So maybe Coachella's booking rules aren't so egregious after all
This blog post will begin after the following thank-you note:
Pop & Hiss would like to thank you for again putting our West Coast life into perspective. The recent reporting on Vocalo.org and the Chicago Tribune has reminded music fans here in L.A. that our annual Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival may indeed appear to be downright altruistic in comparison with your annual waterfront party, Lollapalooza.
Pop & Hiss
And now for the blog post:
Political and business dealings always seem more in interesting in Chicago. In fact, interesting probably isn't the right word for the Windy City, which has blessed the world with a string of head-scratching characters and shady deals, ranging from William Hale Thompson's pro-booze and pro-gangster mayorship during Prohibition to the continued cartoonish buffoonery of the always "golden" Blago.
And now Chicago's rock media elites, Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot, are reporting that Illinois Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan is conducting an antitrust investigation of Lollapalooza promoters for enforcing particularly strenuous radius clauses into their contracts. All major festivals, including our desert dance bonanza, Coachella, insist on radius clauses, which prevent an artist from performing in the market in the weeks and months leading up to the event.
Yet do Lollapalooza's rules go too far? DeRogatis broke the story on the festival, which is co-owned by the William Morris Endeavor agency and Texas-based C3 Presents, and he wrote, "Sources have said that the most extreme of these clauses stretch from six months before Lollapalooza to three months after it, and that they encompass a 300-mile radius -- which would include concert markets as far away as Milwaukee, Madison, Iowa City, Detroit, and Indianapolis."
And here we in L.A. simply thought that Lolla's biggest offense was an $850 VIP "lounge pass."
Past reporting here on this issue has shown that managers, labels and booking agents are of two minds on the radius clauses. For Coachella, run by our city's own Goldenvoice, multiple managers have confirmed that the radius clause takes effect when the contract is inked, meaning that if a band signs on for Coachella in January, it cannot play the Los Angeles market again until about 30 days after the festival concludes.
For instance, this past month has brought numerous appearances by Coachella-booked acts. The XX, LCD Soundsystem and Local Natives all had post-Coachella sellout gigs in the L.A. area in recent weeks. Still on the horizon are major summer dates from the likes of Pavement, MGMT, She & Him and Phoenix, among others. Those who would rather avoid the 80,000 people and desert heat (hand raised!) still have plenty of opportunities this summer to see Coachella acts.
Additionally, smaller, non-headlining acts can usually negotiate an appearance at a secondary market such as San Diego. Spoon manager Ben Dickey, for instance, booked his band for a headlining slot at Coachella this year, and knew that doing so would keep the band out of Southern California until the fall, when Spoon returns Sept. 30 with a date at the Pallidium. Radius clauses, he said, are a factor in whether or not a band will play the fest circuit.
"From a festival’s perspective, there’s so many in the U.S. right now," Dickey said. "Everyone is trying to find something everyone else doesn’t have. The talent pool is getting shallower and shallower, in terms of a truly unique experience for fans. If you dilute that by playing club shows two or three days before, you’ve made it less special. Sometimes you can’t get the money you want from a festival, so you have to make money in other ways and do a San Diego show. In our case, we wanted to focus on making Coachella a focal point of the tour."
Goldenvoice's Coachella was a sellout this year, and numerous exceptions were made or negotiated for artists to perform in the area in the lead-up to the event. She & Him, for instance, appeared at such venues as Largo and the Goldenvoice-run El Rey in the weeks leading up to the event, while Live Nation artist Jay-Z had a major date at AEG's Staples Center (Goldenvoice is a division of AEG Live).
Managers have told Pop & Hiss that if an act insists on playing the L.A. market before Coachella, it will take a smaller cut. Bigger-billed acts may indeed be shut out of appearing in surrounding cities, but Dangerbird head Jeff Castelaz, whose Silver Lake-based label had a Coachella breakout in 2009 with the Silversun Pickups, earlier said the trade-off is most often worth it.
"It doesn’t make it a tough decision at all," Castelaz said of radius clauses. "You have to be smart about the routing of your tours. So if you can’t play the L.A. or San Diego area for 100 days before Coachella, you just plan accordingly. But I would never say that it would harm you to play Coachella and not play those individual markets. Just think about all the advertising that’s done for Coachella around the world. If you’re an up-and-coming band and you’re on that bill, that’s a prominent situation. Your name gets thrown around in a lot of places."
So what makes Lollapalooza different?
For one, it's the timing. Set in early August, Lollapalooza reshapes Chicago's summer concert season in ways Coachella does not affect Los Angeles. Coachella locks artists out of Los Angeles in winter months. The Chicago Tribune reports that Lollapalooza's clauses can typically stretch from 180 days before the festial to 90 days after it. That's a damaging length for the Windy City, where the local spring and summer economy is in part fueled by neighborhood block parties that book nationally known acts nearly every week.
But it's more complex than that. Lollapalooza is booked and run by out-of-towners. Here in Los Angeles, Goldenvoice manages a number of this city's smaller clubs, including the El Rey and the Music Box @ Fonda. The company has to walk the line between feeding its club business and maintaining the uniqueness of its festival, a realistic business matter one does not have to be as concerned about when you have few other interests in the market beyond a festival.
This year, for instance, Vampire Weekend appeared at Goldenvoice's Fonda in early January, despite being booked for Coachella. Of course, some in the industry think the radius-clause issue isn't a problem. Chicago booking agent Tom Windish, whose company handles the XX, Yeasayer, No Age and many others, earlier told Pop & Hiss that he thinks club owners should stop griping about radius clauses.
"Venues make a bigger deal out of the exclusivity than they should," Windish said. "My clients can normally draw 1,000 people. To go and play in front of 20,000 people in front of Lollapalooza is fantastic for the long-term career of that artist, and the clubs they play in the future.
"If you only play clubs, you’re relying on converted fans to see you," Windish continued. "Or you’re an upcoming act, which doesn’t pay much money at all. How big are they going to get if you just keep playing to the 500 people who will pay $15 to see you in Chicago?"
Club owners quoted by the Chicago Tribune, which like the Los Angeles Times is owned by Tribune Co., appear more understanding than critical.
Bruce Finkelman, owner of the Empty Bottle, told the Tribune's Kot, "There are enough people who are screaming about this that it merits looking into. Is it a good idea? I’m of two minds about it. If I put 300- million-trillion dollars into a festival, I would want these clauses. But as a small club that lives and dies by the talent that’s available, it would be nice to present these acts without those clauses restricting them."
-- Todd Martens
For more, read the Chicago Tribune: Lollapalooza's exclusive grip on bands draws anti-trust scrutiny
Photo: The Coachella crowd in 2009. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times