The dread hadn't yet settled in for Elizabeth Russell and Jeff Walters, even by the time the work was done and their bags were packed. Through nine long days of uncertainty — including a torrential thunderstorm — they did their jobs and tried to keep the dread from overwhelming them.
In late July 2014, the two staging techs and a small staff were tasked with setting up the seven stages and assorted infrastructure of Machine Gun Kelly's EST Fest, a sprawling weekend of rap and electronic music in the woods of Nelson Ledges Quarry Park in Northeast Ohio. To borrow a phrase from an entirely earnest WQHT Hot 97 DJ a few months after the fact, the event was like a "'hood Epcot."
For Russell and Walters, the event was work — and the promise of good pay on the back end. They were to take home $1,800 for the job, a healthy paycheck to pair with the trickle of income they earned at a tire shop near their home in Canton. The nine days on-site would carry them into August, so rent would be due. And, to quicken the dread later on, they'd need to repair their truck after the beating it was going to take along the quarry's rough terrain. Times are always tough in the gig economy, and Russell and Walters were eager for their checks. The couple stitches together a living like so.
As early as two days into the job, the rumor mill was grinding out hearsay that maybe no one was going to get paid for this one. Like that old "telephone" game, conversations were treading through camp that something was up with the money. According to the lore of the weekend, an additional crew of six from LiveNation didn't bother to come back after hearing that.
One thing that should be known is that these sorts of independent music events come with their own brand of hand-wringing and doubt. Things fall apart, and sometimes the money comes in late. Or sometimes somebody needs to borrow on credit to make payments happen. Whatever. The money always comes in. Usually. For the most part.
Russell, characterizing herself as an optimist even in dire straits, wasn't buying into the talk. Still, something didn't quite feel right about the situation. This wasn't like most events she worked — and it certainly wasn't like the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, which took place the same weekend of EST Fest and which the couple declined in favor of the MGK event.
The way she explains it now, she and her better half aren't normally asked to, like, live on the grounds before, during and after the show — for nine days. As she and Walters trucked deep into the woods to assemble one of the stages — a massive geodesic dome that would house late-night DJ sets — they tried to dust off those bad thoughts and get on with the work.
After all, in a few days some 6,000 to 10,000 fans (estimates vary wildly to this day) would arrive for fun and debauchery. When they did show up, Russell and Walters were asked — told — to take up security detail.
Despite the anxiety of set-up, and according to observations of those in attendance, the event was a success. Machine Gun Kelly is, in certain circles, a hometown hero. Fans spent the weekend doggedly pursuing him, chanting "E-S-T-What-The-Fuck!" (EST, the licensed tagline and battle cry of MGK's career, stands for "Everyone Stands Together." MGK's fame is predicated on his recognizing the fans as his family.)
Victoria (she has requested her last name not be used for this story), the crew steward of eight staging techs — including Russell and Walters — and a lighting tech and lighting designer, buzzed in for two days to ensure that everything was going well. It was. And Justin Simpson, the stage manager for Nelson Ledges at the time, assured her and the crew that the money was coming. Invoices were collected and approved.
During the actual festival, Russell and Walters were stationed out in the woods, trading 24/7 shifts to monitor the dome and make sure that no one was going inside and screwing around with the equipment. The work was becoming something more than what they had agreed to, leaving them hungry and tired and ready to be done with the whole thing.
"It got to the point where it was like, is this even worth it? I feel it wasn't," Russell says. "I feel we got fucked, excuse my French."
Payment was due Aug. 3, 2014, the last day of the job, and the day that Russell and Walters were asked by a Garrettsville neighbor to help clean up the Nelson Ledges grounds and surrounding property. The place was a mess, totally trashed. They declined, seeking instead the comforts of home; but, looking back, Russell says that at least that guy might have paid them for a day's honest work.
For EST Fest, Russell and Walters hourly rate added up to $1,800 between the two of them. The other staging and lighting techs took the total to $6,325. Add the event's lighting designer and assorted other costs, and you're at $9,170 without interest.
That's just a small portion of the total costs of the 2014 EST Festival. Estimates hover in the low six figures.
When it came time for payment, no one — the techs, the electrical team, the equipment providers, the venue — got paid. The rumor mill had been correct.
The story that the crew steward, Victoria, first heard was that the ticketing agency was disputing the funds, asserting that perhaps the 6,000 or so attendees hadn't even been there. A 45-minute rain delay took place during a thunderstorm on Saturday. The main pit was fairly well flooded, but the sun dried everything out pretty quickly. It remains unclear how many people, if any, requested a refund; based on video of the entire weekend and interviews with people involved in the staging, the show continued after the storm without further interruption.
"When there's a rain delay on an outdoor festival for 45 minutes, it is not refund city," Victoria says. "It's a rain or shine event. Everybody's there. The show went on."
During the festival and in the ensuing days and weeks, Simpson, the stage manager, was handling payments for the workers. He's familiar with the fact that smaller and mid-sized festivals come with their fair share of unexpected surprises. Equipment might not show up as promised, or a staging crew might come in with different expectations or the money might not be as bountiful as initially thought, and his job included navigating those obstacles. But, listen, things like this tend to get worked out. He assured everyone that the money would be coming.
Despite the claims that a rain delay investigation was causing the hiccup, Victoria says she and her team were never told what ticketing agency was involved with the festival. They weren't told with any sense of certainty when the investigation would be cleared up. They weren't told where the money was physically located. Even as late as mid-May 2015, when Scene first began speaking with EST Fest staff, none of the workers knew the name of the ticketing agency. It was as though a ghost had fled in the night with the cash.
A few weeks after the event, Victoria and the other workers were told to forward their invoices to a group called Livin' Legends LLC.
Recalling the curveball, Victoria says now: "What do you mean I have to suddenly make an invoice to Livin' Legends? This is a new name. I've never heard this. That was never part of the agreement."
But even through this avenue, the money was still unavailable. By that point, Livin' Legends, the promotions team behind MGK's touring successes, was embroiled in a lawsuit over this fiasco.
On Aug. 20, 2014, Nelson Ledges Quarry Park filed a civil complaint against Livin' Legends LLC, citing breach of contract and accounting discrepancies. "[Livin Legends] has breached the contract by not paying the full rental fee and associated staffing and clean-up fees to the Park. Such fees were due before and immediately after the festival," according to the suit. The park's rental fee was a baseline $25,000, with incremental increases in line with attendance. A cleaning and maintenance charge was "not to exceed $4,000."
As the lawsuit unfolded, Victoria's confusion only compounded in trying to get her due payment. "I was like, 'What do you mean?' There are only two responsible parties and both are disagreeing," Victoria says, referencing the venue and the event organizer. The confusion didn't let up anytime soon.
Not much is known about Livin' Legends. "Check us out @ www.livinlegendsllc.com," the group's Facebook page urges. But livinlegendsllc.com brings up nothing but a blank page. While confirmed as being active last summer, est-fest.com now similarly directs the user to a page where he or she may claim the domain name.
The company originally filed in the state of Ohio in 2007. The incorporates are listed on public records as: Donald P. Hill, Andre Cisco II and Brandon Young.
The group declined to speak on the record with Scene, though Cisco II spoke briefly over the phone and said: "We've done festivals, and we've done so many shows in Cleveland. Everything has run smoothly. We've never had any issues like this. It's just unfortunate what happened."
For Russell and Walters and everyone else, it still isn't really clear what happened.
Livin' Legends declined additional interviews, insisting instead on providing a written statement to Scene about the handling of the festival. In full: "Machine Gun Kelly was solely hired as a performer and liscensed (sic) the EST 19XX name to the 2014 Festival. After recently discovering the details behind the handling of last year's EST 19XX Festival, Machine Gun Kelly and the EST Team are attempting to make things right fiscally and legally to ensure that this does not ever happen again and that the 2015 festival runs smoothly and all parties are made whole."
Follow-up questions were ignored by MGK's publicity team, and the staging crew remains clueless as to how MGK and his team will "make things right." At least one worker points out to Scene how most popularly accepted estimates of MGK's personal wealth hover at "$1.2 million."
Settlements were proposed; at one point Victoria was willing to square her crew's payment at $7,000 total, but the imposed May 20, 2015, deadline ran out on that offer.
"It's not fair for nobody involved in this production where not a dollar was given to anybody," Russell says. "[Management] swore up and down that we were to be paid the day the festival ended. It's now months later, and not one person has seen a dime from it to my knowledge."
And she's nearly correct. Some workers speculate that some of the festival's 18 or so bands and artists were paid, though Scene could not confirm that. And Will Roth, who provided sound equipment for one stage on Saturday during EST Fest, received the $1,600 he was owed.
"We took the sound system out early in the morning, set it up with the band on the beach, and we were probably done by 1 o'clock," Roth says. "As we were going out, they needed some spotlights for the main stage, so we also brought those out." His role was fairly nominal, but, like everything else, the weekend's sound equipment costs racked up.
Over the course of four or five months, he says, he remained adamant and eventually got his check settled through Livin' Legends.
As Russell describes it, though, over the following weeks she began losing contact with the festival and venue's management. Emails went unreplied-to, voicemails went unanswered, and the dread, held briefly at bay, began to sink in.
"People forget that we're bringing a lot of money to Ohio," MGK said during a May 2015 interview with Hot 97 in New York City. "They speak on LeBron, they speak on a lot of things, but we bring a lot of money to Ohio."
During that portion of the interview, MGK says that last year's EST Fest garnered about 10,000 attendees. Festival organizers and workers, however, said that attendance was just shy of 6,000. It's not really clear what the real number is.
When you drive up to Nelson Ledges Quarry Park for a festival weekend, you pull in through a mostly bare-bones entrance. Those who have tickets pre-purchased and in-hand are sent through. Others hand over cash before being whisked into the event.
Tickets began at $50, before rising along tiers ($75, $100) as the event got closer. Even the most conservative math balances out to hundreds of thousands of dollars in ticket sales, to say nothing of the proceeds of whatever merch lined the stands that weekend. At $50 a ticket, 6,000 attendees would translate to $300,000.
As Roth put it, "Everybody should have gotten paid; a lot of money came in." Considering the venue and the workers and the artists, some back-of-the-envelope arithmetic would still leave plenty of money in profit.
The fallout from EST Fest raises questions that invariably point observers back to a 2012 bar brawl in Pinellas County, Florida — as another legal flashpoint in MGK's career and something of a foreshadowing event several years in the making.
"Just spent my entire night in a fucking Florida jail... shit escalated way too quick last night, it always does with us though," MGK tweeted following the 2012 concert in St. Petersburg, during which, according to police reports, he sliced open a security guard's hand mid-brawl and landed in prison for the night. The security guard, William Long, ended up in a hospital for eight days, enduring two days of surgery and "intense therapy."
Eight months after the fight, as the case made its way to federal court, Long was asking for $15,000. MGK denied the argument for that money. More than two years later, in November 2014, the parties filed a notice with the court that a settlement had been reached.
On Nov. 20, 2014, Long filed a motion with the court, alleging that MGK and his legal team had "falsely, fraudulently, wilfully (sic), and in bad faith" induced him to proceed with a settlement that he "had no intention of honoring in good faith."
Three years after the brawl, it seems that a final settlement was eventually reached. And from this vantage point, it's difficult to separate that Florida court docket from the handling of the Nelson Ledges lawsuit, in which Portage County judge Laurie Pittman has ordered MGK's team to pay $95,034.13 — and ordered so twice.
But the thing that ties the whole story together isn't Livin' Legends' questionable record of media relations or legal battles. This whole time, see, the guys at Livin' Legends and everyone in MGK's camp have just been trying to find the money in the first place. They were fumbling through a bad situation with an apparent ghost who had fled in the night with the cash. More than one year out now, they still don't know where all that money is.
A guy named Leonard Jordan knows.
At the heart of the mystery for the past year has always been the unidentified ticketing agency.
After Scene located a screenshot of a pair of 2014 EST Fest tickets, a quick series of Google searches brought up a company named Here Your Tickets LLC, a Steubenville-based ticketing operation that originally filed for incorporation in Ohio on Sept. 6, 2013.
The sole registered agent is a man named Leonard Jordan, who is also named as the registered agent for the following Ohio entities: Cloud 9Nine LLC, Firecards Print Media Group LLC, The Shirt Off Our Backs Foundation. None of those entities has an online presence outside of state records. But hereyourtickets.com is a functioning website that, based on web archives images, once advertised the 2014 EST Fest.
Public records reveal Jordan has been busy, traversing much of Ohio — and Los Angeles County in California — going back more than 20 years. A paper trail of deception lines Cuyahoga County and Summit County court archives.
In 2004, Jordan stole Charter One Bank checks from a woman named Candice Fitzgerald and "cashed several of the checks at various banks," according to Parma police. Cuyahoga County judge Daniel Gaul gave him five years of probation, which he later terminated after two years.
Prior to that, though, Jordan's local schemes ran the gamut from cocaine possession and trafficking in 1989, stolen vehicle possession in 1991 (an '86 Pontiac), crack cocaine possession and trafficking in 1995, passing bad checks and theft in 1996 and sexual battery in 2010. Anecdotally, Will Roth mentioned in an interview that a Leonard Jordan had stolen his sound equipment one night in Akron some "10 or 15 years ago" and that the M.O. matched up with this guy's rap sheet.
Livin' Legends wouldn't explain to Scene why they chose to do business with Jordan and his fledgling ticketing op. But after scooping egg off the company's face, they tracked him down and, according to Cuyahoga County documents, served a court notice to him on May 26.
Jordan didn't respond to the notice. But the court took action. According to records, Jordan owed $302,905, the sum of the ticket revenue that went through his company.
The straightforward and nearly immediate default judgment awarded a sum of $908,715 to Livin' Legends on July 24. Whether Jordan is located again and whether he pays up remains to be seen.
Whether the trickle-down of payment makes its way to Russell and Walters and everyone else who labored to build EST Fest from scratch is anyone's guess. (Jordan, unsurprisingly in this saga, was not located by Scene for comment for this story. He's suspected to be encamped near his Steubenville homebase.)
According to the grapevine that twists around the Northeast Ohio events staging scene, MGK's people are working out a contract with Nelson Ledges to host "several" future EST Fests or events of similar ilk there. The tickets and the money would be handled internally through Nelson Ledges. No one officially involved with either party could confirm that plan.
But the hope is that money would be recouped and this fiasco can be put to bed. The track record for hope in this story isn't great, though. Victoria continues to advocate for her crew.
In an email from Livin' Legends LLC to Victoria on June 29, 2015, before the Cuyahoga County judgment against Jordan, Don Hill wrote:
"We do not have a definite answer as to when there will be a court ordered judgement but the way it looks, it'll be in our favor. Next thing is to try to recoup monies owed to us. This may be a difficult task but we are continuously working towards the path of assuring you along with others are paid.
"In the mean time we are trying to host small events that'll possibly bring in some revenue. I pray and hope sometime in August we can provide you with some type of monetary dollar value to square up with everyone and get this behind us."
As of press time, Victoria and her crew have not received any type of monetary dollar value.