Dallas Venues Gripe About Non-Compete Contracts That Keep Artists in the Casinos

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Nearly 100 miles north of Dallas are two casinos that host some of the biggest touring acts to come through the North Texas area. Dolly Parton, Amy Schumer and Willie Nelson will all play one of these casinos in 2016 and never get closer than that to Dallas. Others, like Leon Bridges and Duran Duran, will do both, but months apart.

Though the casinos are in Oklahoma, non-compete clauses in the casinos’ contracts prevents artists from playing shows in a 100-mile radius within a certain period of time of playing their venues at the Choctaw Casino Resort in Durant and the WinStar World Casino in Thackerville.

“Everybody has radius clauses in their offers, theirs are just kind of different,” says Robin Phillips, senior talent buyer with AEG who books venues like the Verizon and Majestic Theatres and AT&T Performing Arts Center, of the casinos. “It affects all of us because we're losing artists to the casinos. It makes the playing field a little more difficult, obviously.”

Non-compete clauses are industry practice not only for casinos but also for regular ticketed venues. For example, an artist wouldn’t be able to play House of Blues and then The Bomb Factory in the same week.

But it’s a problem for Dallas venues and talent buyers who can’t compete with the casinos’ deep pockets, and it’s a hassle for entertainment seekers who want to see some of these legendary acts but don’t want to drive an hour and a half each way to the casino.

Many in the Dallas music scene see the non-compete as heavy-handed with its broad reach, which prevents acts from playing in that 100-mile radius 90 days before their casino show.

“We do compete with the casinos, and it’s a very unfair competition,” says Michael Schwedler, general manager of the Majestic Theatre. "It's ancient wisdom in this business that that's the way casinos operate. They overpay for the talent and they have radius clauses that have to be observed."

Many talent buyers and venue managers in Dallas believe the non-compete includes a post-show window of 30 days to six months. But the casino division director at C3 Entertainment, Andrew Blank, who is responsible for booking acts at casinos, says that most of the time nowadays there’s actually not a clause limiting the artist from playing in the radius after the casino.

The problem lies within the ability to market the show, and venues can’t begin marketing until the act has played at the casino or the casino has sold out of tickets. Blank says most marketing campaigns need three months to be successful, so with artists’ touring schedules it’s realistically six months before they’ll come back to the area, thereby giving the appearance of a six-month post-show non-compete stipulation. Venue managers and talent bookers in Dallas argue those rules are excessive, considering the distance from the casinos to Dallas and the fact that the customer bases probably don’t overlap much.

“I'm not sure their audiences are exactly the same as our audiences,” argues Doug Curtis, CEO of ATT PAC. “Mostly people are going to the casinos to gamble and having headliner talent there is a little bit of a draw.”

The challenge for large Dallas venues like the ATT PAC and the Verizon Theatre is that even at that level, casinos can still outbid them with their giant funding base supported by gambling revenue.

“It’s difficult because I have to fill my room with content and they have to fill their room with content, and sometimes we lose out on stuff because casinos are able to pay more," says Phillips. "That's not a battle I usually like to fight because at that point you're usually overpaying.” 

Casinos will usually pay 20 to 25 percent more than what a venue like ATT PAC could offer, according to Blank, and they’re happy to throw this kind of cash at performers in order to lure customers that might not ordinarily go to a casino.

“In the early 2000s, the type of acts that were coming through casinos appealed to a 60-plus crowd. Some pretty forward-thinking GMs [and] VPs of marketing at these casinos saw that their clientele was getting too old, and they needed to start driving more business toward a lower age demographic,” says Blank. “We were brought in to do exactly that and started focusing on a 35-plus demo with the artists we were bringing in, and it ranged from younger country acts or classic rock to '90s stuff like Collective Soul, Goo Goo Dolls, Rob Thomas.”

WinStar recently brought in Macklemore, the Billboard-chart-topping hip-hop artist best known for jams like "Thrift Shop" and “Can't Hold Us,” who typically would appeal to a 20-something audience.

Choctaw Casino declined to comment for this story. WinStar Casino’s entertainment manager, Stephanie Callaway, declined an interview for this story, but said in an email that, “It is important for us to be progressive with the acts we bring in to attract a wider audience of music fans. Dallas has a very progressive music scene and we want WinStar’s Global Event Center to be a consideration in that.”

Jocelyn Keyser would know. A Dallas resident, she traveled to a casino when she was 25 years old to see Hall and Oates. While not typically a twenties-centric act, Hall and Oates does appeal to a broad audience base.

“I remember being in shock about how diverse it was. There were the older people that listened to them in the '70s and '80s, and there were quite a few people in their twenties, which I was surprised about,” says Keyser. Unfortunately for the casino, Keyser didn’t end up gambling, dining or staying the night in its hotel. Instead, she drove both hour-and-a-half legs of the journey in the same night. For her, the drive wasn’t that bad, because she says she's used to commuting an hour each way to work.

Yet, non-compete clauses or not, it's not unheard of for artists to double up on shows at the casinos and in Dallas. Dwight Yoakam played Annette Strauss Square last month, then visited Winstar two weeks later. Paul Simon played to a sold-out crowd at WinStar in May and played to another sold-out crowd at Winspear Opera House the very next night. Strauss and Winspear are both part of the ATT PAC and under Curtis' jurisdiction.

"Paul Simon decided he was not going to allow the radius clause, and he was not going to let that deter him from playing the market," claims Curtis. “I think any artist that plays the casino can do that. There's a lot of artists that allow their agents to do their deals … and may not even be aware that the casino puts a radius clause on the deal."

Other than finding a way to co-exist, Curtis doesn’t know how to combat the competition from the casinos. “It’s shown us that people can perform at the casinos and perform here in Dallas and both venues can do well," he says. “At some point, it might make some sense to have some conversations with them about maybe doing some collaboration."

He points to the collaborative partnership between Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth and the Winspear, where an artist will come through and play both venues. “Neither venue loses out," Curtis says. "If it’s a great performance, they'll both sell it out.” 

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