How A Life-Long Events Pro Pivoted to Working in TV During the Pandemic
Guest Feature: Charlie Jennings
When you sell out and make money on the first show you produce, you can either drop the mic and move on to something else or fall in love and never want to do anything else.
Charlie Jennings of Grey Street Events got his first taste of success in live music production when he was just 17-years-old. While he made sure to point out that he’s always been a hard rock and metal fan, he was really into bluegrass, and specifically Bela Fleck and the Flecktones in high school. So much so, that he wrote to Bela’s agent, Joe Brauner of Monterey Peninsula to see if he could bring them to his hometown. And he responded. Bela Fleck and the Flecktones weren’t available, but he could get Bela Fleck and Edgar Mayer, and he threw out a price.
“I was like, ‘That’s a lot of money,’” said Charlie.
At the same time, his high school marching band was invited to play in a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin, Ireland. So Charlie decided to hold this concert as a fundraiser for the trip. Somehow he convinced Joe that he could fund it and that the show would actually happen. He sold tickets and sponsorships to pay for the deposit. He says he had no idea what he was doing and looking back, he’d never advise anyone to do what he did, but the event sold out and not only did he pay all his expenses, but he raised $6,000, covering the costs to send 2 students to Dublin.
And he fell in love.
After 9 years at AC Entertainment running parallel paths of festival operations and booking and promoting shows in the concert division, followed by 4 years at Danny Wimmer Presents running site operations, production, and artist relations for their festivals, Charlie needed a break.
In the fall of 2019, Charlie and his wife/business partner, Brandy Blaylock formed Grey Street Events. Charlie’s on-site production skills were the perfect complement to Brandy’s ticketing and customer service skills and they began to work with small clients who didn’t have the staff to pull off events, and larger companies who had so much going on that they needed to outsource their events. 2020 was going to be their breakout year, including tentpole events Pilgrimage and Bonnaroo and in several of Superfly’s experiential events.
Then 2020 happened.
But Charlie didn’t sit around. He immediately thought about all of the health, safety, and security planning that would be needed once events came back. He dug in. He contributed to the ESA’s Reopening Guide, he read the Hollywood white paper by DGA, SAG-AFTRA, IATSE and the Teamsters, took COVID Compliance Officer and OSHA 10 training courses, as well as the John Hopkins Contact Tracing course. He began putting together implementation plans just in case something came up.
A former colleague, Manya Whitney Miller, reached out about an opportunity to help Discovery Network with COVID compliance for some of their digital media shoots. Realizing this was a good opportunity to start testing out some of the playbooks Charlie had been putting together, he jumped on it, and in late summer, he began working on small TV sets.
"I wasn’t expecting to work in TV, but it turns out that so many things on a TV set are similar to what we do in live events,” says Charlie.
Over 8 weeks in October, Charlie put his plans into action on the set of Chopped, as they filmed 3 seasons worth of content. He and his team were responsible for scheduling and executing testing 120 people 3 times a week as well as providing PPE supplies. They were also charged with keeping the inside of the facility “clean” so only those who cleared access check points could get in.
The setting wasn’t familiar, but what he was doing was.
“I was able to leverage old skills in new ways. What I did at Chopped was basic event site ops. We needed trailers, signage, power, and more to set up ‘box offices’ to properly screen everyone, and once passed, the health screen was their ‘ticket’ to enter,” he says.
Of course there were some things that were quite different from what he was used to on site. Adapting to the TV lingo was a bit of a hurdle, but he quickly learned the benefits of “crafty,” meaning craft services which is coffee, water, and snacks. Understanding what each position does on set and how responsibilities are assigned was also new.
After Chopped, Charlie was approached by WithHealth, a telehealth company that does virtual testing for the media and entertainment industry, to help them scale up their operations for testing in TV and film productions. He has spent the past 3 months working with them in Atlanta using a lot of what he learned on how to grow a company quickly at DWP. With LA slow to come back to full strength, a lot of filming has moved to Atlanta.
While Charlie is happy to be working and in doing so, helping other industries get back to work safely, he can’t wait to get back to the industry he fell in love with at 17.
“There is something about the people, the vibe, the uniqueness of it all. I miss being around that energy. It can be crazy at times, but I’m addicted to it. I thrive on all of the adrenaline. Whether it’s booking a show, getting the gates open, or severe weather potential, I thrive on all that. And when you don’t have it, it’s challenging. This is a hard business to get into and it’s damn-near-impossible to get out of it,” he says.
He’s a lot more optimistic about what the rest of 2021 will look like than he thought he would be and things are looking better and brighter each day.
And when he does get back to events, Charlie now brings with him new knowledge and skills he picked up this year. He will focus more on clear, timely communication and transparency. The media production business is very last minute - even more so than music - and working in this setting, especially within the constraints of COVID, clear communication is incredibly important. He highly recommends COVID Compliance training for everyone.
Charlie’s three pieces of advice:
Develop relationships, work to keep them, and don’t be a jerk. You don’t know how or when people will come back into your life and have a big impact. Manya and I stayed in touch periodically, and then she got me off my couch last summer. People I hadn’t spoken with in a long time are now a big piece of the future of my company. Don’t underestimate the value of staying in touch and being a good person. Also, do a good job, work hard, be nice.
Internships: Do them. I wouldn’t be here without the internships I had. Take advantage of all opportunities, ask as many questions as you can, and learn from them.
Don’t be scared of something new. I was working on COVID plans on a Friday and an opportunity came up to go to work the next Monday. I jumped on it and it grew from there. Take advantage of the opportunity to learn something new and you never know where it will take you.