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From parking lot to concert venue in 120 days

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

When Claremont resident Ray Woodbury’s longtime production company RK Diversified Entertainment was forced to shut its doors in March, it did not sit well with the industry veteran.

The coronavirus pandemic had instantaneously decimated the live event industry, and his loyal crew of a dozen full-time employees and about 16 part-timers—many of which have been with him for nearly two decades—were among those out of work.

But the forced downtime and a well-timed Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan from the Federal Small Business Administration gave Mr. Woodbury time to think.

What emerged was Autosonic Concerts, an idea to transform a portion of the dormant Orange County Fairgrounds into a drive-in concert venue.

“Fortunately the PPP allowed us a breathing period of figuring out how to deal with this,” Mr. Woodbury said. “And in all honesty, during that PPP period was when I was able kick this thing into gear and utilize the money correctly in being able to employ the team and allow for a little bit of saving grace and time to develop this thing.”

That thing involves a brand new venue that accommodates 221 cars with up to four people in each vehicle and a series of 10 concerts that have thus far proven to be quite popular, with six sellouts.

The acts range from popular Queen and Pink Floyd tribute bands Queen Nation and Which One’s Pink? to 1960s Bay Area legends Jefferson Starship. Tickets range from $69 to $199 per car.

Getting Autosonic off the ground during an ongoing global pandemic was particularly challenging. The fast time-frame, with just a couple months from concept to the first show, was the overarching test.

Another was the fact that the OC Fairgrounds is owned by the state of California, presenting several added layers of bureaucracy with which to deal. The Orange County Health Department had concerns over people lining up at restrooms, so the production team added two custodians per restroom that clean after every use. Having people bunched up, even in cars, was also a concern, so they devised a staging system that involves calling rows of cars in one at a time.

Over just four months, from conception in April-May to booking acts in mid- to late-June, to the first show—a sellout from Beatles tribute act The Fab Four—Mr. Woodbury and his staff addressed a laundry list of potential bureaucratic and technical hurdles. The result of all that frenzied groundwork was the literal creation, construction, staffing and successfully marketing of a brand-new live music venue in 120 days.

The live concert sound also required some innovation. This would normally involve an array of amplified speakers sending a mixed signal out toward the audience. But with most attendees sitting in their cars (some are in the beds of pickup trucks, etc.), providing a high-quality listening experience took some ingenuity.

RK’s audio crew sends the live stage sound both in the traditional manner, through the PA array, and also via broadcast over three different FM stations, each timed ever so slightly differently so everyone in the venue hears the live sound at the same time.

“If you roll down your window and crank up the FM it’s the most unbelievable sound. It’s amazing,” Mr. Woodbury said. “I think it’s the key to the success of everyone enjoying it so much.”

There are also two large LED screens midway back through the venue and one large on onstage, with a six-camera digital shoot going on throughout the whole show and broadcast via a livestream.

The Autosonic series has been welcomed by a huge swath of live music lovers, who have been cut off from the unique communion since the pandemic hit.

“This morning alone I had 10 people reach out to me and say ‘Thank you for doing this,’” Mr. Woodbury said on Monday. “Everyone is really up at the shows and makes an effort to thank us for doing it, and likewise we thank them for supporting it. There are people with heavy music fixes out there that are really appreciative of what’s happening and loving what we’re doing, and that feels great.”

The concerts are clearly a labor of love for Mr. Woodbury. Though Subaru recently signed on as a sponsor, his company is assuming nearly all the financial risk on this venture.

“It’s interesting, when you own your own company you’re the last one to get paid in reality. And I’m used to that. I’ve learned to manage that. And as my friend said the other day it’s better to make a dollar than to spend a dollar right now,” Mr. Woodbury said. “So my risk went down a lot, which was a great thing for my mental health because I’d hate to have a couple losing shows and be working for four months and actually lose money.”

The risk has kept him up at night, but the rewards have soothed those fears.

“Having everyone be so appreciative, and get so much great response from the people who are coming to the shows as well as from my staff and basically my friends, it is rewarding enough to continue to do it, that’s for sure.”

Upcoming Autosonic shows include Smiths and Morrisey tribute band Sweet and Tender Hooligans on October 16; Queen Nation on Oct. 17; and Jefferson Starship Oct. 18. Tickets range from $69 to $199. Go to https://www.autosonicconcerts.com to see the schedule and for more information.  

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