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Coachella's Strict Radius Clause 'Sucks The Oxygen' Out Of The Festival World, Lawsuit Argues

Jun 28, 2018
Originally published on June 28, 2018 7:09 pm

Between the blockbuster tours of the biggest pop stars and the crush of music festivals, competition to capture the attention of music lovers is fierce. One festival has employed a controversial approach to ensuring that theirs is the hottest ticket of the year: Coachella. Documents show that live music presenter Goldenvoice demands that artists who want to play at Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, held in Palm Springs, Calif. every April, are not allowed to perform at any other festival for months preceding the big show.

But this past April, the organizers of Soul'd Out Music Festival in Oregon filed a federal lawsuit against Goldenvoice producers over Coachella's radius clause — the contract that prohibits artists from playing at any other festival from Dec. 15 to May 1. Coachella's clause prevents Soul'd Out bookers from securing acts for its own festival. While the conditions of the clause were first reported to extend to only to five Western states — California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Arizona — new details have emerged in the lawsuit that reveal that clause encompasses a much larger region. As Dave Brooks, senior correspondent for for touring and live entertainment at Billboard explains, the goal of this clause is to guarantee exclusivity.

"You can almost think of the radius clause for Coachella as somebody took out a map, drew a circle around it and said, 'If you want to play Coachella, you're not allowed to play within this radius of cities for X amount of time," Brooks says. "In Coachella's case, that happens to be all of North America."

With Coachella being the largest music festival the U.S. and the trendsetter for all other festivals, Brooks says Coachella's radius clause "sucks the oxygen" out of the live events world for smaller fests taking place months before.

From the point of view of the musicians, there are also restrictions in the radius clause about when an artist can announce a tour in relation to the festival. But, of course, for acts with enough star power, there are ways to get around this clause.

"In the music industry, clout is still the currency by which so much of this stuff gets decided," Brooks says. "A great example is Beyoncé ... she was able to announce the On The Run II tour with Jay-Z months before Coachella actually took place."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Between the blockbuster tours of the biggest pop stars and the crush of music festivals, competition to capture the attention of music lovers is fierce. One festival has embraced a controversial approach to ensuring that theirs is the hottest ticket - Coachella. New documents show that Coachella is demanding that artists who want to play the California festival are not allowed to perform at any other festival for months.

Billboard magazine's Dave Brooks has written about a lawsuit in which more details about this clause have come out. Welcome to the program.

DAVE BROOKS: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So tell us more about this provision which I understand is called the radius clause. What does that mean? How would it work?

BROOKS: You can almost think of, like, the radius clause for Coachella as somebody took out a map, drew a circle around it and said, if you want to play Coachella, you're not allowed to play within this radius of cities, you know, for X amount of time. In Coachella's case, that radius happens to be all of North America.

CORNISH: OK (laughter), so that's a pretty big pencil circle. So who's suing them, and what's their argument against what Coachella is doing?

BROOKS: So this small festival in Oregon called Soul'd Out Festival, you know, filed a federal lawsuit against Goldenvoice, which owns Coachella, earlier this year. And what they're basically alleging is that Coachella is using its power in the marketplace and ultimately create a monopoly on artists that tend to tour around that time of year and play festivals.

CORNISH: Do they have a point? I mean, is Coachella like the Microsoft of music festivals? Like, how big are they?

BROOKS: Well, they definitely have a point in that Coachella is not only the biggest festival in North America, but it really sucks the oxygen out of the festival world. What the radius clause says for Coachella is that artists are not allowed to play any other festival in the U.S., Canada or Mexico between December and May. And keep in mind Coachella always takes place in April, so it's about five months before and one month after.

You know, most festivals actually take place in the summertime, so this doesn't affect a lot of the mainstream festivals. We think of the Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits. But it does really restrict what festivals that do happen to take place in those - that six-month period can book.

CORNISH: So are there musicians who are big enough to push back on this clause or push back against Coachella?

BROOKS: Of course there are. I mean, you know, in the music industry clout is still the currency by which, you know, so much of this stuff gets decided. And I think a great example is Beyonce. You know, one of the other parts of the radius clause we didn't talk about was that there's also restrictions on when an artist can announce tours. And in Beyonce's case, you know, despite the radius clause and despite restrictions against her announcing tours that are coming up, she was able to announce the On the Run II tour with Jay-Z months before Coachella actually took place. So we don't really know the backstory there. But, you know, whatever the rules were, she was able to get an exemption.

CORNISH: Not to be a hater, but do people care about Coachella anymore?

BROOKS: (Laughter) Yes, absolutely people care about Coachella. You know, Coachella is, like, one of the last festivals I think that still has these cultural moments that everyone talks about. Now, is it something that, you know, I would go to or my friends - you know, we're in our late 30s - you know, maybe not. Maybe it's more of a young person's game.

CORNISH: Hey, hey, late 30s is very young.

BROOKS: (Laughter) I agree. I agree.

CORNISH: Dave Brooks is a senior correspondent for Billboard magazine. Thank you for speaking with us.

BROOKS: Of course, anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.