If you want to sniff an Encinitas-grown rose or pet a Ramona-bred goat, come on down to the San Diego County Fair. But if you yearn to grab an earful from the county’s best musicians, don’t mosey over to the grandstand stage, because you won’t find them there.
In fair-speak, the grandstand shows are known collectively as the “2014 Toyota Summer Concert Series on the Heineken Grandstand Stage.” As of late April, the fair had booked 21 headliners. Three types of performers predominate: ersatz country-pop singers, rock and pop has-beens, as well as purveyors of regional Mexican music in ranchero/Tejano and related styles. Toss in acts characterized as “hip-hop,” a gospel gaggle, and an a capella ensemble, and that’s pretty much the lineup. But unless one counts the Fab Four (Beatles impersonators from Orange County) or Los Angeles–based Voz De Mando, San Diego area musicians, if they appear at all, will largely be relegated to obscure stages.
In some ways, the San Diego County Fair, with an emphasis on local craftsmen, merchants, farmers and artists, embodies a Norman Rockwell–esque spirit. Check out the fair’s online site, and county agrarianism is celebrated. “Don’t miss the live action of a good old fashioned livestock auction! Youth 4-H and FFA members will sell their blue-ribbon-winning market animals to the highest bidder. It is a great way to purchase hand-raised, locally grown beef, lamb, pork, goat, chicken and turkey and support local youth. Many youths use the funds to pay for their college education.”
But why is music treated differently? Are locals deemed not good enough for prime time?
In an attempt to get answers to the incongruity of non-county types stealing the spotlight, I contacted Linda Zweig, head media honchess for the fair, which operates under the rubric of the 22nd District Agricultural Association, a public (if somewhat shadowy) organization.
Zweig didn’t shed much light on how the fair’s ringmasters choose the top-billed acts or why locals have been shunted to the side. When I queried Zweig, she offered, “It’s not that easy. Everyone thinks that you can just call up whoever, but there are schedule conflicts. When booking talent, which is a year-long effort, there are challenges: there are many more local music venues vying for the same acts every year. Other limiting factors are talent availability within the 24 day window, their willingness to play a fair — a lot of talent will not — and the act’s ability to draw 5000 to 7000 audience members in the Grandstand.” (In the absence of a single local headliner, Zweig says that Brent Jones, warm-up act for gospel singer Fred Hammond on June 28, has San Diego ties.)
Whatever the reason for snubbing San Diego pickers, singers, rappers, and rockers, the fair has little compunction when it comes to tossing around greenbacks. According to documents reflecting the contracts approved at the fair’s March board meeting, money appears to be no object; the fair has agreed to dole out $1,243,500 for the first 17 acts secured alone. Individual fees range from $41,000 for Zendaya, a 17-year-old rap/hip-hop sort from Oakland who lives in Los Angeles, to a cool $200,000 for Hunter Hayes, a Louisiana-born, Nashville-based baby-faced, candy-country-crooner who’s been dubbed the “country Justin Bieber.”
By contrast, over at the Adams Avenue Street Fair, there’s no difficulty in finding San Diego talent that will play — and play for a fraction of the fair’s choices. According to Steve Kader, who books the 90 or so acts who played Adams in late April, almost all (90–95%) have a county connection; pay tops out at around $1000.
Kader says, “I think the fair sticks with the ‘tried and true’ acts they think will draw. If I were doing it, I’d take a chance with some San Diego bands. They do an admirable job at the fair, but they’re not very adventuresome.” However, Kader surmises that scheduling and booking complications may be a factor, at least in some isolated cases. “It’s possible that contractual restrictions may prevent an act from playing elsewhere in the county during a 60–90 day period before and after appearing at a popular venue like the Belly Up Tavern, House of Blues, or Soma.” Still, Kader concedes, booking decisions at the fair appear to boil down to drawing power, real or perceived — locals be damned.
No doubt, the hiring of such acts as America, Huey Lewis and the News, REO Speedwagon, and Smokey Robinson is consistent with one criterion: they’re all staples of the fair-and-casino circuit where pop acts of yore go (after lineup changes and age have taken their toll) to grab whatever gold dust is left from the remains of their gold records. But for up to $200,000 a pop, one wonders why the fair’s 24 grandstand dates couldn’t be completely filled, or at least dominated by, entertainers sporting a San Diego nexus.
And what about the locals? Are they really uninterested in the big stage and the big bucks? When I chatted with Andrea Altona, a San Diego County musicians’ union boss, and informed her of the grandiose grandstand contracts, she gasped, “Oh, my God!”
Altona, president of the American Federation of Musicians, Local 325, which represents about 500 area musicians, says that most musicians would love the chance to play on the big stage but, sounding a note of resignation, stated that importing outsiders “is the way it’s always been done.” She also mentioned that the going rate for county performers for a venue of this type starts as low as $3000–$6000.
The San Diego County Fair is quick to trot out numbers that reflect its status as a big-time attraction. When I pressed Linda Zweig for specifics on the fair’s booking policies, I received instead a boilerplate mantra: “The San Diego County Fair draws up to 1.5 million visitors annually, is the largest event in Southern California, and the fourth largest fair in North America. Since 2009 to date, the Fair continues to exceed and surpass attendance and revenue records every year.”
Records notwithstanding, Zweig refuses to answer these questions: What criteria have been employed in selecting the grandstand performers and who actually makes the decision for the fair board? Couldn’t local performers have been procured for these 21 dates for a lot less money? What local performers did the fair seek, and for what dates? Why were they not chosen?