BETHALTO — In 40 years of owning a sound contracting business in the Riverbend area, Don Lanier thought he had seen everything that the entertainment industry could throw at him.
But he wasn’t prepared for the fastball that was COVID-19.
Lanier, 63, is the longtime owner of Pearl Pro Audio, an audiovisual equipment store in Bethalto. But when the coronavirus shut down the live music scene in 2020, he had to start a new business, Don’s Small Engine Repair, to survive financially.
“I’ve been through tornadoes and hurricanes and things like that, but if you would have told me that something was going to come along that would take away my livelihood and shut me down completely, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Lanier said.
“COVID didn’t let us down easy – it kicked us out the back door and set us on fire. I consider myself lucky, but a lot of people weren’t that lucky. I know a lot of musicians in Nashville that sold their gear and quit the industry and took jobs wherever they could get them.”
Prior to the pandemic, 2020 was shaping up as one of the best years ever for Pearl Pro Audio.
But the virus turned it into his worst year.
“For me, 2019 was a slow year because I had to have both of my knees replaced and I wound up in a wheelchair,” said Lanier, who is originally from Godfrey. “I’ve been in a wheelchair now for a couple of years due to the problems with my knees. I had to back up a bit, but 2020 was lining up to be a good year.
“I had a big conference at SIUE, and the phone was ringing, and I had hotels in St. Louis and events that I had never done before. By February, I heard about COVID and by March, people were calling me to cancel their events. By April, everything had canceled.”
Like many people, Lanier didn’t expect the pandemic to drag on into 2021.
And the longer it lasted, the grimmer the outlook became for his sound contracting business.
“I didn’t realize how hard it was going to hit me and the guys that work for me because they’re all gig workers too,” Lanier said. “We also do (sound system) installations for churches and schools and we weren’t getting any of those either.
“I got hired to install a background music system at a hotel in Florissant, but the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers bought that hotel and turned it into a COVID camp for all of their workers, so I lost another job to COVID.”
The loss of business from canceled conferences and concerts was a blow both financially and emotionally for Lanier, who has been involved with music since he was a teenager.
“I’ve had my foot into many different parts of this industry, and I’ve worn many hats,” Lanier said. “I was a musician in high school and played bass in lounge bands and back in the day, we played all of the bowling alleys and really nice nightclubs from Springfield to Cape Girardeau.
“I got involved with other bands and they needed somebody to run the sound for them, so I pitched in doing the setups and basically became a roadie. I moved to Texas and got a real job, but still wound up spinning records in a bowling alley at night.”
Even when Lanier got away from music on a full-time basis, the industry eventually drew him back in.
“I kept a finger (in the music business) all my life, but by 30s, it became my full-time position,” Lanier said. “I traveled to Los Angeles and worked for a concert touring lighting company and we worked (on concert tours) for people like Michael Jackson, Madonna, Genesis, Yes and Van Halen.
“I worked as much as I wanted, and I was pretty much a freelancer. I got my CDL (commercial driver’s license) and started driving trucks and wound up hauling equipment for entertainers, conferences and conventions, so it seemed like I could never get completely away from entertainment.”
By last May, after five months without an event, no work, no sales and no installations, Lanier was wondering if his time in the music industry was coming to an end.
“I was sitting in my yard thinking we’ve got to do something or we’re going to get evicted, go bankrupt and go out of business,” Lanier said. “I kept seeing all of lawn care companies driving by my house and a light went off in my head.”
That moment of inspiration marked the birth of Don’s Small Engine Repair.
Lanier’s new business quickly took off and saved for the day for him, with Lanier and his crew fixing lawnmowers, riding mowers, snowblowers, minibikes and ATVs, and anything with a power plant.
Lanier pushed his sound equipment to the back of his garage and pulled out the tools and dived into mechanic work, but when the virus is finally under control, he hopes to continue both businesses.
“Around June or July, if the government says the vaccines are taking hold and people can hold conferences and gather in groups larger than 50 and nightclubs reopen, I think people are so starved for entertainment that the industry could just explode,” Lanier said. “If it doesn’t happen by summer, I don’t think we’ll have another holiday season like we did this year.
“I love the music industry and it’s been my life. I’ve worked on most of the large-scale events in the area and I’ve worked a lot of events at the amphitheater in Alton. I’ve tried to help my community grow.”
While Lanier is grateful for the small engine repair business as another source of revenue, his heart is with those in his industry that have suffered greatly through the pandemic.
“Venues, ushers, ticket takers, crew, truckers, lighting, production rentals, bartenders and janitors all have lost many hours of income and most weren’t eligible (for unemployment),” said Lanier, who also builds road cases for touring bands. “I don’t think people considered how badly many in the industry were hurt.
“In Nashville, thousands of industry people lost jobs. In L.A., Orlando and Hollywood, the industry came to a halt. Many people lost cars, homes, marriages and some their lives. Small town, big town, we took a hit that was painful and long lasting. We’re ready for the corner to be turned.”