Photograph by Billy Skelton
Event planner Mike Kociela laments, “The rest of the country is gobbling up all the bands.”
Mike Kociela’s old band, New World Spirits, got signed to Universal Records in the mid-90s. They were chewed up and spit out by the label a couple of years later. By 1997, he had formed his own production company and was blazing a new trail in the events industry. Since then, he has been producing large-scale events that range from 1000 to 500,000 attendees.
One might think that getting dumped by a major-label would be his career low-point, but covid-19 has taken over that spot. His entire industry has been shut down since last March, and all he can do is hope that everything gets going again sooner than later.
“It takes an emotional toll on you,” Kociela explained. “It’s really, really hard. One, to see your bank account dwindle and, two, to not do what you do as a profession. And not being recognized — which makes you feel invalid in the world. We don’t exist as far as California is concerned. It’s a horrible, horrible thing when all you do is try to make people happy.”
Similar to the local venues that have banded together in the San Diego Independent Venue Association, local event organizers have merged to form the San Diego Event Coalition. The thinking is the same for both organizations, the more unified the industry voice becomes, the greater the potential for positive change. Kociela serves as vice president for the Event Coalition.
“The good thing is that at least the San Diego regional event industry is working together, but the reality is that as hard as we’re working, we’re still… there are just bigger things going on that we can’t affect, and neither can the local politicians. It all lies in [Governor Gavin] Newsom’s office, period, end of story,” Kociela said.
He added, “We’re not recognized by the Governor. We don’t exist in his world.”
While Kociela is frustrated about the industry’s lack of recognition at the state level, both he and Event Coalition president Laurel McFarlane are enthusiastic about Nathan Fletcher’s (Chairman of the County Board of Supervisors) decision to waive the event industry’s permitting fees for the fiscal year of 2021-2022. Fees from the Department of Health and Quality, Department of Parks and Recreation, the Sheriff’s Department, and the San Diego Fire Authority will all be waived. It’s an estimated savings just north of $1.5 million for the events industry, which the county hopes to cover on their end using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act.
According to McFarlane, these fees can often account for as much as 25 percent of the cost of an event.
“That’s really accurate,” Kociela added. “Sometimes our share fee for the events can be in the tens of thousands. This is a huge break.”
Now it’s just a matter of getting everything going again to take advantage of the savings. With increased vaccinations on the horizon, the potential for large outdoor events by the fall seems realistic, but there is still no official timeline for how this industry is going to kick back into gear in California. For an organizer like Kociela, who books national acts for his events, he also must compete with other festivals in states that have already re-opened.
“I have personally pushed forward and have started confirming bands for August 7,” he explained. “I’m taking a risk. I’m hoping that the vaccines and everything clear the path enough to where we can do it, because the rest of the country is gobbling up all the bands. So, if I didn’t pull the trigger on talent, I would have been left without talent and therefore I couldn’t even have done anything if I wanted to or could do it.”