With an unpredictable future looming precariously before them, Rochester-area sound engineers, in addition to club owners, have been caught in a kind of COVID-19 limbo. In this ongoing series of The F-Word, CITY music writer Frank De Blase finds out how businesses that rely on a regular live audience are staying afloat.
ILLUSTRATION BY JACOB WALSH
When COVID-19 struck, the infrastructure of the live music scene in Rochester collapsed like dominoes. Sure, there were the musicians caught in the avalanche, as were the venues that counted on those musicians to attract thirsty patrons. But there is a third group that has become a casualty in the absence of live performances: the engineers who run the venues’ sound systems.
One of those engineers is John Vassallo, who owns Spice of Life Productions in Hilton. “As far as surviving,” he says, “I am keeping the wolves at bay for as long as I can until money starts rolling in again. I unfortunately can’t get another job.”
Vassallo’s family is also being directly affected by his lack of work. He is the primary caretaker of his 87-year-old father, who needs daily care. On top of that, he plays the role of school teacher during the week for his 6- and 8-year-old children.
He does have a small amount of money from his dad’s pension coming in, but it typically runs out by the middle of each month. That’s when he counts on sound company dough to provide for food and meds for his dad. But currently, that’s not happening.
“The most difficult thing to deal with is the uncertainty,” Vassallo says. “We have had 35 to 40 events, that are a yearly thing, completely eradicated from our coffers. How do you bounce back from that?”
Unfortunately, income that Spice of Life Productions regularly took in from large-scale summer events such as Corn Hill Arts Festival, Spencerport Canal Days, and Park Avenue Summer Art Festival has disappeared for this year as well.
“On top of that,” Vassallo says. “We have lost all of the corporate work that was scheduled. Most of these events have been in my hands for 15 to 22 years. As of right now, I am looking at an 80 to 85 percent loss of total annual income for the company.”
In turn, he worries about his inability to pay his employees, and the possibility that it may be difficult to retain them and keep Spice of Life Productions on the right professional track for the next several years.
Despite having applied for aid through seven different programs, Vassallo says the federal government has been little help so far, and that he doesn’t have high expectations about outside aid coming in.
But that doesn’t mean Spice of Life is standing still in the face of the pandemic. In order to stay viable, Vassallo is shifting his focus toward the various rental items the company offers.
“I am pushing our tents, tables, and chairs for this summer, hoping that the backyard parties are going to happen,” Vassallo says. “I am banking on small groups that are going to want to be together rather than large crowds.”
Another sound engineer whose work schedule has been decimated by the pandemic is Nick Marinaccio, whose job as the lead LED video wall technician at the Batavia-based Audio Images Sound & Lighting Inc. has been furloughed until the event cancellations subside.
Marinaccio was already planning a busy spring with Audio Images, including several bookings for spring festivals at colleges, when the hammer fell. Other prominent gigs for the company that have been postponed or canceled include the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival, the Fairport Music Festival, and George Eastman Museum’s Garden Vibes concert series. Additionally, Marinaccio says he will miss his regular side gigs for Dragonfly Tavern and Public House during the Park Avenue Summer Art Festival.
Despite the sudden downturn in events, Marinaccio is hopeful in the short term that Audio Images will see a demand for rental services, which don’t necessarily involve rock ‘n’ roll or require a PA.
That said, Marinaccio thinks it’s possible that an eventual resumption of concerts and events may be cut short if the virus’s impact ramps up, and another shutdown of public gatherings is required.
“My coworkers and I know the event industry will never be the same,” he says. “We are expecting a slow ramp up to ‘normal’ by summer/fall 2021.”
Frank De Blase is CITY's music writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.