Fillmore Jazz Festival’s “Cattle Call” Raises Concerns About Musician Pay

The offer of $75 drew ire from a local promoter/booker and musicians, while others say it's just the reality of the economy.

The Fillmore Jazz Festival bills itself as “the largest free jazz festival on the West Coast,” celebrating the area’s “prosperous tradition of jazz.” First held in 1985, the annual event has been viewed as a sought-after gig for musicians, and attracts a high caliber of talent. But a last-minute mass e-mail from the organizer offering $75 per musician to play this year’s event sparked concerns and criticism that the festival may actually be hurting some of the very artists it’s touting.

It started when Fillmore Jazz Festival producer Steven Restivo of Steven Restivo Event Services, LLC, sent an e-mail on June 17 soliciting local musicians to play the event, which was held last weekend. “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 said the message was being sent to “over 500 musicians/bands” and concluded with a request for those interested to respond to the e-mail “asap” because the lineup was to be finalized by the end of the following day. It wasn’t the first time that Restivo had sent such last-minute e-mails; he apparently did the same thing with two other street festivals his company books: Union Street and North Beach, which were both held in June.

Some saw the e-mail as an opportunity, but others thought it was downright insulting. The most vocal in the latter category has been local promoter and booking manager Stephanie Dalton. Dalton sends out a weekly e-mail newsletter called Urban Music Presents, and has used the platform to rail against Restivo. “As a booking manager, I have taken great offense to three e-mails I received from Steven Restivo sending out artist submission requests to perform at the North Beach Festival, Union Street Fair and the Fillmore Jazz Festival for a fee of no more than $75 per musician,” she wrote. “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 outspoken opinions led to a lively discussion on Facebook, where local musicians joined in on the disdain toward Restivo’s last-minute request. Their anger wasn’t just because Restivo’s e-mail was informal, hurried, and offered little pay; it also opened up a discussion about the state of the local music scene in which too many promoters and venues treat hard-working, professional musicians as an afterthought. Another concern is that Restivo produces several street fairs (eighteen this year, mostly in San Francisco and the North Bay) that book jazz musicians, so some believe he’s holding a de facto monopoly on the market — and is therefore suppressing musician wages.

“I’ve been blacklisted from performing at the Fillmore Jazz Festival for the past 2 years, all because I took a stand against the shady booking agent who cancelled our shows and tried to not pay us,” wrote Adam Theis of Jazz Mafia on Facebook. “I still feel like I did the right thing. Stand up for what you believe in and stuff.”

That post prompted dozens of other comments. “He’s using a bottom feeder mentality,” wrote jazz bassist Kurt Ribak. “In the past I also had him offer me a date, say he’d follow up with details later, and when I check in he said there was no gig offered. Since he’s booking most of the summer festivals in the area turning him down shuts me out of a lot of events, but I’m not going to work for him under these conditions — and I’m not going to ask the folks who play with me to put up with it.”

Thomas Reynolds, president of the Fillmore Merchants Association, which hired Steven Restivo to produce the event, said he thought Restivo’s e-mail was “a mistake.” Reynolds said he wasn’t aware that Restivo was sending such a call to local musicians and that it was “not a good way to reach out to them.” “Obviously a lot of musicians didn’t think it was appropriate either,” he said in a phone interview. While Reynolds said the merchants association didn’t stipulate how much Restivo should pay the musicians, he made it clear to the event producer that $75 wasn’t acceptable. “Given that the festival is based on Fillmore and jazz, the musicians should be taken care of. We’ve talked about the budget and we’ve talked about it again. I don’t want to say too much publicly.”

As for Restivo, he defended his e-mail but also retracted his offer of $75. He also called into question Dalton’s motives. “This is the deal: No one at the Fillmore Jazz Festival is being paid less than $100,” he said. “We had a few slots available. We have 1,100 musicians in our database. Most want to play for the exposure through the web site. And this one particular woman got a hold of it — she is a booking agent herself. In some respects, I think she has an agenda here …. The fact that I pay $100 a person or $75 to $100 — 90 percent of the musicians I deal with are fine with that. The city fees tripled this year and we needed to cut our budgets all the way around. Most of the musicians get other exposure as well.”

One of those content musicians was Jim Passard, bandleader of The Lost Cats. “I’ve been playing music for 35 years,” he said. “I play with guys that make a living playing music. I’m just incredibly excited to be playing the Fillmore Jazz Festival.” Passard said he also played the Union Street Festival this year for $75 after responding to a similar last-minute e-mail Restivo sent out, and three years ago played the same event for $100. Overall, he said his experience with Restivo has been “good.” In fact, after Dalton’s e-mails and articles about the issue, Restivo bumped up Passard’s pay to $100. “I’m curious now all this is coming up how much Calvin Keys is getting,” Passard said. “He’s pretty well-known. I can’t imagine that he’s going out for $100.”

Indeed, considering some of the big-name acts such as Keys, Kim Nalley, and Houston Person, it’s likely that Restivo spent the bulk of his money on the headliners and ran out of funds for the supporting acts. Restivo wouldn’t divulge his financials, and several musicians booked to play the festival did not return calls for comment. The question is whether Restivo can afford to pay the supporting (i.e., local) acts more money than he’s offering. He wouldn’t say whether he makes or loses money on the festival, or how much, so it’s hard to know. But Ribak, who played the festival in 2005 and 2006 when it was being produced by a different company, said $75 was “less than a third of the money he was paid.”

Granted, the state of the economy has probably made it more difficult for the festival to get sponsorships or vendors. Passard said that Restivo told him the costs of policing the event went up about $30,000 this year.

Organist Wil Blades notes that the economy has also forced musicians to take gigs they wouldn’t have taken in the past. Still, he said it’s the responsibility of musicians to put their foot down and refuse low pay. “If musicians take these gigs, which obviously they are, that furthers the problem,” he said. “Yeah, we can point the finger at Restivo doing some unfair stuff. There’s plenty of sleazy booker promoter people out there, but at the same time, the musicians need to step up and say, ‘No, we’re not gonna do this.'”

Many local musicians say Restivo’s attitude is indicative of a greater issue, and the Fillmore Jazz Festival is just a glaring example. “My problem with it is just that the San Francisco jazz scene, as far as the locals are concerned, sometimes tends to be not very well supported, and this is the one local festival, pretty much 90 percent or so are local jazz musicians, so it’s a drag that this is the way the whole thing goes down,” said Blades.

A North Bay-based jazz vocalist who would only speak on condition of anonymity because she feared repercussions on her career, said the SFJAZZ Festival is “notorious” for not hiring local musicians. “Local musicians built that festival,” she said. “And now none of us ever get to play and it really irks me.” She added that most Bay Area jazz venues pay “nothing” and expect the musicians to do all the marketing, with the exception of Yoshi’s and Anna’s Jazz Island, which is no longer open. Carnaval San Francisco also doesn’t pay musicians much money, according to Dalton, whose boyfriend performed at this year’s event. Passard said he often plays gigs for food, drinks, and tips.

Instead of cash, a big incentive for musicians to play events like the Fillmore Jazz Festival is the exposure, according to Restivo. But some also criticize that assertion. “Their argument about you’re getting press out of this is kind of BS because the schedule just got announced,” said Blades, a week before the festival. “That’s a joke as far as promotion is concerned. The festival could be much better run.”

And Restivo seems to agree, at least partially. He’s under contract to produce the next two Fillmore Street Festivals. But next year he said he’ll “hire a booking agent and just let ’em do it themselves. And it’s not going to be Stephanie Dalton.”

Miscellaneous Debris

Berkeley-based promoter Another Planet Entertainment, which books the Greek Theatre, Fox Theater, and The Independent locally, has taken over operations of the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, the Chronicle reports. Having signed a twenty-year lease with the city, Another Planet has agreed to make $10 million in improvements and to start booking regular concerts there. In exchange, the city will get $100,000 annually in rent with 2.5 percent increases — more if ticket sales exceed expectations. The city will also be allowed to use the facility rent-free for up to fifty days per year. … SFJAZZ has announced its complete lineup for this year’s season, which starts September 14 and runs through November 20 at various venues around the City. Tickets to the general public go on sale Sunday, July 11. … The lineup for Mission Creek Music & Arts Festival has also been announced. The long-running indie music festival, now in its fourteenth year, will be held July 9-11 in Oakland and July 14-18 in San Francisco at various locations.


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