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Hometown Heroes Update: Regional Production Companies Challenged by Disastrous Year

Kevin M. Mitchell • FeaturesSeptember 2020 • September 11, 2020

Normally at this time of year, we’d be doing features on the winners of the Hometown Heroes, basking those mid-sized regional production companies accolades and hearing of their remarkable year and fantastic events they’ve made happen. But then, well, back in March … oh I’m sure you’ve read the papers. Still, we wanted to reach out to some who have frequently been in the winner’s circle for their region and check in. There have been bright spots, opportunities, and some making lemonade from them thar lemons.

Logic Systems Sound & Lighting, St. Louis, MO

Like so many, Chip Self of Logic Systems was queued up for a banner year. Instead, he “got” the time to finally build new walls in his office and paint the warehouse floor. Otherwise, he at least got to do three Live Nation Drive-In shows. During load-in that day, he joked that he and his crew was a little rusty having been away from doing shows for months. But judging from how well the shows went, it was like getting back on a bike (which he happens to have a lot of experience with, even competing in mountain bike races).

The few gigs coming his way are complicated. Guns ‘N Hoses, a popular fundraising event in St. Louis pitting boxers from the local police and fire departments in the ring, is one Logic has worked for years. “For this year’s, we are literally working with seven different contingency plans,” he says, shaking his head.

Logic has several other departments and companies under his roof. “Our only real business going well right now is our repair department – everybody dug out their old guitar amps, and now they need it to be fixed!” Logic also builds road cases, and an order for 200 cases hit right before the shutdown, and that is keeping some of his people busy. As far as the little events that do come up, they have their challenges: When he calls a crew member on unemployment for a $200 gig, that $200 gets deducted from his government check. “And then even just doing it to get out of the house has drawbacks, because maybe they have to hire a babysitter, then gas and a meal … so they are losing money by taking the gig.” He does have concerns for the long-term effect of this as he sees talent leaving the industry and never coming back. He says he had just talked to a system tech who got a job as a night janitor in a grocery store and has never been happier, because there’s no stress and he’s home with his family all the time. “He’s not coming back.”

Otherwise, everybody is laid off, including him. Though under the Logic umbrella there is one notable bright spot: Self owns two bicycle shops.

Squeek Lights, Middlesex, NJ

“It’s a good and bad time in our shop,” Victor Zeiser says. The good part is he has a whole new shop; the bad part is it was a nightmare getting there. “About a year and a half ago, we decided to invest in creating our own shop and found this space in Middlesex comprised of two units. It was perfect, as we’d take the larger unit and rent out the smaller one.”

But then he descended into contractor/zoning hell. There was a “fake ceiling” topping off the space at 10 feet that he was told could be ripped out in an afternoon. His contractor told him that wasn’t true, and suddenly fitting the building involved multiple architects and bids, costing money and time. As a February 2020 deadline approached to move in, water issues cropped up, and suddenly the footing of the entire building needed to be made six feet deeper. “But in the end, we got a better space.” Then Covid-19… anyway, now he has a perfect new space that’s all dressed up but has nowhere to go.

So he created a performance space, beautifully lit with all his bells and whistles for streaming. “There are just shy of 100 lights in the rig, and what’s really fun is, it shows off all the best gear we have.” In the rig are 16 Elation Artiste Picassos and a dozen of their Dartz fixtures, all 42 of Squeek’s Chauvet Rogue R1 BeamWashes and a number of Mega-Lite Circa Scoops, all looking great for the camera. “I know the streaming studio is a saturated market, but it’s something that keeps us busy and hopefully let us make a couple of bucks. Obviously, it’s just for the moment, and as soon as I can send lights out on tour, we’ll shut it down.” Otherwise, because of a combination of deferred loans and creative financing, Squeek can hold on for a while until that happens. “One thing though, when it does start to come back, I expect every client to be on really tight budgets, but we’ll be ready for that!”

Blue Planet Lighting, Las Vegas, NV

“The last couple of years have been exceptionally good, and we were taking steps to ensure further growth and stability,” says Mike Gormley, co-owner of Blue Planet, says. “Then this hit, and in a way, it was a blessing, as we were in dire need of tweaks in order to maintain our industry-leading customer service.” The pause allowed Blue Planet to slow down and create a back-end system to propel them further. “We were able to address all the changes and problems associated with our rapid growth and even able to hire some new salespeople. We made a commitment to ourselves and our employees that no one would be laid off, regardless of how long it takes for the pandemic to subside.”

He says Blue Planet has always been a “hometown company” but now they are set to be able to appropriately process the increasing number of orders. “We have implemented a number of corporate processes now, as opposed to the old ‘give everything to Mike!’” he adds, laughing. “Each level of growth is always harder and steeper than the one before it.” One of the things that is extremely unique about Blue Planet is that they’ve always been their own bank, and if they can’t afford something, they simply don’t buy it.

They are still moving product. “We have a nationwide-reach and stick strictly to sales and service, which will help in the long term as we are not taking the financial hit with the cancellation of most rentals, tours and productions.” They also do design and integration, and their most interesting recent project is the new Circa Casino in Las Vegas. The Circa Casino project, set to open in December as part of the Fremont Street Experience, replaces the Las Vegas Club, Glitter Gulch, and Mermaids Casino. Blue Planet supplied what probably stands as the largest SGM Lighting package in history for a permanent installation. In typical Vegas style, “they literally named the parking structure ‘Garage Mahal,’ as it is lit with over $1 million in fixtures and is an attraction within itself.” The entire SGM package for the project was valued at more than $4 million. Since construction and installation work are still happening through the shut-downs, the phone at Blue Planet is ringing for similar projects. “We continue operations exactly as we have prior to COVID, and hopefully this allows the company to emerge from the pandemic even stronger.”

JRLX, Chicago, IL

Jason Reberski of JRLX is thankful that his business started in sales and integration before moving into touring and production, because that’s what is helping JRLX get by now. They did just do a video wall install in a church. Also, they have been part of some drive-in events and outdoor church services. “But it’s not nearly enough for a company like ours, especially given the overhead that we all typically have.” He is of the opinion that a company his size is likely positioned to weather the storm more effectively than those who might be smaller or larger but VC-backed. “We aren’t in market-share-buy-mode all the time, and profitability is important to us, so we run our business within more realistic means.”

Like many others, he cites the need for more forgivable grants. “Right before the virus hit, our industry as a whole was paradoxically in the strongest and the weakest position at the same time. Our industry is a good-sized niche, but we need a voice. [Bandit Lites] Michael Strickland has been doing such a great job advocating for us with his resources, and the partnership with NAMM is encouraging, along with the #RedAlertRESTART campaign. It’s a great start to helping people realize that we exist, since we normally operate behind the scenes, and we need to keep up this momentum!”

Another bright spot is his livestreaming work with Vue Show Design and Creative Live Control’s Charles Ford and Brandon Clark. The two lighting/video directors have spearheaded Studio23 Chicago, a livestream/podcast studio. “They have access to our entire inventory,” Reberski says. “What’s great is they have gone ‘fully turnkey.’ And if they need a larger space, they have access to ours with a load rated roof.” Reberski sees these livestream events and spaces needed for them continuing on some level after we’re “out” of this. “It’s such a great way for an artist to connect with a mass audience.” As to when we’re “out” of this … “I’ve heard arguments for and against, but I’m in the camp that believes the industry will come roaring back. You can’t stop the power of rock ‘n’ roll. Even after all these years, the hair stands up on the back of my neck the minute the house lights go down.”




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