March 27, 2020

Patrick Whalen - Backstage Productions

Patrick Whalen - Backstage Productions

Patrick Whalen, CEO of Backstage Productions, joins host Lawrence Peryer to share his thoughts and insight on the New Normal.

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Patrick Whalen, CEO of Backstage Productions, joins host Lawrence Peryer to share his thoughts and insight on the New Normal.

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LP:                              The most important question is how are you and how are the people you care about and the people in your world?

PW:                             Wow. I wish I had better answers for that. The answer is is that I think we’re all in the same boat which is fear. I’m going to adjust this a little bit. I think that we all got caught off guard as a world but as an industry, we completely got caught off guard.

And what I mean by that is 2020, according to statistics and interviews and press and just the interest in events and in concerts and tours, was going to be the year. I mean this was going to be the year.

So our industry sometimes isn’t the best at forecasting for gloom and doom days and so with that, I think that some people were a little bit more over zealous in the way that they were preparing for 2020. Meaning that they may have had some expenses and some things that they were like, “Well I’ve got this tour coming up, so maybe I could put the deck on the house” or “Maybe I could move into a bigger apartment” or “Maybe I can get a bigger car” or whatever.

                                    And so there was a lot of that happening and I also think that we tend, as an industry, not to be great with money. As much as we make, a lot of the times we’re making above what the median income would be, making $2,000 to $4,000 and forgive me for those that are starting out that make $500 to $1,000 a week. But in general, we get paid well for what we do. Right?

So to not have a stockpile of money up or something for the rainy day account, I mean I’ve always compared this industry to farming. You have banner years, you have mediocre years and then you have the drought years where it just is dry. And I think that as an industry as a whole, we are sometimes not always thinking about the drought years.

And so what that does is that when even a little hiccup, not even a major hiccup happens, it puts us in a tough position. I mean I lived through 9/11 as a company owner of a production company in Minneapolis that we owned audio and lighting and I had, I don’t know, 20 or 30 employees. And I remember sitting on my deck and I’m thinking about how screwed I was. Not that we didn’t have any monies in a slush fund. We had some. But we had no idea how long this was going to go on.

At the time we were doing quite a bit of events with Prince and with Promise Keepers and some Ted Nugent shows. So we had some money that was sort of still coming in. But we didn’t know if it was going to a month of no shows or three months.

You know, this is a much bigger problem. And the problem is that even if the world recovered tomorrow – I mean back to normal, everybody gets to go back to work, the financial damage and impact has already been done. So that people are going to think about going to buy a Halsey concert ticket. They still will, some of them will. But the majority of people now are going to squirrel their money away because they’re going to be in fear of the next one or how are they going to sort of recoup because they haven’t been working.

So the expendable income which is what we depend on as an entertainment industry, is no longer there. And it’s not going to be there for a while. So even if the tour started tomorrow which would be idiotic. But even if it did, it still wouldn’t help our industry at all. Because we’re going to have a ramp up that’s going to be long and slow and I think that we all sort of talk amongst each other and see if we can out-gloom and doom each other.

I mean we’re, as industry, I think we’re optimistic of the future. We have to be because otherwise we’re going to have mental problems and social problems and economic problems, if we’re not in that mindset that we can recover from this. We can.

The reality is is that I think it’s six months to a year before we’re back to where we’re even close to going into 2020. And so, my friends I check on quite often as they do with me. And I think we’re all nervous. We’re all scared of how long this is going to go on. How long is nothing going to happen?

And we all keep signing these petitions to save the entertainment industry but what does that really mean when you get done signing these petitions? Because it works for film studios and it works for people that have paychecks but there’s a lot of independent contractors that are going to get skipped over. And that’s going to be a huge problem. Sorry to be so long winded that.

LP:                              No, no. I appreciate perspective. To dial back maybe 50 or 100 feet, could you give just a brief description of what exactly your business is and I think that will provide some good context on your point of view.

PW:                             So I started in 1986. I’m a little bit younger than most. I’m just kidding. But I’ve owned production companies. I’ve’ run production companies. I’ve worked for PRG. Currently I’ve reincorporated a company I started when I was 18 called Back Stage Productions.

We’re strictly a production services agency. We don’t own any equipment other than work boxes and a few cable trunks and lot of sand bags. And we are primarily working in the corporate market. We do a lot of stuff with the VW products, so Volkswagen, Porsche, Audi. We do some esports and then we also do some touring. In 2016 we did Kendrick Lamar. Last year we helped out with another company doing Tears for Fears. We’ve done Pentatonics. So we kind of dabble in a little bit of everything so we get to see both sides of it. And both sides are pretty ugly right now.

LP:                              Yeah. I have a question for you. I spoke to someone else recently who has a business that has a business component. So a B to B component as well as a consumer side. And their anecdote was during the downturn in 2008, their consumer business actually came back a lot faster than their B to B side.

They had some opinion and some insight as to why that was true. But I wonder how you see that playing out on your end. Will touring or will live events that target ticket goers come back faster than the corporate side of the business. Yes or no and if so, why?

Interview:                    Oh, a 100 percent. You know, even if with 9/11in going through that, people still want entertainment. They want to get the hell out of their life for two hours or whatever it’s going to be and forget about everything that they’ve been dealing with.

And that part of it is 100 percent true. The touring side is going to come back faster. I think what’s going to happen is it’s going to be smarter. It’s going to be smaller scale. I mean Taylor is probably still going to do a massive stadium tour but maybe not.

And I think they’re going to be more strategic about how they spend their money and what markets they’re going into and I think you’re going to see more smaller venues, multiple dates, less production, smaller crews. That kind of thing which should have – I mean for economic reasons, that should happen quite often anyway. I mean it makes sense.

And so, I think that the touring side will bounce back relatively quick. But I think it’s going to be on a much different scale than we’ve all seen before and it has to be.

LP:                              I was going to say do you think that will be driven by the fact that people will need a lower ticket price if they’re going to go out in the same numbers as before? So the artists and their partners can sort of control the scale of the production and therefore control the cost of the ticket? What would drive the scale down in a production?

PW:                             Well yeah, I think it’s that consumers’ spending habits are going to change. I mean right now people are worried about making sure they have enough toilet paper and food and I see that every day in the media.

So coming back out of that I think that there’s going to be discretionary expendable spending. And I think what’s going to happen is that you’re going to see people flock to the theaters because they’re dying to get out of the house. You’re going to see people flock to the concert halls and to the clubs.

I think where it’s going to get hit is I think that the large scale tickets that haven’t been purchased already or the rescheduled shows haven’t been done, I think those are going to be the ones that are going to get a little bit of a sting because spending $150 to $500 or $1,000 a ticket for something, that’s a tough one to swallow.

And I think that the win would be really to get – if I were to put together the ultimate tour, I would say Google, I would say Tesla, and some of the bigger corporation, come together with us and help give back to the community, not only financially but come in and sponsor one of these events so that the ticket cost can come down.

And Ticket Master, drop your service charge for the next 12 months as a thank you to all the fans that have supported you over the years. And EEG and Live Nation and C3, you know, make sure that you’re aware of what’s been done over the past to support your businesses and pay that back.

So it’s not a monetary thing, it’s maybe a deduction thing. Maybe it’s – there some golden row seats of families that have been affected by COVID-19 and maybe there’s other ways.

You know, I can see a lot of different change for the positive and it just depends on how we come out of this as a society and whether that becomes something that is more greed and bottom line driven, which it shouldn’t be, or if we come more as a community together and as an industry and support all the patrons that have supported those businesses for all these years.

LP:                              Well that’s an interesting line of inquiry because that’s something that has come up a lot in conversations, personal and professional, over the last few days which is several colleagues commented about working from home and how pleasant it is for a lot of people who – for me personally I basically live on an airplane. I flew 20 times last year. I was up to I think 20 already this year. And that’s ground to a halt literally.

Put aside cabin fever and the fact that having done this my whole adult life I get antsy if I’m in. If I don’t live out of a travel bag, after a few weeks I start getting a little cuckoo.

But you know, the other side of that is I certainly see my loved ones a lot more and I’m certainly able to, I hope, be more present, be a more contributing member of my family. And I hear that from my collages that – you know first of all you don’t have the time you’re spending in your car commuting. So you’re already somewhere else in a more productive way, either at your desk or at your dinner table.

But you know, now you’re home every night and maybe you’re putting the kids to bed or giving the bath or reading the story or sitting with your loved one by the fire or whatever it is that you weren’t doing before, that you knew mentally that you valued and you knew you liked to think you were doing that as much as you could but now you actually have the time to do it.

And I think the fascinating thing is going to be how much of this carries forward and how much is this actually going to contribute to a reshuffling of values. Will people demand that? Will workplaces accommodate that? Will companies come to see actually there’s a real – maybe there’s a differentiator or a competitive advantage in some of this.

                                    And I think that that’s going to be an interesting dialogue to see if we have the time for that to evolve and sort of the will to explore some of that.

PW:                             Well I think that’s 100 percent correct and you know, I’ve always got to work out of my home office. As you can see back there, I have my little [00:13:53] back there. So when I’m not traveling I am working out of home and so I get a little bit of that. Not as much as most people do in other industries.

But you know, I think that the touring market as a whole just financially once again, I think that’s going to happen by default. I think that the tours are going to be shorter or they may do markets and then take a break so that people can recoup.

You’re not going to be able to do multiple tours in the cities that we were currently doing. Meaning that – you know, look at Staples Center and the Forum and all the other outdoor venues and the Greek Theater and the Hollywood Bowl. Those are simultaneously running every single day in the summer with hundreds of bands in the clubs and all the arenas and all the theaters and the Palladium.

And there’s not enough money to support all that going on at once. So I think by default, it’s going to sort of curtail that a little bit so it’s going to be more market driven where people are going to be spending a little bit more time at home or you may not be doing a six- or eight-week tour. It might be just a two- or three-week run. They’re going to let it cool down. Then they’ll come back out. And so that there’s still the demand but it also gives time for people to recoup in their wallet to have that expendable income. Because now they’re back to work.

So they’ve still got to get the essentials. They’ve still got to – you know, you’ve got to remember, we’re going to have a backlog of payments, whether it’s your house, your mortgage, your rent, your car – that are being forgiven for now in air quotes but that’s still there. And that’s still got to get paid.

So I have people and acquaintances that are in this position of they’re not paying rent and they’re not paying their car payment and they’re being forgiven. And they know – most of them do – that when this gets better, everybody’s going to come back with their hand out going, “Ok, we supported you for the last 90 days. Now It’s time to make the payment plan with us.”

That’s going to affect it. So that’s why I’m talking about this taking a little bit longer is that it’s going to rebound but we still have past financial issues that we have to deal with as a society. And even if the government sent out massive checks which they won’t, it’s still not going to be enough to get us back on track.

So I think that, by default, you’re going to see smaller tours so people will be spending more time at home. I don’t think that the society of our industry is going to change that drastically.

I think what it’s going to do is it’s going to open up people’s eyes to how important what they have at home is and sometimes we forget that by being on the road. Because after year three, you sort of turn into this little AI robot that just goes out and does the job and you call home and you’re like, “Hey, how are you doing? Things are great. Okay, gotta go. Gotta go do load out” or whatever and so you become programmed to this job over and over again and with a redundancy that just becomes natural. And so you forget what you have at home.

So I think this period of time, sitting down and relaxing and slowing down a little bit is kind of getting to smell the roses. But I always fear that it will be soon forgotten once the checks start coming in and the buses start rolling.

LP:                              Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s fair. How has what’s been going on right now impacted your day to day? I would imagine – I guess let me frame it a little differently. What would you be doing right now versus what you are doing right now?

PW:                             I was hours away from advancing a massive eSports event that was going to take me from March til June 20th. And I was working on the budget and starting to make arrangements with the client. And it literally – you know, we’d have these calls and we’re like, “Well we think we can do it.” In my head I’m like there’s no way this is happening.

\                                   The second Coachella closed – Coachella is my metric and that’s what I was telling everybody. I’m like, “Watch Coachella. Because Coachella is going to be the determining factor of how the summer goes.” If Coachella cancels or gets moved, then that’s it. We’re done for a while.

And I think within hours of that happening, it was breaks. And so that’s what I’d be doing. I’d be advancing – I had a bunch of corporate projects coming up. I was supposed to be in New York April 7th for a car show and so those things are gotten done.

So what I’ve done is I’ve taken a step back and I’m like, “I’m going to use this time to do all the things that I’ve been wanting to do company-wise, whether it be restructuring, reviewing insurance policies, working on our new promotions for 2020 because I believe in marketing.” So I’m constantly sending email blasts out and doing our newsletters and all that. Now I’ve really put that into overdrive.

But I’ve also been using this time to write to the governor and to the mayor and to our president and to other political figures saying, “Hey look, we can do a lot with this industry that we have behind us in an emergency.

If you guys need temporary shelters built, if you guys need power, if you need clean water, if you need restrooms, if you need things – fields turned into hospitals in a couple of hours – that’s what we do.

We can do this faster than anybody else in the world. And I constantly send to Mayor Garcetti in Los Angeles and Gavin Newsome. I’ve sent the White House officials, the CDC and some of the responses have been great. Thank you. Some of them have been on deaf ears.

But I think they’re crazy for not utilizing our industry to step up and say, “Hey look, guys, we’re in trouble. We’ve got this venue and this venue and this venue. We need to be able to house 3,000 here, 2,000 here.” And I guarantee you with our production industry, with our little auto cap propeller heads – sorry guys – and vector works that could whip up a plan in a couple of hours or half a day.

You know, with all of the resources that we have at our disposal, we could put a facility together in a day. No problem. And I think it’s crazy that they’re not taking us up on this because they’re going to need it.

All these little things that they’re doing, I don’t think is going to be enough. I think they’re still scrambling to figure out how they’re going to be it using the Army and the military. But we have the potential to put projects and venues together in an instant with really, really skilled workers that would be more than happy to come out of hibernation and support the community.

LP:                              That’s fascinating. As you were describing that, I was thinking about the SARS show up in Toronto back in 2003 and how the short amount of time that show came together within – and I remember when it was being put together, having a conversation with a fairly prominent business manager and he said there’s only a handful of people on the planet that can do something like this in this amount of time and they’re the exact people working on the this project. So it’s going to happen.

And things like that are very difficult to do in an environment where there’s bureaucracy, where there’s rigidity around procurement and things like that. It’s not, you know, just write blank checks to vendors but you do need to be able to move fast. The idea that we could go in, build a stadium show in a day or two and then tear it down by the next morning, I would think there’s some applicable skills there.

PW:                             Chick Berry and Opie would argue it would be four hours, not the next morning. But the thing is is that – and I understand right now – and I’m not going to get political about this at all. All I’m going to say is that there’s a lot of reasons why we’re not going to get involved right now or they’re not going to call us. And I understand that.

I just think it’s a shame because I think we could do a lot of good and we could help a lot of people very quickly. And maybe we will. But I’m not going to give up. I still actually write the letters every two days and I send it to the same people and it’s going to be by repetition. It’s my morning routine.

Because they’re going to need a lot of help and they’re going to need to have an infrastructure team that does this on a daily basis, that gets all the little cracks and all the details that most people are going to skip over. We’ll see it. How you would not take advantage of that is just beyond me.

LP:                              So when’s your next engagement? When are you working again? Do you know yet?

PW:                             Well you know, I mean I’ve got a couple of things in August but I think that’s optimistic. You know? I don’t know. We’ve got some of our film clients. We’ve got some special events that they want to do that are in July and they’re trying to push forward and I think that’s optimistic. I don’t know what the rules are going to be. The rules are going to change of how we’re going to do live events.

Even if we have it under control, we’re still going to have it. It doesn’t just go away. It’s not like it’s a demon that flies out of the sky. So what I’m interested in is how does that change? Are we going to have a new protocol where – I mean we’ve even talked and I’ve sent Dr. Oz and Dr. Dupinksi and some of the other people some ideas just to see if we could have done live events.

This is right before we got on the lockdown which is hey, if we were to monitor people’s temperatures as they went into arenas, would that help mitigate or minimize the risk so that we could keep everybody employed? I got a very nice letter back from Dr. Dru and he was like the problem is that that person that doesn’t have a temperature can still have it and walk into that arena.

LP:                              Yeah.

PW:                             And that’s when we were still learning about it. I was trying to think of everything because I don’t want to be the guy that saves the industry, but what I do want to do is keep employed – myself and then everybody else.

I mean I want to work. I want to unload trucks and I want to build sites and I want to do venues and stage shows and so sitting at home was not my plan.

So I’ve been looking for other things. But I think there’s going to be some protocol in the future of how we’re going to get people into the arenas safely. I can’t imagine swabbing and testing everybody but maybe it is going to be like China where you’re going to get your temperature taken everywhere or maybe you’re going to be spread out more so that they’re going to do it in groups like you board an airline. You’re going to go into the arena. You’re sitting in a tube just like a plane but there’s going to be some sort of worldwide industry change that we’re all not going to like but it’s going to be necessary. What that looks like, I have no idea.

And maybe there won’t. I think it would be crazy for them not to. I think they really need to take a good, hard look at the way we do industries. I mean two years ago, our big discussion was terrorism. How are we going to keep everybody safe from bombs going off at the arenas? Now here we go and we’re trying to talk about how we can get people into the arenas without dying when they leave.

LP:                              Oh, listen people forget.

PW:                             Especially if you’ve only come of age in the last 10 or 15 years. There wasn’t always metal detectors. There weren’t always pat-downs, there weren’t always bag checks. It didn’t always take 25 minutes to get into an arena from the time you got into the queue. And these things do become the new normal.

So the idea that while you’re going through that security check point, you’re getting swabbed or there’s a fever check or there’s some kind of sensor – listen, I have no idea how to extrapolate into how this plays out in terms of things like entrance and egress. But you can certainly see it happening because we never would have through 20, 25 years ago that we would go through the rigmarole that we go through. That you couldn’t bring a purse into a football game.

LP:                              Yep.

PW:                             You know? Or that you had to have a clear plastic bag or that there would be a business around providing lockers outside of a stadium.

PW:                             Yep.

LP:                              So, yeah, I think that the full impact of this on the consumer experience is yet to be seen.

Let me ask you this in closing. What are you optimistic about? What feels like there’s an opportunity here for either you, the business, the culture, the industry? I’d love to try to put you on the spot and leave on a high note.

PW:                             Sure. No, I think that the win is that we’re going to all as an industry have to be more creative. And where the creativity comes in is budget. We’re going to have to watch the bottom line for a little bit.

We haven’t been – I mean just look at the size of the stage shows and the production level. I mean, my God, they’re just amazing. And I think the designers are going to get a swift kick in the nuts for the next two years of the limitations that they’re going to have.

They’ll still have some of the A and B clients that can do whatever they want and it won’t be an issue. But I think that the designers and the production managers and management and the artists are all going to have to really take a step back and see what is the most financially viable for their audience that also is fiscally responsible to their audience. Meaning so that the audience can go buy tickets.

And that’s something that I think we want to work on now with the managers and it’s something that I want to work on with the designers that we work with which is, “Hey when we come out of this, let’s have a different look on it. Let’s not have the wow factor. Let’s have the thank you factor because I get to enjoy this show and I don’t have to pay $200 for a ticket. It’s maybe $50.”

But I think industry as a whole has a responsibility to the consumer that’s supported all of us, every single one of us that’s working, we need to give back to the consumer in a way that we’ve never given back before and that is we have to watch our budget. We have to cut down our costs so that we can support the people that have supported us.

LP:                              I appreciate your point of view and your time. Thank you. Thank you so much.

PW:                             You’re very welcome.

LP:                              Stay safe and I wish you the best for your business.

PW:                             Thank you. I wish the best for everybody’s business.

Patrick WhalenProfile Photo

Patrick Whalen

CEO, Backstage Productions

As CEO of Backstage Productions, Inc., Patrick Whalen draws on more than 30 years of experience in concert touring, lighting, sound and production management. Throughout his career, Patrick has cultivated long-standing relationships with global entertainment companies including MTV, The International Olympic Committee, BBC, and VHI. His well-versed background has secured him the trust of industry pioneers such as Prince, Linkin Park, DEVO, Stone Temple Pilots, Promise Keepers for stadium and arena-level productions and over 100 worldwide tours. Patrick’s insatiable desire to bring his client’s vision to life from concept to completion and multi-faceted skillset has made him a transformative force in the live event industry. Founder of Fast Paced Management and Artists Music Label LLC, Patrick Whalen launched his production (audio, lighting and stage design) company in 1989, opening up offices in Minneapolis and Las Vegas. Providing sound and lighting for over 500 shows each year. After leading its rapid growth and record sales Patrick sold the production company in 2003 to hone his expertise in Production and Band Management Recent success in events for global brands, such as Porsche, VW and ESPN has only further ignited Patrick and his 360-degree attention to detail and commitment to client satisfaction. His devotion to problem solving and commitment to his client’s trust has earned him the ability to assess every creative department with full understanding.

In 2015 Backstage Productions has brought in some of the hottest names in touring and corporate events to service its clients. With many centuries of experience and well-rounded team, no project is too big and no budget is too small.