Chris Strayer is still owed more than $4,000 for running sound and lights at Lancaster's biggest blues festival in 2017.
Adam Gussow had to work with a detective for weeks before getting paid $1,000 for his 2018 performance.
William Pollack, whose stage name is Billy Price, canceled his 2019 show at the last minute because he didn't receive the deposit promised to him.
Their stories are similar to at least 17 other vendors and musicians who have had payment issues with Richard Ruoff, the man who started and has run the Lancaster Roots & Blues festival since 2014, according to an LNP investigation.
Some connected with the festival wonder how Ruoff is getting away with not paying and fear the impact the trend could have on Lancaster city’s reputation as a thriving music scene.
Even as Ruoff deals with his financial issues, tickets are on sale for the sixth annual festival that kicks off Feb. 28, 2020. Early bird tickets for the three-day event cost $45-$99.
While acknowledging the payment issues in recent interviews, Ruoff said he estimates he owes $200,000 in payments related to the festival .
He said he told his team of 25 festival investors recently: “If you think someone can do it better, I will walk away.”
But that’s not what he wants.
“I gotta survive. And we’re gonna survive,” he said.
Not getting paid
Ruoff has a robust history in the Lancaster music scene. He owned the Chameleon Club from 1985 to 2002, which remains a popular music venue in Lancaster. Since then he has been involved with shows and artists and other festivals.
Ruoff debuted Roots & Blues in 2014. The festival brought artists together from around the world and from down the street. The first festival had 60 acts on nine stages. Attendance doubled from 5,000 to 10,000 between 2015 and 2018.
Each year, crowds of music fans swarm Lancaster during the multiday festival, typically in the cold of February, renting hotel rooms, buying food, parking downtown and patronizing businesses. In a 2018 interview, Ruoff said the estimated economic impact on Lancaster was $3 million.
Backstage, word began to spread about Ruoff’s reputation when it came to getting paid, according to accounts from artists, vendors and agents.
Not every artist has had an issue getting paid. For example, Seth Walker, Blues on the Loose, Corty Byron and The Innocence Mission said they got their money. Other artists didn’t respond to requests for comment or declined to be interviewed.
But for those who have had issues, it’s been a back-and-forth of bounced checks and unanswered phone calls. As many as 10 people have worked with a Lancaster County detective to get Ruoff to pay.
He’s been ordered to pay a total of more than $35,000 to a musician and four vendors who filed civil complaints in Lancaster County Court.
From the near-beginning
Issues date to 2015, the second Roots & Blues festival.
Production Express Inc., a company hired to provide lighting and electronic materials for the 2015 festival, filed a complaint in 2016 claiming that a $11,236 check from Ruoff bounced. The case was dropped after Ruoff paid.
For the 2016 festival, musician Tinsley Ellis said he did something he normally doesn’t do: He accepted a check as payment for his work. He said he did so because he worked with Ruoff for nearly 30 years.
The check bounced, he said in a recent interview.
He said someone from his agency ended up working with the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office, and months later — after a lot of effort, he added — Ellis got paid.
“It’s such a beautiful town and such a beautiful festival. But fans don’t see what goes on behind the scene,” Ellis said.
Word began to spread about getting help from the district attorney’s office, and one detective in particular, Joanne Resh, according to artists.
Through this year, Resh has helped as many as 10 people get their payments from Ruoff, according to the district attorney’s office, which declined to make Resh available for an interview.
“The approach is with priority to getting the money owed to the artists/musicians,” district attorney’s office spokesman Brett Hambright said in an email. “That is what the artists want.”
Most are from outside the area and would rather be paid than travel to court for hearings, he said. Ruoff “has indicated he wants the artists to be paid,” and he has done so in cases Resh worked with, according to Hambright.
Most of the communication has been done through phone calls between Resh and Ruoff, Hambright said.
“The reality is, we are trying to make payments,” Ruoff said of working with the district attorney’s office. “We are getting there.”
Court records show a criminal case for bad checks is ongoing against Ruoff in Cumberland County. Ruoff was charged after giving Carlisle-based High Peak Tent Rentals $10,000 in checks that bounced after the 2017 festival, according to court records. He was accepted into the county’s alternative rehabilitative disposition court in August. Ruoff said he has paid the company.
Running the business
The first four years were a time of growth for the festival, as is the “nature of a new business,” Ruoff said, adding that the 2018 edition was the first to turn a profit.
But the debt has stacked up, and Ruoff is “still digging out of the original debt from the early years,” he said in a recent phone interview.
The festival is expensive — Ruoff estimates costs to put it on started at $200,000 in 2014 and have grown to $400,000.
The debt was cyclical: Plan a festival, sell advance tickets, hand out deposit checks, write checks and hope for enough walk-up sales to cover the difference. Instead, checks have bounced, and Ruoff said he hasn’t yet been able to overcome that difference.
Currently, Ruoff owes money to 17 artists and three vendors, he said.
Hardship in Ruoff’s personal life have compounded the financial struggles of the festival.
In 2017, Ruoff suffered two heart attacks. A few days after last year’s festival lineup was announced last November, his wife, Claudia, was diagnosed with Glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer.
The diagnosis changed everything. Instead of promoting the festival and chasing sponsors in January, Ruoff went to 50 doctors’ appointments. Claudia, 47, has kept “a positive attitude,” Ruoff said. They’ve been married 19 years and have three children between ages 13 and 18.
The most recent festival in February suffered because of it, he said. Plus, his sales person left at the end of 2018, and Ruoff said he wasn’t able to get enough sponsors for this year’s festival.
“This is the most challenging year we are facing,” Ruoff said.
Ruoff doesn’t like to ask for help, he said. But he has needed help for a few years — and definitely needs it now, he said.
“At the same time, I’ve got to take care of my home life,” Ruoff said. I’ve got to be here for (Claudia).”
Matters for Lancaster
The blues world is a small subculture based on trust, said Adam Gussow, who got paid for his 2018 performance only after working with Resh, the district attorney’s office detective, for several weeks. Gussow is part of the popular duo Satan and Adam and has toured nationally for years.
“I won’t bad mouth the festival,” Gussow said, adding that not paying artists and vendors is ethically wrong.
“This is the paradox. The festival brought so much joy to so many fans. If they had any idea that this was going on, I think most of them would be upset,” he said.
The festival indeed has brought thousands of people to Lancaster since 2014, according to Ruoff. At capacity, Lancaster could handle about 20,000 guests, he estimates. That’s a lot of financial opportunity for the city: at restaurants and bars, hotels and other businesses.
Hambright, with the district attorney's office, said they have communicated to Lancaster city staff concerns about Ruoff's ability to make timely payments.
Jess King, chief of staff for Mayor Danene Sorace, said the city hasn’t had “any interaction with Mr. Ruoff.” The festival doesn’t use the city for permitting because it takes place on private property, she said. Legally, they don’t have the right or ability to deal with any of Ruoff’s contracts, she said.
Several artists and vendors said they want someone to take over the festival — at least the money part.
Leo DiSanto, a Lancaster-based musician who performs with Vinegar Creek Constituency, called Ruoff one of the “founding fathers” of Lancaster’s music scene.
Although DiSanto, who performed at the 2019 festival, said he has had some issues with payment, he still has “a lot of respect for Rich and high hopes for the future.”
The future of the Roots & Blues Festival is, at this point, uncertain.
The festival’s investors — a group of 25 people in business and interested in the music scene in Lancaster — are trying to make a decision on what to do in September, Ruoff said. He declined to identify anyone in the investor group. They operate as an LLC, he said.
“We’re on a time crunch,” Ruoff said, adding he doesn’t want to set up any contracts for 2020 until things are figured out.
Ruoff said he’s committed to two things: that the festival continues, whether he’s involved or not, and that everyone gets paid.