When he went into a meeting at work last Friday at Rock Lititz, speaker technician Jesse Dean Austin remembered last year’s holiday party. He recalled what had become a usual speech from company leaders.
“Every year they’d say what a tremendous year of growth we’d had and how many more tours we were going to do this year,” Austin says. “Everything kept growing.”
It had become an annual reminder of the health of the concert and live event business.
It was the kind of consistent work that had brought Austin and around 200 others to work at Rock Lititz, home to major sound, staging, design, data and logistics operations by concert industry leaders Clair Global, TAIT, Atomic and others.
Clair, founded in Lititz in 1966 by brothers Roy and Gene, were early innovators in concert sound, making it possible for acts to have consistent quality from one performance to the next. Along with competitors like Showco and TAIT (formerly known as Tait Towers), they played a major role in building the industry they now dominate.
Two weeks ago, the concert industry on whole seemed unstoppable. Since 2014 — the year Rock Lititz was opened — the business of live entertainment, the “experience economy,” as some call it, had seen double-digit annual growth.
As recently as Feb. 28, the Recording Industry Association of America boasted the business was healthier than it had been in a decade.
Business analyst IBIS World had predicted the industry worldwide would be worth $34 billion a year by 2024. Prompted by that kind of optimism, Rock Lititz last year began a $30 million expansion that promised another 200-300 jobs.
And 2020 was shaping up to be another banner year.
“It was going to be another insane summer,” Austin says. He looked forward to the work.
Then, in the period of a few days, it all came to a halt. As a result of COVID-19 public health officials called for suspension of crowds over 250 people. Major festivals, highly anticipated summer tours, awards shows, conventions, trade shows all came to a stop.
Heritage acts like Pearl Jam, Rolling Stones, Foo Fighters and Madonna, as well as newer and emerging artists BTS, Billie Eilish and Sturgill Simpson all put the brakes on major tours set to begin in days or weeks. Working musicians would see their gigs dry up a week later, as clubs, bars and galleries closed.
Across all sectors of the industry, engineers, technicians, designers and laborers are facing months of lost wages.
“We were told we would be cut down to 32 hours on Monday,” recalls Austin, who’s worked at Rock Lititz since 2016. “By Friday we were shut down — furloughed essentially. It was very fast.”
Rock Lititz general manager Andrea Shirk addressed COVID-19’s impact on the production community in an email.
“This crisis does not affect just one industry, or one location. It is impacting everyone. As a community of global companies, with clients around the world, we have felt the situation escalate,” Shirk said in an email. “Our primary focus remains keeping our employees safe, and supporting the efforts being made to stop the spread.”
Shirk also issued a statement on March 18 about the issue.
“Rock Lititz is paying very close attention to COVID-19 and related CDC advisement, and our campus has been taking active, preventative measures as recommended,” the statement reads.Like Austin, fellow Rock Lititz workers Cody Kiess, Amy Bammarito and James Ellison were also gearing up for a busy summer. Like Austin, they did not want to be identified as employees of a particular firm due to confidentiality restrictions.
They all got into road work out of a love of live music. All of them moved to Lititz to work in the business. All pursued degrees in audio engineering or stage craft. All have student loans.
Days after being sent home, they all met with LNP | LancasterOnline at Tone Tailors, a retail guitar and repair shop at Rock Lititz. Among the three of them, they’ve worked as technical crew, roadies, on tours by Miranda Lambert, Fleetwood Mac, David Byrne and Disturbed.
Kiess and Bammarito had just been told they would be headed to the Coachella festival next month. The Indio, California, event takes place over two weekends and regularly attracts more than 200,000 and serves as the unofficial start of the summer festival season.
“We had a production meeting on Tuesday but then Wednesday it was postponed,” Bammarito recalls. Organizers say the event will instead take place in October.
Postponement, not cancellation: that has become typical and something that gives the workers in this story hope. “It’s devasted everyone financially, but I’m not giving up,” Ellison says. Canceling a tour means a lot of lost money for artists and promoters. Postponement, not so much.
Road techs are used to brief periods without work, such is the cyclical nature of the touring life: weeks on the road setting up and tearing down. When a tour ends, you rest up, but it might be weeks before the next, Bammarito explains.
“In the winter it does sort of dry up,” she says. “But you always go with the idea that next month there’ll be something surely. This is different.”
But Ellison epitomizes the guarded optimism of Kiess, Bammarito and Austin: that the shutdown will not last. “I’m not going anywhere. I’ll make it work. At the end of the day, this is going to come back,” Ellison says with confidence.
“No matter when this ends, the artists want to work. They want to perform,” Ellison says. “And the work will be there.”