In the days after the Playground Festival was held at Hidden Valley over Labor Day weekend, it was all over the Internet—for all the wrong reasons. Angry comments crackled across news websites that reported on the festival, name-calling and cries of fraud against the organizers blared on the event's Facebook page. Indeed, the two-day event, which was billed as "OC's answer to Coachella" but barely registered on OC's music radar weeks before, became way more famous after the fact.
Various acts on the lineup, including Game, E-40, Lil Jon and Steel Panther, didn't bother to show up, allegedly because they weren't paid. VIP-ticket holders, who paid $215 a pop, received no special treatment. Promises of a DJ competition, laser tag, tiki village, boat rides and more were unfulfilled. And the city of Irvine closed the event at 8 p.m. on both days—way before the headliners were supposed to play (guess it was a good thing Game didn't show up). The whole thing was reportedly a pay-to-play scenario. As for the attendees? They just wanted their money back.
It has now been a month since what has been dubbed by pundits as the Playground FAILstival. Orange County concertgoers have short memories; they've shrugged off the experience, maybe dismissed it as a one-off, a mismanaged event that involved poor coordination, terrible artist selection and bad handling of money. But stories of shady dealings behind the fiasco are still popping up, leaving some observers to wonder: Was this event made to fail?
Days before the festival, The Orange County Register reported that the event's co-producer, Elevated Sound Productions (ESP), was financing the event by signing up investors using hard-sell tactics. They were tipped off by Ken Ascher, a private investigator from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ascher told the Weekly he has been investigating these types of hard-sell-investment operators for years. Typically, he said, names and numbers were farmed via phone surveys. Surveyors would promise the respondents a free bag or a hotel stay for their time answering questions about money matters, and if they were found to be even remotely interested in investing, their names and numbers were sold to lead brokers. The respondents—usually moneyed and elderly—would then be subject to cold calls from various investment companies. Ascher had been subject to so many boiler-room-type phone calls for investments that he started giving fake names to callers to find out where they were coming from.
In August, Ascher says, he received two phone calls trying to sell him on a two-for-one investment. Salespeople for ESP told him that if he invested $67,000, he would get double his money back in weeks. The salespeople compared Playground Festival to Coachella and Electric Daisy Carnival, both of which, Ascher was told, made millions of dollars. Ascher, who recorded the phone conversations, wound up talking to Jake Hurtado. He refused to give Ascher any information about ESP—including its exact address in Costa Mesa, or how the event was insured—but he did want Asher to FedEx a check for about $67,000 by the end of the day.
Instead, Ascher got in touch with the California Department of Corporations, which, on Aug. 30, a day before the festival was held, ordered ESP to stop selling the public investments since the company wasn't registered with the state or with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. (Registration is supposed to ensure that investors aren't cheated.) By then, they already had Ron Van Gelderen's money. According to the Register, the 75-year-old Dalton, Georgia, resident invested $40,700 of his retirement fund in the festival. When the event was over, the company stopped returning his phone calls.
In a statement made to the Weekly on Sept. 9, the festival organizers said the Register articles "had an extremely negative affect [sic] on both ticket sales and other revenue, and our efforts to fill an area the size of eight to 10 football fields . . . [and] caused stop-payments on [more than] 10,000 tickets that were out to numerous promotion companies."
In a phone interview, Mark Leyes, a spokesman for the California Department of Corporations, said that when companies offer investments, they have to register those securities, offer full disclosure and be truthful about what they disclose. ESP did not do that, hence the cease-and-desist order. But without formal complaints from investors who believe they've been defrauded, there isn't a lot more the Department of Corporations can do—especially since, in this instance, Ascher didn't choose to invest. For the regulating body, there was no further action to take, other than note the violation.
Local artists on the bill also feel victimized. For the privilege of playing at the festival, many bands were made to sell about 50 tickets for $50 each. When artists got to the venue, they discovered they were expected to perform on makeshift stages. "We were supposed to play on a stage the size of two picnic tables pushed together," says Franki Doll, lead singer of local band Franki Doll and the Broken Toys. After some pushing (her husband went to high school with one of the organizers), Doll got her band, which draws about 400 people per show, to the KIIS-FM stage. It was barely an improvement: They ended up performing on a broken-down semi with highway floodlights for stage lighting. "It was the biggest clusterfuck," she says, adding, "It was disrespectful to the artists."
And she was one of the lucky ones; prior to the event, bands didn't get contracts, and even when they arrived to play, there were no published set times. Artists slated to perform were even walking around with cardboard boxes that said, "Tips/Spare change."
Luckily, other players at the festival had legal recourse. Game was supposed to headline the first day of the festival. On the day of the event, the organizers called his management, saying they didn't have enough money to pay the rapper. "Those organizers were a joke," Game's manager Delaney McGill told the Weekly. "You have one of the biggest rap artists in the West Coast, and that Sept. 3 weekend, his album debuted at No. 1 in the country—and you can't pay!" McGill says Game is filing a lawsuit against the festival organizers and sponsors for damages that reach to seven figures.
"Bottom line is, they damaged my client's image and reputation," McGill says. "Game has millions of fans, and he's never had a problem in the past selling out shows in the OC area. . . . I want them to know that it wasn't his fault, 1,000 percent. The ones who did purchase tickets to see him, I hope they got their money back."
The Weekly has tried to get in touch with ESP to get its version of the story, but its website has been scrubbed, its office in Costa Mesa shuttered, and numerous phone calls and Facebook messages have been left unanswered.
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Ascher says it's hard to say whether the festival had the sole intention of fleecing money off investors. "It would seem that from the numbers they were giving that they knew this was nothing like Coachella or Electric Daisy Carnival, but they were putting it in the same league as those events," he says.
Doll says, "I would love to go along with that [theory], but I don't believe it. I believe they wanted it to be great and just needed to raise capital. I believe it was legitimately set up so they could do it again, and they just failed."
This article appeared in print as "Playground Throwdown: With scheduled headliner Game filing suit, accusations of fraud are still popping up a month after the two-day festival."