A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 3, 2021

As Live Events Prepare To Return They Face Worker Shortage

Just as bands are gearing up to hit the road as infection threats ease - and as theaters prepare to reopen - the entertainment industry is faced with a shortage. Not of performers, but of the roadies: technicians, lighting and sound experts, carpenters and teamsters, all of whom have found other gigs that they may now not want to give up. 

The consequence may be fewer shows of less sophistication. But for an audience starved for any out of home entertainment, it may not matter. JL

Anne Steele reports in the Wall Street Journal:

Concerts operate in a world of contracts, with workers moving from gig to gig, tour to tour. Without live events, though, many stage hands, lighting and sound technicians, ticket takers and ushers assumed other jobs. The concern among event organizers is workers might not come back, having moved on to jobs more stable, more lucrative or offer insurance or retirement. Also lost is a generation of  younger workers eager to graduate from the warehouse gig to the local show and on to the national tour.

Artists can’t wait to get back on tour, but after more than a year on pause for the Covid-19 pandemic, the live events business is facing a potential worker crisis: not enough roadies.

Concerts operate in a world of contracts, with workers moving from gig to gig, tour to tour. Without live events, though, many stage hands, lighting and sound technicians, ticket takers and ushers assumed other jobs.

“No one saw a year without work,” said Michael Strickland, chief executive of the lighting company Bandit Lites. “As it continued, you lost people along the way mentally, physically, spiritually, economically.”

The concern among event organizers is that those workers might not come back, having moved on to other jobs that might be more stable, more lucrative or offer perks like insurance or retirement options. Also lost is a generation of apprentices, the younger workers who would have been learning the craft, eager to graduate from the warehouse gig to the local show and on to the national tour.

Mr. Strickland, who has emerged as a liaison between the concert industry and policy makers about support for workers and venues, estimates that one-third of pre-pandemic workers won’t be returning to the live-events business.

“People are saying ‘I have health insurance, retirement,’” says Mr. Strickland, who adds that their thinking is: “Maybe I’m making less money, but these companies are not going anywhere.”

The challenges show how hard it may be to smoothly revive corners of the economy battered by the pandemic, as companies wrestle with issues including labor availability, supply-chain problems and shifting reopen policies across the country.

Concert executives are hopeful for a restart in outdoor amphitheaters later this summer and then inside clubs and theaters this fall. Issues around a worker shortage could quickly compound next year, when promoters and agents say more acts will be on the road than ever before, competing for everyone’s favorite guitar tech, production manager or backup dancers.

“It’s going to be a year’s worth of shows scheduled in six months,” said AEG Presents regional Vice President Jason Rogalewski, who oversees theaters in Detroit and Cleveland.

Before the pandemic, the live business was thriving and on track for its best year yet in 2020, with more artists charging more money for more tickets in more markets than ever. Global revenue from concerts rose to $26.1 billion in 2019 before falling to $6.5 billion in 2020. Even in that pre-Covid-19 environment, there was a natural flow and balance, with artists of similar caliber staggering their tours.

“It’s hard for roadies to pivot,” said Chris Gratton, a 30-year veteran of the business, who has worked as production manager—overseeing trucking, sound, lights, video, catering and other logistics—for stars, including Guns N’ Roses, Kanye West, Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber. “Dancers go to restaurants, and there’s none of that. Roadies go to theater, and there’s none of that.”

The industry has lost workers to Amazon warehouses or to jobs delivering packages for UPS. Carpenters and electricians have taken up work with Home Depot or started their own companies. Mr. Gratton says one of his automation guys—who helps artists do aerial stunts during concerts—started building prefab modular homes. Another production manager he knows started a cinnamon bun bakery with his wife.

A survey by touring trade magazine Pollstar of live event professionals late last year found that 72% of all respondents expressed “concern about their company’s ability to survive Covid-19.” At the time, 37% of all respondents predicted they would be out of business in six months or less if business conditions didn’t improve.

Mr. Gratton’s team was eight days from the start of Mr. Bieber’s Changes tour last year when the pandemic hit. He worked to earn his Covid-19 compliance-officer certifications from Los Angeles County and the World Health Organization and said he was on the cusp of having to sell his house when the pop star wanted to get back to work. Mr. Gratton said he has had full-time work since September, thanks to Mr. Bieber’s New Year’s Eve live-streamed show and the recording of promotional spots for his album that was released earlier this month.

But such work only requires 15 to 20 workers, Mr. Gratton said, compared with the 150 who would be employed for a tour.

Between workers who have found other careers and others aging into retirement, Mr. Gratton estimates that 15% of his regular crew won’t be back. And with no hands-on training opportunities for new workers, his top concern is safety.

“We’re going to be in a world of hurt as far as qualified, educated roadies. There may be a lot of people in line to jump into this career, but they won’t have the experience,” he said. Even for veterans, the start will need to be careful before crews can get back to setting up a major show in four hours and loading it out in two.

“People’s muscle memory is gone. We’re going to have to take it slow and smarter till we get our rhythm back,” Mr. Gratton said.

Craig Bruce, monitor engineer for Mary Chapin Carpenter and Celtic Thunder, focused on his audiovisual-services company during the pandemic—something he did between tours before Covid-19. The shift more than made up for lost business he was expecting to get from working technical support for Def Leppard and the Tokyo Olympics.

In January his company merged with another, and Mr. Bruce took a position as vice president. He still feels a connection to the concert business but said he would likely turn down future offers outside of Ms. Carpenter and Celtic Thunder.

There are also bitter feelings at play. The Save Our Stages Act, which authorized $15 billion in Small Business Administration grants to independent live music venues and performance-arts organizations, wasn’t passed by Congress until December and excluded swaths of venues and workers from its benefits.

“We’ve always been the first ones to step up and do the charity concerts when disaster strikes,” Mr. Bruce said. “When the tables turned, we were just forgotten about.”


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