In the weeks since Beach Goth left thousands of pissed off festival goers with a bad taste in their mouths, people have looked for something or someone to blame for their experience. The fifth year of the popular festival hosted by the Observatory was plagued with many of the problems you might expect of an oversold parking lot festival drenched by the rain. And like anything in today’s social media culture, there’s always plenty of blame to go around, much of it directed at The Growlers, who popularized the term Beach Goth and have headlined the festival every year except this one. But if there’s one thing to be held responsible this festival’s fuck-ups, it’s a relationship soured by greed.
Last Monday, the venue’s parent company Noise Group sued the Growlers alleging that it created the festival and owns the rights to its name and merchandising, despite putting the Growlers name all over promotional materials as presenters the last few years (originally they listed Burger Records as the presenter). The venue filed the suit in Santa Ana Federal Court right before Election Day, while the rest of us were too busy worrying about whether or not we’d be electing a fascist, life-size Cheeto as our president. The suit names the group, as well as individual members Brooks Nielsen and Matt Taylor, and several other unnamed entities as defendants. It claims the Growlers have infringed on the company’s trademarks, using the Beach Goth name to benefit the band and defendants financially, and seeks an unspecified amount in compensation. Neither the Observatory, Noise Group or the Growlers responded to multiple interview requests regarding the suit.
On paper, the argument seems to be over who has true ownership and the right to use the name. Is it the band who have been printing the term “Beach Goth” on T-shirts as early as 2006 and claim to have coined the term and created the vision and vibe of the festival? Or does it belong to the venue that booked, marketed and paid for the whole thing and has owned the Beach Goth Fest trademark and its many variations since 2012?
However, this suit cuts deeper than that for anyone who has watched both the band and the venue grow and prosper in tandem from their local roots over the last five years.
It’s really a shame and pretty cliché to see this fight over money and a name that really means nothing if the two entities aren’t working on this event together. After all, what is the point of calling something Beach Goth without the Growlers who gave this term any sort of credibility in the first place? And how could a festival ever happen without a company like Noise Group/Observatory propping it up?
In a cover story we did on the band in 2014, Nielsen states that the term “beach goth” was something the Growlers started using as a joke that just stuck around long enough to become meaningful.
The band did (and still do) give Nielsen shit for writing so many songs about death. But those dark lyrics helped to coin the next joke term that started to follow them around: beach goth. After they were done laughing at it, it actually did seem to fit.
“It was an obvious thing; we were making beach songs about death or dark things,” Nielsen says.
“To me, it just feels natural. I can't deny that beach goth really is something that defines the Growlers.”
The lawsuit, obtained by the Weekly, states that sometime in late 2011/early 2012, Observatory’s promoter Jeff Shuman (acting on behalf of Noise Group) booked the Growlers to play two shows at the Observatory in Oct 2012. After that, Shuman had the idea of booking them again and building it into “something special” that would be bigger than just a Growlers show which was made up entirely of their friends’ bands.
“Shuman was aware of a song called ‘Beach Goth’ by Wavves and says he was aware that the music of the Growlers, Wavves and other bands was described as beach goth by critics and journalists but hadn’t seen anyone ever use it as a name for a music festival,” the suit states. Shuman created a lineup that included the Growlers and titled it “Beach Goth Party.”
At the time, it’s hard to imagine either party could guess how big this fest would grew in a few short years.
“Neither Shuman nor Noise Group presented the festival to the Growlers as a joint venture or other type of partnership,” the suit alleges. “The Growlers were paid to perform at the festival….the Growlers gave no feedback regarding the name or any other specifics, other than indicating that they preferred not to perform on the same booking with a few of the proposed acts and suggested that certain other acts be considered to play.”
Those of us in the press are aware of how things are often made to look regarding bands claiming to curate festivals they actually have nothing to do with. But talking to the Growlers in several interviews about the festival gave off a completely different impression when it came to the band’s involvement.
“Everything is homemade,” Nielsen told the Weekly in a 2015 interview about the festival’s props and visual aspects of the festival. “It's me and Matt (guitarist Matt Taylor) drawing up ideas and having our friends build it for us. I've slowly let people help me and let go some of the control.”
From the outside, the lawsuit seems to be a direct result of the 2016 festival imploding. The Observatory makes it clear in the suit that the Growlers were not involved in booking the festival and were merely a band on the bill. If that’s true, then the damaging amount of flack they got on their social media pages from angry fans (or ex-fans) doesn’t really seem fair. Especially considering that, even though the Growlers issued their own half-hearted apology, Observatory never issued any sort of statement or apology to festival goers despite claiming in their suit that they shouldered all of the liability for the festival.
In reality though, this rift was occurring prior to the festival itself. According to the lawsuit, before the 2016 festival, the Growlers asserted that they owned the festival and the rights to use the name “Beach Goth” to promote the festival. The Growlers, through their management company Tournado, demanded a substantial increase in payment (sources tell us it was aloooooot more dough than last year) and refused to play if their demands were not met. They applied to trademark “Beach Goth” in 2014 but abandoned the application. “This was done without Noise Group’s permission or consent,” the suit alleges.
If the facts above are true, it sounds like the Growlers were unhappy (or at least made to feel that way) with their arrangement with the Observatory for at least the last couple years. Unhappy enough for them to apply for the trademark, and create Beach Goth LLC last September to wrest control away from the venue and possibly start doing the event on their own or with someone else.
But as the band continues to get bigger, they continue to change some of the core aesthetics of its sound, acquire new members and kick original ones like drummer Scott Montoya to the curb. Montoya, as many fans know, was the band’s producer prior in the early days and was also majorly responsible for guiding their sound in the studio. As the changes in the band continue (including their current producer Julian Casablancas), one has to ask why the Beach Goth label is even important to the band anymore.
It’s an obvious move for them to want to at least try to take their band to the next level, which probably means leaving the Beach Goth label behind. Though they risk alienating a few older fans, they stand to gain a lot more playing huge venues, getting on movies and TV, co-writing a track with Yeezy, or whatever it might require in the future to reach that level. But how many bands really get to have it both ways? Trying to stay DIY while shooting for the stars is just asking for things to fall apart. But if they wanted to leave the old festival label behind and create a new event called Growler Fest with some other company, they could probably do it.
On the other hand, Observatory might as well just do the same thing. Why do we pretend that people who come to Beach Goth to see huge acts like Bon Iver or James Blake give a shit about what the festival is called? Why do they need Growlers fans and the Beach Goth name to pull it off? As the most powerful mid-sized venue in OC in recent years, they can do pretty much anything they want right now, including bury the the Growlers in legal fees the longer they fight to keep the term Beach Goth. Meanwhile, the venue's options for artists they can book appear to be limitless, though tragically the amount of space in their parking lot is not.
And if they continue to throw huge festivals that leave fans griping about a crappy experience, there’s a good chance they’ll end up being undone by the very thing that made them great. Yes, they have the ability to promote stellar lineups in an intimate space that saves us all the perilous drive to LA. And we had the privilege of seeing some amazing sets at the festival this year, SWMRS, Future Islands, 2 Live Crew, TLC, Patti Smith, etc. But if it's a choice between a 45 minute drive north and 45 minute wait to get a beer, some decent food, or find a parking spot in our own backyard, then what’s the difference?
Then again, maybe this fight is about Observatory making one last attempt to force the Growlers to stay and continue doing the festival under their control. After all, wouldn’t we all like to see Beach Goth repair its flaws, stay local and stay weird and special the way it started out? Of course, anyone who’s been in a bad relationship where your partner is begging you to stay knows that by then, it’s already over.
A lawsuit like this, regardless of the motive and whether or not they settle, just confirms that Beach Goth as an idea, a term and a festival is no longer just making a big joke about death. It’s pretty clear now that it’s actually dead.