Music shutdown creates hard times for support crews

If these were ordinary times, Bill Kozy would be alternating time on the road mixing sound for Cheap Trick with tech crew duties at the Fillmore Detroit.

But these are far from ordinary times.

Detroit-based sound tech Bill Kozy, who’s toured with Cheap Trick for the past 17 years, is among tens of thousands of behind-the-scenes staff impacted by the music industry’s shutdown during the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy Bill Kozy)

Like much of the world work force — and particularly in the entertainment industry, which has come to a full stop, Kozy, who resides in Detroit’s Indian Village, has been out of work since governments began issuing shutdowns, social distancing and Stay At Home orders to combat the novel coronavirus pandemic. And while the musicians Kozy and his colleagues work for have been performing via internet, social media and broadcast TV, their support staffs — sound and light engineers, stagehands, tour and production managers, drivers, carpenters, riggers, suppliers and more — are in dry-dock, uncertain of when live audience shows will start again.

“The bottom line is most of us have absolutely no work for the foreseeable future, which is devastating,” Kozy says. “And when it’s everybody, all at once for the foreseeable future, that’s what makes it even more devastating. And this is everybody, people that work in the clubs and theaters as well as the touring guys.

“The bottom fell out of everything for everybody, so we’re all in the same boat.”

Compounding that is that crew workers are seldom on any kind of salary or retainer, and most have to cover their own health care. “There’s not really a safety net,” Kozy says.

Neil Sever, director of event production for KLA Laboratories in Dearborn — a company of some 600 people that outfits everything from events to arenas and stadiums including Comerica Park, Ford Field and Little Caesars Arena — adds that, “There’s nothing to do.”

“All the conventions, all the concerts, the (sporting) games … everything that we touch is put on hold,” Sever says. “We need musicians to go out and express themselves so we can help.”

Livonia’s Thunder Audio — owned by Tony Villarreal (right) and his wife, Jocelyn, posed here with Alice Cooper — is among the companies brought to a standstill by the live entertainment industry shutdown in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy Thunder Audio)

“Its amazing, still having to be responsible to all of our vendors and full time employees, but not having any income ­at all,”  says Tony Villarreal, owner of Thunder Audio inc., a Livonia based audio and full production company that provides equipment and personnel for major tours and festivals and corporate events — including the Movement Electronic Music Festival, the Detroit Jazz Festival and the Faster Horses Music Festival — as well as venues around the country. “All of a sudden it seems like within in a two-day span, every tour and show just stopped. Semi (truck) after semi started bringing equipment back and we couldn’t do a thing about it.”

At the time of the shutdown, Thunder had a rig out with rapper Post Malone and was gearing up for a Maroon5 tour as well as the now-postponed Bonnaroo and Tortuga festivals. Thunder is still paying its dozen full-time employees right now despite seven-figure losses, but Villarreal says the current situation is unlike anything he’s encountered during 41 years of business.

“After 9/11 it was horrible,” he recalls. “All our corporate (contracts) went away. But we were still doing Slipknot and Disturbed; All those guys still worked ’cause they had this attitude, ‘We’re gonna kick their asses!,’ the terrorists. So in that circumstance we still had 45 percent of our revenue coming in.

“This? There isn’t (anything) coming in.”

Villarreal’s brother Neil, co-owner of NV Rentals — a Downriver company that specializes primarily in instruments and other stage, or backline, gear — is feeling the hurt as well.

“It’s the first time something has affected us immediately as opposed to other disasters that would trickle down the line and you had a month or two to adjust, and you knew it would come back,” Villarreal says. “This time everything’s just gone away, all at once. It’s hard to weather the storm when you don’t know what’s coming.”

There is some potential for relief for crew members as well as companies such as Thunder, NV and KLA. The $2 trillionCARES package passed by Congress extends enhanced unemployment benefits to independent contractors as well as grants and other help for small businesses. Industry organizations such as the Live Events Coalition and the Independent Promoter Alliance have formed in the wake of the pandemic to share resources, ideas and policies.

Motown Accelerator and Backline MKE have teamed up to present the Musician Emergency Response Program, a series of webinars and consultation sessions running April 6-17.

And Live Nation, the world’s largest promotion company launched a $10 million Crew Nation fund that’s also soliciting donations from artists and the public. “Crew members are the backbone of the live music industry,” Live Nation said in a statement, referring to the pandemic shutdown as “this temporary intermission.” President and CEO Michael Rapino, who personally contributed $250,000 to the fund, noted on Instagram that, “Concerts wouldn’t be possible without the crew working behind the scenes to bring them to life.”

Matthew “Woody” Woods, Kozy’s housemate, was supposed to go on tour with hard rockers Trivium this spring and has seen that itinerary wiped out. “It’s definitely stressful,” says Woods, who also worked for AEG Presents at the Masonic Temple, the Majestic Theatre and the Royal Oak Music Theatre. “It’s such uncharted territory. I don’t think the music industry has ever experienced anything like this before. Even when there was a recession, our industry was very resilient. People always wanted to escape and see a concert.

“But now they can’t even leave their houses. People are getting sick and dying. There’s no shows, no tours. You can’t put people in a room anymore. It’s the right thing to do, but it’s a major impact.”

Kozy says there’s been constant conversation between him and his colleagues, as well as those they work for, about what’s going on — with little certainty at this point. “My priority right now is coming up with a Plan B,” he notes, adding that he’s “weighing my options, which definitely includes nonmusic work if it comes to that.”

Adding to the insecurity, of course, is the uncertainty of when things will start back up again. April has become a wash, the late spring and summer are being affected as well. Major tours by the Rolling Stones, Roger Waters, Foo Fighters, Rage Against the Machine, the Steve Miller Band and Michael Bublé have been postponed, with more added to the list almost daily. Festivals and other events such as Detroit’s North American International Auto Show are also pushing back or canceling altogether.

Projections for starting up again remain in flux. Thunder’s Villarreal says the company’s fall outlook “is bright, and holding on to our staff and equipment to weather the storm is a must.”

“If we can make it through a couple of months more we believe our industry will come back, with a vengeance,” he added. “People will be so excited to get out of their homes, and we are planning to support that surge.”

KLA’s Sever, meanwhile, expresses the concerns of many when he says that the fears surrounding the coronavirus — as well as the financial hardships faced by so many — may well change the live entertainment industry irrevocably.

“It’s never going to seem the same,” Sever predicts. “People are going to have reactions to public meetings, socialization of any kind. I can’t picture people sitting next to each other, shoulder to shoulder, for quite some time just because of the scare involved in all of this. For people to get accustomed to a packed house at a concert venue again is going to take some time.

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