A Sharpe Promoter’s Tale

Promoter Richard Sharpe has kept quiet for five years, rarely talking to the press or elaborating on a canceled benefit concert in Walkerton, Ontario, while his reputation went into the gutter.

It’s an age-old story, at least in this industry: Promoter has low ticket sales, event gets canceled, promoter covers his hide from angry patrons. It never has a happy ending but, apparently in Walkerton, the cancellation was akin to betrayal.

Walkerton is a small community that was rocked by tragedy in 2000 when 2,100 people – nearly half of the population – got sick from drinking water contaminated with the E. Coli virus. Seven people died.

The promoter ran Next Presentations and still books talent for a family business – the Old Roxy Theatre in nearby Mount Forest. In September 2000, four months after the E. Coli outbreak, he was asked to help the city of Walkerton with a benefit concert. With the help of artists he knew, he raised $90,000 for local charities, Sharpe said.

"It was at that point that the town wrote me a letter and asked me if I would create an ongoing annual festival to help them re-create their economy because a lot of people wouldn’t even go to that town," he told Pollstar. "People were scared of what happened. Was it in the water? Was it airborne? There were a lot of unanswered questions."

Watershed II raised a "couple hundred thousand," Watershed III raised $250,000 and overall the first three festivals gave $700,000 to local charities, Sharpe said.

The next year, 2003, had a solid lineup with Bryan Adams, Alan Jackson, LeAnn Rimes, Martina McBride and Melissa Etheridge on board. But as the event drew near, the specter of Mad Cow Disease was prominent in Bruce County, Sharpe said. Couple that with the SARS outbreak and rolling blackouts.

"Ticket sales were soft due to all of the above," Sharpe said.

He didn’t want the show to go forward at a loss and be unable to pay the acts after they got to the grounds, he said, and he didn’t want to go with a partial lineup and deal with the "angry mob."

"I reached out to the community, to the service clubs and to the Chamber of Commerce and asked for help. I said, ‘If everybody bought into this program and sold 10 tickets at $75, I’ll at least break even."

But the community didn’t buy in and the show got canceled. And thus began his journey into darkness, Sharpe said.

Pollstar has contacted the promoter several times since 2006, and he always promised he would comment on the allegations leveled against him – eventually. There were court maneuvers and local politics and every factor in between that kept him from speaking freely, he said.

But true to his word, when a recent court settlement exonerated him, Sharpe bypassed the local media, saying only "no comment" and immediately contacted Pollstar instead.

In 2007, the Kitchener Record of Waterloo ran a "blatantly false" story that stated he was convicted for bad business practices, Sharpe said. Instead of being "convicted," the recent exoneration has prompted Sharpe’s attorney to issue a $350,000 statement of claim against the paper for the inaccurate story, which was never corrected, he said.

"I got kind of barbecued in the local press for something I didn’t do, and I kept my mouth shut," Sharpe told Pollstar.

As mentioned, the show got canceled but Sharpe, although well aware of the low ticket sales, was not the hatchet man, he said.

"[The city council] canceled the show, not me," he said. "At no point did I cancel but they painted it like I was in default."

Angry customers would show up at the Chamber of Commerce and, instead of instructing the customers of the common policy of contacting the point-of-purchase for refunds, the chamber instead gave the customers the physical address of Next Presentations.

"It became unbelievable. I had to hire security for my office, my staff and my family," Sharpe said, adding he was bitter with the city government that he had to fully take the blame.

"The lesson that I learned here was never fund a fund-raiser. I don’t mean you shouldn’t help your fellow man; just don’t have blinders on."

He said he paid for the artist deposits, adverts, fences, toilets and other festival requirements, while his accounts receivable registered no income. He said he went bankrupt issuing refunds and ticket vouchers. The trouble was, most of the shows he was promoting were at the Roxy in Mount Forest, and some Walkerton residents didn’t want to travel to it or they didn’t like the lineup.

"In my opinion, they’re full of shit," he said. "Lots of people used their tickets. Out of $1.6 million in pre-sales, we did $1.1 million in refunds."

Charges were leveled by the Ministry of Commercial and Business Services – the equivalent of the Better Business Bureau in the U.S. – and 93 ticket buyers alleged Sharpe engaged in cases of false, misleading or deceptive consumer representation between January 2004 and September 2005, according to the Record.

Sharpe and Next Presentations were each charged with 342 counts – apparently one count for each ticket sold to 94 holders of multiple tickets. The defunct Next Presentations paid restitution of $45,000, drawn from a personal loan to Sharpe and unused ticket refunds from Ticketmaster. Sharpe said his biggest victory was his personal exoneration, noting that he had put a kid through college during the lengthy situation.

In the end, he agreed to publish an apology, approved by all parties, in the Walkerton Herald-Times.

"They wanted me to say I was remorseful. I didn’t want to say that. But I am regretful. Again, bad choices."

Senior prosecutor Jane Hooey told the Herald-Times that "Mr. Sharpe made promises he didn’t keep. He disappointed the community. There’s nothing the court can do to restore the good faith lost."

"I disagree with her," Sharpe said. "I did everything I could at all times within my ability to meet the commitments I made."

Sharpe continues to book the Old Roxy Theatre and the Roxy Summer Nights festival in June, he said. He added he’s been able to settle "some accounts with agents and artists who ultimately had an interest in seeing me survive." – Joe Reinartz