Amid the country music festival gold rush, the ongoing legal tussle around Florida Georgia Line at last summer's Country Explosion in Tooele, Utah, serves as a reminder that potential pitfalls exist as new players enter the marketplace and talent budgets hit unprecedented levels.
Rather than "buyer beware," the current market might best be described as "seller beware." In this case, FGL's representatives filed a breach of contract suit in August relating to $205,000 they say the group is owed for performing at Country Explosion. Prior to that, representatives of Country Explosion owner Darren Brady --a bail bondsman in Utah (Rebel Bail Bonds, "The Bail Bondsman You Can Trust") -- filed a $15 million "preemptory" suit back in August of last year, alleging breach of contract and defamation, singling out FGL manager Seth England and tour manager Troy Johnson.
In a Cliff Notes version of this entanglement, the 2014 Country Explosion Festival booked an all-star lineup for its July 17-20 run, including headliners Reba McEntire, Toby Keith, and Florida Georgia Line. FGL was to be paid $450,000, half of which was paid in advance of the date, per industry standard. The agreement was struck in principle when Brady and his representatives traveled to Nashville during the International Entertainment Buyers Assn. (IEBA) conference in October of 2013. The contract was executed by Country Explosion agent Jason Stark. Though this was the fourth Country Explosion, the festival had upped the ante on talent significantly for 2014, with a budget for acts that Billboard estimates at more than $2 million, right up near the big leagues, budget-wise.
While production at the fest was said to be top-notch and attendance robust, numerous sources on the ground tell Billboard that talk of the festival experiencing financial difficulties began to surface by the third day of the event, including that Toby Keith had to be paid with money collected at the beer tents and "various other sources." Despite this vibe of uncertainty, FGL elected to play anyway. "They didn't want to disappoint the fans," says FGL agent Kevin Neal, of WME. "That's what it was all about for them."
According to court documents, FGL reps sought out Brady for assurances that the group, which had shoehorned the Touele date into its supporting run on the red-hot Jason Aldean shed/stadium tour, would indeed be paid. The FGL filing states Brady not only assured FGL that they would be paid the balance owed under contract, but that Brady also personally guaranteed the payment. In the end, a modified method of payment was set forth, signed by Brady both on behalf of CE and as an individual guarantor. FGL attorney Chip Petree described the on-site scene in Tooele as a "shuck-and-jive situation, where they paid $20,000 in cash and wrote a check for $205,000."
Two days later, according to the FGL suit, the check bounced due to insufficient funds. As stated in that suit, Brady then confirmed there were insufficient funds and promised to correct the situation, but FGL's representatives were subsequently notified on July 25 that a "stop payment" had been ordered on the check, and that CE "continue to refuse to pay FGL for its July 20 performance."
Then on Aug. 1, Brady/Country Explosion attorney David Drake filed their defamation suit in Utah District Court, charging Johnson with breach of contract for allegedly breaking an oral agreement by depositing the check on July 22, after being asked to hold it until July 23. The defamation part comes from Johnson emailing WME "and other artists or booking agencies in Nashville that the check had bounced, making [Country Explosion] absolutely toxic among the artists and booking agencies in Nashville." Drake did not respond to a request for comment.
"This whole thing, $15 million for defamation and toxicity, is really nonsense," FGL attorney Chris Vlahos tells Billboard. "They've never served anybody, [the suit] is dead on the vine. It was nothing but a PR piece."
PR or not, the defamation suit was widely covered, while FGL's own litigation landed much more quietly. The Tennessee suit, filed in U.S. District Court for Middle Tennessee on Aug. 6, "is the only [suit] that's progressing," adds Petree. On Jan. 20, the court entered an order allowing for immediate deposition discovery against Country Explosion. Making the situation even messier, Brady filed a notice of bankruptcy on Jan. 29, in which he tried to stay the case against both him and Country Explosion. FGL contested the stay against Country Explosion, and the Court agreed, making it clear in an order that the case against Country Explosion would proceed. Today, Country Explosion filed a notice stating it, too, has filed for bankruptcy protection. Thursday's case management conference will set deadlines, including a trial date.
FGL has advanced two counts for fraud (against Brady) and breach of contract (against Brady and Country Explosion) seeking a judgment in excess of $205,000 as well as fees, interest and punitive damages. Due to both defendants' recent bankruptcy filings, those claims will likely be litigated in Utah bankruptcy court.
Meanwhile, others associated with Country Explosion appear to be having trouble getting paid. Matt Gephart, from KUTV in Salt Lake City, reports that at least four lawsuits have been filed against Country Explosion regarding lack of payment, including the parking consultant, concessions vendor, and the City of Tooele, which says the festival owes it more than $60,000.
"We are cognizant of the fact that we're not the only affected people," says Vlahos. "There are vendors that haven't been paid all across Utah."
Perhaps most interesting of all: Country Explosion 2015 is still planned for July 16-19. No location is cited beyond Tooele, with Anita Cochran, Andy Griggs, Steve Azar and Jamie O'Neal are listed as performers on the fest's website. Stark is now out of the Country Explosion picture (though some reports have him involved in another Utah country fest, Country Fan Fest in Tooele, July 24-26), and Brady has filed suit against him over allegedly missing tickets and incompetent management. Country Fan Fest has Clint Black, BlackHawk, John Michael Montgomery, and Sammy Kershaw on the bill, with tickets on sale and a site nailed down in the Tooele's Deseret Peak Complex. Sources contacted by Billboard say some artists playing this event are demanding 100% of payment up front.
Winner of the Breakthrough award at the 2014 Billboard Touring Conference, Florida Georgia Line remains one of the hottest acts in country music, headlining at the arena/amphitheater level across the country in 2015. Last year, FGL did successfully headline a run of minor league ballparks in June, but spent much of the year supporting Jason Aldean's sold-out megatour, indeed leaving that tour to work in the Tooele date. Given FGL was then solidifying its status as headliner -- and a sizeable payday -- Country Explosion was, without the benefit of hindsight, an appealing play, both career-wise and financially.
Kevin Neal now believes that such a "pay me now" tactic would be well-advised in the current environment. "If a festival is new or relatively new and they've never made the step to the superstar headliners," he says, "you get 100 percent of your money up front."