Stagehands march to Utah Capitol, urging more government help until live events come back

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Members of Utah Live Events Industry Association march to the State Capitol in a silent march to call attention to the state of their industry, on Tuesday, July 21, 2020.

Linzie Middleton’s sign, like a good rock song, cut straight to the heart.

“His music feeds my children,” it said, with an arrow pointing to her husband as they marched up Salt Lake City’s State Street, from City Hall to the Utah Capitol.

The Tuesday march, organized by the recently formed Utah Live Event Industry Association, aimed to draw attention and legislative support to the people and businesses who put on concerts, theater, sports and other live happenings — which mostly have gone dark since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March.

Middleton’s husband, Neal Middleton, has seen his livelihood hit in two directions: As lead singer of the rock band Royal Bliss, which had to cancel some 170 touring gigs this year; and as part owner of The Royal, a bar and concert venue at 4760 S. 900 East in Salt Lake City, which only recently reopened under tight antivirus protocols.

“It’s indescribable how hard it is just to try to stay above water, through two passions,” Neal Middleton said.

About 100 people marched Tuesday, most of them wearing black T-shirts and black pants — the traditional outfit of stagehands and tech crews. Peter O’Doherty, the association’s president, said those marching represented about 40 local businesses.

That’s a fraction of the thousand or more Utah businesses that work in the live-events industry, representing 30,000 jobs and some $4 billion in revenue lost this year. It’s an industry, O’Doherty said, that was among the first to shut down in March, and for the most part is still closed down.

“We want to make our voices heard. We want to do it respectfully, and show the Utah legislators and the governor that we’re a big industry and we make a big impact,” said Chris Martin, who owns a stage-crew company and an equipment rental firm, and mixes sound for the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.

The group’s agenda includes getting the government to extend unemployment benefits to the end of 2020. The group also wants lawmakers to approve grants and Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) loans “that will help us to survive into 2021,” Martin said.

“We don’t want to fight [lawmakers]. We don’t want to be rebels,” O’Doherty told marchers in front of the Capitol. “They understand we’re unique, to an extent. The problem is they don’t have any tools.”

The Utah association got started when O’Doherty and some colleagues started talking as the first COVID-19 cases were reported in Utah. On March 7, they launched a Facebook group, “and 400 people joined before 11 the following morning, so we knew we had to do something,” O’Doherty said.

Since the Utah association formed earlier this year, O’Doherty said, it has inspired similar coalitions in New York, Boston, Chicago, Miami and Oregon. “We started something and it’s going around America,” he said, noting that the groups have joined forces to hire a lobbyist in Washington, D.C.

The year 2020 was looking like a banner year in Royal Bliss’ 23-year history. The band had broken into the top 20 in radio play, Neal Middleton said, and had booked more shows than any year previously.

“For that to be pulled out from underneath us was heavy,” Neal Middleton said. “And to have the venue shut down at the same time — so the two forms of income that come in for my family were taken away from us.”

Royal Bliss’ fans, through merchandise sales and online appearances, have helped keep the band afloat, he said. The band will probably lose between $300,000 and $350,000 this year, Neal Middleton said. “That’s all our marketing budget, that’s our recording budget, that’s everything … as a company,” he said.

“His band is our main source of income,” Linzie Middleton said. “That is literally what is putting food on our table.”

The Royal could lose $400,000 or more this year, Neal Middleton said. The bar received a small PPP loan, which helped carry the bar for about six weeks or so — covering a lease payment and a month’s utilities, he said.

Plans to reopen Utah’s economy, by bringing back conventions and tourism, depend in part on the survival of the businesses that make events work, he said. And, Linzie Middleton said, reopening live venues isn’t enough. “We’ve got to come up with a plan to do it safely,” she said.

“That would be the worst thing ever, if at a Royal Bliss concert someone gets COVID — and then the Royal’s just completely shut down,” Neal Middleton said. “But we just can’t sit and do nothing. We’re going to lose our business. We can’t go bankrupt and lose hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the life savings of the people who have invested.”

The bar has recently reopened, he said, with a skeleton crew, “just the owners and a few key bartenders that are holding down the fort” for an audience limited to about 50 to 75 people. Patrons must wear masks, stand 6 feet apart, and get their temperature checked when they enter. “But we’re still playing there, just to try to be able to pay the bills,” he said.

“That’s basically a tenth of what we normally make in a month,” Neal Middleton said, “but we’re not just giving up. We’re not rolling over.”