San Francisco hosts local music festivals year-round, from Mission Creek to Noise Pop. But concerned musicians are discussing one upcoming show more than the rest: the Bay Area Indie Music Festival. The main promoter behind the inaugural event has yet to pay almost half the talent that performed there last year, including the headliners. These artists have made repeated attempts to contact the company, locally based 3 Udders Productions, without getting a cent. Adding insult to injury, 3 Udders is preparing for a second Indie Music Fest on a much larger scale this October, upgrading to the vast AT&T Park parking lot, where the cost of putting on a concert is one of the highest in the city.
This is unfortunately not an uncommon story in the music industry. From small clubs to big arena shows, bands have felt the brunt of promoters who are unable or unwilling to pay up on the contracts they've made. But in San Francisco's tight-knit music community, it's rare that a promoter owing cash to so many acts stays in business. The worst part is that there's little recourse for the artists holding the bad checks, and the city's Entertainment Commission is not legally allowed to intervene in disputes with cash-strapped promoters.
The Bay Area Indie Music Festival debuted in Martinez on August 25. It took up two stages along the East Bay city's Waterfront Park, where 18 bands played over the course of the day, including some of the bigger names in San Francisco indie and alt-rock: Sugarcult, Scissors for Lefty, Elephone, Minipop, Audrye Sessions, and Immigrant. Both the musicians and Joshua Carter, the man behind 3 Udders, say the concert was fraught with problems from the beginning. Carter says his sound company dropped out the day before. His last-minute replacement had problems with nearly every piece of equipment. The bands arrived early, only to watch their performance slots get pushed back by three or four hours. Elephone's Ryan Lambert called the event a "fiasco." Other acts found a silver lining in the 1,500 fans who showed up. "The PA was a piece of shit and the main speakers went out, but the people who were there were really into it," says Graham Shaw of Immigrant. "Against all odds, something good happened for a moment."
The larger issue came at the end of the night, when the performers expected to get paid. They were due $500 to $750 each, a lot of money for indie bands scraping together money for rehearsal spaces, van insurance, and gasoline. The musicians were either told they would get their cash at a later date, or handed checks that immediately bounced. Minipop's Matthew Swanson was in the latter category. "We had merch debts we were looking forward to paying off," he says. "I went to get the money out of the bank, and my account was overdrawn by $200."
Carter blames a sponsor, whom he refuses to name, for the bad checks. "We had a sponsor that committed some funds and then placed a stop payment," he says. He also claims that it's "just a small handful of bands that haven't been paid yet," although he can only name one act, the Frail, that has received its financial due in the 10 months since the fest.
Some bands, including Scissors for Lefty, Minipop, Audrye Sessions, and Elephone, have stayed on Carter's case since last fall, using methods ranging from phone calls to letters from a lawyer, to no avail. Minipop has sent Carter almost a dozen e-mails. "He'll say, 'Yeah, we'll get you something next week,'" Swanson says, "and obviously it's never happened."
When asked last week when these bands would be paid, Carter says, "Probably within these next few weeks." He is both sympathetic to the musicians' frustrations and defensive about his responsibility. "I realize that bands feel as though I've caused them a great disservice, and I feel horribly about that," he says. But then he also says that the musicians are not taking the "diplomatic approach" in dealing with him. "They're taking the jaded high school approach," he says, accusing the more vocal musicians of "making a campaign out of it."
Carter says the money to pay these bands is coming out of his personal finances, which he claims caused him to foreclose on his house last year. If that's the case, why would he try to host an even bigger version of his festival this year? "It's important for me to keep going with this," he says. "I've lost a lot of time with my kids, and for this to be a complete failure would be a complete waste of time." He also claims that the sponsors are paying for everything this year, although he refuses to name a single sponsor (the fest's Web site lists Triple Crown Clothing, Absolutepunk.net, Zero magazine, and BayMusicScene.com as sponsors, none of which, one would assume, has particularly deep pockets).
The odds seem stacked against the Bay Area Indie Music Festival in 2008. For one, Carter has yet to say who is playing. It's now June, and the other fall festivals, from Treasure Island to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, have announced their lineups, but Carter declines to say who is on his bill. More importantly, it's also questionable if he has the experience to pull off an event the size of the AT&T Park parking lot. His music industry background is strictly on the independent scale. He has run 3 Udders Productions as a side gig for the past four years, booking local bands into places like Slim's and Café du Nord (I wrote a column about his attempts to bring live rock music to the club 1015 back in January, when he booked the Donnas there). AT&T Park is a whole other ballgame, though.
Bob Davis, executive commissioner for San Francisco's Entertainment Commission, worked with Rock the Bells when the hip-hop festival went down in the same parking lot last year. He says the bill for doing a show there would be in the high hundreds of thousands of dollars — a promoter would have to cover the costs of everything from renting the lot to security and police, building a stage, lighting, and insurance. He adds that to host an event there requires "a professional that's been in the business for a very long time and has ready access to capital." Davis says that small promoters generally hook up with larger, established companies like Live Nation when they put together huge events. "As you begin to build, you don't want to put your cash on the line," he says. "Live Nation can take a hit. A small promoter can't take a hit."
And when a promoter takes a hit, the bands are often the first to suffer. Jordan Kurland runs the San Francisco–based Zeitgeist Artist Management, which works with Death Cab for Cutie, Feist, and Rogue Wave. He recently had to sue a Los Angeles promoter for $100,000 after one of his acts got stiffed on a show. They settled for "pennies on the dollar," covering only attorneys' fees. He says that small bands are easy targets for nonpayment, since the companies renting the equipment and doing the promotion also want their money after an event. "Those other companies are going to fight to the front of the line to get paid, much more so than a band will," Kurland explains. "Especially an independent band that doesn't have the time or the resources."
Local entertainment lawyer David Kostiner suggests that bands research the promoters with whom they've agreed to do shows. Other than word of mouth, though, getting such information is a tough job in San Francisco. The Entertainment Commission's Davis says his office is not allowed to regulate promoters, or even keep lists of complaints against them. The commission can only oversee "fixed places of entertainment," he says, adding that most of the bigger venues require references and keep their own promoter lists.
None of that helps the cash-poor bands that played the Bay Area Indie Music Festival. Most of the musicians I spoke with said that while they still want their checks, the issue of broken promises is the biggest sticking point.
"It's not so much about the money," Elephone's Lambert says. "You're supposed to be supporting the scene. And if you're not doing that, you don't deserve to be part of it."
Ironically, it's a similar message to one promoted on the Indie Fest's Web site, where the FAQ section encourages fans to purchase merchandise from the acts taking the stage: "These are up-and-coming bands who make music their livelyhoods [sic]. Supporting them is the biggest compliment you can give them." Sounds like solid advice for a local promoter as well.