Last weekend's Homegrown Harvest Music left everybody unhappy with empty pockets. Now what?
[Updated] When Elise De Sade Way - better known as singer Gypsy Elise - announced, "Welcome to Day 2!!!!!!!!!!" on her Facebook page, notes of congratulations and excitement for the second day of the Homegrown Harvest Music and Arts Festival were mixed with questions about money. Elise headed the board that put on the festival, and while singer Beth Trepagnier wrote, "Thank you SO much for the invite to the Homegrown Harvest Music and Arts Festival... I had such a blast. What an honor," Butch Gomez asked, "How do you intend to make things right for all of the local musicians who did not get paid at your Homegrown Festival? I hope you have some sort of plan because this is not going to just go away." Some supported Elise and the festival even though the musicians' paychecks weren't good, but others were concerned that they had passed up paying gigs or come from out of town to play and were facing the possibility of losing money if they weren't paid.
The ambitious festival offered three days of music on five stages starting Friday morning at 11:15 at the New Orleans Event and Film Studios, formerly Mardi Gras World on Algiers Point. From the start, Chris "Old Sarge" Perkins from The Blue Crabs had doubts. "We were promised a back line and that didn't materialize until after we told the sound people what we were promised," Perkins says. "The sound man had no idea what he was doing and had it not been for the lighting tech, we would have not been able to go on for quite some time longer. We went on about 30 minutes late because of the sound crew." Being late didn't seem like that much of a problem because at that point, there was nobody there but food vendors.
"They intimated to us that they expected a huge crowd," Perkins says. "They kept saying that it was going to be a better festival than JazzFest and that there would be this industry exec or that one in the crowd, so on and so forth." On November 8, Elise posted on her Facebook page, "We have confirmation that several Very high level politicians will be in attendance. (Passes requested at Will Call) and several active sports figures!" If executives, politicians and sports figures showed up, they hid themselves according to the bands who played. The turn out by all accounts was poor, with bands playing to their friends and family for the most part.
Those that played on Friday were handed checks when they finished their sets, but the checks were post-dated to Monday, November 12. "We had to have time to get the money in the bank," Elise says, but rumor started going around that the checks were bouncing. Perhaps it was because musicians tried to cash them before Monday - actually Tuesday since banks were closed for Veterans Day on Monday - but considering the turn out, it was a credible fear.
Things didn't improve on Saturday. "My band played Saturday to no one," says David Roe of The Royal and Dumaine Hawaiians. "We were told our checks were post-dated for [Monday]. I started getting emails and texts Saturday afternoon from folks whose checks bounced. I have emailed and messaged the producers and have received no answer."
Roe's band opened a stage on Saturday at 11:15 a.m., but as the day went on, the audience failed to materialize. According to Elise, once she and the organizers realized that the festival wasn't taking in the sort of money it needed, they let the bands know that they wouldn't be paid right away. "This is half-way through the festival," Elise says. "'Stop those bands. 'Don't let them get up on that stage. Have them come to the office so that we can explain the situation. We don't have the funding anymore.'"
Amanda Shaw and The Cute Guys were scheduled to play, and because of the venue change, date change and low turn out, she was concerned. She sent her father to collect the check before she or her band would take the stage, and when he asked for the check, he was told that Elise wanted to talk to her personally. In an office inside the office at the site, Elise explained the situation, and when she said that they couldn't pay Shaw and The Cute Guys, Shaw said she'd have to send her band home. "She said, 'I understand. I'm a musician too," Shaw says.
Local rock band The Scorseses didn't get the word before going onstage, though they played shortly after Shaw. "We were given a check and were told it would probably bounce, and nobody was there," says Chris Noto of The Scorseses. "They told us that they took in $1,400 for the day. Our guarantee was $1,200. They shut down our stage after we played on Saturday."
According to Elise, a scaled-down version of the festival continued with the bands that would play despite the small crowds and uncertain pay. Some of the food vendors packed up and left around 7, and a few demanded their money back because they had paid at least $750 for a booth based on the notion that there would be people to buy their food. "There were threats to me," she says. "It's not that hard to hurt my feelings when everything I do is about Louisiana music."
The festival returned for the third day despite its financial woes. Some artists withdrew because they weren't going to get paid while others soldiered on. People who were there say it was hard to know who played and who didn't because there weren't signs on the stages identifying the performers, but Randy Jackson from Zebra played a set, as did a Jimi Hendrix tribute. People who attended enjoyed themselves as much as possible in a largely empty warehouse, and everybody, even those who were upset that they didn't get paid, thought it was a good idea to hold a festival that focused attention on the artists who often don't get included in Jazz Fest and French Quarter Fest. So what happened?
According to Gypsy Elise, problems started when Homegrown Harvest had to change venues. It was scheduled for the weekend of September 21 at Rivertown in Kenner, but when organizers learned that they weren't going to get the venue for free as they claim they had been led to believe they might, they had to make a change. After a month of fruitless searching, a friend referred them to Blaine Kern Jr., who was in the process of reopening the building that was once known as Mardi Gras World in Algiers. Elise says he offered her a deal on the New Orleans Event and Film Studios that she thought they could handle. Unfortunately, the event wouldn't be ready by September 21, so they changed the date and notified the media of the changes. Unfortunately, the new date put Homegrown Harvest on the same weekend as the Jazz and Heritage Foundation's free Treme Creole Gumbo Festival, but then another problem arose.
"For some reason, three weeks ago we started to notice that [the address in listings were] going back to Kenner," she says. "We started hitting them again. New location, new date, new time. We did our job. People started calling us that it had switched back to Kenner again." At that point, Elise says she hoped that the information on the festival's poster and the information that musicians had shared via their websites and social media would carry the day. [I was unable to entirely confirm this confusion. Gambit and OffBeat had the correct information, but The Times-Picayune and Nola.com did have the event in Kenner. When Nola.com was made aware of the mistake, it corrected itself. That wasn't possible in "Lagniappe."]
On Saturday, she heard rumor of an event that took place in the original Rivertown location under the name Hometown Harvest, but Elise has yet to see any pictures. I haven't been able to get independent confirmation that this duplicate event took place, but another festgoer in Algiers heard stories about the Kenner event as well.
The best-known names on Homegrown Harvest talent roster were Shaw, The Brass-a-holics, Randy Jackson, Johnny Sansone, The Pinettes Brass Band, Charmaine Neville, Little Freddie King and Rockin' Dopsie Jr., but Elise rejects the possibility that the lineup lacked the star power necessary to draw a substantial crowd. "Those guys are really great," she says. "Nobody knows it. Let's give them a stage between well-enough known bands so that they'll actually have an audience in front of them. That was the original plan. Those little bands - they bring in a lot of people, but not if they're going to the wrong place. Not if we don't get the press we should have got."
Elise is equally certain that they did the right thing scheduling bands as early as 11:15 a.m. on the Friday, a work day. "We invited every school around to bring their busses," she says. "Kids were in for free. The public was in for free from 11 to 4. We wanted to make sure they had talent to watch." There is no mention on the festival's website of the free Friday.
"I think if people would have got the concept of what we were trying to do - to create a Louisiana showcase - it would have drawn beautifully. Enjoy the music, the food, the art of Louisiana. Come and immerse yourself in the real Louisiana because it's all here. It's not like we were choosing the talent based on how many they would bring in; we were choosing the talent based on how good they were." That said, she concedes, "I didn't create the lineup. As the producer, I dole out responsibilities."
With its limited budget, the Homegrown Harvest Festival decided it didn't have the money for advertising. Elise says the lack of advertising wasn't the problem. "We went with social media," she says. "We did a lot on WWOZ." Instead, the festival counted on the energy built up over the course of the last six or seven months with "challenge match" gigs with participating bands, and free media stories. Unfortunately, none of those materialized until mid-afternoon on the Sunday of the festival, when two television stations did stand-ups from the site at a time too late to make a difference.
The festival was handicapped because sponsors didn't step up, she says. Of more than 50 approached, none signed on. One major sponsorship remained a strong possibility in Elise's eyes until the Wednesday before the festival, but at the last minute, that sponsor also declined. That left Homegrown Harvest heavily dependent on money taken in on site to pay the talent, talent that she says was notified up front how they would be paid.
"Every single band got a letter that said your checks would be post-dated until Monday because we wanted a chance to get the money in the bank so that the checks would clear," Elise says. "Everybody got the same email. Everybody."
The musicians don't agree. One artist forwarded a group email that asked to whom the checks should be made payable with no mention that they wouldn't be good until Monday. An earlier email asked musicians if they would donate $100 from their pay "to fund Homegrown Harvest Festival expenses" or play a free 45-minute set at a September 29 fundraiser for the New Orleans Musicians' Clinic and the Apex Community Youth Center - the festival's non-profit beneficiaries, but it said nothing either about the method of payment. However, one musician, Patrick Cooper, recalls receiving prior notification. "I did receive a hard copy letter with attachments by snail mail dated 10/20/12," he writes in this story's Comments section. "There was a statement which indicated we would receive a check dated November 12, 2012 after our performance, so I did know that going in."
At this point, there are a lot of upset people. Many musicians went to the bank and discovered that their checks weren't good. Amanda Shaw found herself embroiled in a Facebook sparring match after she apologized to any fans that paid their admission charge because they wanted to see her band. Some fans and musicians thought she should have played anyway, while others rallied around her for standing up for professional musicians. "It's not okay for musicians to be taken advantage of," Shaw says. Members of her band passed up other work to play the festival, as did many musicians who were scheduled to perform on the weekend. "I want to do my part to help protect our wonderful music community."
For her part, Gypsy Elise feels under attack, misunderstood, and sad that people have forgotten the motivation that led to Homegrown Harvest in the first place.
"A lot of these bigger bands were saying, 'Man, we're never going to get to play Jazz Fest,'" she says. "'They never even look at us.'
"'Okay, we're all musicians. Let's make our own festival for everybody.'"
She's buoyed by business leaders and musicians that have come to her support, and she insists that many had good experiences at Homegrown Harvest despite the small crowds. "Some of the vendors said, 'We have never been treated this well at any festival," Elise says.
She's looking forward to Homegrown Harvest returning next year, but for now, she's trying to make the paychecks good. "Hold that check," she wrote in a Facebook post this morning that has since been taken down. "It will have value as soon as the solutions are completed." She's looking to see if the festival's insurance will be of any help in the situation.
"There was never any greed involved," she insists, and no one I spoke to for this story suggested that there was. Instead, many felt like she was over her head. She rejects this possibility as well.
"I've been producing for 30 years. This is not even remotely out of my league."
Updated November 14, 8:59 a.m.
The original text stated that musicians didn't recall receiving any correspondence stating that paychecks would be post-dated. One musician who read the story wrote in the Comments section that he did receive that notification, so the text has been changed to reflect that.