The live events industry wants your attention. After being devastated by COVID-19-related shutdowns in March, the 12-million-member industry has been thinking outside the box to gain the attention of elected officials and the media, organizing everything from “empty events” and symbolic art installations to country-wide stunts designed to grab headlines.
Up next? The Live Events Lift Up Festival, also known as LEVL UP Fest, which will stream live from Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium Dec. 16. Aiming to highlight the plight of the live event and entertainment industry—often considered the first to shut down and the last to reopen during the pandemic—the festival will feature performances from more than 25 artists. Sprinkled in will be stories from performers and crew members offering a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to produce these gatherings.
Festival co-founder Eileen Valois, senior vice president of sports and fan entertainment at PRG, points out that the average concert requires nearly 500 people to make it possible, ranging from concession workers and security to tour bus drivers and technical crew. “This is our crisis and now we need to take care of our own,” she says.
While the festival will be free to stream via NoCap Shows, donations will be accepted for three beneficiaries: MusiCares, The Roadie Clinic, and the Country Music Association Foundation. Donations can be made at any time through liveeventsliftup.org; the site also has an official merch store from Eastwind Screenprint. More information and a full artist lineup will be released in the coming weeks.
BizBash caught up with Valois and another one of the event’s co-founders—Sterling Engagements creative director Alexandra Rembac—to learn how the idea came about, what the planning process has been like, and how you can help.
Why did you decide a music festival was the best way to raise funds and attention for the struggling event industry?
Valois: The idea for a benefit concert is something that [TOURTech CEO] Shannon Cook and I first discussed as early as April 2020. Shannon and I were both original co-founders of the Live Events Coalition. … As the crisis wore on, we continued to discuss the idea for a benefit concert as our personal passions were really about finding a way to raise funds that could go directly to the people who were most impacted by the loss of their livelihood. At the same time, the team behind Live From Nowhere—a group focused on raising awareness about the impact of COVID-19 on the live entertainment events segment of the industry—reached out to me about finding ways to collaborate.
We discussed the fact that the entertainment and events industry are always the ones to step up in times of need. … Literally, as we were volunteering to support the people who work in the industry, the entertainment industry was stepping up to raise money for first responders, hunger relief, and vaccine research. We have so many examples of incredibly successful events with talented performers that have made such an impact over the years—all of which were supported by the very live event pros that are in such distress right now.
We agreed that it was time to do what we do best and produce an event for our own people. As the important advocacy work continued at the Live Events Coalition, Shannon, Alexandra, and I decided to put our focus on the benefit concert and join forces with Lawrence "Filet" Mignogna (also a coalition volunteer), Stu Berk, Seth Robinson, and Sooner Routhier of Live From Nowhere, and founded the Live Events Lift Up Festival.
How did you choose the beneficiaries?
Valois: We felt it was important to address a number of critical needs. Financial relief was an absolute given since 77% of our workforce has lost 100% of their income. MusiCares was an obvious choice for us, as they have stepped up and expanded their support since the early days of the pandemic to include event pros who work behind the scenes as well as on the stage.
Mental health support was also something we all agreed was a must. … We wanted to address openly that it is OK not to be OK right now, and we wanted to identify a beneficiary that was working to support the mental health and wellness of our community. This led to our selection of The Roadie Clinic.
For our third beneficiary, we wanted to think about our industry long-term. How can we make sure we get to the other side stronger and better than we were before? … As we were thinking through this, our country was confronted with another crisis as we watched the tragic impact of social injustice and inequality unfold over the summer. Our group listened and reflected on what we could do to impact positive change. We sought the opinion of several colleagues and groups within our industry, including Roadies of Color United, to understand how we might find a way to address diversity and equality in live events. Two of our co-founders, Sooner Routhier and Seth Robinson, started an initiative called EVEN (Events Vocational Education Network) with the mission of diversifying live entertainment and events through outreach, education, and job placement. To support that mission, we decided to support the Country Music Association Foundation, whose CMA EDU program provides college-level education and job placement opportunities for the industry.
In addition to the diverse group of co-founders, more than 30 professionals are serving as an “industry council” to provide insight throughout the festival's planning process. Why is it important to you to involve so many different voices and opinions?
Valois: One of the lessons of COVID-19 that we have unanimous agreement on is that the live events industry must become more united. For the 12 million people who work across every segment of this industry, we know very well just how massive our eco-system is and how much we depend upon one another. Frankly, this crisis made it blatantly obvious to us that very few people outside of our industry have any idea what it takes to produce live events. … We felt it was extremely important to gather a cross-section of our industry to provide insight, guidance, and support so that we could make sure this event represents all of us.
Rembac: Additionally, having the ability to cast such a wide net on our support expands our opportunities and our reach to truly make LEVL UP the very best it can be of its kind. We have a true team of creatives, doers, makers, and talent, and it’s made this process gratifying not only because of what we are doing but also who we get to do it with.
What's the main thing you hope LEVL UP accomplishes?
Valois: We hope to raise a lot of money for our beneficiaries so that they can continue the amazing work they do for the people of the live entertainment and events industry. But while we’re at it, we really want to raise awareness about the amazing people who work in this industry and share the stories of the work that we do with those who may not understand what their favorite event takes to go live. We need to come together as an industry and ensure that we are never forgotten again.
Rembac: This festival has so much potential to do good. Good for our industry, good for our community, good for our crews, good for our temporary normal of how we can execute a festival at this current time. I think we all have worked tirelessly with our heads and hearts for the common goal of supporting those in need and coming together to lift us all up. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again, we are 12 million strong, and while our stories may all have varied versions, we have one voice in that we're all in this together.
How can other event professionals help you with your efforts?
Rembac: There are so many ways event pros can get involved. First things first, help us help the industry and spread the word. We want nothing more than to share this festival with as many as we can. If you’re in the industry, watch; if you know someone in the industry, we encourage you to support them by watching; if you want to spread the word and help, raise awareness to all about who we are and what we are doing.
The show will be livestreamed on Cisco Adler and Donavon Frankenreiter’s new platform NoCap Shows, which literally is a direct result of innovation during COVID. We are so proud to partner with them and stream our festival on a platform for our industry by our industry. We aren’t charging for the show, but we do welcome donations and merch purchases, and there are some sponsorship opportunities that still exist. You can visit the LEVL UP fest website to donate and explore our merch.
This interview has been edited and condensed.