music.
“Music heals,” Belcher said. “You can listen to music at your house. But the energy that you feel when you’re with others is something you can’t do anywhere else.”
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