Monday, July 27, 2015

Blacked Out: The Fine Print

Getting booked to play a summer festival like Timber!, Sasquatch, or the Capitol Hill Block Party brings a band a certain prestige. Once lineups are announced, participants are often quick to promote the fact. But the increasing number of summer festivals also means something many music fans may not know about: blackout dates.

For most, the term “blackout date” refers to credit cards and airline miles. But in the music community, it means a specific duration before and after a show date during which bands contractually can’t play within a certain radius of a gig. It’s a type of non-compete clause.

This agreement has many ripple affects. It’s meant to discourage festival bill crossover and oversaturation of a band in a given market, as well as increase excitement for exclusive festival gigs. But it also limits a band’s moneymaking opportunities locally, and can tie the hands of club owners trying to bring in summer audiences.

“It’s rough on the whole music community,” says Jodi Ecklund, talent buyer at Chop Suey. “Festivals attract a bunch of bridge-and-tunnel folks. They sell out prior to even announcing their lineup. It doesn’t really matter who’s on the bill. I have bands that cannot play again until October due to Sasquatch, Block Party, and Bumbershoot.”

Don Strasburg, co-president and senior talent buyer for AEG Live Rocky Mountains and AEG Live Northwest, the outfit that took over production of Bumbershoot this year, says he and his group look for a “certain level of exclusivity.”As Strasburg puts it, “overplaying is generally not going to help create desire. I’m not saying local artists should play once a year—but two months is not that long a time.”

Jason Lajeunesse, talent buyer for CHBP and booker for Neumos and Barboza, says his festival is “pretty flexible” with local bands. While the blackout dates vary for local versus national bands, he says, there is at least a 100-mile-radius restriction with a 30–90 day blackout in advance of a show. “And, generally speaking,” he says, “as soon as the performance is over, it’s OK for bands to advertise their upcoming show.” But here’s his hard line: “If we’re guaranteeing an artist up-front money to play, you can’t be playing the market multiple times.”

But therein lies the issue: Local bands aren’t making gobs of money from festivals—certainly not enough to make blacking out all these dates and venues financially worthwhile. Sometimes bands make as little as $200 per festival gig. Split four ways, that’s hardly worth the time.

“If you’re an artist,” says Lajeunesse, “and want to build your career, you don’t want to be overplaying and saturating your market, as a rule. I don’t believe a band should be playing every three weeks if they want to make those shows special.”

Many might agree with this sentiment. According to Daniel Chesney of local power-pop surf group Snuff Redux, the band’s CHBP contractual blackout dates for this year totaled “90 days, 45 before and 45 after (with a 120 mile radius). But we negotiated them down from another larger blackout,” he says, “so what we have is pared down. We bargained down all the blackout arrangements so that we could have time playing Seattle after our tour. But to be honest, the blackout has been relatively useful for us as a group. We went from playing shows nonstop all the time to having an excuse to sit down and work on new material and releases. Not that people don’t ignore their blackouts all the time... but it seemed prudent to use the time they expected us to be quiet well.”

But the problem is: Shouldn’t bands themselves be making that decision, not contractual black-out dates? Evan Flory-Barnes of local instrumental jazz group Industrial Revelation explains that the proximity restrictions associated with CHBP prevented his band from playing Sasquatch and opening for well-known jazz pianist Robert Glasper.

“I think blackout dates are from the same era as ‘pay to play’ and the era of playing for ‘exposure,’” Flory-Barnes says. “No one limits the opportunity for club owners and talent buyers to do their thing, but when it comes to a musician being entrepreneurial, it’s a different story. Blackout dates represent an old model established when there was fewer people in the city and fewer people listening to music.”

by Jake Uitti, Seattle Weekly | Read more:
Image: Kelton Sears