Michael Strickland, CEO and founder of Knoxville-based Bandit Lites, owns concert lights that can tilt, pan and change to just about any color.
But red lights were the only ones needed Tuesday when hundreds of venues across the country were illuminated, with photos shared on social media, helping raise awareness about the struggles facing live entertainment workers.
Strickland spearheaded the large-scale movement, branded #RedAlertRESTART, as 95% of live events have been canceled due to COVID-19.
That figure comes from wemakeevents.org, a coalition of businesses, unions and workers banding together to advocate for the live events industry during the pandemic.
Empire State to the Volunteer State
Strickland borrowed the idea from a similar European movement, simply called Red Alert. He added the word “restart” in reference to the RESTART Act, which is making its way through Congress.
He borrowed the branding, with the European organizers’ permission, and helped launch the movement in just two weeks.
Ascend Amphitheater and Nissan Stadium in Nashville were lit red, along with prominent structures like the Empire State Building and the Seattle Space Needle.
“You name it, we had it,” Strickland told Knox News. “It’s a huge success, but, more importantly, it’s a huge voice nationwide to get the Congress people and, again, just regular people to understand we’re at zero (income). … We’re the only industry in that situation.”
Strickland said about 2,500 venues participated across North America, including the Tennessee Theatre, Bijou Theatre and The Mill & Mine in Knoxville.
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Venues ‘won’t be there’ after COVID-19
The Tennessee Theatre operates as a nonprofit, which typically rely heavily on donations to survive. But the downtown Knoxville theater’s income model is staggering.
Becky Hancock, executive director of the Tennessee Theatre, told Knox News in May roughly 95% of the theater’s income is earned.
That money comes from things like rental fees, concessions and ticket sales. In other words, the theater is down to 5% of its income.
“And then you have to factor in that the people who generously give to the theater, they may have been laid off or may have been in a difficult situation where they can’t afford to support the theater,” she said.
Phil Ehart, drummer for the band Kansas, joined Strickland on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” last week. During the segment, Ehart said he is concerned some venues across the country may not survive the pandemic.
“They’re going to shut down,” he said. “And a lot of those theaters in downtown cities around the U.S. are prime real estate. And those theaters will be bought and probably torn down. And when we all come out of this again and go back to our favorite theaters downtown, they won’t be there.”
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When will it be time to RESTART?
Strickland joined the show to discuss the Red Alert movement and show support for the RESTART Act, which would provide economic relief to businesses, including those in the live events industry.
Strickland said it’s “the only act that will take care of small business in a way that works for most small business.”
“Now bear in mind, we’re talking within our channel about venues and managers and agents and booking agents and sound people and light people and bus people and catering people and pyro people,” he said. “There’s 10 million people just sitting.”
Without live events during the pandemic, he told Knox News, there has been no income for live events workers.
Workers losing all forms of income
The industry employs more than 12 million people, according to We Make Events, and contributes more than $1 trillion each year to the United States economy.
Seventy-seven percent of those workers have lost all income, including 97% of independent contractors, according to the coalition.
“What you now find is a lot of people who were in the rock ‘n’ roll business are working at Home Deport, working at Amazon, working at a food delivery service,” Strickland told Knox News in May.
Strickland echoed this point on “Squawk Box,” pushing for government to extend enhanced unemployment.
“And we’re hoping in the next two weeks that Congress can come to terms on the next relief bill and get the RESTART language inserted into the bill and get the (extended unemployment) sorted out, hopefully at a $600-per-week level,” he said on the show.
‘No one knows our industry exists’
Musical acts have been unable to perform due to government rules banning large gatherings. But the big bands, like Kansas, can be much better off than low-level workers, Strickland said.
“First and foremost, no one knows our industry exists — no one,” he said on the show. “Second, the people that do know that our industry exists do believe that because your Rolling Stones and U2s are extraordinarily wealthy that everyone within the space is extraordinarily wealthy, and that’s simply not the fact.
“Most of us in the industry work for the artist, and sort of everyone below the artist level is struggling right now.”
But that doesn’t mean all artists are sitting on piles of money. In fact, Strickland said he knows of some well-known musicians having to pick up second jobs to compensate for lost earnings.
This is a recent development, he said, as “very few of us, myself included, expected this to go beyond July.”
“We now know with great clarity we’re not going to work again till February at the earliest,” he said.
Strickland, who has become a major voice for the entire live events industry, told Knox News multiple people have called him in tears over losing their businesses.
If the government does not offer appropriate aid by the end of September, Strickland predicts between 70% and 80% of businesses in the industry will “cease to exist.”
“That’s not an alarm bell,” he said. “That’s the truth.”
Show support for the industry
Although the venues were lit red Tuesday, people can still show support by sharing photos with a red filter from their favorite live events.
A link to red filters and more information about the movement are available at wemakeevents.org, along with a form to contact government representatives.
See shared photos and re-share content by keeping up with the #RedAlertRESTART and #WeMakeEvents hashtags.