The 'Blackfish' Effect: California's Proposed Orca Ban, Artists Canceling Theme Park Concerts

Willie Nelson, REO Speedwagon, Heart and Barenaked Ladies dropped out of their SeaWorld gigs, while Diane Warren says, "It should impact musicians to not ever play at these horrible places. Animals are not here to entertain us."

Proposed legislation that would ban the use of orcas as amusement-park acts in California could turn up the heat on musical groups that can earn a 25 to 50 percent premium playing such venues.

On March 7, California assemblyman Richard Bloom, a Democrat whose district includes Malibu, Pacific Palisades, Bel Air, Brentwood and Santa Monica, introduced legislation that would ban amusement parks from using orcas for performances in theme shows. Spurred by the controversial documentary Blackfish about captured orcas, the bill also would illegalize captive breeding and prohibit the import and export of the so-called killer whales.

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"I hope a movie like Blackfish stamps these places out of existence," says Grammy-winning songwriter Diane Warren. "It should impact musicians to not ever play at these horrible places. Animals are not here to entertain us."

One park operator that has been the target of criticism for its orca shows is SeaWorld Entertainment, which owns SeaWorld San Diego. The company dismisses the bill as problematic. "This proposed legislation is severely flawed on multiple levels, and its validity is highly questionable under the United States and California constitutions," says spokesman Nick Gollattscheck.

SeaWorld, headquartered in Orlando, Fla., operates 11 amusement parks around the country. At least three offer live or DJ'd music events -- Busch Gardens Tampa, SeaWorld Orlando and Adventure Island Tampa. The concerts typically feature retro acts like Chubby Checker, Glenn Miller Orchestra and The Osmonds or country groups. In February and early March, the company hosted its 15th annual Bands, Brew & BBQ series in the Busch Gardens Tampa and SeaWorld Orlando locations.

In the wake of the furor unleashed by Blackfish, however, at least 10 of the series' 18 originally scheduled bands, including Willie Nelson, REO Speedwagon and Heart, backed out. Joan Jett, whose song "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" opened an orca show called "Shamu Rocks," wrote to SeaWorld president Jim Atchison in December to ask the company to stop using her music.

Other acts such as Scotty McCreery, Justin Moore, Gretchen Wilson, Hank Williams Jr., Kid Rock and Alabama went ahead with the series, which concluded March 8. McCreery previously has defended his decision in media interviews, saying that he researched the issue and felt comfortable performing. A representative for McCreery declined to comment. Representatives for the other acts were not immediately available for comment.

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The SeaWorld-operated music venues are amphitheater-size, typically seating 1,000 to 1,500. In most cases, the concerts are offered to parkgoers as part of the admissions package. For musicians, the bookings can be lucrative, often paying 25 to 50 percent more than a regular ticketed event, because the company needs to attract appealing acts in nontypical settings, says The Agency Group vp Colin Lewis.

If an act breaks a performance contract for these kinds of venues, it likely forfeits fees and typically would have to return any advance payment received. Additionally, the park could argue "there should also be reimbursement for marketing and other expenses that have been incurred," says Lewis.

Gollattscheck, the SeaWorld spokesman, says that any agreements the company has with bands or artists are confidential.

The 2015 roster for Bands, Brew & BBQ hasn't been announced, but SeaWorld Orlando is hosting Viva La Musica, with Latin acts, April 26 to May 17. Adventure Island Tampa has live music and DJs as part of its Island Nights festival that runs Fridays and Saturdays from June 12 to Aug. 9.

When Blackfish premiered at Sundance in January 2013, its searing portrayal of a whale in captivity and the dangers posed to trainers drew attention, but it wasn't until the film aired on CNN in October that public outrage mounted. Music groups began registering their disapproval following petitions asking the acts to withdraw.

Barenaked Ladies, for example, dropped out of Bands, Brew & BBQ in November after approximately 11,000 fans signed a petition. "This is a complicated issue, and we don't claim to understand all of it, but we don't feel comfortable proceeding with the gig at this time," the group wrote on its website.

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Artists have long used their pop culture capital to make political statements. Cher, Blondie's Debbie Harry and Ellie Goulding in recent months have all refused to perform in Russia in protest of the country's anti-gay laws.

"Sometimes you have to stand your ground if you believe in something," says manager Jonathan Wolfson, whose client Hall & Oates canceled appearances in Arizona in 2009 to protest the state's immigration laws.

"The Mavericks would never play a place like SeaWorld -- absolutely not," says the group's frontman Raul Malo who grew up in Florida and had friends who "trained" animals at the Seaquarium in Key Biscayne. "At one point, places like that may have served a secondary purpose to somehow 'educate' the masses, but I don't think that's true anymore. These places are simply a product of our own arrogance as well as our own ignorance. You can't take a smart, social animal with close family bonds, that is used to swimming vast distances, and confine it to a concrete pool so that it could wave its flipper to us. If they had fingers I'm pretty sure I know which one they'd be waving."

Assemblyman Bloom says he was compelled to sponsor the legislation after watching Blackfish, visiting SeaWorld and talking with Naomi Rose, a scientist with Humane Society International and critic of the marine mammal entertainment industry.

"SeaWorld has accused me of palling up with extremists and specifically named PETA, but I have never associated myself before with PETA," says Bloom, adding that he expects the bill to gain traction in the legislature in the next 45 days.

Malo, however, believes it may not take the hand of government to bring change to these theme parks. "It's probably a matter of time before these places shut down," he says. "If enough people start to feel this way, before you know it capitalism takes care of the rest. I went once with my kids. They liked it OK. Then we saw the movie, and that was it. No more. I hope my family's not the only one that feels that way."

It remains unclear what impact, if any, the film and the music show cancelations will have on SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment. In a preliminary report for 2013, the company recorded $1.5 billion in total revenue, up from $1.4 billion in 2012, the highest full-year figure in the company's history.

This article first appeared in the March 22 issue of Billboard.