Before any festival is staged, unforeseen crises and blind acts of faith are often the order of the day. And the Black Mountain Music Festival is certainly no exception. But the question of whether or not the gates will open this weekend on the BMMF’s spring festival is still begging a definitive answer.
After a last-minute cancellation by Deerfields Amphitheater — the original site of this year’s festival — festival producer Cynthia White announced, on May 18, that the festival would be held at Camp Carolina, on Lamb Creek, just north of Brevard. Details about the new location were posted on the festival’s Web site that same day.
Camp Carolina director Cha-Cha (“just Cha-Cha, like Elvis or Madonna,” he advises) told Xpress on Monday, May 22, that he thinks the festival will take place there this weekend, if contract negotiations — particularly, the receipt of a certified check and proof of insurance from White — can be finalized. Later the same morning, White reported to Xpress that she intends to deliver the check and finalize the contract with Camp Carolina on Tuesday, May 23.
So — despite financial woes, misunderstandings and more than a little rancor — the sounds of the 17-year-old Black Mountain Music Festival may still ring through the hills of Western North Carolina on Memorial Day weekend. Several acts slated to perform, however — including headliners the Reggae Cowboys and the Tony Trischka Band, plus the Continental Drifters — have dropped out of the festival as of May 19. Other acts — including Alejandro Escovedo, Chuck Prophet, Blue Miracle and the Floodplain Gang — are listed in the “forum” section of the festival’s Web site as being “shaky” or “doubtful.” But White told Xpress on May 22 that she’s working on rescheduling performers, and that an updated roster will be posted on the festival’s Web site (www.bmmf.net) as soon as it is available.
Back on May 3, Deerfields owner John J. Redden told Xpress, “We are no longer associated with the Black Mountain Music Festival. The festival is not happening here.” He declined to elaborate.
During the past year-and-a-half or so, Xpress staff have received numerous phone calls, visits and e-mails from vendors, musicians and others previously associated with the festival, alleging they have not been paid for their services — or have been paid with bad checks.
The festival’s vagabond past has likely contributed to the atmosphere of instability that seems to have grown around it. The BMMF has officially moved three times since 1996, not counting the proposed Camp Carolina move. In 1996, White — who has been associated with the BMMF in one capacity or another for the past 11 years — bought the festival from Will Gardner. In 1997, the festival was forced to leave its longtime base at Black Mountain’s Camp Rockmont, when the Lake Eden Arts Festival (LEAF) secured the location. The BMMF found a new home at Flat Rock’s Camp-Ton-a-Wandah in 1997. Last fall, after losing its contract with Ton-a-Wandah, the festival relocated to Deerfields.
Many magical moments have graced Black Mountain Music Festival stages since its inception in 1983 — including fantastic recent performances by Bruce Hornsby, Keb Mo, Merle Saunders, Kate Campbell, Laura Love and many other notables.
But a pattern of borrowing from Peter to pay Paul appears to have taken its toll in recent years. White says she has tried to “use advance ticket sales and find new investors” to pay off old debts, all the while hoping to elicit large enough turnouts to set the festival right and provide a basis for producing future events.
The BMMF’s financial troubles appear to have begun in the fall of 1997.
White says the move to Camp Ton-a-Wandah — and the confusion over the fact that both LEAF and the Black Mountain Music Festivals were held on the same weekends in the spring and fall — hurt ticket sales from the beginning. “People would show up at Camp Rockmont, thinking they were coming to our festival,” she says. “There was just a lot of confusion. One guy told me recently, ‘I’ve been going to the wrong festival the last three years.'”
The first event at Camp Ton-a-Wandah, held in the spring of 1997, was nonetheless a relative financial success, according to White. “And then that fall, the one where Bruce Hornsby played, we lost [about] $70,000,” she continues. “I don’t really know what happened. The weather was supposed to be bad for the weekend, and ticket sales were just down. And from that point on, we’ve been in debt. And we’ve actually gotten caught up a lot. But it’s just not an easy thing to find someone to invest in. I put all my money into buying the festival.”
But some of the musicians, vendors and others who still haven’t been paid don’t seem inclined to sympathize with the festival’s financial problems — despite White’s professed good intentions.
She approached Grey Eagle Music Hall staff last year about help with booking the festival. “I know that [several of] the people that we booked for it didn’t get paid,” says Grey Eagle co-owner Tyler Richardson. He names Michelle Malone, Jeff Tareyla, David Massingill and Kate Campell as acts booked by him who have not been paid, to date.
Malone made her first appearance at the festival last fall, and says she ended up having to pay her band out of her own pocket.
White admits that Malone and the other musicians mentioned by Richardson have not yet been paid — immediately quoting, from memory, the amount owed each of them. (She told Xpress on May 17 that she intends to pay these musicians with certified checks “probably by the end of the week,” using funds obtained from a new investor. On May 22, White reported that they had not yet been paid, but that she still intended to get certified checks to them within the next few days.)
“What I do is sit there on Sunday [after the festival] and write checks to people, and then we make our deposit from ticket sales, and usually it’s enough to cover [the checks I’ve written],” says White, explaining her usual method of paying performers. “But it was way, way off last fall. And I’ve worked really hard to borrow money from family and friends to try to pay off what I can.” White names Keb Mo as the only musician she knows of who was not paid for a performance before the fall of 1999.
Local businessman Gene Nimocks says he helped get festival T-shirts printed in the fall of 1998 — using his own contacts in the printing industry and fronting the money, he maintains. “They waited until the last minute to place their order, so I had to overnight all the goods to the printer,” Nimocks claims. “I even paid for the printing, so I got double burned. Of course, the T-shirts sold, [but] I didn’t get paid, and I got them the best deal.”
Nimocks filed a complaint against the BMMF in small-claims court last year. On Dec. 9, the court ordered the festival to pay Nimocks $1,704.62, a judgment that White says has not yet been satisfied.
Asheville merchant Gary Kramer (who owns the toy store Enviro Depot) first met White and former festival director Zach Alper when they worked in close proximity in downtown Asheville. “I became friendly with them and [excited at] being able to hang out with [bands such as] Trout Fishing in America, and the next thing I know, I’m investing in a music festival,” he says. “I loaned Cynthia a substantial amount of money to help get the festival going when they were having a problem, and I’m having a real hard time getting payment.” Kramer says White has written several worthless checks as partial payment of the roughly $10,000 she charged to a credit card Kramer had loaned her to help cover festival expenses, a couple of years ago.
White does not deny writing bad checks to Kramer, but she reports (and Kramer confirms) that she has made some cash payments to cover the checks — the last payment (in March) being $400. Kramer says he estimates that White has covered approximately half of the returned checks, to date. White also gave Kramer candles from a candle-making business she formerly owned, to sell in his store, to offset part of the debt. He believes those sales have netted around $200.
“Gary had told me he was going to be an investor … but then he [started telling me], ‘I need you to pay back all [of the $10,000] now,'” White reports. “But the bands and vendors and everybody else get paid first, before an investor gets paid.”
White estimates that she has whittled down BMMF’s debt from about $75,000 to about $25,000. Nonetheless, she’s still in legal hot water, with four pending worthless-check charges — two of them felony charges — drawn on two corporate accounts affiliated with the festival. According to documents on file at the Buncombe County Courthouse, she also pleaded guilty on Nov. 8, 1999 to a misdemeanor aiding-and-abetting charge for failure to file or pay sales tax; she received a 45-day suspended sentence and a year’s unsupervised probation.
“I just want to pay people back,” a tearful White declares. “I’ve lived in this town my whole life. And I’ve tried so hard, and … then everything just fell apart. … I don’t even have a car right now. I’ve put everything I have into this festival. I’m not saying I don’t owe money to people. I’m just saying the only way I can pay everybody off is to continue to have a festival. And it’s a good festival, it’s a really nice festival.
“Kathlene [Stith, the festival’s new director] and I have worked so hard all winter with [few resources] to put this festival together, so we can sell enough tickets to pay everybody off, to pay off our debts. But it’s been one thing after another.”
While some musicians, vendors and others may have qualms about dealing with the BMMF in the future, fans seem to be protected: Even though the festival’s Web site states that no ticket refunds will be offered (saying only credit for future festivals will be given), TicketWeb, Inc. — with whom the BMMF has contracted to handle ticket sales for the spring festival — guarantees that refunds will be granted to customers who request them for events that are rescheduled, or for which scheduled entertainment has been changed after tickets were purchased. (All such requests must, however, be made prior to the date of the event.) The TicketWeb contract also states that all festival proceeds will be held until after the event, and — should it be canceled — all ticket holders will be eligible for refunds.
Meanwhile, says White, the festival retains at least one other significant asset — the people who believe in it: Most of the current BMMF staff “have been there all along. They’re very loyal, through everything.” Loyal, too, are the festivalgoers who come back year after year — many of them, as White points out, traveling long distances to attend. “People love this festival,” emphasizes White.