The Fillmore Jazz Festival bills itself as "the largest free jazz festival on the West Coast," celebrating the area's "prosperous tradition of jazz." First held in 1985, the annual event has been viewed as a sought-after gig for musicians, and attracts a high caliber of talent. But a last-minute mass e-mail from the organizer offering $75 per musician to play this year's event sparked concerns and criticism that the festival may actually be hurting some of the very artists it's touting.
It started when Fillmore Jazz Festival producer Steven Restivo of Steven Restivo Event Services, LLC, sent an e-mail on June 17 soliciting local musicians to play the event, which was held last weekend. "We have a few slots left and our budget is $75 per musician/per band, so a quartet would be paid $300 for the band," he wrote. "We wish we could offer more to you but the city permit fees to produce all our events have increased dramatically this year. We can offer you lots of free publicity and put you in front of thousands of attendees." Restivo said the message was being sent to "over 500 musicians/bands" and concluded with a request for those interested to respond to the e-mail "asap" because the lineup was to be finalized by the end of the following day. It wasn't the first time that Restivo had sent such last-minute e-mails; he apparently did the same thing with two other street festivals his company books: Union Street and North Beach, which were both held in June.
Some saw the e-mail as an opportunity, but others thought it was downright insulting. The most vocal in the latter category has been local promoter and booking manager Stephanie Dalton. Dalton sends out a weekly e-mail newsletter called Urban Music Presents, and has used the platform to rail against Restivo. "As a booking manager, I have taken great offense to three e-mails I received from Steven Restivo sending out artist submission requests to perform at the North Beach Festival, Union Street Fair and the Fillmore Jazz Festival for a fee of no more than $75 per musician," she wrote. "The Fillmore Merchant's Association contends this is a mistake on the part of Mr. Restivo, that these e-mails were targeted to reach out to up and coming talent and they assure me that no one performing at the Fillmore Jazz Festival is being paid this unreasonable amount. This being said, I have spoken to most of the performers who played at the Union Street and North Beach Festivals — they tell a different story — one of intent not mistake."
Dalton's outspoken opinions led to a lively discussion on Facebook, where local musicians joined in on the disdain toward Restivo's last-minute request. Their anger wasn't just because Restivo's e-mail was informal, hurried, and offered little pay; it also opened up a discussion about the state of the local music scene in which too many promoters and venues treat hard-working, professional musicians as an afterthought. Another concern is that Restivo produces several street fairs (eighteen this year, mostly in San Francisco and the North Bay) that book jazz musicians, so some believe he's holding a de facto monopoly on the market — and is therefore suppressing musician wages.
"I've been blacklisted from performing at the Fillmore Jazz Festival for the past 2 years, all because I took a stand against the shady booking agent who cancelled our shows and tried to not pay us," wrote Adam Theis of Jazz Mafia on Facebook. "I still feel like I did the right thing. Stand up for what you believe in and stuff."
That post prompted dozens of other comments. "He's using a bottom feeder mentality," wrote jazz bassist Kurt Ribak. "In the past I also had him offer me a date, say he'd follow up with details later, and when I check in he said there was no gig offered. Since he's booking most of the summer festivals in the area turning him down shuts me out of a lot of events, but I'm not going to work for him under these conditions — and I'm not going to ask the folks who play with me to put up with it."
Thomas Reynolds, president of the Fillmore Merchants Association, which hired Steven Restivo to produce the event, said he thought Restivo's e-mail was "a mistake." Reynolds said he wasn't aware that Restivo was sending such a call to local musicians and that it was "not a good way to reach out to them." "Obviously a lot of musicians didn't think it was appropriate either," he said in a phone interview. While Reynolds said the merchants association didn't stipulate how much Restivo should pay the musicians, he made it clear to the event producer that $75 wasn't acceptable. "Given that the festival is based on Fillmore and jazz, the musicians should be taken care of. We've talked about the budget and we've talked about it again. I don't want to say too much publicly."
As for Restivo, he defended his e-mail but also retracted his offer of $75. He also called into question Dalton's motives. "This is the deal: No one at the Fillmore Jazz Festival is being paid less than $100," he said. "We had a few slots available. We have 1,100 musicians in our database. Most want to play for the exposure through the web site. And this one particular woman got a hold of it — she is a booking agent herself. In some respects, I think she has an agenda here .... The fact that I pay $100 a person or $75 to $100 — 90 percent of the musicians I deal with are fine with that. The city fees tripled this year and we needed to cut our budgets all the way around. Most of the musicians get other exposure as well."