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Weekend edition March 29, 2024 | Tom Ballard

Michael Strickland still fighting for the live events industry

He's the only non-musician ever honored by both the Country Music Association (CMA) and the Academy of Country Music (ACM).

It had been about a year since we last talked with Michael Strickland, Founder of Bandit Lites, about the live events industry and how it has recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic.

His work championing on behalf of the industry in front of Congress earned him the distinction of being the only non-musician ever honored by both the Country Music Association (CMA) and the Academy of Country Music (ACM). The former organization awarded its Humanitarian Award to Strickland in 2022, while ACM bestowed its Gene Weed Milestone Award in 2021.

Past winners of the CMA award included Kix Brooks, Vince Gill, Randy Owens, Brad Paisley, and Dolly Parton. Previous recipients of the ACM honor include Garth Brooks, Willie Nelson, Taylor Swift, Loretta Lynn, Kenny Chesney, Jason Aldean, Merle Haggard, Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini, and Blake Shelton.

What makes the two awards (pictured left) so special, other than the fact that Strickland was the only non-musician to ever win both, is the fact that Bandit Lites never benefitted from his advocacy before Congress.

“I won this battle for everyone but my (lighting) industry,” he told us. “I never walked away from the work that I did. We helped a lot of people, but Bandit Lites did not benefit financially.”

Along the way, Strickland spent an estimated $1 million out of his pocket for travel to Washington, DC and many other locations to meet with members of Congress and others in the industry. Stricklands efforts and testimony before Congress led to the $16.5 billion “Save Our Stages” (SOS) Act that was part of the massive $900 billion COVID-19 relief package passed in December 2020 by the U.S. Congress that provided a lifeline to venue operators, managers and agents,  but failed to include the companies like Bandit Lites that serve as the backbone to event production.

Why were companies like Bandit Lites excluded?

“We were told you work for rich pop stars,” Strickland said.

He met a lot of people as he advocated for the industry and started an email chain that eventually reached 1.3 million people with pure information rather than opinion. There were also weekly virtual meetings with members of the International Association of Venue Managers.

As he reflected on the effort over several years, Strickland says, “I was driven to do it,” adding, “It was the most fun I’ve had in my life. I can’t sing, can’t dance, have no talent. I’m a lighting guy.”

A recent article in The New York Times says “the audience for pop concerts and sporting events has roared back, while attendance on Broadway and at some major museums is still down. After a fitful recovery, the pop touring industry has now reached record highs, enabled by superstar tours, pent-up fan demand and ever-higher ticket prices. The top 100 tours around the world generated $9.2 billion in ticket sales last year — a record by far, according to the trade publication Pollstar, which tracks touring data. That was up an astonishing 65 percent from 2019.”

Today, he’s championing a federal disaster relief program for the live entertainment industry which employs 10 million people and is a one trillion dollar industry, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Knoxville-based Bandit Lites was founded by Strickland when he was 12 years old and “borrowed” lighting from Dobyns-Bennett High School in Kingsport to launch the company. Today, it has built a global reputation, specializing in the lighting needs for concerts, film, television, theater, architectural design, installation, and consultation.

And, by the way, the CMA and ACM awards are not the only organizations that have honored Strickland for the COVID-19 advocacy. He won Pollstar Impact Awards in both 2020 and 2021 as one of the 50 most important people to the live entertainment industry; a Pollstar Heroes of Live Award in 2021; a National Association of Music Merchants Award in 2021; a Pandemic Pivot Award from Live Design; and a COVID Award of Merit from the International Laser Display Association

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