by Morgan Davis
ACL 2014 Photo by Josh Kamnetz
Austin music folk have been obsessed with one major news story over the past few days: the announcement that corporate juggernaut LiveNation would be acquiring a majority stake in local promoter C3. The acquisition has been rumored for some time, but this past week it was confirmed, with LiveNation rumored to have purchased their 51% interest for $125 million, giving them control of what was previously the largest independent concert promoter in North America and the sixth largest concert promoter period. Local musicians, industry figures and fans alike have decried the merger as a major blow to local businesses in Austin, with Austin’s local subreddit providing a handy overview of the reasons why Austinites are outraged, ranging from general distrust of corporate behemoths like LiveNation parent company iHeartMedia (formerly Clear Channel) to fear of soon-to-be-inflated ticket prices and out of control ticket fees to the belief that the acquisition would result in the further watering down of the ACL Festival that C3 puts on. While these complaints intersect with a general fear of Austin getting too big and corporate (and the ticket price fear is arguably a little too late given the already increased ticket prices one redditor charted), it’s not hard to figure out why LiveNation would be willing to spend so much to buy a majority stake in a local entity like C3.
Since its founding in 2007, C3 has become a major player in the growing festival business that has come to be viewed as the future of live music. Austinities associate the company with ACL and local venues Stubb’s and Emo’s, but for the rest of the world they’re the organization behind Lollapalooza’s revival as an international excursion with events in Chicago and Chile, Brazil and Argentina, as well as the promoters of Australia’s Big Day Out and Rome’s Counterpoint among many others. C3 may be based out of Austin, but to view them as a “local business” is simplistic and misguided, particularly since their grosses in 2013 amounted to $124 million, about a quarter of LiveNation’s operating income in that same time. LiveNation’s parent company iHeartMedia has long utilized a “buy the competition” operating strategy, with its 2006 acquisition of House of Blues standing out as a similar powergrab that gave the then-new LiveNation arm of the company domination of the market, and the recent “creative partnership” it formed with Insomniac echoes this.
The Insomniac partnership also serves as an example of how these acquisitions have hurt LiveNation in some ways and could have one positive side effect for the Austin music community. Earlier this year, a class action lawsuit was filed in California against Insomniac (and its new partner) for its abuse of unpaid internships and volunteer positions. The suit alleged that Insomniac forced volunteers to “carry out the work of paid employees,” arguing they were not compensated in a way that fit the criteria of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The suit outlined a practice that has become especially dominant in Austin music labor, with volunteers getting paid in tickets or passes to the event in exchange for working untold hours, doing work that goes beyond the educational experience internships and volunteer positions are supposed to provide. Though SXSW is undoubtedly the largest “employer” of volunteers in Austin with numbers potentially as high as 3,000, C3 employs hundreds of volunteers for ACL alone, with a 2010 profile on ACL volunteers estimating there to be at least 350, or more than double C3’s total number of employees.
As C3’s profits have risen alongside those rising ticket fees and prices, their use of unpaid labor has also increased in a questionable trend that mirrors SXSW’s own growth in profits and volunteer positions. LiveNation has been named in the Insomniac suit as the parent company, but their own internship usage tells a different story than C3’s. Employee review and information site Glassdoor has paid internships not only listed but reviewed and a source confirmed to me that LiveNation recruits their interns and in most cases pays them, with the majority of their festivals and events being staffed by labor who are nearly always paid above state and federal minimum wage, usually because of union bargaining agreements at amphitheatres, arenas and other large venues that they operate (full disclosure: I have never worked for LiveNation, but I have worked for companies they have hired to provide food and beverage services). The suit against Insomniac– which is similar to suits targeting many media companies in California, including Warner Music, Sony and Columbia– also raises the question of whether Insomniac was sued specifically because LiveNation had acquired them due to LiveNation’s history of settling most suits brought against them. If so, it could mean that C3’s heavy use of volunteer positions could be at an end, whether because of the likelihood of a similar class action suit emerging in the wake of the LiveNation acquisition or because LiveNation is less inclined to rely on volunteer labor.
As that 2010 profile cheerfully indicates, many volunteers at these festivals are happy to provide their time in exchange for tickets that they otherwise might not be able to afford. But even these volunteer positions aren’t free, as they require paying a $10 non-refundable application fee (oddly something C3 doesn’t require for the 10 intern positions they currently have available outside of ACL), which is lower than Bonnaroo’s $25 fee but still oddly similar to the pay-to-play practice that we reported on earlier this year. 350 volunteers were selected in 2010, but who knows how many hundreds or thousands applied and paid that $10 fee to C3, giving them enough money to potentially offset a big chunk of the limited amount of labor they do pay? How many does the company screen and utilize now that the festival spreads across two weekends?
And while many of these volunteer positions just revolve around manning recycling booths or answering general questions from festival goers, that Austin360 profile paints a different picture of what’s required from Volunteer Team Leads, who are said to work “from 9 a.m. to midnight all three days” and oversee around 140 volunteers. To put that further into context, that means one volunteer team lead oversees more employees than C3 currently has on their payroll. If the chief claim in suits like the one brought against Insomniac are that these volunteer positions “carry out the work of paid employees,” it would be extremely difficult for C3 to argue that this kind of intense supervision wouldn’t normally be handled by a paid position.
These volunteers undoubtedly gain valuable experience, but considering that volunteer positions and internships are at least occasionally supposed to lead into full time jobs with the company providing them, it is also troubling that that profile also spotlights numerous team leads who have volunteered for years without it resulting in a paid position. This has of course been an issue at SXSW for many years, where the thousands of volunteers are supervised by more volunteers who may only have one paid employee crossing paths with them and the opportunity to transition to a paid position is extremely limited or nonexistent. In Austin, where musicians are clashing with venues over the lack of pay they get for shows, particularly in comparison to the bar staff who may bring in more in tips than they get paid for bringing in the fans tipping them, the volunteer labor use by entities like SXSW and C3 is also prohibiting musicians from working industry jobs that could bring them extra revenue and fit their odd hours. The current volunteers may be happy to simply be reimbursed with a few free hours of festival experiences, but the cost in terms of devaluing the market rate for these positions cannot be overstated.
Many of these companies repeatedly state that volunteer labor is the only way they are able to make a profit, that in order to provide the experience Austin music fans want, they have to get by with help from the community. But between the hundreds of millions of dollars LiveNation has paid for C3, the company’s steadily rising profits and the lawsuits that are poised to strike down this practice in other areas, as well as the waiving of fees the city of Austin provides to C3 and SXSW, it’s necessary to reexamine Austin’s unpaid labor examination. LiveNation may be a big bad corporate entity on many levels, and Austinites are right to question much about the acquisition and iHeartMedia’s near-monopolization of music promotion in North America, but maybe in this instance the involvement of a corporate parent who cannot avoid the spotlight a smaller regional business has is good for the local music community.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City, the multimedia collective he co-runs. When he isn’t doing that, he plays drums for Denise and gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.