(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is another in our series of articles spotlighting some of the Knoxville area’s most successful and long-standing entrepreneurs, their paths to success, and the passions they continue to exhibit. This is the second article in a three-part series focused on Michael Strickland of Bandit Lites.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
Michael Strickland wrote an article in May 2020 titled “Same storm, different boat,” and, as they say, it went viral. Today, he has more than 1.3 million people in an email chain with whom he communicates regularly about the live events industry, the impact of COVID-19 on the sector, and his thoughts on the industry’s future.
Helping the industry as a whole recover from the devastating economic impact is a cause that has consumed so much of the time and passion in the last 16 months of the Founder and Chair of Bandit Lites, even as he sees light at the end of the proverbial tunnel with the nation beginning to reopen to larger events.
“We cannot work until crowds of 10,000 plus are allowed,” Strickland adds. So, to help the industry that has consumed more than 50 years of his life, the Founder became an unpaid advocate for the sector in the Nation’s Capital.
Knowing a thing or two about government relations from my first career, I asked the engaging Strickland if he ever anticipated taking up lobbying at this stage in his life. He laughs and says, “Absolutely not.” Yet, it has become his cause, and as a result, he has established a national presence as a key voice for the industry.
Building on the “Same storm, different boat” visibility, Strickland helped launch “Red Alert Restart,” a campaign focused on urging the U.S. Congress to pass an economic relief package for struggling theaters, live events, and the entertainment. The one-day event on September 1, summarized in this document (RESTART RED ALERT RESULTS), involved more than 2,500 venues in 35 cities illuminated in red as a way to showcase the industry’s plight.
Strickland also drew on his relationships with U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander and Marsha Blackburn in the latter part of 2020 to engage with other members of Congress. He testified before a subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee on December 15 as captured by C-Span here. Strickland and his message were picked-up by other mainstream media including CNBC Squawk Box and Nextstar Media Group’s NewsNation Prime national broadcast including this interview after his Congressional testimony (you’ll need to fast forward through the commercials).
He articulates important facts about the industry – an $877 billion impact and more than 10 million people involved including artists, actors, performers, caterers, riggers, truckers, stagehands, orchestras and many more.
“We’re all dependent on each other,” Strickland says.
In mid-January, he and others sent a letter to President Joe Biden (Live Industry_Biden Letter) offering the industry’s support to turn their closed venues into COVID-19 vaccination sites. The next month, the coalition that Strickland formed issued its COV-AID plan (COV-AID RESOURCE GUIDE 2-23-21) as a follow-up.
It was a lot of work but, in the end, the outcome was satisfying to Bandit Lites’ CEO. A total of more than $16.2 billion has been appropriated, the bulk in late December with passage of the “Economic Aid to Hard-Hit Small Businesses, Nonprofits, and Venues Act” that, in turn, authorized the “Shuttered Venue Operators Grants” (SVOG) program, and an additional amount in March under the “American Rescue Plan Act.”
The U.S. Small Business Administration began accepting applications from those affected on April 24. Entities eligible to apply for an SVOG included live venue operators or promoters, theatrical producers, live performing arts organization operators, museum operators, motion picture theater operators, and talent representatives.
As he reflected on more than a year of advocacy for the live events industry, Strickland said he drew of what he described as “this weird set of relationships” that included the politically active Jimmy Haslam, former Coach Barry Switzer, food tycoon John Tyson, and the daughter of the later George Steinbrenner, Jenny.
“It’s not who you know, but who knows you,” Strickland says with a tip of the hat to Joan Cronan whom he credits with the saying.
NEXT: How he has turned a lifetime of connections into being a successful entrepreneur on a national stage while maintaining his base in Knoxville.