Sleeping Bear In Big Trouble

The Sleeping Bear Dunegrass and Blues Festival July 31 to Aug. 3 in Empire, Mich., ended its 16th annual event about $175,000 in the hole, with artists, vendors and service providers going without pay.

Artists on the lineup included Leftover Salmon, moe., Steel Pulse, Arlo Guthrie, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, My Dear Disco, Ultraviolet Hippopotamus, Railroad Earth and Buckethead.

Although Pollstar was not able to get in contact with Stephen Volas, whose Grassroots Productions has organized and produced the fest since 2004, the Leelanau Enterprise reported that Volas said he doesn’t know how or if he will be able to pay back the funds owed.

This is the first year Volas had to write out a check for use of the vacant field where the festival is staged. The Deering family charged Volas $10,000 after deciding to seek payment because of the growth of the festival.

Phil Deering, who is related to field owners Mark and Warren Deering, told the paper the family hasn’t been paid and he isn’t hopeful they will be.

“It’s not too bad for us, but some of those service providers could really be hurting,” Deering said.

Volas told the paper that after running a report on ticket sales Aug. 1 – the four-day fest averaged about 4,500 people a day – he discovered he hadn’t made as much money as he thought.

After consulting with his attorney, he broke the bad news to the artists – many of whom might not be paid the remainder of their guarantees.

“To their credit, all the artists decided to stay and play,” Volas told the Enterprise. “Basically, the artists who performed on Thursday and most of Friday got paid, those who performed [Saturday and Sunday] did not.”

Three of the artists that weren’t paid their full guarantees were William Morris Agency artists Steel Pulse, Punch Brothers and Chris Thile.

WMA’s Brad Goodman, who handles the day-to-day for Steel Pulse, told Pollstar the band is still owed $20,000.
Goodman said things got off on the wrong foot when Volas didn’t pay the initial deposits on time.

 “I’ve never done business with him personally so I kept pushing and pushing and pushing to get the money,” Goodman said.

“I said, ‘Look, we’re not going to come unless you pay us 50 percent. I understand you’ve been doing this a long time but we’ve never done business together. Let’s get this year done and then in the future maybe there can be some leeway. But I can’t give you any leeway your first year doing business with me.’”

A deposit of $3,500 due April 15 was received late the following day. A deposit of $21,500 was due June 9 but instead was received in three installments June 27, July 8 and July 16.

“So as you can see, it was like pulling teeth getting money from these people,” Goodman said.

Steel Pulse performed Friday night and Goodman said he received a call from the festival’s attorney Saturday morning telling him the promoter didn’t have the balance of $25,000.

“She said, ‘We don’t have the money to pay you. I don’t know what to tell you,’” Goodman said. “I was so shocked and unprepared. They said ‘Listen, we’ll pay you as much as we can out of the cash that comes in today but we’re not going to be able to pay you the balance of $25,000.’”

“One of the band managers spoke with David Hinds, the lead singer of Steel Pulse, and said, ‘You can either walk away, not perform and still take the $30,000. Or you can perform.’ And [the band] decided to perform because the fans aren’t going to know why Steel Pulse walked away; they would have left their fans unhappy.”

Steel Pulse was paid $5,000 out of the balance owed.

Goodman said Volas had also promised to cover the band’s hotel fees – after the business manager put a $4,200 charge on his credit card, expecting to be paid back. The band has not been reimbursed.

Goodman forwarded Pollstar an e-mail sent to WMA’s John Gimenez from Volas that detailed the promoter’s efforts to repay the artists. It ended with Volas writing, “Just so you know I don’t have an income right now, but am looking for a job and have a couple of potential options.”

An attached letter sent to Gimenez and Goodman from Grassroots Productions, and signed by Volas, said, “We are working hard to secure funds to pay the remainder of the guaranteed fee of $20,000 plus the lodging bill of $4,200. We intend to make good on all of our obligations to all parties that have yet to be paid in full for services given at the 2008 festival.”

Goodman said he couldn’t comment if William Morris is planning to take any action against Volas.

WMA’s Jay Williams, who handles day-to-day for Punch Brothers and Chris Thile, told Pollstar his artists were also not paid their full guarantee at the time of the festival.

He said Volas met the requirements of the initial deposits for his artists – 50 percent of the guarantee – but the payments were more than 30 days late.

Williams explained that at the festival Punch Brothers were paid another 25 percent of the guarantee, so the band is still owed 25 percent. No further payment has been made since and no payment plan has been set up. Thile received nothing the day of the show so he is still owed 50 percent of his promised guarantee.

Volas told the Enterprise he plans on holding the festival next year but he hopes locals will become investors in the event.