Monday, January 19, 2009

Wolfgang's Vault in City Hall's Basement 2: Bill Sagan

In 1995, a handful of Bill Graham's employees bought the company for $5 million from his estate, and then turned around and sold it for $65 million to Wall Street banker Robert Sillerman, who rebranded it as SFX Entertainment, which was in turn swallowed by the "radio/billboard/venue conglomerate Clear Channel." (For a fascinating recounting of the evolution of Wolfgang's Vault and its copyright controversies, click here for a June 2004 article by Todd Inoue in the San Jose Metro weekly.)

In 2002, a Minnesota insurance CEO named William Sagan bought Bill Graham's archive from Clear Channel for $5 million, transferred it to a warehouse on Bluxome near the Giants ballpark, and started selling memorabilia and classic live concerts over the internet from what he was calling "Wolfgang's Vault," in a nod to Bill Graham's original German name, Wolfgang Grajonca. (Click here to get to the Wolfgang's Vault website.)

The only problem was that Sagan wasn't offering to share any royalties with the photographers, illustrators and musicians who created the work in the first place. Sagan claimed he'd paid good money for the archive, and "the purchase allowed the company the rights to open the archive as they deemed fit," according to his lawyer, Michael Elkin.

In December of 2006, a consortium of musicians headed by the Grateful Dead sued Wolfgang's Vault. "We have never given permission for our images and material to be used in this way," said the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir. "What Sagan is doing is stealing. He is stealing what is most important to us--our work, our images and our music--and is profiting from the good will of our fans." (Click here for an article by Tjames Madison at "LiveDaily.")

I called the San Francisco Art Commission the day after the show's opening at City Hall to ask them how the exhibition had come about and whether they were comfortable partnering up with somebody who was being sued by so many artists. This must have set off a few alarm bells because I was soon contacted by Gabby Medecki, the Marketing Director of Wolfgang's Vault, who informed me that "all lawsuits related to Wolfgang’s Vault have been either settled or dismissed. There are absolutely no current lawsuits between Wolfgang’s Vault and any performing artist."

She also directed me to a press release published in Billboard in November of 2008 announcing, "Grateful Dead Productions, Carlos Santana, Led Zeppelin, the Estate of Janis Joplin, The Doors and Wolfgang's Vault, wish to announce that they have settled their claims concerning Wolfgang's Vault promotion and sale of various items of memorabilia and merchandise. As a part of the settlement Wolfgang's Vault and the artists have entered into a licensing agreement pertaining to the sale of merchandise. The terms of the settlement are confidential and do not extend to certain outstanding claims concerning sound recordings."

Bill Graham, from all the accounts I've heard, was a great boss who kept the same loyal employees for decades, but if you were a competitor or a shoddy vendor, the man was utterly ruthless. It's something of a poetic irony that his private pack-rat collection should have ended up in the hands of somebody who seems to share some of the same qualities.

The exhibit is wonderful, though its attempts to link various decades to different social change themes seems a bit tenuous. "60's Rock - Feminism" and "70's - Peace," for instance, are obviously backwards.

There is a stab at multimedia where you can dial in on your cellphone (415-375-8282) and by pressing various extensions, you can hear music, interviews or further explanation of various artists (click here for the list). You also have to listen to a dreary intro by Mayor Gavin Newsom blathering on about "ordinary people" making "social change," but it's worth the effort, and the exhibition itself is well worth visiting.

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