Musicians ask: To boycott, or not to boycott North Carolina over HB2?

Rather than cancel her concert, Cyndi Lauper repurposed it as an anti-HB2 show with profits earmarked for efforts to overturn the law.
Rather than cancel her concert, Cyndi Lauper repurposed it as an anti-HB2 show with profits earmarked for efforts to overturn the law. Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Steve Eisenstadt of Raleigh goes to a lot of concerts, probably scores of them per year. But his 2016 total might be down from years past, thanks to artists boycotting North Carolina over House Bill 2.

He had tickets for both Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam, who canceled North Carolina shows this month over the controversial new law. And while Eisenstadt opposes HB2 and sympathizes with the artists, being on the business end of a boycott is wearing thin.

“It’s been excruciating to live in a place where some of my favorite artists will not play,” he said. “Who knows what will happen? It’s an environment where anyone might cancel. I would argue that it’s incumbent on any major artist with a North Carolina show between now and November to state their intentions now, one way or the other.”

HB2, the “Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act,” was passed and signed into law March 23. Along with the highly charged bathroom clause about which public facilities transgender people can use, it also invalidated local ordinances protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination.

A firestorm of controversy greeted the bill’s passage. Music and entertainment has been front and center in the battle over HB2, almost as much as out-of-state businesses such as PayPal rescinding North Carolina expansion plans.

Springsteen garnered worldwide headlines when he canceled his April 10 show at Greensboro Coliseum in protest of the law. In his wake, Ringo Starr, Boston, Ani DiFranco, Pearl Jam and Cirque du Soleil are among those who have canceled North Carolina shows.

Other acts, from comedians Joel McHale and Louis C.K. to English band Mumford & Sons, have turned their North Carolina performances into benefits to raise money and awareness against the law.

But it’s the cancellations that are getting the most attention, both for and against – leaving ticket-holders wondering who might be next.

“The bands that have canceled have merely punished their own fans who can’t afford to just travel somewhere else to see the bands,” said Dana McCall, another Raleigh concertgoer. “I’d rather see bands just show up and entertain us, regardless of what side of the aisle they prefer.”

It’s complicated

For acts opposed to HB2, whether or not to cancel can be complicated. Indy Week music/managing editor Grayson Haver Currin and writer Tina Haver Currin have started a campaign, North Carolina Needs You (, encouraging acts including Mumford and Duran Duran to play their North Carolina shows in the name of activism.

“We’re not opposed to boycotts,” Grayson said. “It’s all about context, and it’s situational. Large-show boycotts can put pressure on the legislature and governor, and raise awareness. But doing the show allows the opposition to find funding, awareness and allies.”

While it makes the strongest statement and gets the biggest headlines, canceling also penalizes people who might well hold the same views about the issue as the artist does. After Pearl Jam announced its Raleigh cancellation, front man Eddie Vedder addressed this onstage Monday night in Hampton, Va.

“We had to make a real tough call about what we would do,” Vedder said of the Raleigh show. “It was a hard process because we thought we could still play and make things right, and we could fortify all the people on the ground working to repeal this despicable law. … But the reality is there is nothing like the immense power of boycotting and putting a strain, and it’s a shame because people are going to be affected that don’t deserve it.”

Steve Baker, who plays trumpet in the blues band Bull City Syndicate and is a special events agent at Deep South Entertainment, would concur with that last part – and not in a good way.

“I am a raging Libertarian, and I think anytime there’s an emotional reaction to government choosing sides, there are unintended consequences,” Baker said. “The people you don’t want to hurt will get hurt. A guy like Bruce makes a stand by pulling out, and the trickle-down hurts people setting up tables and chairs for parties before and after, stagehands, ticket-takers, concession workers, parking-lot attendants. Bruce or Eddie Vedder go back to their five-star hotel, and the evening’s dinnertime bottle of wine is more expensive than the total paychecks those workers would have made. It doesn’t impact them at all.”

Raleigh’s PNC Arena hasn’t released figures for what Pearl Jam’s cancellation cost the facility. But management for Greensboro Coliseum estimated that it lost out on $100,000 in concession and parking revenue from Springsteen canceling.

Further down the food chain, DiFranco’s cancellation left Durham’s Festival for the Eno in a bind, without one of this year’s main headliners. That has potential impact for the festival’s beneficiary, the Eno River Association, a nonprofit conservation organization.

“We’re a nonprofit, and budget is always a challenge,” said Tess Mangum Ocana, who booked Eno’s headline acts this year. “So is filling a holiday weekend, the right mix of musical genres. This boycott is yet another challenge, because a lot of people just don’t want to play North Carolina right now.”

‘Collateral damage’

This past week, Deep South Entertainment president Dave Rose was on the phone with a booking agent for an out-of-state act he manages. “I know you’re there, so no disrespect,” the agent told him. “But do we want to skip North Carolina right now?”

“It really hit me then,” Rose said. “How many conversations like that are happening that we don’t even know about? Cancellations are one thing. The shows that don’t even get booked over this, that’s collateral damage we’ll feel months down the road.”

Doug Daniel of EastCoast Entertainment agency sounds a similar note, describing himself as very uneasy over current trends.

“A lot of our business is at stake,” Daniel said. “We see the news and read the papers, and we’re very nervous just like everyone else.”

Short term, at least, there will be no lack of concerts across North Carolina. McCall pointed out that the Triangle has “125 great concerts coming this summer, and the list has actually grown since the House Bill 2 controversy started.”

But the controversy shows no sign of subsiding. At the very least, it’s not going to go away quietly. One upcoming show in the area is May 15 at Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw, “Stand Against HB2,” featuring Southern Culture on the Skids, The dB’s and others. It sold out in 10 days.

Another is Cyndi Lauper, a pop star who has sold 50 million albums worldwide during the past three decades. Rather than cancel her June 4 show at Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium, Lauper repurposed it as an anti-HB2 show with profits earmarked for efforts to overturn the law.

“It’s gonna be a rally, basically,” Lauper said. “People are so stuck in their own lives, because it’s hard out there. But information is power. The thing about North Carolina is, I wasn’t gonna not go and miss this opportunity to effect change. What we’re doing together is the right thing.”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC