'Thunder on the Mountain' Emails Offer Rare Inside Look At the Final Days of a Doomed Festival

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Documents in long-running suit reveal the desperate and depressing moments that come in the days and weeks before throwing in the towel.

AJ Niland didn’t hold back when describing what it’s like to be at the helm of a festival that’s past the point of no return.

"There's sort of like an initial nuclear explosion," Niland testified in a Dec. 2018 deposition, describing his own experience with the cancellation of Pemberton festival in 2017 and his observations on why the much smaller 2015 Thunder on the Mountain festival -- now the subject of a dozen lawsuits -- was cancelled.

"If something goes horribly awry it can sideline or blacklist," promoters tied to event, Niland testified during the four-hour deposition. "Anytime there's a situation where vendors, artists, fans don't get paid (back)," he explained, "it can be an absolute career killer."

Niland was one of 40 witnesses deposed in the five-year-old legal battle over the cancellation of the 2015 country music festival created by promoter Brett Mosiman and his Kansas-based Pipeline Productions. Mosiman is suing his former business partner Bryan Gordon, a Colorado business man who co-founded the KAABOO festival in Southern California and sold his former business partner in September.

Mosiman accused Gordon of reneging on a commitment to fund Thunder on the Mountain in 2015, leading to its cancellation and Mosiman’s financial ruin. (Gordon contends the money he spent on the festival was a loan and says he’s not responsible for the millions Mosiman now owes.)

Dozens of emails between the men, talent agents and vendors for the festival were released this week as both sides prepares to go to trial in a federal courtroom in Kansas. The trial exhibits provide a rare glimpse into the despair and accusations of double-crossing and deceit that are often hid from the public in the days and weeks before and after a festival is cancelled.

The first signs of trouble popped up in early ticket sale reports, showing the festival headlined by Carrie Underwood and Zac Brown Band were seriously underperfoming. Mosiman had forecast as many as 16,500 tickets being sold for the late June 26-28 festival, but by early March with only a small number of tickets had sold.

On March 2, Gordon emailed Mosiman and his partner Nathan Prenger, writing "Gents -- I am very concerned that the pace of ticket sales is slowing down and we are very far off of our ticket sales goals."

Despite the dismal sales reports, Gordon assured Mosiman that he wasn't abandoning his plans to partner on the underwater festival -- "lawyers are working diligently -- I am literally talking to them daily about questions/issues."

A second sales report sent over ten days later showed a worsening picture -- Mosiman had forecasted $330,000 in sales for the month but only brought in $57,000. Gordon "became increasingly nervous" over the loss the first year festival would incur, a judge overseeing the case wrote in a recent filing, and had his lawyer contact Mosiman and demand repayment of the $272,000 Gordon had spent on artist deposits "or face scorched-earth litigation."

With Gordon out, Mosiman began looking for new financial backing and instructed his talent buyer Todd Coder to call then-CAA agent Matthew Morgan and try to renegotiate the talent fees owed Zac Brown and Carrie Underwood.

"We are hoping that they would take some sort of reduction," because of slow ticket sales, Coder recalled during a Oct, 17, 2018 deposition in Mosiman's lawsuit against Gordon. "That was not an option. CAA was pressing for them to be paid 100 percent in full."

Meanwhile competing talent agencies that had booked their artists to play Thunder on the Mountain were now working together to try and find answers.

"Matthew Morgan just jumped on the phone with Bryan Gordon at Horsepower to get his side of the story," CAA's Elisa Vazzanna wrote in a May 27, 2015 email to Becky Gardenhire at WME who represented several artists booked for the festival. 

"Got the same update from Brett just now," Gardenhire responded, saying Mosiman would send over documents proving Gordon has agreed to invest in the event. 

As the festival opening ticked closer and closer, agents began hearing chatter that a new financial partner might step in at the last minute to save the event. On June 1, Morgan emailed Matt LaRose at TownSquare Media following up on rumors that the radio and events company was allegedly considering bailing out Mosiman.

"NOT TRUE!" LaRose replied. "We are not talking to him at all about this and have no interest at this time."

By June 11, with the festival less than three weeks away, the agents ran out of patience. Gardenhire sent Mosiman an email saying several WME acts were planning to announce they were no longer playing the festival. Mosiman responded saying he needed more time.

"At present we are diligently working to hold the event. By canceling, your clients will hurt that effort. We expect your clients to continue to prepare to perform," Mosiman wrote.

Two days later, Mosiman once more was emailing Gardenhire.

"It is with great regret that I must inform you that the decision has been made to cancel Thunder on the Mountain," Mosiman wrote. Gordon and his companies Madison and Horsepower had "informed us they intended to dishonor" their alleged promise to fund the festival, agreement. "We felt their decision violated our agreement and in May 2015 filed suit against them in Federal Court in Kansas."

Before the day was over, Mosiman was put on notice by CAA that Brown and Underwood were still expecting to get paid even if Thunder was cancelled.

"We want to be very clear that our clients are entitled to retain all monies previously received in addition to all other rights and remedies available to them," CAA's Katie Anderson wrote in an email to Mosiman.

Five days later, Anderson send Mosiman a certified letter demanding full payment to Underwood.

"Until this matter has been resolved we have no choice but to inform our other clients of the experience with Pipeline and each of you," Anderson wrote. "We simply cannot afford to make our other clients vulnerable by putting them in a situation with disreputable buyers."

Mosiman responded that he was "disappointed and shocked," by Anderson’s email.

"To punish us so severely AND pretend that we are responsible for the cancellation when you have the facts AND our 40 year history is quite distressing," he wrote in a June 19 email.

Mosiman’s problems would only get worse — an Arkansas lawyer named both Mosiman and Gordon as defendants in a class action lawsuit from consumers and vendors seeking repayment of more than $6 million in unrefunded tickets and vendor booths. Mosiman eventually settled and agreed to pay the victims a percentage of anything he won against Gordon in his current lawsuit.

By the end of 2015, Mosiman's festival business was deep in debt and Thunder on the Mountain's insolvency issues were starting to impact Mosiman’s other events, like the jam band-heavy Wakarusa Music and Camping Festival, which Mosiman managed to pull off June 5-7 even though many of the staff ended up not getting paid.

"I still really dont get it at all," Mosiman wrote in an email to his business partner, assessing the damage the company had sustained over the year. 

"Here is a litany of possible issues I see and yet I did not expect to be down this year," he wrote, listing out more than complaints about hippies, his staff and the music business, including the "Colorado pot initiative gobbling up hippie dollars in our biggest market" followed by "cops being rednecks again" and "two years of incredible amounts of rain."

Whatever the reason, the cancellation will probably spell the end of Mosiman’s career in the festival business, explained Niland, who is expected to testify at trial about his own relationship with Gordon and his professional experience in music.

"There are only a handful of agencies that control most of the talent. They're in the business of protecting [them]," he said during his depositon. "If you are incapable of meeting your obligations, it removes you from, you know, consideration. And unless there's some extenuating circumstances to explain it, it generally takes you out of the running to do shows for a period of time, if not in perpetuity."


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