Once booming concert industry goes quiet after coronavirus

By Kristin M. Hall

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Inside a warehouse for MooTV, a live video production company in Nashville, Tennessee, the floor-to-ceiling shelves are lined with row after row of video screens, cables and rolling cases that normally would be out on the road with Brad Paisley, Chris Stapleton or Dierks Bentley. At one end of the warehouse sits an empty bar with beer taps where fans once sat on stage with Paisley.

It’s starkly quiet in the warehouse that was once a bustling hive of activity just weeks ago.

“We’ve watched within a few days 100% of our calendar clear, which means no income and a lot of mouths to feed,” said Scott Scovill, owner of MooTV.

Live music, concerts, festivals, awards shows and other live entertainment events came to an abrupt halt just weeks ago over concerns of spreading the new coronavirus. For thousands of live entertainment staff who work behind the stages, the world got a lot quieter.

Concerts make up a multibillion-dollar live event industry that has boomed in recent years even as album sales have declined. But that industry went from highs to unprecedented lows in a matter of days.

Workers who live gig-to-gig supporting musicians, sports, festivals and other live events that draw massive crowds are suddenly faced with months of no income and no clear idea of when gigs might resume. Many of them are freelance or contract workers, which means they don’t have the support of a business to keep them going during slowdowns or provide health care or medical leave. The concert business is also very seasonal with the number of shows slowing in the winter months, which means that many businesses and workers were financially depending on an uptick in gigs starting in the spring, just as the virus hit.

Kai Griffin is a tour manager, production manager and sound engineer who has been working for country artist Lorrie Morgan for seven years, in addition to working with several new and upcoming bands. On average, he works about 125 shows a year. But after the virus hit the United States, he’s out of work for the foreseeable future and with very little in savings.

“I didn’t have hardly any work towards the end of the year,” said Griffin, 49, who is a father of three children. “You save up for dry times in this industry. Now it’s absolutely nothing. It’s totally bone dry.”

Griffin sought out financial help from his family as well as MusiCares, the Recording Academy’s charitable organization, which gave him $1,000 to help with bills. “I was so thankful for it,” he said, but acknowledged that he was hoping that the federal government would step up for people like him.

For most people, COVID-19 causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

The first real sign of the virus’ impact on mass events was the cancellation of the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, followed by the postponing of Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California. It’s likely that those mass entertainment events and venues won’t be the first to return either.

“In my 29 years, this is the worst I have ever seen,” said Chris Lisle, of CLLD LLC, a show production designer in Nashville, Tennessee, who has worked on tours for Jason Aldean, Miranda Lambert and One Direction.

He started a non-profit years ago called Touring Career Workshop to help freelancers in the live music industry with education about health insurance, retirement plans, accounting and taxes. Another program, called All Access, connects touring workers with mental health and counselling professionals, which he said will be critical for a lot of out-of-work people right now. “We’re encouraging people to make sure they’re taking care of themselves mentally,” he said.

Lisle said that while many major touring artists have salaried staff _ like front of house engineer, lighting director or guitar tech _ there are many more jobs like support technicians, video techs and audio techs that work on a freelance basis.

Country artist Zac Brown posted a video on Instagram a day after cancelling his tour with tears in his eyes to explain that he had to let go of 90% of his crew and touring staff.

Feld Entertainment, a Florida-based company that puts on arena shows like Disney on Ice, Monster Jam and Supercross, announced company-wide layoffs as all its tours were halted.

Bandit Lites, a large stage lighting company with seven offices in America, Europe and Asia, employs 250 employees and works with 300 clients including Garth Brooks and Jimmy Buffett. Michael Strickland, the founder of the company, said he’s got a plan to get his business through the next 24 weeks without layoffs or pay reductions.

“I’ve now seen three artists with net worths of over $50 million dollars on television crying, talking about having to lay off 20 people,” Strickland said.  “That’s a head scratcher.”

He is urging other live event businesses, as well as artists, to avoid immediate layoffs and seek out federal financial assistance under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which was signed into law by President Donald Trump last week. That provides small businesses with tax credits as reimbursements for providing employees with paid family and medical leave.

“But the only way this works is if everyone in entertainment does not lay everybody off,” Strickland said.  “They’ve got to keep their people on.”

MusiCares established a COVID-19 fund specially for those who have lost work due to the virus. In the past, they’ve provided financial relief for entertainment workers after the terrorist attacks on 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina. But Harvey Mason Jr., the interim president of the Recording Academy, said the coronavirus’ effect on the music industry has been unprecedented because it’s been so widely felt across the country.

“We’re getting hundreds of calls a day,” Mason said. “The requests vary from `I can’t get my medicine’ to `I can’t afford groceries and I need help with my rent.”’

MooTV’s Scovill is keeping his employees on the payroll so they won’t lose their health insurance. He’s seeking out small business loans to keep the company afloat, but said that will put it into deep debt. Like a lot of people, he’s been keeping himself isolated at home.

“The world has absolutely gone quiet for me,” Scovill said. “For myself and everyone in the entertainment industry, we’re hurting.”

Canadian truckers face insurance issues in U.S.

The excerpted article was written BY  

Trucking companies in Atlantic Canada are raising a red flag over a lack of health insurance for drivers crossing the American border after new restrictions were implemented to deal with the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“Some small companies have called and pointed out that their insurance, or their health insurance, wouldn’t be covered for drivers going into the U.S.,” says Jean-Marc Picard, the executive director of the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association.

However, in a news release issues late Thursday afternoon, the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association says “Canada’s life and health insurers are confirming that group out-of-country medical coverage for commercial truckers will continue uninterrupted.”

“Provisions in some group, or workplace insurance plans refer specifically to Government of Canada travel advisories as a limitation or exclusion for out-of-country medical coverage,” spokesperson Kevin Dorse says in the release.

“Some commercial trucking employers offer plans with this exclusion.”

Picard says the issue of immigrant drivers, several of whom are temporary foreign workers crossing the border and being denied re-entry, has been resolved following clarification from the federal government indicating truckers, among others in the trade and transportation sector, are exempt from the isolation rules.

But while trucks are “flowing well across the border,” Picard says it’s not necessarily smooth sailing for the drivers on the ground.

“Some truck stops in the U.S. are starting to close, and Canada as well, limited access, restaurants are closed, take-out only,” which means in some cases there are no places to shower or relax.

Wuhan reports no new virus cases, offering hope to world

By Ken Moritsugu And Nick Perry

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

BEIJING _ Last month, Wuhan was overwhelmed with thousands of new cases of coronavirus each day. But in a dramatic development that underscores just how much the outbreak has pivoted toward Europe and the United States, Chinese authorities said Thursday that the city and its surrounding province had no new cases to report.

The news offered a rare glimmer of hope for the rest of the world as it battles the virus, and perhaps a lesson in the strict measures needed to halt its spread. It came as President Donald Trump likened the fight to  “a war” and invoked emergency powers that allow him to compel manufacturers to deal with the pandemic.

Wuhan was where the outbreak first took hold and thousands once lay sick or dying in hurriedly constructed hospitals. But Chinese authorities said Thursday that all 34 new cases recorded over the previous day had been imported from abroad.

“Today we have seen the dawn after so many days of hard effort,” said Jiao Yahui, a senior inspector at the National Health Commission.

Still, the virus continued to take its toll elsewhere, both human and economic. Stocks tumbled again on Wall Street on fears of a prolonged recession, falling so fast they triggered another automatic trading halt, while major U.S. auto manufacturers said they were shutting down their North American factories.

Italy was on track to surpass China by Thursday in the number of deaths related to coronavirus, a gruesome milestone that is being blamed on a perfect storm of Italy’s elderly population, its overwhelmed healthcare system and its delay in imposing a complete lockdown in the epicenter, Lombardy.

Elsewhere around the world, more borders shut, leaving some to wonder how they would get back home. In the Pacific, Australia and New Zealand shut out tourists, allowing only citizens and residents to return, while Fiji reported its first case, a worrying development in a region with poor healthcare.

The U.S. and Canada both closed their borders to all but essential travel and Trump said he plans to assert extraordinary powers to immediately turn back to Mexico anyone who crosses over the southern border illegally.

Russia and Mexico each reported their first death from the virus. Mexico closed its popular spring equinox visits to the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon at Teotihuacan.

While China did not report any new cases in Wuhan or Hubei province it did record eight additional deaths.

Jiao said the  “double-zero” increase, which followed several days of improving numbers, meant their control and medical treatment methods were working well.

Wuhan has been under a strict lockdown since January. Officials are moving to loosen travel restrictions, but only inside the surrounding province of Hubei where most checkpoints will be taken down. Wuhan remains cut-off, with only those with special permission allowed to travel in or out.

The lockdown will be lifted there only if no additional cases are reported for two consecutive weeks, which may happen next month, Li Lanjuan, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, was quoted as saying.

The improvement in China contrasted with the situation in Italy, where another 475 people died, bringing the death toll close to 3,000. Italy has the world’s second oldest population after Japan and some 87% of those who have died have been over age 70.

Italy is on pace to overtake China’s approximately 3,250 dead when Thursday’s figures are released. Iran has also been hit hard, with more than 1,100 deaths.

The virus has infected more than 218,000 people worldwide and killed over 8,800. The United Nations warned that the crisis could lead to the loss of nearly 25 million jobs around the world.

More than 84,000 people overall have recovered from the virus, which causes only mild or moderate symptoms such as fever and cough in most cases. Severe illness is more likely in the elderly and those with existing health problems.

Though China still has the largest number of cases, most of its patients have recovered. China even sent medical supplies to hard-hit France, returning a favour done by the French weeks ago.

Around the globe, governments took increasingly drastic measures to fight the epidemic and the threat of a recession, in some cases using emergency powers.

Czech authorities used emergency powers to raid a warehouse and seize hundreds of thousands of face masks. And Hong Kong widened the use of electronic wristbands that monitor people under self-quarantine.

In the U.S., the Dow Jones Industrial Average shed more than 1,300 points on Wednesday, or over 6%, and has now lost nearly all of the gains it had posted since Trump’s inauguration. Oil dropped below $21 per barrel for the first time since 2002. Shares in Asia continued their slide on Thursday.

The White House pressed Congress to swiftly pass a potentially $1 trillion rescue package to prop up the economy and speed relief checks to Americans in a matter of weeks.

Calling himself a “wartime president,” Trump invoked the Defence Production Act of 1950 to steer industrial output and overcome shortages of face masks, ventilators and other supplies as hospitals brace for an expected onslaught of cases.

The Korean War-era law gives the president extraordinary authority to compel industries to expand production and turn out vital materials.

California’s governor warned that martial law could be imposed. The mayor of New York said the city’s 8.6 million residents should be prepared for a lockdown.

Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler, along with Honda and Toyota, said they will shut all of their factories in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The closing of Detroit’s Big Three alone will idle about 150,000 workers, who are likely to receive supplemental pay in addition to unemployment benefits.

At GM’s pickup truck assembly plant in Flint, Michigan, workers have been fearful since the virus surfaced in the U.S., said Tommy Wolikow, who has two young daughters.

“That’s the thing that I was scared the most about, being the one to bring it home to them,” he said.

The U.S. has reported more than 9,400 coronavirus cases and at least 138 deaths, about half of them in Washington state, where dozens of residents from a suburban Seattle nursing home have died.

Scientists have no doubt the true number of people infected is higher than reported because of the possibility that many mild cases have gone unrecognized or unrecorded, and because of the lag in large-scale testing in the U.S.

In the first breakdown of its kind in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that the nation’s coronavirus deaths so far mirror what has been reported in other countries, with about 4 out of 5 fatalities occurring in people 65 and older, and no deaths in children.

“How are we going to eat?” Virus tests Europe’s social nets

By Aritz Parra And Nicole Winfield

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

MADRID _ The morning rush-hour scene at Madrid’s Atocha train station this week perfectly captured the dilemma facing Europe as it confronts the coronavirus.

Governments have locked down commerce, beefed-up health care measures and earmarked billions of euros into Europe’s famed safety nets to cushion the economic blow to businesses and blue-collar workers alike from measures meant to contain the virus.

But trimmed commuter train schedules at Atocha, the main gateway into the Spanish capital for the working classes, meant that huge crowds formed on the platforms, defeating the government’s appeal for “social distancing.” Layoffs looming and real meant that those who still had work reported for duty – with or without protective masks – even if they would have preferred to stay home.

“I fear the coronavirus, but I fear more not being able to pay the utility bills,” said Mari Carmen Ramirez, 55, who was commuting to her 950-euro ($1,100) a month job as an office cleaner. “When this is all over, how are we going to eat?”

As European governments pass sweeping spending measures to address the pandemic, they are being called on to look out for the workers who are not only losing their jobs – the waitresses and tour guides, hairdressers and hotel maids – but those who still must show up because they can’t work from home. Europe’s famed safety nets are being stretched thin, at a time when many economies were already skirting recession and wealth gaps have grown.

Will it be enough?

Governments from Prague to Paris, Lisbon to London are deferring tax payments, approving short-term unemployment schemes and paid sick leave to cover even those in preventive quarantine. Hardest-hit Italy approved 25 billion euros in measures, including vouchers for babysitters. The Czech government offered a 750-euro stipend for students studying abroad who opt to stay abroad through Easter. Denmark said it would pay 75% of employees’ salaries if companies promise not to fire staff.

“This epidemic will be a catastrophe for all countries of the world,” warned French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire in announcing 45 billion euros ($50 billion) in aid for small businesses on top of the tens of billions already promised for individuals forced to stop working because of workplace closures.

“The shock will be violent.”

In Spain, now with the second most infections in Europe after Italy, the left-wing coalition government announced Tuesday a mix of social and economic measures, including credit guarantees for companies and subsidies for workers, worth one fifth of the country’s annual GDP.

Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez dubbed the 200 billion-euro (220-billion dollar) package as the largest in Spain’s recent history.

“We want a way out of the economic emergency in a V-shape rather than in an L-shape, for the onset to be of a rapid recovery and not stagnation,” he said.

The economic blow is already evident with companies likes German carmaker Volkswagen’s Spanish unit temporarily laying off more than 14,000 from its Martorell plant, near Barcelona. The workers will be paid 80% of their wages until they are re-hired, hopefully as soon as the economy recovers.

More than 100,000 workers were affected by similar temporary layoff schemes across industries, Spain’s Cinco Dias business newspaper calculated.

The economic pain is particularly high in countries like Italy and Spain, which are still feeling the aftereffects of the global financial crisis. The percentage of people classified as economically vulnerable – those who are poor, face high debt or unemployment – was 26% in 2017 in Spain, higher than the European Union average of 22%.

“I have no gloves, no mask, but supermarkets are to remain open, we have been told,” said Genesis Suarez, a 25-year-old supermarket clerk who commutes from Atocha and whose father was fired from his construction job on Friday.

“With my father at home, I need to contribute to the family’s cashbox. We are still going to receive the electricity bill at the end of the month, aren’t we?”

Policymakers’ initial response to the turmoil was focused on keeping the financial system running with central bank interest rate cuts and cheap loans for for banks.

Governments have also pledged loans, with Germany offering at least 460 billion euros ($513 billion) in guarantees. Britain announced 330 billion pounds ($405 billion) worth of government-backed loans and guarantees for small and large businesses, specifically to help firms pay their rent, the salaries, suppliers. Several countries are expanding short-term work programs that were successful during the 2008 financial crisis in keeping people on the payroll.

But again those measures do not address the needs of many of the most vulnerable: the poor but also manual labourers like cleaners and contractors without a fixed salary.

“We have about 50% slump in food collection,” said Sabine Werth, head of the “Berliner Tafel” food bank in the German capital, where donations are drying up. Already seven of the food bank’s 45 distribution points have closed, depriving the neediest of food close to home.

While some governments, like those of France and Denmark, have promised to guarantee the majority of individuals’ salaries, detail on how they will do that is still largely unclear – though urgently needed.

Jim O’Neill, the former chief economist at Goldman Sachs who is now chair of the U.K.-based Chatham House think-tank , said cash should be funnelled directly to people.

That would be an evolution of the monetary stimulus central banks have provided since the global financial crisis 12 years ago, in which they injected newly created money into the banking system.

“At the core of these views is the notion of giving money to people, especially lower income people, directly paid for by our central banks printing money,” he said in a note. “Until recently, I found myself having very little sympathy with these views but, as a result of COVID-19, I have changed my mind.”

Governments, meanwhile, are bolstering and broadening existing safety nets.

Britain will ensure workers are entitled to the legal minimum sick pay from the first day of illness rather than from day four. It’s unlikely to be enough, however, since the legal minimum is a mere 94.25 pounds ($115) a week.

An analysis by the Resolution Foundation think-tank in Britain suggested that a typical self-employed worker could see income fall by three-quarters if forced into quarantine, while a typical worker eligible for the legal minimum would lose over two-thirds of normal pay.

On Tuesday, Britain’s Treasury chief, Rishi Sunak, said that following discussions with lenders, three-month mortgage holidays will be available for those in financial difficulty “so that people will not have to pay a penny towards their mortgage while they get back on their feet.”

Other governments are also postponing the payment of taxes, social insurance and mortgages and offering extra paid leave, though the measures appear to be piecemeal.

`’Many Italians are in the front-line trenches: in the hospitals, in the factories and in the pharmacies, behind the cash registers at the supermarkets,“ Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said in a national address.

`’No one will be abandoned,” he vowed.

The workers reporting for the night shift at the Tenaris steel plant in Bergamo, Italy, felt more than abandoned. They felt terrified. They had been demanding for over a week to be allowed to take vacation rather than continue working with coronavirus claiming more infections in the province of Bergamo than anywhere else in Italy.

Factories had been exempted from the government’s March 11 shutdown decree, meaning the blue-collar workers of Italy’s industrial heartland were forced to report for duty. Last week, workers at plants across Italy began going on strike or threatening to do so.

“We were really afraid, to be sitting side-by-side for eight hours without knowing what the conditions were,” Tenaris steelworker Giambattista Morali said. “The company disinfected and gave us some more masks, but it wasn’t enough because we couldn’t guarantee that we’d be working one meter apart.”

While many people suffer relatively mild symptoms from the virus, the mortality rate has been particularly high in Italy, thanks in part to its elderly population.

The same health concerns abounded this week at the Atocha station, where railway officials weren’t doing anything to distance commuters jostling to catch their trains.

“What is this?” wondered Antonio Galiano, a 38-year-old commuter. “Be serious, please, it’s our lives that are at stake.”

Will Technology Replace Insurance Agents?

The excerpted article was written by Lev Barinskiy | Forbes

Chatbots, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning — technology is changing the landscape of the insurance industry. There’s a new facial recognition software, created by Lapetus Solutions Inc., that analyzes how well a candidate for life insurance will age. Facial recognition technology already promises to prevent fraud and crime at ATMs and self-checkout counters. Emotion recognition technology holds the promise of preventing insurance fraud by building upon facial recognition. It could help agents recognize a person’s emotional state based on voice signals and word usage. These tools may help agents and carriers measure risk while better serving consumers but are also creating some anxiety about whether robots will soon replace insurance agents.

Some of us in the insurance business remember the days when carriers relied on an agent’s gut feeling when it came time to determine risk based on personal knowledge or predictions. Many things have changed since then. Not only do carriers have far more precise, sophisticated predictive models, but in my experience, they also no longer allow agents to deviate from set pricing.

While there isn’t much insurers can do about technology pushing price as the bottom line, they can and are using some tools to their advantage. For instance, 2017 McKinsey research suggested that automation could reduce the cost of a claims journey by as much as 30%. Technology can also prevent challenges like cybersecurity threats through accurate predictions. Chatbots are assisting customers on a 24/7 basis at many businesses, which could increase customer retention. But this all leads to the question: How can an agent compete with the new technology? Can the two co-exist in the future?

According to U.K.-based firm Autonomous Research, AI and machine learning could replace over $1 trillion of the current financial services cost structure. And let’s be clear: The savings would likely largely be attributed to displaced jobs. Why shouldn’t insurance agents worry, then, with predictions that around 2.5 million financial jobs will be gone by the year 2033?

In the heyday of the neighborhood brick-and-mortar insurance shop, agents were the face and brand of an insurance company. While agents continue to interact with clients via phone, in person and over the internet, carriers are experimenting with technology to increase direct interaction with clients. Insurance carriers are already getting insurance leads from insurtech companies like mine, Compare (a SmartFinancial.com client) and The Zebra. Many businesses are also using technology to enhance the quality of insurance jobs. In fact, according to Deloitte’s 2017 white paper, the insurance industry is lagging behind compared with banking and financial services in its adoption of automation. Only recently have I seen insurers looking to explore the benefits of robotics and AI. However, that does not mean that agents will not still be needed. Robotics and AI, more than anything, could automate transactions and processes like claims processing and document verification. (Lemonade, a SmartFinancial.com client, and Hippo are already incorporating automation.) Consumers could see more options for self-service, and over time, I believe this will create less of a need for back-office jobs. On the flip side, there will be a greater demand for agents with skills in data analytics and machine learning.

READ MORE HERE AT FORBES

Aon to buy Willis for nearly $30 billion in insurance mega-deal

Aon to buy Willis for nearly $30 billion in insurance mega-deal

(Reuters) – UK-based insurance broker Aon Plc (AON.N) said on Monday it would buy Willis Towers Watson (WLTW.O) for nearly $30 billion in an all-stock deal that creates the world’s largest insurance broker and adds scale in a battle with falling margins.

The deal unifies the sector’s second and third largest names into a company worth $76 billion by current share prices, overtaking market leader Marsh & McLennan (MMC.N), as they face challenges ranging from the coronavirus to climate change.

First mooted a year ago, the deal also comes after a period of brutal competition which has seen insurance premiums fall while claims continue to grow.

Aon confirmed last year that it was in early stage talks with Willis Towers before quickly scrapping the plans, without giving a reason.

Analysts said at the time that an Aon-Willis deal might have trouble clearing anti-trust hurdles. The deal terms state Aon will be obligated to pay a fee of $1 billion to Willis if the deal were to fall through.

Marsh last April sealed its own purchase of British rival Jardine Lloyd Thompson for $5.7 billion, cementing its position as the biggest global player.

Under the deal, Willis shareholders would receive 1.08 Aon shares, or about $232 per share as of Aon’s Friday close, representing a total equity value of $29.86 billion. The offer is at a premium of 16% to Willis’s closing price on Friday.

Shares in Aon were down 2.7%, while Willis’ shares rose just 1.42% in trading before the bell in a New York market that was set to fall heavily across the board due to Monday’s collapse in oil prices.

“Aon generally has a successful acquisition history but given the timing it is not certain how investors will react to the acquisition in the short-term,” said Paul Newsome, managing director at brokerage Piper Sandler.

When the deal closes, existing Aon shareholders will own about 63% and existing Willis investors will own about 37% of the combined company on a fully diluted basis.

The deal is expected to add to Aon’s adjusted earnings per share in the first full year of the deal, with savings of $267 million, reaching $600 million in the second year, with the full $800 million achieved in the third year.

Newsome said the deal multiple was about 19.3 times 2020 earnings per share (EPS) estimate of $12 for Willis and about 12.3 times its 2020 core earnings (EBITDA) estimate.

This compares to the peer group median trading at about 22.6 times earnings and 13.6x core earnings, he said.

The deal is subject to the approval of shareholders and regulatory approvals and is expected to close in the first half of 2021.

Aon will maintain its headquarters in London and the combined firm will be led by Aon Chief Executive Officer Greg Case Greg Case and Aon Chief Financial Officer Christa Davies.

Aon’s financial advisor for the deal is Credit Suisse Securities, while Willis was advised by Goldman Sachs.

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