On Zac Brown Laying Off 90% of His Employees

Look. In this dark and moldy corner of the internet, we love to razz on pop country artists for their bad songs and stupid haircuts. It’s fun. It’s what we do. It’s a way to use comedy to commiserate about the sad state of what much of country music has become. But there’s an appropriate time for that, and no different than congregating at your local honky tonk to hear your favorite band, now is not the right time. But even when it does feel appropriate, there’s never a lack of respect for these performers on a human level. When times get tough, it’s a good reminder that we are all still part of a greater community, and family.

You average bad pop country performer is probably a really good person at heart, and however ill gotten their gains might be at the expense of the integrity of country music, they’re more than often apt to turn around and share a portion of that wealth with their communities, and take their role as benefactors and role models seriously.

We’ve seen this over and over during this Coronavirus nightmare. Florida Georgia Line has pledged to give $1,000 to all the employees of their FGL House club and restaurant in downtown Nashville amid the closure of the venue due to COVID-19. Dierks Bentley is doing the same for the 90 employees of his downtown bar. John Rich is doing this also, and has challenged all the celebrity owners of country music establishments to think about the human toll of these social distancing measures, and to reach into their deep pockets.

Of course these acts of generosity often coincide with press releases and social media posts which result in good PR for their pop country celebrity “brands,” let alone the tax writeoffs that will be forthcoming. It’s even more cool when a celebrity doesn’t broadcast these acts of generosity. They just do them. But it’s truly the thought and action that counts. Even though these celebrities are in a much better position to absorb the hit, it’s a financial burden on them nonetheless.

Truth is there are many touring musicians that without a lot of fanfare pay a long list of employees on a yearly basis, even if there’s little or no work to be had. That’s part of the job if you want to keep a quality and loyal road crew together that will be there when you need them, even through long hiatuses in the yearly calendar.

In a teary-eyed address on Instagram Wednesday night (3-18), Zac Brown explained that after 15 years of touring, he was having to let go of 90% of his full time employees as part of his road crew due and support staff due to the Coronavirus cancellations. Though there is no doubt this was a tough decision for Zac Brown, as it would be for anyone, some are questioning why a man worth an estimated $40 million couldn’t do like many of his peers in the music industry, and pony up to keep his employees afloat during this tough time.

Of course this also comes at a moment when Zac Brown has gone from one of the more beloved characters in the greater country music realm, to incredibly polarizing for some of his recent output, and his push toward EDM and hip-hop in his career. Zac Brown left behind even some of his most loyal fans at the end of 2019 when he released songs like “God Given” and “Swayze.”

Something else worth pointing out in this situation is how quick Zac Brown’s hook was in pulling the plug on his current tour. Before much of the rest of the industry announced COVID-19 cancellations, Brown postponed his tour on March 10th, affecting dates well into late April. Some bands and artists are still rescheduling dates to April, or keeping them on their calendars. You can give Zac credit for being ahead of the curve when it comes to Coronavirus, though some are wondering if it was a just a good excuse to cancel a tour that wasn’t selling through well due to the pretty widespread criticism of the current direction of his music.

It’s really easy to sit back and criticize Zac Brown for the decision to let go of his employees, especially if you’re apt to dog pile on him already for those terrible songs he’s been releasing recently. But I’m not sure this is entirely fair. There is no doubt that the new direction in Zac’s music has resulted in a slight insurrection within Zac Brown’s fan base that has eroded some of his underlying support. But there is also no doubt this was a tough decision for Zac. After a recent divorce, we really don’t know the financial status of Zac Brown.

This all feels similar to criticizing Jason Aldean when he ran for cover while on stage during the Route 91 Las Vegas massacre in 2017. Some say he should have stood his ground and announced to the crowd to seek cover. But since there really was little or no cover to seek since the fans were basically in a fenced-in bullpen, it’s questionable if that would have done any good. Meanwhile, think about what your reaction would have been when you hear bullets whizzing by your head, and have your stage manager screaming at you to get off the stage because someone is shooting.

Everybody is hurting right now due to this Coronavorius issue aside from Amazon, teleconference companies, and toilet paper manufacturers. It would have been cool for Zac Brown to step up and support his employees through this tough time, especially since we don’t have a real clear timeline on how long this shutdown of American life will last. If he’s back touring in May, his move will look incredibly presumptuous. If this lasts well into the fall or farther, Zac Brown will look ahead of the curve, just like he was postponing his live dates.

What’s a little irking is how Zac Brown blamed our “leadership” for this move, as if he isn’t the least bit culpable for his own actions. Undoubtedly, leadership in the United States could have handled this situation much better, and some of this could have been avoided. But if you’re looking for governments and leaders who bungled this important moment, the line forms to the left, and behind China whose unregulated wet markets gave rise to the virus when we’ve known the risk for many years, while their government looked to hide the severity of the outbreak early on.

Many European countries have fared much worse than the United States so far. This may change over time. But with the death rates we’re seeing in Italy, Spain, and France, it’s hard to say leadership in the USA handled this any worse than the rest of the 1st world. Every corner of the Earth has been touched by the Coronavirus. No matter what anyone did, it was coming to the USA and everywhere else. The United States and other countries could have made unprecedented moves much earlier to control and prepare for this virus, and still the outbreak could have been severe. This moment, and this disease is unprecedented in the modern era.

Meanwhile, “Leadership” could have been Zac Brown stepping up to make an example of how the more privileged can take care of employees in this trying time. Blaming others for having to let go of his staff, and broadcasting that to the world through social media looking for sympathy is where it feels like Zac Brown misstepped in this situation. We can’t control what leaders did in the past. But we all have control over our current actions. Then again, put yourself in Zac Brown’s shoes. If you think this was an easy decision for Zac to make, you didn’t watch the same video I did. We’re all trying to do the best we can in this situation.

As bad as the current music of Zac Brown is, it should be the hope of everyone that he can get back out on the road soon because that means the rest of performing artists can do the same, and we can all return to normal life. Then if the market deems Zac Brown’s new music to not be worth the price of admission and he has to lay off employees, that’s just the way it is, and not due to some evil virus wrecking all of our lives.

But no matter our taste in music, people come first. Thousands, and eventually millions will lose their jobs due to the Coronavirus outbreak. And though this is a really sad assessment, it pales in comparison to concern for the sick, the dead, and the severely displaced due to COVID-19.

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UPDATE: Zac Brown and The Zac Brown Band have now cancelled all 2020 dates, citing concerns for the Coronavirus.

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