Harvest Picnic launches multimillion-dollar lawsuit, festival in turmoil

The company behind The Harvest Picnic is suing one of North America’s largest talent agencies and some of Canada’s biggest stars for millions, while many acts that played the festival this year say they still haven’t been paid for their services.

Many acts say they still have not been paid for playing this year

Jeremy Fisher performed at the 2016 Harvest Picnic at Christie Lake in Hamilton. Fisher's representatives say he has not been paid for his performance. (Lisa Vuyk/I Heart Hamilton)

The company behind The Harvest Picnic is suing one of North America's largest talent agencies and some of Canada's biggest stars for millions, while many acts that played the festival this year say they still haven't been paid for their services.

Questions abound about the beleaguered festival's future, but organizer Jean-Paul Gauthier isn't answering them — leaving musicians wondering if they'll ever get paid, and much uncertainty about shows going forward on the shores of Christie Lake.

The lawsuit, which was filed in a Hamilton court in late September by Gauthier himself and not a lawyer, names the Feldman Agency (a booking agency that represents many of the acts at the festival) as a defendant, as well as Jann Arden, her manager, country star Johnny Reid, alternative country band Cowboy Junkies, and others.

In total, the lawsuit is seeking almost $27 million in damages from the defendants. Yet while Gauthier is embroiled in a court battle, acts like Rheostatics and Jeremy Fisher have no idea when — or if — they'll be paid.

I suggest Harvest Picnic ticket buyers should know their money was not used to pay musicians — where their money has gone is anybody's guess.- Rheostatics

Feldman Agency president Jeff Craib told CBC News that the lawsuit is "wholly without merit," as well as "frivolous and vexatious."

"Our lawyers are in the process of launching a court application to have it dismissed in short order," he said.

Gauthier did not respond to requests for comment by email or phone. His voice mail box is full, while the festival's website was down for a few days.

"The events that September Seventh produces and owns, namely, the Harvest Picnic and the Hamilton Music Awards, are now at great risk of ceasing to exist due to the unconscionable conduct, high-handed conduct or conduct in bad faith and breaches of contract by the defendants," the lawsuit reads. None of those claims have been tested in court.

Claims of contract breaches and lost revenue

The trouble started for the festival this year when Jann Arden pulled out of her headlining slot because of an "unexpected illness" the day before she was to take the stage on Aug. 27.

A tweet from the festival's account after the announcement read, "We're thinking of you and wishing you all the very best, Jann!"

That's in stark contrast to the lawsuit, which is seeking damages for lost revenue and breach of contract.

According to the lawsuit, September Seventh Entertainment (which organizes the festival, as well as the Hamilton Music Awards) paid half of Arden's $75,000 fee as a deposit before the show. When she had to cancel, Feldman refunded that money.

September Seventh is now seeking over $6 million in damages from Arden and her management alone, claiming a "loss of expected revenue" and "losses based on costs incurred due to the breach of contract."

Arden's management told CBC News they had no comment.

Radius clauses again an issue for festival

The lawsuit also takes aim at Johnny Reid and Cowboy Junkies, alleging the bands violated "radius clauses" by booking or playing shows in southern Ontario around the same time as the festival.

A radius clause is an agreement in a band's contract that dictates they not play another show within a certain distance of the venue close to the same date, to maximize crowd size.

This isn't the first time the festival has made an issue of radius clauses. Last year, organizers kicked folk act Iron and Wine off the lineup over a similar issue.

Neil Young pulled out of the Harvest Picnic in 2013. It's just one of several issues that has plagued the festival in recent years. (Robin Hood/The Associated Press)

According to the lawsuit, Cowboy Junkies agreed to not play within 90 days of the festival and within 150 km of Hamilton — a clause Gauthier alleges they violated by booking a show in St. Catharines on Oct. 27.

Reid's radius clause was even more wide-reaching, the lawsuit claims, saying his contract dictated he not play within a 500 km radius of Hamilton between May 30 and Nov. 26.

Reid then announced he was performing at the Canadian Country Music Awards on Sept. 11, the lawsuit reads. As with Arden, the festival had paid half of Reid's $175,000 fee as a deposit — but once he announced he was playing the CCMA's, the festival refused to pay the rest.

"No further payment was made to Feldman or Reid once this was confirmed by September Seventh," the lawsuit reads.

Bands still seeking payment

"No payment" is a familiar refrain for many of the bands that played this year, who say they are still chasing Gauthier for money.

Toronto's The Rheostatics is one of those bands. "[The show] was fun and we were happy and played a long time and then drove home. And waited to get paid. Which we have not," the band said in a statement provided to CBC News. 

"We all feel let down by this. Promoters should pay musicians — whether it's $5 or $500,000. But Harvest Picnic has not. I suggest Harvest Picnic ticket buyers should know their money was not used to pay musicians — where their money has gone is anybody's guess — and think twice before buying tickets to their future events."

Representatives for singer-songwriter Jeremy Fisher also confirmed that he has not been paid for his Harvest Picnic performance.

Even the stagehands and technicians who worked the festival are still waiting for money.

"We did receive a down payment of better than half of the cost, but our members are currently still owed the balance," said Cindy Jennings, the president of IATSE local 129, the union that represents those workers.

Killjoys frontman Mike Trebilcock told CBC News that he too is still waiting to be paid — but isn't holding his breath at this point.

"I wouldn't have taken this gig if I knew this was going to happen," he said.

"I just wish that this didn't come down to having to chase people for money."

The Harvest Picnic began back in 2010, as a festival that was aligned with The Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation as a title sponsor — though this year, it was just branded "The Harvest Picnic" instead of "The Greenbelt Harvest Picnic."

Superstar producer and musician Daniel Lanois was a fixture at the festival for years, though he has been notably absent in recent iterations.

adam.carter@cbc.ca

About the Author

Adam Carter

Reporter, CBC Hamilton

Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Hamilton home. He enjoys a good story and playing loud music in dank bars. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.

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