“What’s in a name?” someone once wrote. Plenty, say the organizers of the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival in Helena, formerly the King Biscuit Blues Festival. To prove that blues lovers care about the answer, they’ve launched an online petition drive urging music fans not to patronize a competing and similarly titled festival planned for Memphis this fall.
The petition, they say, is an attempt to rally festival regulars to the cause, stop the owners of the King Biscuit copyrights from cashing in on the heritage built in Helena, and maybe even bring the name back to Arkansas.
Wayne Andrews is the executive director of the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival and the Sonny Boy Blues Society, which produces the Helena festival. He hopes that the petition — which also urges signers to not visit Beale Street in Memphis and a proposed new King Biscuit Cafe the owners of the name hope to build there — will cause the backers of the Memphis festival to rethink their plans.
The Arkansas festival is set for Oct. 5-7. The date of the Memphis festival is uncertain. Some have said it will be in October, potentially a direct competitor to Helena’s events, but one key official puts the Memphis event unofficially on the Labor Day weekend.
Andrews said the decision was made to change the name of the Helena festival last year, after negotiations with New York-based King Biscuit Entertainment fell apart. Soon after, King Biscuit Entertainment announced a partnership with Memphis’ Performa Entertainment Real Estate and plans for the competing festival.
King Biscuit Entertainment owns rights to the name as it pertains to the nationally syndicated King Biscuit Flour Hour radio show, and had previously allowed the Helena festival to use the name for free. Performa, which leases property along Beale Street and plans to open the King Biscuit Cafe, has rights to the name King Biscuit Flour, the company which originally lent its name to an iconic blues radio show in Helena and eventually the blues festival there.
Andrews said an ironclad $20,000-per-year fee for the use of the name caused the impasse in negotiations. He said that once Performa became interested in a partnership with King Biscuit Entertainment, negotiators for the company refused to discuss any sort of partnership or compromise without the payment, up front and in full. “They made the price so steep that we couldn’t afford it, and they knew they did,” Andrews said. “We made offers to them that made it where we could potentially reach the money they wanted, and would allow us a way to pay it throughout the year and during the event and they turned it down. We really, really tried.”
That included, Andrews said, offering King Biscuit Entertainment a percentage of the profit from merchandise sold at the festival and rights to distribute film and audio recorded during the 20 years of the King Biscuit festivals in Arkansas.
“We went over and above,” he said. “We made counteroffer after counteroffer and they just said, ‘No, we want cash.’ ”
Soon after the negotiations collapsed and the Sonny Boy Blues Society was forced to change the name to the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival, Andrews said King Biscuit Entertainment informed him that they had decided to “franchise the festival,” starting King Biscuit concerts across the country, starting with a weekend-long concert in Memphis called the King Biscuit Music Festival that would feature not only blues but also some rock and jazz acts. In a November 2005 announcement, Performa and King Biscuit Entertainment said the Memphis festival was scheduled for an October debut, the same month as the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival.
Reached in New York, George Alexandrou, chief operating officer of King Biscuit Entertainment, refused to comment on the petition or the controversy over the name.
However, John Elkington, chairman of Performa, said that the inability to reach a compromise with the organizers of the Helena festival was more about the books than the blues. Elkington said that negotiations failed because the organizers of the Helena festival refused to provide King Biscuit Entertainment with financial statements to prove claims that they made little or no profit most years.
“We started hearing that was not the case,” Elkington said. “All we wanted was an accounting before we offered to work out a licensing agreement. That’s basically it.”
Elkington said that he has read the petition, and that it is full of inaccuracies. He added that if the organizers of the festival in Helena would share their financial information, they could surely work out a deal for them to use the name. However, Elkington said the King Biscuit Music Festival in Memphis — scheduled, he said, for Labor Day weekend, though this is not official — will go forward whether or not an agreement with the Helena organizers is reached.
“If they want to put on a satellite of the Memphis festival in Helena, they can, and can call it the King Biscuit Blues Festival,” Elkington said. “We said that a year ago … Just show us what they did [financially] in the last three or four years.”
Though he was less decorous in his off-the-record response, Wayne Andrews called Elkington’s claims “hogwash.” He said that during last year’s negotiations, his group sent King Biscuit Entertainment detailed information on their financials, including an independently conducted audit by a CPA firm. The same information was released to the local newspaper in Helena, he said.
“The truth is, we did show them our books,” Andrews said. “And if there was an option to work it out, we would have worked it out.”
Kevin Kane is president of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau (and not to be confused with Kevin Cane, president of King Biscuit Entertainment). Kane caught heat from a number of blues fans after he told the Memphis Commercial Appeal that King Biscuit coming to Beale Street was a great idea. At the time, he said, he didn’t know the background, and assumed that the move to Memphis had the blessing of the organizers of the Helena festival.
“When I said that, I never once thought, oh, this is causing damage to the King Biscuit Festival in Helena, or it’s cannibalizing their event or their name,” Kane said.
Kane now says that starting a festival under the King Biscuit name or a facsimile to directly compete with the Helena festival is not a good idea, one that he doesn’t condone. However, Kane added, “If these guys aren’t breaking any laws and they have the legal rights to the King Biscuit name, I guess my question for the folks in Helena is, how did you let this happen? How did you let somebody else own your name? And if you did, shame on you.”
So far, Andrews said, many blues fans have already called and written him to complain, assuming his group is behind the decision to move King Biscuit to Memphis. Because of that confusion, and the fans who might attend the Memphis festival because of it, Andrews said the fight for the name is not just about the blues, it’s about Arkansas and Phillips County, which host 100,000 visitors and receive a $2.9 million dollar influx of much-needed cash every year on the weekend of the Helena festival.
Acknowledging that he’s trying to stir up bad publicity because “it’s the only marketing avenue I have,” Andrews said he hopes the petition and the angry comments of its signers will show Performa, Beale Street business owners, and King Biscuit Entertainment that trying to capitalize on the King Biscuit name will be a lose/lose situation for everyone. As of this writing, over 3,000 people have signed. (You can find a link to the petition at the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival website: www.bluesandheritage.com.)
“I hope that enough fans link to that online petition,” Andrews said, “and I hope enough news media covers it that they say, ‘You know, we didn’t realize what we were dealing with. We didn’t realize that people were so passionate about this.’ ”
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