Radius Clause Blues: How Texas Music Festivals are Squeezing Bands and Promoters

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With album sales in freefall, festivals have emerged as one of the music business’ few bright spots. And Austin’s been quick to cash in, hosting a growing number, such as Levitation and Punk in Drublic, on top of its flagship SXSW and ACL Fest.

That means plenty of music for people willing to brave the I-35 jaunt, but it’s also brought an upswing in the radius clauses festivals require artists to sign. For those unfamiliar with these provisions, radius clauses restrict how long artists need to wait before and after a show to play again in that market — and how far away.

In Austin’s case, those clauses often extend to San Antonio.

Local promoter Loy Smoak got a taste of that when he tried to book Canadian punk band Fucked Up for a date around their appearance at Austin’s Chaos in Tejas festival. Plans crumbled after the band discovered the event’s radius clause wouldn’t let them do it.

“It seemed like the whole thing had gotten pretty far from punk rock at that point,” said Smoak, who adds that other bands complain to him about the clauses forcing them to reroute or postpone tours. “These bands are so small, why would you do that to them?”

Radius clauses hurt small and mid-level bands the most, critics say. By opting for festival slots, which can bring exposure and bigger crowds, they may have to avoid lucrative tour spots or cover longer distances.

But it’s not just smaller bands and talent-buyers who feel the impact.

Radius clauses became a legal flashpoint this spring when the producers of Portland’s Soul’d Out Festival sued Coachella over contract provisions that stop artists from playing anywhere within 1,300 miles of its festival site for a period of five months. Soul’d Out claims Coachella’s practice is monopolistic and forced it to drop SZA and Tank and the Bangas because of their contracts with the rival festival.

When done right, radius clauses should benefit both the promoters and the act, said Richard Díaz de León, a local jazz guitarist who also serves as Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach’s road manager. Artists tarnish their own rep with venues when they water down their draw by playing too many shows too close together.

But, he adds, artists should push back when the clauses are restrictive, as in cases where they’d be forced to sit idle in the middle of a tour rather than book a show in a nearby town.

“The thing to remember with these contracts is everything’s negotiable,” Díaz de León said.

Jason George, leader of alt-twang band The Georges, said he generally polices when it comes to overplaying. His band has never signed a radius clause with historic Gruene Hall, where it has a weekly stand. He’s also turned down gigs where the clause is too restrictive.

George also recalls receiving a text from another promoter who tried to retroactively impose one. The promoter texted before one of his band’s Gruene gigs, pissed that it was so close to the date he booked. By the time they’d finished their set, the guy texted back to say he’d slashed the guarantee by $100.

“If we make an agreement, I’ll honor it all day long,” George said. “But don’t tell me after the show’s already booked.”

Local promoters say it’s hard to tell exactly how much Austin’s growing festival scene has cut into local bookings. Some argue the effect is negligible since bands that tour extensively figure out how to route round them.

Even so, a recent study of festivals including ACL, conducted by University of Fairfield economics professor Scott Hiller, suggests that radius clauses economically harms music venues in surrounding cities by cutting off their access to touring acts. And, numbers aside, Smoak said bands are losing potential audiences if their contracts in Austin stop them from swinging through the Alamo City.

“I understand why [festivals] do it, but not everyone from San Antonio’s going to drive up,” he said. “I barely drive up there to see shows anymore.”

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