Sound & Vision: How Washington's Non-Compete Law Impacts Musicians, Festivals, and Venues

Sound and Vision
Emily Fox

KEXP's Sound & Vision airs every Saturday morning from 7-9 AM PT, featuring interviews, artistry, commentary, insight, and conversation to that tell broader stories through music, and illustrate why music and art matter. You can also hear more stories in the new Sound & Vision Podcast. New episodes are out every Tuesday. Subscribe now.

It’s a long-held industry practice: musicians who are playing major festivals like Coachella or Lollapalooza agree to not perform at nearby venues before or after the festival, but a new Washington State law will limit the amount of time these agreements last. Non-competition agreements, also known as radius clauses, ban artists from performing before or after a festival within a certain radius around the festival or venue. Under the new law, which went into effect at the beginning of the year, these agreements will be limited to three days.  

This certainly isn’t the first-time non-competition agreements, particularly those at large festivals, have come under fire. In 2010, the State of Illinois investigated Lollapalooza for its radius clause, which banned artists from playing within a 300-mile radius of Chicago for six months before the festival and three months after.

The Portland-based festival Soul’d Out filed a lawsuit against Coachella for its radius clause in 2018, which banned artists from performing at other festivals from mid-December to the beginning of May. The clause covered a radius of 1,300 miles in any direction of the Southern California festival, impacting Nicholas Harris the organizer of Portland’s Soul’d Out festival.

“1,300 miles would be telling someone that you're playing an event in Miami and you can't play an event in Philadelphia,” Harris says. 

Harris adds that many artists he was trying to book weren’t able to play because they were getting booked at Coachella. 

“If anybody is familiar with Coachella, they understand how ludicrous it would be that a small regional festival in the Pacific Northwest, 1,100 miles away from LA could be a threat to Coachella, which is an event that sells out immediately. . . Nine months before they announce a lineup,” Harris says. 

Radius clauses and non-compete agreements don’t just impact larger bands playing Coachella. Alaia D’Alessandro performed at Seattle’s Capitol Hill Block Party with her band Tres Leches in 2019. She says Tres Leches was paid $250 for the gig — Tres Leches was told it was the most Capitol Hill Block Party would pay a local act.

Tres Leches had been writing a song leading up to the festival called, ”Two-fifty.” While D’Alessandro says the song wasn’t entirely inspired by Capitol Hill Block Party, the lyrics seem to tell a different story:  

Dear Tres Leches, How do you do?
We’re gonna make you an offer and you cannot refuse
We’re gonna get all the bands in town together for a festival
We’re gonna get ‘em all for one great price

Here’s your cut, here we go!
The Black Tones: Two fifty
Bearaxe: Two Fifty
Guayaba: Two Fifty

Everybody's gonna get two fifty and
If you're from outta town you're outta luck
That gas money's gonna have to come from your two fifty
Tres Leches two fifty
Everybody's gonna get two fifty

In addition to Tres Leches getting paid $250, they also had to sign a non-competition agreement that barred the band from performing in the Seattle region for 45 days before and after Capitol Hill Block Party.  

D’Alessandro says that this resulted in Tres Leches, which can bring in $1,000 headlining a local venue, to lose money playing Capitol Hill Block Party. 

“I think it's unfair to ask somebody to both play for less than what they're worth and to also not pursue an opportunity where they could compensate themselves fairly,” D’Alessandro said. 

Jason Lajeunesse, who organizes Capitol Hill Block Party, says he was planning on changing the non-compete clause even before Washington State’s new law went into effect. 

“We were not planning on having a radius clause this year for local, smaller bands,” Lajeunesse said. 

Washington State’s new non-compete law applies to many industries and the initial bill was brought up after State Senator Marko Liias realized non-compete agreements were applying to workers in the sandwich shop Jimmy John’s. 

“What stood out to me was the experience of Jimmy John's workers and folks that have worked in low wage retail jobs where they were being forced to sign non-competition agreements,” says Liias, “they're just trying to put food on the table for their families and are finding limited opportunities because of what these large corporations were doing.” 

Liias says that, after looking into the issue, he was surprised to find how common these clauses were. 

“It didn't make sense to allow this kind of restraint on trade and restraint on the ability to earn a living,” he says. 

Liias says the new law applies to all performers, no matter how well known they are. After the bill’s passage, if you’re a headlining act performing at The Gorge, you could play a Seattle arena three days later, though most touring acts generally don’t schedule their tour stops so close together. 

For festival organizers the new law came as a surprise, they weren’t consulted about the bill and say the three-day limit could impact them financially. 

Harris of Soul’d Out says he was surprised to hear Washington State is acting on non-compete agreements. He asserts that a tiered system might be fairer — where non-compete agreements are appropriate for big headliners and festivals, but not for smaller acts. He also doesn’t think the law should apply to all industries — it would be more effective if there was a law that just applied to the music industry. 

“If you're going do something specific to the music industry, it needs to be just that. It needs to be specific to the music industry, not covering everything from Subway Sandwich artists and tech startup guys,” Harris said. 

It remains to be seen how this new law will play out in Washington. Festival season is still a few more months away. 

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