Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

The volunteers fight back

Legal action bought by volunteers against Live Nation shows up the dependance of the festival sector on unpaid workers – and, in some cases, bands

Tue, Apr 29, 2014, 09:21


One of the features of the festival landscape which often goes without comment is the amount of volunteering which occurs. From such huge gatherings as SXSW right through to Irish festivals like Longitude, Body & Soul, Electric Picnic, Castlepalooza and Indiependence and probably every arts organisation in the country, many events rely, or have relied, on volunteers to keep the show on the road and costs down.

In the case of an event like SXSW, there’s a lot of very obvious civic pride involved in motivating thousands of Austinites to lend a hand for a few unpaid hours during the event’s 10 days, but there’s no doubt that unpaid labour brings a big reduction in costs across the board for all festivals. While it has to be acknowledged that many smaller events could simply not happen without volunteers to take up the slack, there are some more commercial festivals which could easily pay their volunteers rather than adding to their profit margin.

It’s the latter sector which has prompted the start of a court case across the Atlantic, which sees a number of volunteers bringing a class action against Live Nation and their subsidary Insomniac Events.

The volunteers, who worked at the hugely successful Electric Daisy Carnival and Nocturnal Wonderland events, are claiming that they were used in place of paid employees at the events, but were not compensated for their efforts.

According to Hypebot’s report, “the lawsuit claims this is a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires that all time spent working must be compensated at a rate of no less than the federal minimum wage ($7.25), and seeks to recover wages owed to these volunteers.” Furthermore, volunteers were not provided with rest and meal breaks, while the “hands-on experience in festival operations” which were supposed to be provided did not occur. There is also mention of the “refundable volunteer deposit” to ensure that the volunteer performed their duties, which basically means that the volunteers were actually paying to work for the company.

As Billboard notes, this action follows on from a spate of cases against record labels using unpaid interns. It seems that the widespread blowback against intern and unpaid culture has finally hit the music industry, a sector which has long relied on unpaid workers, giving them a chance to gain “experience” and “exposure” rather than paid jobs. And we all know how easy it is to pay bills with “experience” and “exposure”.

Of course, there are probably many people who very happily volunteer their time and efforts to help out a festival. You can understand this in the context of a local event or small, non-commercial and non-profit festival which seeks to highlight an area or community. But it’s a far different matter when big commercial concerns like Live Nation and its subsidaries – including Festival Republic, which is involved in both the Electric Picnic and Longitude – use volunteers again and again to do what’s really paid-for work. It’s a way of getting around labour and other laws and gives the festival a few more dollars profit.

But it’s not just the volunteers who work at music events for nothing. In the last few weeks, OTR has received emails and calls from a number of bands who are playing Irish festivals this summer and not getting paid for it. In many cases, to quote one such email, the acts are getting “a slab of beer and a ticket” in exchange for playing what are well regarded, well established and, seeing as the festivals return year after year, profitable concerns.

Because Ireland is a small country and because you can be sure festival promoters would do their damndest to blackball any acts who raise their heads above the parapet about this kind of thing, none of the acts or festivals can be named at this stage as the acts are worried about going on the record. But you can be sure that the festival headliners – especially the acts from out foreign with London-based agents in their corner – are getting paid and paid well for their hour long set.

The problem, of course, is that, as with unpaid interns, there are probably three or four times as many acts who’d be happy to be play these events for a slab of beer and a few tickets than those who would prefer to get paid a proper fee for their time. The festival bookers know this too, which is why you rarely get any dissent, such as acts pointing out what is going on (I would really much prefer to use concrete examples and quotes from acts, but none were prepared to go on the record at this juncture).

It’s also a significant reason why there has been such a growth in the small festival sector in recent years: there’s a lot more cash to be made if you’re not paying all the acts a fee from the ticket revenue. It’s worth asking yourself the the next time you go to or plan to go to an event featuring dozens of great Irish bands if all of them are getting paid for that “awesome” set they’ll play – and not just with a slab of beer and a few wristbands.

UPDATE: more information on the class action here, including a full list of Live Nation and Insomniac festivals and events.

Meanwhile, we received a statement from Jennifer Forkish, Insomniac’s vice president of communications and public affairs, saying that “we’re really disappointed to hear about this lawsuit. There are thousands of current and former Insomniac volunteers who are expressing their outrage online over this suit, as well as their desire to continue volunteering at our events. We appreciate the support of these individuals and intend to vigorously defend the lawsuit.”

We asked Insomniac to provide us with (1) the revenue/turnover earned by Insomniac Events in 2013 and 2012 and (2) the profit earned by Insomniac in 2013 and 2012. In reply, Insomniac said “that information is not available”.