To be blunt, Tacoma's quintessential Girl Trouble, with more than 25 years of surfy garage rock under its belt, and credited with Sub Pop's first full-length release, was DIY before DIY had an acronym. Coming from a shitty, dirty stepbrother town like Tacoma, you kind of had to be. You were outnumbered. You were often humbled - or just beat up. And any progress you made was purely on the sweat of your own work. The upbringing made Girl Trouble street tough - and the story isn't some sort of rarity. Nearly all of Girl Trouble's contemporaries grew up on the same, honorable, punk-honed ethic. In many ways, it's an ethic that's synonymous with rock ‘n roll itself. Or at least it should be.
Created in 2006, Gorilla Productions is a concert promotion outfit based out of Ohio. According to the company's official Web site, Gorilla "promotes concerts in over 85 different clubs in more than 65 U.S. Cities, and employs "over 15 full time employees and approximately 100 event coordinators." According to the same Web site, in 2008 Gorilla Productions "added a band management division and a developmental label, Rock X Records."
In almost every way imaginable, Girl Trouble and Gorilla Productions couldn't be more different. But they also seem to have been made for each other, polar opposites, destined to do battle.
It's exactly the prizefight that may soon be coming to an Ohio courthouse. In March Gorilla Productions filed a lawsuit against drummer Bon Von Wheelie and the rest of Girl Trouble, alleging Von Wheelie's anti pay-to-play Web site - neverpaytoplay.com - contains "torturous, defamatory, and false statements" regarding Gorilla's operation. (Pay-to-play is not an exactly defined term, but it carries a negative connotation within music communities and is generally understood to be the act of clubs or promoters making bands "pay to play.")
Gorilla, an Ohio-based company, is seeking "an amount exceeding $25,000" from Girl Trouble plus punitive damages. Perhaps more importantly, Gorilla wants neverpaytoplay.com shut down immediately, claiming the site is "dedicated to defamation" of their company. Gorilla seems particularly incensed that Google searchers, when typing in "Gorilla Productions," are offered as their second choice "Gorilla Productions Scam" - which leads straight to Von Wheelie's Web site. Gorilla also takes issue with Von Wheelie's questioning of the fact Pabst Blue Ribbon sponsors some of Gorilla's all-ages events, somehow drawing the conclusion this questioning of a beer manufacturer's sponsorship of all-ages events implies Gorilla is letting underage kids drink beer at their events - something never specifically written on neverpaytoplay.com.
Von Wheelie and Girl Trouble, on the other hand, see things differently. The band has hired Seaweed guitarist and lawyer Wade Neal, of Johnson, Graffe, Keay, Moniz & Wick, LLP, to represent them against what they call a "dangerously wielded lawsuit." Obviously, Neal is best known for Seaweed's alt-rock success in the early '90s, but he's also a lawyer. Von Wheelie and Neal say neverpaytoplay.com is protected freedom of speech, there's nothing defamatory about it, and the idea of a company from halfway across the country being able to drag a band from Tacoma to Ohio to face a lawsuit based purely on Von Wheelie's critique of the way said company does business is at best dangerous, and, at worst, much more troubling. Girl Trouble stands behind everything on neverpaytoplay.com, though it should be noted that - to the un-invested eye - the online content of the site doesn't get more malicious than to suggest Gorilla's business model is built on taking advantage of young bands, and urging people to be weary before signing on with Gorilla.
"It's nothing but a harassment suit. ... If somebody has resources they can try to put you in the ground. We're going to fight it all the way," says Neal. "This is a weak, baseless claim."
"Am I allowed to have an opinion? Am I allowed to share it when I clearly state that it's just my opinion? If a company like Gorilla can shut down a musician who doesn't agree with their way of putting on shows what's next?" says Von Wheelie. "This isn't just about Girl Trouble anymore. It's about all of us."
"Most bands agree that our pay scales are more than fair," contends Gorilla Productions Vice President John Michalak, disagreeing with Von Wheelie's assessment of the Gorilla operation. "In the current condition of the economy, we find it very sad that a virtually unknown rock band would resort to these kinds of tactics in order to draw attention to themselves."
Locally, Gorilla Productions holds regular shows at Studio Seven in Seattle - though the company has also worked with venues closer to home in Tacoma and Olympia. In the simplest terms, Gorilla markets itself as having the ability to help "unsigned talent" (read: young bands) get shows on stages they might not otherwise be able to. Gorilla also advertises the ability to help busy venues produce the successful local shows that may be eluding them, claiming on the Gorilla Web site to fill a hole on because, "in every city there are also many clubs that are too busy or do not know how to promote successful local shows."
After talking to various bands and musicians who have worked with Gorilla, as well as exchanging emails with Michalak, the crux of what the company does seems pretty simple. Gorilla books the shows - often in a "battle of the bands" format - and the bands sell the tickets, with Gorilla then getting a substantial chunk of the profit. The bands, or so they're told, benefit from playing a Gorilla organized show at a venue like Studio Seven - but whether they get paid or not depends on their ability to sell tickets. For their time and service, Gorilla gets paid first. Sometimes, if they haven't sold enough tickets bands aren't paid at all.
Girl Trouble and Von Wheelie say this is classic pay-to-play.
Strangely enough, in a sign of the bizarre times we live in, an Ohio court case may soon weigh in on the matter.