A Pirate’s Life takes a look at the lives of live event operations crew. They are a rag-tag group of festival pirates and musical mercenary that roam the high sea’s of the circuit looking for the next event to build up, tear down and tear through. Cunning, resourceful and spirited, they are way cooler than anybody playing the stages. These are their stories.
You know what always gets me the most pumped when arriving at a festival?
The people in the fluorescent vests.
Sure, the big blinking signs for the festival are tantalizing and a great line of cars hints at you being a part of something real big. But those people in vests. They are the first people you see from the festival, the first gang of misfits that connect you from the normal world in which you reside to the land of fantasy and experience inside those pulsating gates. From the party picket lines they guide you through the convulsion of people, RV’s and cars to your final campsite like the patron saint of travel Saint Christopher, but if they had dreads, a megaphone and rode around on a onewheel. Point is, they always set the mood, they’re always the first toke.
Rachel Jones and Stephen Roberts have made a career out of setting that stoke. This Reno-based festy ops power couple have been an integral part of festival operations on the west coast for over five years. You might have seen them at places like Coachella, Life Is Beautiful, Lightning in a Bottle, Envision Festival or any number of major and mid-major gatherings of wooks, weirdos, bassheads and assorted musical crazies.
They manage the logistically stressful opening and closing of the festival, while maintaining the natural flow of humans, vehicles and supplies during the main portion. It’s not an easy job carving out a 400-car parking lot in a field on the fly, herding drug-addled cats safely to their campsites and maintaining the natural human tides of a festival. But they do it with a smile, a couple shots and shout of pride. (This author has herded under their authority at a handful of these events).
With Covid the music entertainment industry has been one of the worst impacted job sectors in the country and Jones and Roberts weren’t immune to this year’s adverse effects, having watched their main source of income evaporate over the time frame of a couple weeks. But after a six-week stay at Jones’ parent’s house in the Lake Tahoe region, the duo we’re ready to adapt to the times and continue their careers.
In July they started 1690 Collective, their live event production company that focuses on throwing Covid compliant events in an ever volatile landscape of pandemic regulations, mask mandates and public health. They’ve had success with a couple of drive-in shows and are adamant about working with companies that want to take on the added responsibility of Covid compliance.
For one, they want their patrons to be safe and believe following Covid protocols is the best shot they have of doing that while waiting for large events to return in the shortest amount of time. Second, as having both experienced the effects of operational details that often get overlooked at large events, Jones and Roberts don’t want to skimp on any aspect of the festival experience for their patrons, especially the grunt work of bathrooms, traffic cones and now public health testing protocols.
1690 Collective knows the importance of paying attention to granular details that go overlooked (ask Stephen about his goat analogy) and aim to consider all details in planning for the grand totality of their customer’s experience. It’s a strange world to plan for now but Jones and Roberts hope that 1690 Collective will help address those concerns and make it a safer place to enjoy live music wherever they are.
Keep an eye out for those maniacs in vests, they’ll always help you get to where you need to go.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
At what point in the pandemic did you think that things were going to have to be on your shoulders, you couldn’t rely on your previous employment?
Stephen Roberts: I think right away. We were on our way to Coachella. We did Envision, had two weeks and then in that time frame that’s when everything started shutting down.
Rachel Jones: After the initial shell shock of everything shutting down we went to stay at my parent’s place with six people, three dogs. We were there for six weeks in this little house, then moved down to Reno. We had plenty of time to noodle at our house to think about what we could possibly do. We started educating ourselves and it was like, let’s see what we can make of this. Work didn’t come right away but in July was when we officially applied for the LLC.
What was the biggest change from being an employee to being an owner?
Rachel: For me, it was getting the first call. We’ve sat around and produced our own events in our head, but we were always operations people not producers. Now its booking and production and staging and lighting, which is not as much in our wheelhouse. So I’ve learned a lot more about it since taking this job at the bar. It’s also stepping up to things you’ve haven’t stepped up to before. You tell yourself you got this, then you hang up the phone and think, What do we do? (laughs).
The first drive-in show we did was Sound Xperiment down in Orange County with our friend Rafael Marino who used to be on Do LaB’s marketing team. That was when we had to figure it out on our own after we said we were going to do something.
Stephen: That’s the biggest thing for me. When it’s your responsibility there is no failure. If something doesn’t happen and we breach a contract it’s on us. That comes out of our pocket and comes off of our name, it doesn’t go to someone else. It’s terrifying but it gives you all the incentive to get it right and to get it done. It’s mine now so I want to do it well.
How far are willing to go to produce an event?
Rachel: We’re pretty much down to go wherever, but we want to work with Covid-compliant events. Largely the Midwest and South doesn’t give a fuck. We were in talks with this motorcycle rally in South Dakota and the second that we asked about Covid compliance they just ghosted us (laughs).
Stephen: It really gets to the heart of why we’re doing this and what 1690 is supposed to be. Even before Covid we saw a lot of things on the safety and operations side — especially with traffic and the flow of humans — a lot of people didn’t care about. It was an afterthought or not a thought at all. What can we just get away with? What’s the bare minimum?
What’s been a pattern of responsibilities that you’ve seen companies skirt on?
Rachel: Staffing, like cutting the people we need and telling us how many we actually need. This is an example from Oregon Eclipse. They told us they had 350 security guards when they actually had 75 and there were 70,000 people on site. Then they shifted that responsibility on us as the traffic team.
Traffic is always something companies know they need but they don’t want to spend the money on that. They want it on stages and lighting and sound but getting people in the door is important. You have to get people in the door before they can enjoy that and it will hugely affect their experience. We’ve seen that a lot at drive-in shows.
Stephen: What I’ve seen from an Insomniac event or Do LaB, they don’t consider the entryway or getting off the freeway as a customer experience. Stages and sounds and lights are just enough to make the customer happy. From my point of view, as a traffic team and as an external operations team member, we are the first people you see and the last people you see. We are the brand ambassadors and to not look at us in that role is missing the point. They talk about totality of experience and inclusion but if you are not including the whole experience you are speaking out of one side of your mouth.
How do you see the relationships between the bigger companies and smaller companies adjusting through this next year?
Rachel: I think it’s going to be logistically difficult to hold any large scale event while being Covid compliant. That being said, Life Is Beautiful from Another Planet and Superfly is happening this year. Stephen is usually the lead signage installer and SEED [Bay Area event traffic company] has done the traffic before. I think it’s going to move towards these smaller companies. Elements Festival had a 300 person event with two-tier testing before you came in and once you were inside, I would imagine, there was little to no testing or compliance because everyone had already tested negative before they came in. But to do that at Coachella is crazy (laughs).
Stephen: Push back towards small venue shows, push back towards more intimate settings. A lot of us we’re projecting there was a bubble already before Covid. There were so many festivals being launched, they were all huge, same headliners, same populations of people. Eventually the money was going to run out and then Covid happened and now there’s no money going around anyway.
Rachel is one of the only people booking shows here in Reno at Black Rabbit Mead Company and it has gone back to singer-songwriters with a guitar and kick drum on a stage. I personally want to see the revival of backyard punk shows and underground hip-hop shows with 40 people. I think because they can’t make the money they were with the largest shows, it’ll incentive doing these smaller shows. I’d like to see a return to intimacy versus how many lasers can I get on stage.
Rachel: That being said, the second large-scale events come back tickets will sell. Envision 2022 is already 70 percent sold. People who enjoy those experiences are lying in wait.
Stephen: I think it’s both. It’s a return to intimacy but until those grander experiences come back.
Rachel: We’ll stick to these small shows for now, as long as they’re doing them in ways that are Covid compliant and allow us to get us back to work for the big scale events. It’s hard to turn down a big contract.
Does 1690 Collective feel like a lifeboat until you get safe and secure or is this something to really build out?
Stephen: I think the idea is to merge it into the things we are already doing. I think there will be a big vacuum in the fall or next year when things open up. The people who’ve built lifeboats will find they’re probably pretty secure and that’s where we are trying to position ourselves now with external operations. Not just Covid but California Highway Patrol or any government highway patrol, local and county, fire marshalls. We want to be the company that has all of that. We saw that things were down but they are not out and we want to be the name on your lips when things open up. Stephen and Rachael at 1690 have been doing events this whole time, they’re already talking to local officials. They’re not rusty, they’re already warmed up.
What have you noticed about Reno as a music scene? Where do you see the opportunities for 1690 events?
Rachel: We are right on the edge of California and there is a 50-50 split with the comfortability of getting out and having musicians playing. Reaching out to some of these people they are not yet comfortable playing outside. I thought booking was kind of straight forward and it’s not, it’s a total dance. We’ve been talking about doing a show and my boss has brought up doing a parking lot show so we can have higher attendance. I went past the drive-in movie theater in town and thought of this 360-degree drive-in experience. It’s fun to keep thinking about it.
Stephen: What we are finding is that Reno has always been an underground hub for music. Bands have always come through here and Burning Man has a huge influence. A big thing is trying to figure out block parties, community events where music is just a part of it.
After a big traumatic event, there always seems to be an increased focus on some aspect of events, like active shooters after the 2017 Mandalay Bay shooting. What is something Covid has shown to you that you think will always stick with you from a planning standpoint?
Stephen: I think the biggest thing is our industry can disappear at any time. It seemed like what we were doing was this moving freight train and even if a couple festivals fall off, how are you going to stop Coachella? Now we all know it can shut down and from something as simple as public health. What are the things we are not thinking about? In planning and general forecasting, what is it?
Rachel: Sanitation for me. I know it was overlooked at a lot of shows. At Coachella there is one person’s sole job to stay on top of Porta Potties. How many times have you been there where the hand sanitizer is out? The stages get the attention and security, but these little things are so huge. Especially now, I don’t think people are going to get past sanitation and clean spaces for a while. Some people might not care but I think a majority of the population is into it. How is everybody else dealing with it? How comfortable are we dealing with it? How much pull do I have to ensure these places are safe spaces?