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Fillmore Jazz Festival Controversial Budget Cutbacks

By Rip Empson

The Fillmore Jazz Fest has been rocking the Fillmore District on Independence Day Weekend since 1985, offering an earful of high quality local jazz and a venue for local merchants and vendors to showcase their wares. Billed as “the largest free jazz festival on the West Coast,” the two-day block party draws as many as 90,000 people and has seen some big names grace its stage over the years -- Dr. Lonnie Smith, Lady Memphis, Jules Broussard, and Paula West among them.

Though star power is always great for business, the real significance of the Fillmore Jazz Festival lies in its ability to show off lesser-known local talent to large swaths of party-goers that might not hear their music otherwise. Generally speaking, musicians are eager to gain the kind of exposure that playing at such a large festival offers, and as a result, many would play for free.

Even so, the Fillmore Jazz Festival became a subject of controversy this year among musicians and others in the music industry when a late email circulated concerning lowly compensations to musicians playing the event, insinuating that the festival may be under-cutting the very people it is allegedly promoting.

The debate began a few weeks ago when Steven Restivo of Steven Restivo Event Services, LLC, sent an email to hundreds of musicians soliciting local talent for the event: “We have a few slots left and our budget is $75 per musician/per band, so a quartet would be paid $300 for the band,” he wrote. “We wish we could offer more to you but the city permit fees to produce all our events have increased dramatically this year. We can offer you lots of free publicity and put you in front of thousands of attendees.”

Restivo had sent similar last-minute emails before the Union Street and North Beach festivals, both of which are held in June and are booked by his company.

Though some musicians look upon these festivals as a chance to increase their exposure, in the end, exposure alone won’t pay the bills. As a result, many are worried that promoters, agents, and venues are getting into the habit of exploiting talent and commiserating to set low wages.

Among the most vocal opponents of Restivo’s tactics is Stephanie Dalton, a local promoter and booking manager. Dalton, who dedicates much of her time raising awareness and promoting local music projects, responded to Restivo in her website’s newsletter, saying, “The Fillmore Merchant's Association contends this is a mistake on the part of Mr. Restivo, that these e-mails were targeted to reach out to up and coming talent and they assure me that no one performing at the Fillmore Jazz Festival is being paid this unreasonable amount. This being said, I have spoken to most of the performers who played at the Union Street and North Beach Festivals — they tell a different story — one of intent not mistake.”

Dalton’s email sparked a heated debate on Facebook, where musicians railed against what they see as a dangerous trend. “Restivo is not the ONLY one and there are others in the Bay area even worse than him,” local musician Tom Wiggins wrote. “If musicians ever want to change this kind of situation they need to get more politically involved with these events and festivals in the planning stages.”

It’s true that the state of the economy has had a tangible effect on musicians’ wages, and no doubt sponsors are downsizing their contributions to festivals because of the economic squeeze. What’s more, most venues now expect musicians to do their own marketing and to play for food, drinks, and tips.

There are definitely two sides to this argument, and I’d love to hear from musicians – on both sides of the fence. Is this really a problem in the Bay Area? Is it worse here than in other cities? Your thoughts are encouraged and welcome…

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