Choochokam band dispute plays out on YouTube clip
By JIM LARSEN
South Whidbey Record Editor
July 12, 2012 · Updated 10:13 AM
Choochokam organizers were figuratively high-fiving one another for pulling off one of the most successful events in recent years and then, YouTube struck.
The popular Internet site where anyone can post a video for all the world to see suddenly was showing something called “Stiffed at Choochokam,” and a local dispute over nonpayment to a band became a sensation, at least by Whidbey Island standards.
By Tuesday morning the video had attracted 894 “views,” along with dozens of comments, some siding with Choochokam organizers and others with the band.
A noisy dispute arose Sunday evening when the band in question, the New Iberian Zydeco Blues Band, finished playing, bringing Langley’s annual Choochokam Arts Festival weekend to a close. Trouble was, the band didn’t play all original tunes as called for in its contract. Of some 20 songs played before a throng of dancing and toe-tapping onlookers, three were “covers,” or songs owned by someone else.
Because the band had been warned after playing its first cover, and then went on to play two more, Choochokam organizers refused to pay the $600 called for in the contract. A couple of band members exploded in anger, expletives were uttered, threats were made, the cops were called, and local resident Mary Jane Miller videotaped it, later posting it as “Stiffed at Choochokam.” The street dance is visible in the video, but by the time the arguing erupted it was dark, so the video mostly consists of voices.
Sherry Jennings, co-director of Choochokam, said the band made “a really bad decision.” Large companies own the rights to thousands of songs, and sometimes send “spies” to festivals, she said, to make sure no one is playing them without having purchased the rights.
Organizers were already sensitive to the issue because it had erupted at another venue, the Useless Bay Coffee Company, where a band played a Dire Straits tune. That band was told to stop playing.
“This is something we take very seriously,” Jennings said, “because the risk of a fine by BMI or ASCAP is super high,” alluding to two large companies that own catalogs of songs. “Someone could lose their business.” In addition, she added, Choochokam always emphasizes original art and music.
Marianne Mansfield, president of the Langley Chamber of Commerce, which is the umbrella organization for the independently operated Choochokam, posted a comment saying a cover violation risks a potential $15,000 fine.
“If you sign a contract, you keep an agreement. That’s what contracts is for,” Mansfield wrote.
Jennings concurred that $15,000 fines have been levied in other locations. The entire budget for Choochokam is about $25,000, which pays for portable toilets, stage construction and contracts with some 50 entertainers, among other costs. “We’re truly nonprofit,” she said. “We get $200 in the bank and start again.”
Evan Shlaes, leader of the New Iberian Zydecko Blues Band, sounded apologetic when contacted Monday at the band’s base in Portland. “I didn’t post it, it just happened,” he said of the YouTube video. “But it was me yelling my head off.” He denied uttering the F-bomb several times, however, crediting that to the bass player of the six-member band.
Shlaes admitted to not having read the contract and that his band did play three covers. “I feel bad about it,” he said. “I didn’t realize it violated the contract.” But when the concert ended, “They shoved it in my face with the pertinent paragraphs marked in yellow.” That’s what set him off, although he admitted he had been warned after the first cover, “William and the Hand Jive,” to stop playing them.
The second cover, “My Baby’s So Doggone Fine,” was due to his tired voice, which needed a rest, Shlaes said, so another band member sang the lead of a song he knew.
The band then resumed playing Shlaes’ original songs to the end of the scheduled concert. “After the last tune the crowd was screaming, going nuts, they wanted an encore,” Shlaes said.
The band responded by playing another cover, “Iko Iko.” Shlaes said the song’s roots go back centuries in New Orleans, a combination of folk and Creole. He believes it should be in the public domain but is aware of a court case that decided otherwise, even though he rewrote the lyrics.
Shlaes said he understood Choochokam didn’t want to be sued, but added the type of music he’s been playing for 40 years, 15 with the present band, has folk roots and he’s never had a similar problem at some 3,000 other shows over the years. “It’s such a bunch of Cheese Whiz,” he said.
The band’s leader added that its $600 fee wouldn’t even have paid their expenses, but they had other nearby gigs in Port Townsend and the San Juans. Without the $600 from Choochokam, he paid the band members $500 out of his own pocket.
Shlaes said the crowd at Choochokam was outstanding and very supportive, and he doesn’t want the YouTube controversy to create a negative legacy.
“I’m gonna be remembered as the band that caused a kerfuffle at Choochokam,” he lamented. “But it wasn’t malicious.”
Jennings also expressed regret, saying “the stuff they played was amazing, except for the covers … but if we paid them anything, we’d be held liable for (copyright) infringement, and that would be the end of Choochokam.”Contact South Whidbey Record Editor Jim Larsen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-360-221-5300.