Santa Cruz Music Festival
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Santa Cruz Music Fest Founders on Artist Pay Scandal

Why free live music isn’t really free

A disc jockey performs at a previous year’s Santa Cruz Music Festival, which falls in late October this year.

Kyle Meyers and Brian Crabtree say they were surprised when they saw a Los Gatos musician complain on social media about an email he’d received from Santa Cruz Music Festival (SCMF).

An organizer had emailed the guitar player Kevan Smedt, offering his band Skyline Hot Club the opportunity to play one of the event’s unpaid slots, which Smedt found insulting. A post from the guitar player went viral on social media and later turned into a San Francisco Chronicle story.

Meyers and Crabtree, both SCMF founders, say that they normally pull from some 600 festival submissions to fill free slots, but they reached out to Smedt on the advice of a friend. The festival does pay about four-fifths of performers, they say. What hurt the most, the organizers add, was Smedt’s claim that they don’t care about local artists.

“We did some math,” Meyers says. “Sixty-five percent of the lineup is Santa Cruz, with 95% of the lineup being Bay Area. And 70% of our budget goes to the artists.”

Myers says that all sizable music festivals book unpaid shows, with the difference being that SCMF’s unpaid gigs are free to the public. Artists at unpaid stages do sometimes renegotiate for some compensation, they say. This year’s festival will be held Oct. 19 and 20. Meyers, who isn’t sorry about what he chalks up to miscommunication, believes that Smedt isn’t used to receiving offers from festivals.

Reached for comment on Tuesday, Smedt tells GT that he’s been asked to play a few festivals, like San Jose Summer Jazz Fest, but never without pay.” It’s different than volunteer labor because we’re dealing with people’s passion, life-path and chosen profession,” he says, in an email.

Do you remember the first time you saw one of the emails you sent out posted online?

KYLE MYERS: The offer sheet. Yeah, we saw it from the beginning … The meat of it is we have free-to-the-public stages that require no wristband. Those stages—some of them—have unpaid artists. For instance, Abbott Square is free to the public. Abbott Square did their best bar days since they’ve opened on SCMF, made a ton of money.

This year, we have artists being paid via sponsor. We asked Abbott if they wanted to kick in money. It’s always no. None of the venues want to help pay for anything. The city doesn’t want to help us pay for anything. Nobody wants to help us pay for anything. We have to work all year to save and pay these artists. This year, we have a sponsor for Abbott Square, so that’s cool. All the artists are going to get paid here, that are playing free to the public. And then 100% of our wristbanded stages are paid. That was our main disconnect with that SFGate article—“SCMF doesn’t pay local artists.” That couldn’t be further from the truth. We have Schlump on the bill this year, that we’re paying to headline the Catalyst. He’s played with us for years, in the beginning for very little, and now for over $5,000, and he’s a local. Minnesota we’re paying $7,000. He’s a local.

How many of your artists get paid?

KM: In the 80% range are paid, I would say. We haven’t done that math.

BRIAN CRABTREE: We’re still not done with the booking, so it’s hard to say where these last bookings go.

KM: Also, we’re not done getting sponsors for these stages. Every year, I spend a lot of my time reaching out to hundreds of Santa Cruz businesses and beyond asking for this. ‘Hey, this brings money to downtown. You’re part of that. Help support us by paying artists playing stages that are free to the public.’ … The question is always, ‘Should we just not have those free stages?’ Because that would erase the issue. There’s eight this year.

But the email offer also included a radius clause, asking that unpaid performers not play any shows in Santa Cruz for the two months preceding the festival.

BC: If you read it closely, it says we prefer you not to. Really that is us reaching out. We want to know about other shows or gigs they do have. As far as the free artists performing, we waive the radiuses on them all the time. The thing is knowing about their other shows and gigs to see if they’re the right fit for us. And in the offer, you’ve got to find out about their availabilities and what they already do or if they have a gig the week before. The radius is in the industry offer to find out what other shows or gigs they have in your area.

KM: Every offer sheet from festivals and clubs has a radius clause. Coachella has one of the most aggressive radius clauses in the industry, and people play there for free. The radius clause is considered highly negotiable. It’s determined on mutually agreeable terms. We waive the radius clause for even paid acts. The radius clause gets waived all the time for all kinds of random shit. … We will be changing the verbiage to make it more clear that these terms are mutually agreeable.

The email offer says at the top, ‘Pay: $0.’ Later in the email, it reads, ‘Guest passes: 0.’ At the very least, someone could view the wording as poorly phrased, maybe even tacky.

BC: But when you don’t know anything about an act and you look them up on Facebook, and they have 200 followers, not a real big draw, where do you sell your starting point?

KM: It could have fluffier verbiage.

BC: But after years of doing this, you have to be direct. The more gray room you leave leaves more issues when you come to ticketing day of and payouts, and people are a little confused.

What do you think of the saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity?

BC: There’s always a limit somewhere where things can go bad. But if anything, this whole situation has brought awareness about the event.

It was clear from the response on your website that you guys were upset. Organizational statements are often more conciliatory. How did you think about the tone?

KM: There’s a big group of us, from people that work directly with the festival to friends of the festival to other business owners in town. And to be honest with you, we got input from everybody. We reached out to all constituents of the festival, and everybody put down their points. And we put it together. The tone is that we all agree that we want to make sure that everyone at these free-to-the-public stages gets something. The question is how do we do it? The only answer I really have is sponsors. People have said other things, like, ‘Well, you could not have big headliners and you could pay all the little artists.’ But we’ve learned that when you do that, nobody comes, and then the festival loses a bunch of money. And then there isn’t another next year. Until me and Brian save up everything we have, and then go broke doing it again, which is what we’ve done forever. 

The festival has floated around to different times of the year over the past six years. Why is that?

BC: The first year, on the advice of the city, was to do it in the summer, so it was just contingent on the rest of the crazy summer crowd. So we did it in July of 2013. After that, they asked us to move out of the summer. Getting the dates, we have to confirm with the city. It can’t conflict with any other event, marathon, something else going on. And then, we moved to October for two years. Then, we moved to February, trying to get into the spring, and then March was this last one.

KC: It’s a balance between three main factors: the city, when they allow us to have it; the rest of the festival scene and budgetary. After 2013, there was a huge loss of money, and we’ve had to recuperate from that. Me and Brian have never gotten back our investment. We brought all this money together and then we put it into the event. There’s been some good years, but we’ve never been able to take any of that money out because we need to use that money to create the following year. This year, we had to switch dates because Lighting in a Bottle switched their  dates from Memorial Day to our weekend that we had already sent out offers for. We had artists on board. We had the city confirmed. We work with Lightning in a Bottle. We ran a stage for Lightning in a Bottle—of unpaid acts, because that’s how Lightning in a Bottle does it. … We had to switch our dates because they switched their dates. We’re hoping to stay in October.

How much did changing dates affect the festival’s bottom line? There hasn’t been enough continuity for a music fan to say to themselves, “It’s that time of year again, Santa Cruz Music Festival is coming up!” 

KM: Exactly. That’s how Lightning in a Bottle lost millions of dollars this year. When they had to switch from Memorial Day, which everybody plans around every year, they lost 10,000 tickets. So absolutely. These are the things we struggle with. What are we supposed to do? We can just not have the event, or we can just roll with the punches.

BC: And we’re not out of competition, going with October. That weekend we have there are several other events going on that we are competing with—the Burning Man Decomp in San Francisco, which is huge. There’s a couple big shows in the Bay Area. 

I want to ask about the challenges of putting on a music festival.

BC: How long do you have?

Woodstock 50 was supposed to be a huge event. It had the date changed, it got moved, it got canceled. And two recent documentaries showed everyone the quagmire that was the Fyre Festival. I realize its leaders were idiots. But I do wonder if planning festivals is getting more difficult. Or at the very least, have these high-profile failures have made the public aware of the challenges?

KM: These high-profile failures are making people more willing to scrutinize a festival.

BC: But you hear it about every festival now. If on the first day, something goes wrong, it’s like, ‘That’s an instant Fyre Festival.’ It happened at the big one in Miami, Ultra. Ultra moved to a separate area of Miami this year, and transportation was horrible, and the first day, the hashtag was Fyre Fest 2.0.

KM: But also, it’s become a saturated market. LiveNation and AEG and Another Planet have bought everything up, so they control the acts who plays where and how it goes down. As the market’s gotten more saturated with festivals, big corporations have come in and bought them up and funded them heavily to out-compete every independent festival like ours

Will you ever turn a profit with this festival? Or sell?

KM: The dream for us would be to create a living wage for ourselves doing it full-time. And we’ve had offers from companies to invest in SCMF, but their terms were not something I was willing to agree with. Namely, they don’t give a shit about our locals. We had a deal on the table that we turned down. And it was mainly about we have an idea of who we want to book in the industry. Like I said, 95% Bay Area. We know who we want to have on the bill for the most part. If we bring in the wrong company, they might say, ‘We’re taking that artistic direction that you have for money.’ I wouldn’t give up artistic direction of the festival for money.

News Editor at |

Jacob, the news editor for Good Times, is an award-winning journalist, whose news interests include housing, water, transportation, and county politics. A onetime connoisseur of dive bars and taquerias, he has evolved into an aspiring health food nut. Favorite yoga pose: shavasana.

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