A Pittsburgh-based record label owned by billionaire Thomas Tull and an event company from Cleveland are trading lawsuits regarding a May 2022 music festival at Hartwood Acres.
The dispute over the inaugural Maple House Music & Arts Festival revolves largely around more than $500,000 in revenue from the one-day event, which drew about 7,500 to see bands including nationally touring headliners Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit and Black Pumas. The event was created by Maple House Records, which hired Cleveland’s Elevation Festivals to stage it.
The event was widely considered a success. But in its lawsuit, filed Dec. 7 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, Maple House alleged Elevation has wrongfully held on to that revenue, mostly from ticket sales and fees. The suit, for breach of contract and conversion claimed that Elevation went far over budget without telling Maple House — from less than $1.3 million to about $1.8 million — and then kept the money generated by ticket sales for the festival. Maple House seeks to be paid that $519,000 in revenue, plus damages.
On Dec. 13, Elevation filed its own suit for breach of contract and defamation in U.S. District Court for Ohio’s Northern District. It claimed that both parties “understood” that the revenue was meant simply to cover the cost of the festival, which it said had nearly doubled in size from the event the two parties had originally agreed upon. Elevation is also seeking $262,246 it says Maple House owes it under the terms of the initial contract. Additionally, Elevation claimed in its filing that Maple House’s suit is meant to ruin Elevation’s reputation because Elevation is staging its own festival at Hartwood Acres this May: The two-day WonderWorks Music Festival, announced Dec. 16 and set for Memorial Day weekend.
While Elevation’s suit names only Maple House as a party, it identifies both Tull and Maple House Records as decision-makers in regard to the festival. Maple House is owned by Tull, the billionaire Pittsburgh-based movie producer and part-owner of the Steelers whose band, Ghost Hounds, performed at the festival. (The band has opened for the Rolling Stones both on U.S. dates and overseas.) Tull’s signature is on the copy of the original production agreement submitted by Elevation with its suit. But a spokesperson for Tull said he was not personally involved in organizing the festival.
In an emailed statement, a Maple House spokesperson said, “We believe in the merits of our case but cannot comment further on active litigation.”
In a written statement, Elevation called Maple House’s suit “frivolous.” In a phone interview, Elevation Festivals president Denny Young said, “They knew exactly where the money was going and why it was going there. It was to defray the costs.”
The original event agreement, signed in July 2021, was between Elevation and Ghost Hounds LLC, which shares a name with Tull’s band, for a festival in September 2021. (Elevation said in its suit that, just days before the festival, the parties signed an agreement assigning Ghost Hounds LLC’s interests under the contract to Maple House.) That agreement called for Maple House to pay Elevation about $1.4 million to cover expenses, plus a fee of $125,000. Elevation’s suit says the festival was created as a free event.
The Elevation suit claimed “Tull cancelled the initial event” because of COVID-19 concerns. Elevation’s filing said that, following the postponement, Maple House asked Elevation to book a new venue (Young said the original site was Allegheny County’s South Park) and to double the number of performers from 5 or 6 to 12. A subsequent agreement expanded the event’s capacity from 5,000 patrons to 7,500. Maple House also requested enhanced sound equipment, enhanced security, and better accommodations for performers. (The latter were upgrades both parties agree that Maple House was willing to pay for.)
Young added that pandemic-era price spikes and supply chain issues also raised production costs.
But Elevation’s suit claims, with no changes to the financial terms of the original agreement, it convinced Maple House to charge a $59 admission fee.
“When the scope expanded, the event changed, the venue changed, the production aspects of the event changed, we all agreed to charge for the event,” said Young, in an interview. “The money from the ticket sales would be utilized to pay the increased costs.”
Asked whether there was a written agreement regarding how ticket revenue would be used, Young said, “That understanding was between the parties as discussed on daily and weekly planning calls.”
Elevation’s suit was filed by Robert J. Dubyak and Christina C. Spallina of Cleveland-based law firm Dubyak Nelson.
Maple House’s suit, filed by Jeremy A. Mercer and McDaniel M. Kelly, of Cleveland-based law firm Porter Wright Morris & Arthur, tells a different story. While it notes that the festival was rescheduled due to COVID-19, it does not state whether admission to the festival was originally intended to be free, or whether the number of acts and stages grew. Rather, it alleges that Elevation used the event agreement as a “blank check” to run up costs, and that it repeatedly declined requests from Maple House to update it on expenses. Maple House claimed that it did not learn of the full $1.8 million cost figure from Elevation until September 2022 — three months after the deadline.
Young, in an interview, denies that Elevation was uncommunicative.
“We planned the event with the Tull team from day one of signing the contract through the event. We spoke with them, emailed with them, texted with them, on a daily basis,” he said.
Elevation staged its first music festival, WonderStruck, in Cleveland, in 2016. It has since added annual festivals in Columbus and Indianapolis.
Despite a storm that delayed some performances, the Maple House Festival drew positive reviews from local media and even from the Ghost Hounds’ Twitter account, on which a May 23 tweet read: “@MapleHouseFest was a blast! Thanks to the incredible festival goers who endured the heat and the storm- yinz are troopers! Huge props to the radio partners @WYEP, @iHeartRadio, organizers, producers, and vendors for being rockstars. and the ARTISTS!”
Editor’s note: WYEP was a sponsor of the Maple House Music & Arts Festival. WESA and WYEP are owned by Pittsburgh Community Broadcast Corporation.
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