Monday, June 17, 2024

Azalea Festival’s non-paying ‘play-for-exposure’ policy draws criticism from some local artists

The Azalea Festival claims to be the largest of its kind in the state. The non-profit that manages the festival spends upward of $2 million annually. So when local artists were asked to play for free, some asked why there was no room in the budget for them. The Festival, meanwhile, wants to remind people that it relies on volunteers and donations.

Local artists don't expect a six-figure fee when they play a gig. But they also don't expect -- and can't afford -- to play for free. (Port City Daily photo / File)
Local artists don’t expect a six-figure fee when they play the Azalea Festival. But they also don’t expect — and can’t afford — to play for free. (Port City Daily photo / File)

WILMINGTON — The Azalea Festival is one of the biggest events in Wilmington, but for some of the local musicians who were asked to perform without getting paid, it’s left a bad taste in their mouths.

The Azalea Festival, self-described as the largest of its kind in the state, is known from bringing major acts to its main stage concerts, including Hank Williams, Jr., this year’s headliner. The festival also has a number of other local artist stages at different locations and times during the multi-day event.

Williams’ going rate is reportedly more than $100,000 per show, and as high as $200,000 for the New York State Fair several years ago (the Azalea Festival hasn’t released exactly what Williams’ fee was to play in Wilmington).

Of course, local artists didn’t expect to be paid that kind of fee.

But they also didn’t expect to be paid nothing.

Playing for tips?

The contract for street performers for the Azalea Festival lists compensation as "n/a" but stated artists are "permitted" to put out tip jars. (Port City Daily photo / Courtesy Jared Sales)
The contract for street performers for the Azalea Festival lists compensation as “n/a” but stated artists are “permitted” to put out tip jars. (Port City Daily photo / Courtesy Jared Sales)

Wilmington artist Jared Sales, who also performs with The Coastal Collective, said the Azalea Festival contacted him to play its LIVE Lounge during; initially, he was enthusiastic about it.

“They had contacted me and asked if I was willing play, and I said’ yeah, yeah, of course,’” Sales said. “They didn’t tell me it was going to be a non-paying gig until they sent over the contract.”

The contract lists compensation as “N/A” and Sales said the Azalea Festival told him the “payment” for the performance would be beneficial exposure for him as an artist. The contract does state “Artist will be permitted to place a tip jar on site during performance,” a condition Sales said was “kind of a slap in the face” for seasoned musicians.

“A few years ago, I might have taken that deal, to play for exposure, but I’ve been playing in town for eight to ten years,” Sales said.

Sales added that the Azalea Festival was asking for a full band — five members in addition to Sales — for a two-hour slot.

“We’d be paid at any other venue playing on the same day, and it’s five guys that I’ve got pay — they’ve got lives, bills to pay, babysitters, all that. To ask us to do it for free, to ask any artist like that to do it for free, that’s not right,” Sales said.

Sales noted that he didn’t expect prime-time entertainment payment, but “couldn’t get over that there wasn’t even basic compensation for artists’ time and energy” and speculated if the festival had over-spent on Williams.

Sales said, “this is the biggest festival to come to Wilmington — I understand that Hank Williams, Jr., is probably about $100,000 to book, so I asked if they didn’t have a budget for that,” Sales said. “That was kind of mind-blowing to me, that you would bring in an out-of-town headliner for six figures but you don’t have a budget at all for local bands.”

In the end, Sales declined the Azalea Festival’s offer to play, taking to social media to voice his concerns about the practice.

The post quickly generated commentary from local promoters, band managers, and fellow musicians, including numerous local artists saying they had also walked away from festival performance offers because of the “play-for-exposure” policy.

(Editor’s note: Sales’ post was public as of the publication time; interested readers can peruse the comments to see which artists sounded off.)

Azalea Festival responds

According to Azalea Festival Executive Director Alison Baringer English, the festival does pay “the majority” of the Street Fair Stage performers. These performers are mostly local; English said the only non-local group was the U.S. Navy Band.

Sales’ contract, English said in an email, was specifically for the “hospitality lounge,” a stage for which the festival reached out to multiple acts to solicit unpaid performances.

“These are pro-bono time slots, really meant for rising artists, acoustic acts, etc. looking to get more performance experience, or for singer/songwriters who want to use the Azalea Festival as their way to give back to their community,” English wrote.

English added that the festival is not alone in utilizing pro-bono or play-for-exposure contracts.

“I know many festivals and events across the country rely on donations and pro bono performances as well. I’ve seen this first-hand through the International Festivals and Events Board I sit on. Festivals are great vehicles for businesses and organizations (and bands) to promote their products and causes. I think people sometimes forget the Azalea Festival is a non-profit, with the specific mission to promote volunteerism and boost economic stimulus … all things that serve to better our community as a whole,” English wrote.

English said she understood that pro-bono wouldn’t work for some artists.

“We completely understand this is not an option for everybody’s band, and respect those musicians (and hope to see them someday on our Street Fair Stage, or even Main Stage),” English wrote.

When it came to budget questions, English said the public sometimes forgets that the festival is a non-profit.

“As the Festival is a 501c-3 non-profit, we do rely heavily on volunteerism and donations. We have hundreds of community citizens and organizations who donate their time and talents each year for the betterment of the Festival; a better Azalea Festival means a better showcase of our community and more economic stimulus raised for the community. Any funds raised in the Festival’s name is used to grow our events and add programming, which helps us grow our support base to provide more activities for the citizens and more ways to increase that economic impact back into our community,” English wrote.

English said the festival was committed to community artists, going to far as to reach out to veterans of the Alt-Zalea Fest, a series of concerts featuring local artists founded – as the name implies – to be an alternative to the Azalea Festival.

“In 2019, the committee has even reached out to bands who have played in the Alt-Zalea Fest in the past; we are continually making efforts to be more inclusive of our local arts community,” English wrote, adding that she was supportive of “initiatives like Alt-Zalea Fest.”

(Author’s note: English did not respond to a question about whether the Azalea Festival would consider changing its “play-for-exposure” policy.)

City of Wilmington involvement

The City of Wilmington is a partner of the Azalea Festival, according to spokesman Dylan Lee.

“The city is most definitely a partner of the azalea festival and we, like many other entities, work with them to help the festival to be a success. Examples include trash pickup, street barricades, use of city parks and facilities, and other logistics,” Lee said.

Aside from what might be called in-kind contributions, the city does not directly support the festival, which has “complete autonomy” when it comes to the operation of the festival, Lee said.

Azalea Festival funding

According to Pro Publica’s non-profit tax filing records, the Azalea Festival’s annual expenses have been around $2 million for the last several years (the festival generally breaks even, losing money some years, and earning money other years).

In recent years, the festival has raised about a quarter of its funding from donations — around $500,000 in both 2016 and 2015. The rest comes largely from the concert, street fair, and patron events.

The festival earned approximately $1.5 million and $1 million in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Both years the festival earned about $250,000 from patron events, and between $125,000 and $150,000 from street fair revenue.

In 2016, the Azalea Festival paid around $90,000 for concert entertainment, a considerable portion of which likely went to headliners The Avett Brothers; the festival spent just shy of $80,000 for 2015 entertainment, headlined by Nelly. The festival spent another $93,000 for concert-expenses. A larger expense, by far, was concert-related rentals and food and beverage costs, which neared $400,000 in 2015 and topped $500,000 in 2016.

English is the sole paid management employee, earning around $62,000 annually.

Other venues and festivals

The Downtown Sundown’s free concert series, run by the Wilmington Downtown Inc. (DWI), pays all its acts, headliners and openers, even if the show is cancelled due to rain — which has happened twice — according to WDI President and CEO Ed Wolverton. Wolverton said the payment depends on the artist.

WDI is a 501(3)c non-profit, partially funded by Wilmington and New Hanover County, but heavily reliant on donations.

The Home.Grown Festival, founded over the summer, launched its first full-size, three-day festival in November 2018. The festival featured local “artists, artisans, and creatives.” Performers were paid (and also received drink tickets for Waterline Brewery, which hosted the festival — often a welcome bonus for artists).

The Wilmington Strong concert – a benefit honoring first responders who worked during Hurricane Florence – was a notable exception that did not pay any of its artists. But in the case of the Wilmington Strong festival, artists willingly forwent payment to give back to the community. The concert, organized by 98.3 The Penguin and the City of Wilmington, raised at least $500,000.

Author’s note: There are unquestionable venues and events that use the “play-for-exposure” model, and perhaps some do so with good reason. If you’ve played one of these events, or managed one, and have thoughts on the practice — good or bad — we’d like to hear from you.

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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