Virus Diaries: Sound Services LLC on Hold When the Show Can’t Go On

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Editor’s Note: This is the latest in a series of short features on small businesses responding to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

“The big deal is we’re all screwed,” said Richard Thornton about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on event production companies like the two he owns, Sound Services LLC and Light Services LLC in Little Rock. 

“I understand the public health issue, and it’s just bad luck that the industry that I’m in happens to rely on gatherings of a lot of people in a closed space. Anybody who is in my industry is going to be in the same kind of boat,” he said.

One example of the pandemic’s effect on his business is the cancellation of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which would have been held April 23-May 3. That event has generated one-fifth of his sound company’s annual revenue, since 1987. 

Thornton is self-employed and has applied for government assistance, but that process is slow because the technology state and federal agencies are using is out of date, he said.

One silver lining: Thornton hasn’t had to lay off full-time employees; he works with freelancers. Other larger production companies have laid off dozens of employees, he said. But labor is not a big part of his business model.

Instead, his business model is capital intensive — owners buy thousands to millions of dollars of equipment, and those purchases are often financed, he said. All that expensive equipment is now gathering dust in storage units. 

Thornton is better off than others, he said, because he’s at least had the time to build up equity in his equipment. He’s been in this business since the 1970s. 

But that doesn’t help him now. Banks don’t want equity; they want cash, Thornton said.

“Banks and other lenders can’t seem to grasp the reality of all income going completely away,” he said. “I’m hearing from others in my industry who have the same problem. Creditors will say, ‘Oh, we’ll reduce your payments for a couple of months,’ which is nice, but that really doesn’t help if there’s no [money] coming in at all. What’s really keeping us awake at night is the thought that this may not change for the better for us until well into 2021.”

Unlike other businesses, such as manufacturers who are temporarily making masks and personal protective equipment, pivoting isn’t really an option for event production companies.

“At this point, I’m trying to figure out how do I find something else to do with what I got … it’s like if you own an airplane and that was your way of generating your revenue, and you couldn’t fly,” Thornton said. “What would you do if somebody says, ‘Well, you need to find something else you can do with that airplane.’ Well, what the hell else can you do with an airplane? A big sound and lighting rig that’s used in concerts and arenas, it’s the same thing. What else am I gonna do with it?”