As announcements of tour cancellations and venue closings in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak began to dominate the headlines, Sam Means quickly realized that the news was going to affect him in more ways than one.
First, his band The Format were getting ready for a series of reunion concerts. Even as the band's equipment was being shipped to New York City, concerns over public safety began to escalate.
"I was about to get on an airplane," he recalls. "I went, 'I'm not going there. We're not going to get stuck there.'"
It was ultimately a wise decision. The group rescheduled the tour for the summer, including their dates at The Van Buren, which were originally scheduled from April 3 to 5. They'll now perform at the downtown Phoenix venue from July 25 through 27.
"Everyone is okay," Means says during a conversation on March 18. "Everyone [in the band] is hunkering down."
Means is also the founder of Hello Merch, a company that creates and manufactures merchandise for musicians and other creatives, including tote bags, records, and T-shirts. Angel Olsen, Parquet Courts, and King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard are on its roster.
Means explains that the company had some pretty good momentum a few months ago. It opened its downtown Phoenix warehouse at 850 West Lincoln Street with a sold-out preview of The Format's live concert film Live at the Mayan Theatre on February 3, which also kicked off the band's reunion with a performance featuring him and bandmate Nate Ruess.
The company started screen-printing in-house and increased its workforce to 25 employees. There were plans to launch an event space in April.
"Everything that we had in place to ramp this stuff up took an immediate halt," explains Means. "In the 12-year history of this business, I've never laid anyone off. I'm trying not to do that. I'm trying to be smart about it."
With most concert tours now on hold in this new age of social distancing, orders for new apparel have been canceled. Means realized that his business is now facing a crisis, and he knows his company isn't the only one that is struggling right now.
"This is happening to everyone," he says. "People are getting creative and doing whatever they can across the board in any industry that has any physical presence."
He and his staff have been getting together daily (and "six feet apart from each other," he says) to find ways to work within the company's new parameters. He says he's created spreadsheets charting the level of severity should the health crisis continue to escalate.
"I'm trying to plan ahead as much as I can," he says. "But every single day something changes, and you have to adjust accordingly."
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To keep the presses going, Means came up with a line of clothing that not only addresses the need for increased hygiene but offers up some optimism for 2021 since all the fun for this year has been eliminated. Hello Merch's "Maybe Next Year" shirts and sweatshirts feature the reminder to wash your hands with an image of shaking hands surrounded by the words, "Maybe Next Year."
"I don't want it to seem like I'm trying to cash in on a bad situation," says Means. "But I was talking to one of my friends, and he said, 'First of all, it's a cool shirt. I'd want one. And you're spreading awareness.'"
Means is trying to do the best he can in a bad situation. In addition to asking customers to donate to touring artists on the Sargent House label, which Hello Merch works closely with, he’s looking for ways to help his employees if things get worse, even if it's temporary.
"One of the things that come out of things like this is people step up to support the things people don't want to see go away," he says. "We're definitely doing that whenever we can. People are going to need help on every level."