Behind The Scene: Hank Sacks on COVID, Congress and the Current Crisis in the Live Music Industry

Dean Budnick on November 13, 2020
Behind The Scene: Hank Sacks on COVID, Congress and the Current Crisis in the Live Music Industry

“This is a critical time for the live music business,” explains Partisan Arts music agent Hank Sacks. Beyond his day job—which is somewhat in stasis given the impact of COVID-19—Sacks serves on the executive board of The National Independent Talent Organization (NITO), which he co-founded this past spring with other agents including Madison House’s Nadia Prescher, High Road Touring’s Frank Riley, Entourage Talent’s Wayne Forte, Leave Home Booking’s Stormy Shepherd and Partisan Arts’ Tom Chauncey. NITO’s stated mission, from its launch, has been “to advocate for the survival of the live music community as the nation and economy slowly recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Sacks—whose clients include Grace Potter, the Disco Biscuits, Greensky Bluegrass, Railroad Earth and Ghost Light—warns, “Not even the most successful small businesses could plan for 12-18 months with zero revenue coming in. Our businesses were the first to close, and we’re going to be the last to reopen. We’re in the business of creating special mass gatherings and they’re not going to come back for a while. It’s a dire situation.

“The bands that we know and love, especially younger developing bands, are at risk of not being able to survive this,” he adds. “Meanwhile, concert venues are closing and, in many cases, once those concert venues close, they’re not going to come back. When a venue can’t pay its bills anymore, the landlord will rent that space to someone else. We’re running the risk of changing the country’s entire cultural landscape. If Congress doesn’t act, then we can’t assume that the concert industry is going to bounce back when this is over.”

Before we talk about NITO and the current state of live music, let’s begin with your personal journey. What led you to the industry?

One of my bar mitzvah presents was a CD player. This was right when CD players were coming out, so it was a prize gift.

I also received Workingman’s Dead on CD, and I immediately fell in love with what I heard. As it turned out, our next-door neighbor was a clean-cut Deadhead with a job in Washington, D.C. He’d seen the band hundreds of times. He heard me listening to Workingman’s Dead through an open window and started feeding me tapes. Eventually, he took me to see the band at the Cap Centre in 1991 or 1992 when I was 14 or 15 years old. We drove to the show together, but then went our separate ways once we got to the parking lot, which I was not expecting. I was this young, wide-eyed kid in the parking lot of a Grateful Dead show. Then I went inside on my own, which, as you can imagine, was a very impactful experience.

Later, when I went off to college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I served on the school’s concert committee. Technically, I was in college but, really, I was going to see as many concerts as I could. Madison had a vibrant live music scene and I’d travel regularly down to Chicago with friends to see music.

After college, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I had no clear path. Someone asked me what I enjoyed doing and I said, “I like to go see concerts,” and they said, “Well, you should get a job in the concert business.” I didn’t even know that was a possibility. I’d been to hundreds of concerts, but I never really thought about the business side of it, so I started to do some research.

My girlfriend, who’s now my wife, wanted to move to New York, so I sent out my nearly non-existent résumé and ended up landing a job at Metropolitan Entertainment, working for John Scher. I knew the legacy of Scher and Metropolitan Entertainment from the Dead world so, for me, it was a dream come true. He had promoted most of the Grateful Dead’s shows east of the Mississippi and still worked with the band members, even though Jerry Garcia had passed away.

I was hired because they decided to launch an internet marketing department. I was brought in to head it up. My qualifications at the time were that I had an email address and I knew about music. [Laughs.] Scher and Metropolitan were pretty much the first concert promoters to establish any sort of internet presence. My primary responsibility in the beginning was supervising the team of volunteers who would go to Metropolitan’s shows, walk through the concourses with clipboards and ask people to volunteer their email addresses in exchange for an opportunity to win free concert tickets. We signed up tens of thousands of people, which I imagine would be a lot tougher today.

When did you relocate to the West Coast and start your career as an agent?

I worked at Metropolitan until 9/11, at which point the concert business took a strange turn, especially in New York, because people weren’t going out as much. The company was forced to make cuts and I was laid off. I moved to California, following my girlfriend who was going to law school. I ended up getting a job with the Rosebud Agency, which was a great experience, but my dream at the time was to work for Monterey Peninsula Artists. It was a boutique company with seven or eight agents, who represented some of my favorite bands. Their team was among the best in the business and, eventually, I convinced Chip Hooper to hire me. He was my boss and mentor. I miss him to this day.

I spent six amazing years at Monterey Peninsula Artists, which then transitioned into Paradigm. Meanwhile, I had become friends with Tom Chauncey, who had his own company, Partisan Arts. For a long time, Tom was working out of a bedroom in his house, representing Jack Johnson, Ben Harper, Galactic, Manu Chao and other bands that I admired. Tom had said to me: “If you ever decide that you want to do something else, let me know.” So, 10 years later, we started working together. And now we’ve grown to where we have 11 employees.

Through it all, my big joy has been developing bands from the point where they’re relative unknowns into bona fide headliners on their own. The satisfaction comes in helping guide an artist’s career and helping fans discover a new band.

At what point did you recognize the impact that COVID-19 would have on your artists?

I’ve worked with Grace Potter for more than 15 years now. We started working together while I was at the Rosebud Agency. We’d all heard the rumblings that there was a virus overseas that was serious business. Grace had done an East Coast tour in January and February. It was a huge success. Then she was starting the West Coast leg of her tour in Vancouver on March 12. It was the day after Trump gave his address from the Oval Office and the NBA postponed their season. Obviously, it sounds silly to say this now, but we thought that she was going to be able to pull off the tour. At the time, it felt like the virus was isolated in Washington state.

We knew that we were going to have to cancel the Seattle show and it seemed like we were going to have to cancel the two shows in Oregon as well. But the night before Grace started the tour, I called the Live Nation promoter in Vancouver, asking about the impact of the virus, and I was told that there were only a few cases in the area and not to worry. I thought that maybe the news was blowing it out of proportion.

Grace showed up that first day in Vancouver, where we’d already sent two buses and 12-14 people. She made it through soundcheck but, after that, I received a call from the promoter, who told me that the mayor was about to hold a news conference and was expected to shut the city down. That’s how fast things were moving. The mayor banned gatherings of more than 25 people and, within the hour, we had to cancel a three-week tour and send everyone home, which was obviously a huge financial hit for Grace and her team.

That was my introduction to COVID. An agent’s work mostly happens 6-12 months in advance. You can’t just pull together a tour overnight. It takes a while to coordinate shows across the country, with all the different promoters, and then to properly announce the tour, put tickets on sale, all of that. So that day, when Grace’s tour was canceled, hundreds of shows that had taken me 6-12 months to put together were all canceled within several hours. I mention that not to place a focus on me, but to emphasize that everything evaporated overnight for the entire industry.

How did NITO emerge from this?

Even though I live and work in Washington, D.C., I have almost no political connections whatsoever. But I called a friend of mine who works on Capitol Hill, in the Senate. He’s a music fan so I explained what was happening and I asked him: “What should we do?” Immediately, I sort of had this thought: “The airlines are going to be bailed out, the hotels are going to be bailed out, but what is going to happen to the concert business?” We were not organized. The successful independent agencies, management companies and artist-run companies were solvent. There was no reason to even think about any action on Capitol Hill or any lobbying efforts because we were all just kind of doing our thing. But my friend on Capitol Hill told me: “You have to organize; you need a seat at the table. You have to create your own organization for people to take you seriously.”

Frank Riley from High Road Touring had already been organizing these conference calls with the independent agencies, where we were discussing our reactions to what the big promoters were proposing. So rather than 15 different agencies having calls with the heads of Live Nation and AEG, a lot of that stuff was just funneled through Frank. I told everyone about the report that I got from Capitol Hill, we decided to hire a lobbyist, we rolled up our sleeves and we haven’t looked back. Initially, we didn’t have a name; we didn’t have a website. I didn’t know what a 501(c)(6) organization was at the time. Now we have been incorporated as a 501(c)(6) and we have almost a thousand members.

Can you talk about your legislative agenda, starting with the limitations of the Payroll Protection Program?

The Payroll Protection Program created government loans that could turn into grants if you met certain criteria, and that covered our businesses for eight weeks. But this is an issue that’s going to be around for a while. There may not be concerts again for another 12 months so, while two months of assistance was helpful, it’s not enough. Plus, there were so many restrictions on how someone could spend the money. For example, the goal of the Payroll Protection Program was to keep employees on payroll so that they wouldn’t go on unemployment. But it was very restrictive—you couldn’t use that much of the money for infrastructure and rent. And in terms of the venues, for example, the majority of their expenses are related to mortgages, rent and upkeep. So, they were forced to use that money for payroll related expenses, which didn’t entirely help them. We need expanded benefits and we need the government to acknowledge that this is going to be a long-term issue.

We’re advocating primarily for two bills that are up for consideration right now. One is the RESTART Act, which was introduced by Sen. Michael Bennet from Colorado, along with Sen. Todd Young from Indiana. RESTART is a newer version of the Payroll Protection Program, with longer term benefits and more flexibility on how you can spend the money. It will differ from the Payroll Protection Program because businesses will be required to show that they have lost a certain amount of revenue. That won’t be hard for the concert business, where revenues are down 95-100 percent. It could be as restrictive possible and we’d still qualify for it.

The other legislation that we’re supporting right now is the Save Our Stages Act, which was co-sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn from Texas and Sen. Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota. Save Our Stages is directly focused on the concert business, including venues and talent representatives, and it would allocate $10 billion in loans that could be forgiven— grants, basically, to keep the business alive.

Almost every other developed country in the world has taken steps over the last few months to keep their cultural communities, arts communities and live entertainment communities alive through some sort of government grant program. The United States is the exception and Save Our Stages would help with that. It’s directly geared toward our business.

Those are the two pieces of legislation, but I also want to emphasize that none of us at NITO can do what we do without our artists. That’s the fundamental reason that I’m in the business, so we are advocating for a number of other bills that could also specifically help artists. For instance, there’s a bill that was introduced where recording musicians could get tax benefits of up to $150,000 to write off their studio and recording costs this year. That way the artists who were planning to be out on tour can get some governmental help to record instead.

We’re also advocating for an expansion of the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, which supplies an additional $600 a week in unemployment benefits. That directly helps our crew members, who are in a tough spot right now.

A number of groups also struggled to secure PPP loans to support themselves and members of their road crew.

There were a few issues with PPP because the music business is an interesting animal that wasn’t necessarily a perfect fit. For instance, PPP was based on your 2019 taxes. So, let’s say an artist was recording an album in 2019, but was going to go out on the road in 2020; they couldn’t benefit from payroll protection in a meaningful way.

Bands handle things differently. Some of my bands have their entire crew on payroll, including the tour manager and the people who handle sound and lights. Those bands were able to benefit from PPP, assuming they toured heavily in 2019 although, again, that could only last for eight weeks.

However, with some of the bands that I work with, there’s only one person on payroll. Sometimes it’s just the lead person in the band or the singer-songwriter, and then they hire a band on a tour-by-tour basis. They’ll hire a tour manager, a sound person, a lighting person for a tour—but none of those people are on salary. Those are independent contractors, who are not on payroll and wouldn’t qualify for PPP.

Meanwhile, some of the band members I’m speaking to every day are truly struggling to figure out what they’re going to do. There are no jobs out there. There are still 16 million people in the country that are unemployed and they’ve kind of been trained to do one thing—no bank is going to loan money to a touring musician right now. So, they’re applying for federal EIDL [Economic Injury Disaster Loan] emergency assistance loans just to pay for their living expenses. These are successful touring artists—household names—who are now struggling because bands live tour to tour, year to year.

However, one of the issues that we learned early on is that many politicians think of touring bands as being extremely successful and rich. When they think about a touring rock band, they’re thinking about the bands that tour Capitol Hill when they come through town, like U2 or Taylor Swift. So, the politicians are wondering, “Why do they need help?” But the reality is that most of our bands need to work every year. They don’t have massive savings or rainy-day funds. And now they’re in a bad spot, burning through their savings with no work on the horizon and no ability to get another job right now. In theory, some of them want to work on new music but they’re also filing for unemployment and trying to figure out how they’re going to feed their family for the next year.

Some of my bands are having conversations about what they’re going to do. If there are no concerts until 2022, they’re not going to make it. They can’t live for 18 months with no revenue coming in—and livestreams and donations from fans only go so far. So, it’s dire. It’s as scary as you could possibly imagine.

How can fans help?

Well, number one: Call your senators and call your representatives in the House and explain how important live music is to you. Tell them that you want to ensure that live music survives the pandemic and that the government should support the Save Our Stages and RESTART Acts.

Also, directly support your favorite bands. If you still have your job—and you’re in a more fortunate financial situation—then spend the money that you would’ve spent on a concert ticket on a merch item or donate it to a band during a livestream or donate it to a crew fund. Even if you can’t be supporting live music right now, support their creative efforts.