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-   -   Festival etics, 15% of your hat or we report you to the IRS (

martin ewen 05-01-10 01:21 PM

Festival etics, 15% of your hat or we report you to the IRS
It's a Seattle folk fest,NW Folklife, been going for years.
Here's some background..

"I surprised to get a phone call from a friend and fellow street performer the other day. He was dismayed by some news that he had learned about playing at the NW Folklife Festival this year.

This year, he was scheduled to perform at the event. He was excited about that. Like me, he gets invitations to play at events and he had been looking forward to this opportunity. He was going to organize a group performance with some other friends for this year's event.

He told me that while at the festival he was also planning to perform for donations with his friends. While talking with the folks at NW Folklife he learned that they had adopted a new tactic this year to crack down on street performers. He said that they were going to report street performers to the IRS who did not comply with their list of demands.

Upon hearing this news, he told the organizers that he and his friends weren't interested in performing this year. I was as surprised as he was to hear about this new tool in their anti-street performing arsenal. Their list of rules is long, restricting those who engage in this First Amendment protected activity and copied almost to the letter from a similar list that was being used to restrict street performers by those managing the Seattle Center.

A street performer challenged the Seattle Center's rules and won his case against the Seattle Center and the City of Seattle in June of 2009, just two weeks after I was bounced from the event. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit heard the case with 11 judges and in an 8 to 3 decision, they invalidated five specific rules. The Court said that the City of Seattle could not:

1. require the application for permits to perform on public property
2. ask performers to display a permit for entertaining on public property
3. tell performers where they could perform on public property
4. tell performer how close they could be to any gathered group of people
5. restrict what performers could say to their audiences

In short, what I do on public property as a street performer, is protected by the First Amendment as freedon of expression. At the following link, you can Read the Court's ruling.

It was number 3 on the above list that the NW Folklife head of security used to harass me, while I was entertaining folks at the event. At last year's NW Folklife event I was forcibly evicted from the grounds of the Seattle Center by four officers of the SPD (Seattle Police Department) because I stood up to being bullied by the festival's head of security. (I told him that the only problem I saw was him.) What had I done wrong? I choose to sit in the shade of a covered walkway at the far northern edge of the event and entertain about a dozen folks (at their request) offering folk music with my folk instruments at this "supposed" folk music event.

The NW Folklife Festival is a free event, held on public property, the Seattle Center. The Seattle Center is a public park. According to the Court's decision on the matter, that makes my activities as a street performer beyond the forced control of the rules of the festival.

NW Folklife specifically demands that they have the right tell performers where they can and cannot perform, how close performers can be to a gathered group of folks at the event. Plus, they wish to collect a tax of %15 of anything that listeners might freely offer to street performers as support. They require street performers to pay a $10 fee for the right to exercise their First Amendment right to freedom of expression on the ground of the Seattle Center, a public park. Finally they require street performers to get a temporary business license, a $20 fee.

Here's the link to their rules.

See for your self.

NW Folklife has not paid a single performer for their skills and talents to entertain at this event in the last 3 decades since I've been donating my time there. Now, they not only wish to deny the right to freedom of expression, but they want to street performers to pay for that right. Rights are not privileges to be controlled by power hungry event coordinators and they have no right treating our rights in that manner!

To my friends on the other side of the pond, suffering from the hands of those termed fascists. Know that we too, here in the land of the "free", do suffer from creative oppression as well, from those who I would also term as having a mentality that's not far from fascist."

More here

Isabella 05-02-10 12:02 AM

Is the festival attempting to collect a 15% FEE to the festival or a 15% TAX to the IRS? If it's a fee, they are merely assholes. If it's a TAX, they are making the performers their employees, and will themselves be responsible for paying social security/medicare taxes on tips, and providing each performer with a W4 form to fill out on the commencement of employment and an income/tax statement at the end of the year. And they're still assholes.

martin ewen 05-02-10 07:42 AM

what they are doing is telling street based music acts at a festival held on public property that they want 15% of the income derived in the hat during the festival. Or they'll squeal to the IRS regarding potentually undeclared income. Basic extortion as accepted business model.

Evan Young 05-02-10 09:06 AM

a critical look
I don't necessarily think that an organized and staffed festival should be forced to include street performers and allow them to play wherever they want, even if it's on public property. I'm not gonna get too far into it, but I think a lot of performers get pretty selfish with their attitudes about how they are providing a free service and should be given praise and free reign for it....
I read the rules. The strict 15% applies to CD sales, and the $10 permit is to make those sales on the festival grounds. Retail sales are not covered under free speech, and there is no reason it should be, sorry. The $10 donation gets a free CD workaround is a bullshit tactic IMO, it's still a merch sale.
They are also asking the performers for a 15% honor system donation to the festival, which is a little presumptuous. The festival talks about how they rely heavily on donations from festival goers each year, and it doesn't seem unfair that they ask performers top pitch in a little to help cover the cost of the event they are clearly benefiting from... BUT, the festival has plenty of corporate sponsors who do in fact benefit from the diverse entertainment, so why ask the street performers for their pennies? I'm a little torn on this one, but I'm leaning towards the idea that asking the performers for cash is a dumb/unnecessary thing to do.

frankly, the guidelines listed in the link don't seem unfair; their execution of those guidelines might be a different story. Reporting performers to the IRS seems harsh, and does resemble extortion; but it wouldn't hurt me, I pay my taxes. I would also probably be willing to kick the festival a few bucks though, so it wouldn't really be an issue unless they questioned the generosity of my donation.

martin ewen 05-02-10 12:43 PM

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? NO!, It's measured response man!
My gripe is the 15% 'donation'

and that the persons who structured this obviously went to one of those, 'How to maximise your revenue streams.' workshops.

I too am ambivilant about the whole, 'This is public land' argument during a festival. It doesn't hold up usually because the festival pays a hefty insurance premium that covers the events area and the fine print little dance that comes with that usually reveals that the 'public' land is temporarily lent to the event for the duration. The event pays security and other costs . We are more likely to be on one side of this argument because we're employed by the event.

No the heart of this to me is no-one has the right to take money out of my hat. I may give them what I wish but no-one, in my view has that right.

It's a private tax and a sneaky con. Jodi wright did it for a while at the Ch-ch night time shows. It smelled.

She sold the festival on this year. Waited a bit and then had a huge chunk of capital taken from it and dumped into her coffers post sale. Go Jodi. /sarcasm

Mr.Taxi Trix 05-02-10 05:41 PM

I am solidly in the "keep your fat, fat fingers out of my hat" school on this one, but no festival has ever called the house to ask my opinion when deciding how big a pound of flesh they want to hack from performer's souls in order to cater that next little meeting. And there are always newer acts around, with plenty of fresh young soul to offer, who won't even notice the hacking sound, much less miss a pound here or there.

It's criminal, but what isn't these days? Its not quite as bad as rousting up the homeless into prison camps in Rwanda, or bombing Times Square. It just sort of sucks, like when you think the pizza will be awesome, and it burns the crap out of your mouth. Tough to enjoy eating, after that, even though there's still more to eat.

martin ewen 05-02-10 05:56 PM

Well yeah, perspective is everything. I have to admit being outraged by others does serve as a much needed distraction. :)

Evan Young 05-03-10 12:58 AM

Here in Lancaster PA we have "first friday" celebrations, and one of the only spots that is viable for a large street act like me is in a parking lot that a guy rents out booth spots on. He's interested in having performers, but wants to charge them for the booth spots they would use... Makes sense to me from his business perspective, but I've got better places to be where I'd make way more money anyway. If I thought it was worth it, I might bite, otherwise, they don't owe me anything, and I don't owe them anything.

sooo, this festival would have to be the best thing around that weekend for me to dip out 15%.

Isabella 05-03-10 05:05 PM

Tell the festival to squeal to the IRS all they want - as long as you're filing you're Schedule C's you've got nothing to fear, and if you're on the road you're probably not paying any taxes anyway after deducting for per diem and mileage. Then report them to the IRS for THEIR cash sales - they are a much bigger fish for the IRS to sniff around.

In all seriousness, a percentage for retail sales is fair - if you're selling product, it's like being a booth, and all the booth owners are likely paying to be there. But asking for a "donation"? Puh-leeze. Either have the balls to charge a fee and take a hit for it, or let it go - don't try to fancy it up as some kind of love offering.

Get someone articulate to write some letters to the press about this one, it might take off.

Irina 01-20-11 01:13 PM

15% does not go to IRS - it goes to the festival, this is the same deal they have for artists - when you get art-booth there they ask for 60$ down plus 15% of gross sales...and artists who sell merchandise have to pay SALES tax on top of that - this of course does not apply to street poerformers... I wonder - do they want musicians selling CDs to pay sales tax too? They never ask anybody working there for SS# - so do not worry about income tax, they do not report you to IRS. But it really sucks that they started doing it to street performers - this is a public park, they do not have the right to regulate or milk performers working for tips! Keep me posted - if you guys decide to take legal action - I'd love to join, I have been working there for years, but I got tired of harassment and booked something else on these dates...but I do not mind being a part of a class-action lawsuit as Folklife veteran...I tried to apply for a sidewalk artist spot this year - they moved deadline from january to november - LOL! Both Bumbershoot and Folklife are getting more and more corporate every year, I bet 5 years from now FolkLife will be charging 50$ admission a day like Bumbershoot...

davidkaye 07-25-11 04:06 PM

Get A Contract!

Originally Posted by martin ewen (Post 56998)
NW Folklife has not paid a single performer for their skills and talents to entertain at this event in the last 3 decades since I've been donating my time there. Now, they not only wish to deny the right to freedom of expression, but they want to street performers to pay for that right. Rights are not privileges to be controlled by power hungry event coordinators and they have no right treating our rights in that manner!

I suggest to anybody who is invited to participate in one of these "festivals" to be sure to get a written contract with the organizer, look it over thoroughly, and then decide if you want to participate. Make sure you get their counter signature so you both have signed copies of the contract. Yeah, it's a hassle, but this is the only way to guarantee that you're not going to get ripped off.

So many promoters think they can get rich quick on the backs of performers who have spent years honing their skills by ripping them off or making unreasonable demands. Forget that! As street performers were are professionals, not derelicts. We deserve to be treated as well as the electrician they hire to to oversee their setup or the insurance agent who oversees their liability insurance.

Irina 08-13-11 09:28 PM

Hi, David, I have seen a lot of your posts lately, and it looks like you are coming from the world of corporate entertainment...We all love corporate parties and sponsorship money, but for most street performers this is not the case...Most street performers I know just work on local pitches and at local events, nobody pays them and daily stipends, they just get their 'hat". But when a local festival held on public property tries to get money FROM street performers who worked there for years - this is IMHO is immoral and illegal and clearly violates the 1st amendment of USA constitution. I can understand when festival moves the busking acts away from vendors - but they can't just close you or demand 15% of your tips! I agree with you - it is much better to work at the festivals which give you free housing and daily stipend, but do you have these every weekend? If you do - you are very lucky, most buskers do not. If we just act as primadonnas - we'll starve to death!

davidkaye 08-14-11 12:30 AM

Hi Irina,

Well, let's see. I have been a radio DJ and talkshow host, a TV movie host, a very bad actor in small theater productions, and I have put on about 400 live shows over 12 years in venues such as clubs, dives, and theaters in the SF Bay Area. I've also booked acts for corporate events and play my button accordion at private and an occasional corporate event. That's the extent of my corporate entertainment schtick.

On the busking side, I've been a street musician, playing fiddle or button accordion on the streets, at farmers' markets, in the BART subway, and at the occasional flea market.

The purpose of a lot of my posts is to caution buskers about getting pushed around. I don't like to see good performers jacked around by charlatan promoters. I feel more kinship to the buskers than to any of the corporate people. The corporate people and the promoters can take care of themselves.

The buskers are often people who have a passion to perform, and can be blindsided by that passion and make some dumb moves. What I hope to tell people is hey, you're good at what you do and there is no reason to tolerate being pushed around.

As to festivals, I DETEST them (Eric is an exception here because I know he won't go corporate on us). I DETEST festivals because the promoters pull the crap that this NW Folklife Festival obviously does. They try to dominate the scene and prevent "outsiders" from working. That is BAD.

Whether it's a busker festival or a movie or music festival, the festival format erodes the audience base for the smaller performers. For instance, there is a music festival called Outside Lands taking place in San Francisco this weekend. Sure, Arcade Fire is here and all kinds of good acts are here, including Kitten on the Keys and her bawdy burlesque act.

HOWEVER, Outside Lands with its 5 stages and 3 days of shows positively KILLS most of the other live entertainment in SF this weekend! It's nearly 10:30pm. I just came from a venue that is normally very busy with live music tonight and tonight they're empty. I'm sure it's because the audience that would have been there was at Outside Lands today or will be tomorrow.

BUT, if you're going to work busking festivals, I am adamant about suggesting to buskers that you get a stipend, get contracts in writing, and basically formalize as much as possible or you're going to get ripped off AND you may find that the busking environment will suffer from the festival taking away all the audience within about a month either side of the festival.

I think too may people are giving away their talents to promoters in the hopes of drawing big audiences that will help their careers. I say don't give away your talents. Demand a stipend.

Lee Nelson 08-14-11 02:39 AM

dude, get out of SF.
I have worked at hundreds of festivals and mostly they are great. Only a very few have I felt like I got the short end of the stick.

Isabella 08-14-11 03:21 AM

Second what Lee says. Not sure where you have been working, but I've had wonderful luck with festivals, been treated extremely well, and made great friends and great money.

Interesting to think about festivals taking away from the local scene - I know in Christchurch, they specifically book buskers who are not working the street, so that the audience will see something new at the festival.

Many of the locations I work don't have a circle show scene - there may be small music buskers, but the festival is a different beast, bringing in much larger acts and shows that otherwise wouldn't come. Your example of Arcade Fire is pretty right on - they probably wouldn't come play a club.

So the question is - are the venues/locals *entitled* to a monopoly? Because you're basically arguing that any town with a hamburger stand should be facing off against McDonalds. Perhaps business owners should anticipate that some weeks of the year will be awesome and others will be competing against an outside event? Would you argue that they are entitled to a clear playing field every weekend, and that anyone who wants to see Arcade Fire had better be able to afford a ticket to Montreal to watch them there?

martin ewen 08-14-11 04:29 AM

David, your going to have to get used to massive differences of opinion on pnet. hard not to take it personally but what you may not be aware of is that although it's a slow moving site at present, in part because of corporate bleed-off. facebook, google+, etc. generic social networks with attractive bells and whistles. This specialised little online community has existed for over a decade now and has some cumulative wisdom.

Welcome BTW.

Festivals are neither good or bad of themselves. Most that have survived their own learning curves are good as a result and most exploitive fests die, starved because of the indignity they offer.

Many here are or have been full time performers working some international combination of festival and street and corporate.

I mention that because your point about a small ecosystem wherein one big event starves all the others is just a provincial fact rather than anything a principle can be built on. ie, festivals are bad because regular venues become empty during them.

Not arguing this isn't true but obviously the public are drawn to things that most interest them on any given day.

Corporations, as much as I'd like to dress them as darth vader and beat them with a baseball bat are not uniformly bad. The epilepsy foundation is a corporation and they have created a funding umbrella that has propelled the Toronto Buskers fest for over decade to rival Edmonton, another huge and much respected festival.

if you create a cultural, or counter cultural module that charges at the door and sells liquids at a profit using performers to get people through that door then you live or die by the sense of community that has people return to that room.

If you exist using that module by taking for granted a supply of tourists then you are merely another distractive commodity and 'festivals' if they are taking your custom are simply better at what they do than you, [figurative 'you'].

There's no injustice as far as I can see. Adapt or die.

Street theatre is adaptive by definition which I suppose is why it's survived centuries.

and if 'festivals' threaten established venues, well there must be something they offer that established venues do not. My observation is that they offer atmosphere in public places rather than atmosphere you need to pay a cover charge for and additionally festivals commercial worth can be measured on more levels sociologically and commercially than a doortake and bar sales nightly total can match.

But know... I could be mistaken.

davidkaye 08-14-11 07:15 AM

Festivals and Killing Acts

Originally Posted by Isabella (Post 59255)
Your example of Arcade Fire is pretty right on - they probably wouldn't come play a club.

You missed my point. My point is that the Outside Lands music festival (3 days on 5 stages) ruins the live music scene in San Francisco while it's going on. Likewise, the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival harms the local bluegrass music scene while it's going on.

My point is that there are X number of people who go to see live events. You have a big festival and the small venues and the smaller performers hurt because the big guys take the audience away.

Maybe I should put it another way: If you just went to the Cotati Accordion Festival and spent the weekend listening to accordion music, would you then go out to a cafe or nightclub and hear someone play accordion? Hell, I play accordion and even *I* wouldn't do that!

davidkaye 08-14-11 07:37 AM


Originally Posted by martin ewen (Post 59256)
David, your going to have to get used to massive differences of opinion on pnet. hard not to take it personally but what you may not be aware of is that although it's a slow moving site at present, in part because of corporate bleed-off.

I don't that any of it personally. I'm a longtime veteran of Usenet, so I've seen it all. And your point about "corporate bleed-off" plays EXACTLY into my point.


This specialised little online community has existed for over a decade now and has some cumulative wisdom.
I'm actually not new here, though my description says so. I hadn't logged in nearly 5 years and recently came back. I also know some of the performers who pop up on the streets and at various shows, Eric Cash, Scot Nery, Daniel Browning Smith the Rubber Boy, Chris Karney, Paul Nathan, Sigred, Molotov, etc.


I mention that because your point about a small ecosystem wherein one big event starves all the others is just a provincial fact rather than anything a principle can be built on. ie, festivals are bad because regular venues become empty during them.
San Francisco is a city in a metro of nearly 8 million. It's a world destination and the #4 metro in the USA. Sorry, but it's hardly a provincial setting. It's just that there is a finite audience for everything. It's also true of movie festivals as I've noted elsewhere. Movie festivals are thriving; movie theaters are closing.


and if 'festivals' threaten established venues, well there must be something they offer that established venues do not.
Look at it this way: Lots of people hate WalMart because it's called a "category killer" meaning that it kills off businesses within 50 to 75 miles. This is a known fact. Starbucks has been a category killer in a lot of communities. Chain stores drive out mom'n'pop businesses all the time.

We can say that they're offering something that the other established venues are not. For example, McDonald's offers a bland, uniform dining experience. It doesn't change much from city to city or country to country. People who visit us in San Francisco flock to McDonald's even though SF is one of the finest restaurant destinations in the world. People want the bland, uniform dining experience of a McDonald's.

That's well and good for what it is, but aren't we performers because we want to offer something different?

Take street fairs, for instance. SF has dozens of street fairs -- Noe Valley, Castro, Fillmore, Bernal Heights, Potrero, North Beach, Polk Street, Glen Park, etc., but most of those are identical with the same crafts, the same music, and the same food because the booster groups that put most of them on have contracted with one promoter to run them. (And every one seems to feature LaVay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers.)

I just don't want to see the McDonaldsization of street performers.

Isabella 08-14-11 04:29 PM

And David, I think you missed my point.

*****Do local businesses deserve monopolies on their products?*****

You are arguing that festivals harm local businesses; fundamentally, you posit that one corporation is more worthy of the audience's dollars than another.

Do those local businesses deserve a protected zone where audiences are forced to attend them and them only?

Honestly, I'd even listen to accordion music if it meant I got to spend a day in the fresh air and sunshine instead of having to coop up in a dark, sticky, smoky, too-loud bar to hear some live music. As a consumer, am I allowed to make that choice, or do you feel that choice should be dictated for me based on the home city of the corporation in question?

And as a performer, do you want to work in a location where you have one, local option to sell your services rather than a market of several events/venues where you might negotiate the best deal for yourself and play indoors or out as it suits your show?

martin ewen 08-14-11 04:45 PM

McDonaldsization of street performers, is I think an unfounded fear. If the American population are further conditioned to accept prefabricated pap as reality then maybe but even though reality moreso in America than anywhere else is a dimwitted feelgood collective hallucination built on exploitation and held up like that is some cherished principled ideal interchangable and technically identical with the concept of 'freedom' while actual freedoms are whittled down to the fact that your scrotum is public property at American airports and given also that the idea of 'disposable income' and 'leisure time' are constructs that have hypnotized the population while they actually commit to entire lives of indentured debt and servitude masked as lifestyles spent being culturally programmed in front of a glowing box when not working or purchasing things the box tells them to on their 'days off'

Well you get the shitty culture you are prepared to put up with is my point and the fact that you have one promoter putting on a raft of cookie cutter street fairs, [which are entirely different entities from a street festival as we here know and are employed by ]

is the reason your objection to new efforts to produce street festivals runs counter to your own argument. Just as the touting of SF as a world destination with it's huge entertainment catchment runs counter to your argument that festivals alone are predominantly responsible for empty rooms.

As far as street theatre goes America leads in many things but it's the handicapped poor cousin of street theatre. The best american performers don't even bother visiting it, it's just too inhospitable. Dirty Fred would get arrested. Space cowboy just has got arrested in NY, doing what he can freely do throughout Europe and Australasia so to that degree American street theatre has already been McDonaldsized. It's only career masochists like Eric who exist as exceptions proving the rule.

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