work the mic

Music Industry Scams


December 12th, 2014

I don't know what it's like in other industries, but the Music Industrial Complex (MIC) is overrun with predatory "services" that count on our desperation to get famous and our ignorance of good business practices to separate us from our money.

Everyone knows that musicians want to be heard by as large an audience as possible. That we want to sell more downloads, discs, merch, and download cards. So these scumbags tempt us with promises of social media promotion, radio airplay, blog write-ups, bigger bookings, or a chance to work with or open for big stars. They'll do all these things for you (and more!) for the tiny upfront investment of $X,XXX.95.

Scammers count on musicians' desperation for fame and ignorance of business to take their money.

You fork over the money, hoping against hope that this is finally your "big break." As they're cashing your check, they may or may not caution you that the music industry is really tough, and they can't promise results. But, they'll work their ass off for you, because they really want you to succeed.

It is in the weeks and months that follow that you start to realize these offers and services are extremely difficult to validate from the musician's perspective. The agent/promoter/booker/producer will send you periodic updates to let you know just how hard they're working for you. Yet, despite their tireless efforts, you don't see any more traffic on your website. You haven't sold any more downloads. You're still playing the same venues. What happened? We got scammed, that's what.

I want to talk about these "services" because the moment you put your music online, you will start to be bombarded with the offers. The younger and more inexperienced you are, the more tempting they will seem. I've been scammed too many times to admit in a public setting. What can I say? I'm a trusting person (otherwise known as a sucker). I'm never going to get back the several thousand dollars and hours and days of energy that I've wasted on these frauds, so I'm hoping that the costly lessons I've learned will at least serve as cautionary tales for you.

Let me preface this with a disclaimer: some of these services and arrangements may have worked for other people who would take exception with labeling them as scams. If so, good for them, good luck, and god bless. I can only speak for my experience. As usual, take what you like, leave what you don't.

LET'S WORK TOGETHER

I've come across this particular racket a number of times from different companies. I'll give you the first example, because it's the one I took the furthest. It all started way back in the days of MySpace. Someone messaged me through my artist page and said that they worked for a literary publishing company that was expanding into the music publishing and promotion industry. The agent said that she was interested in discussing possible representation.

Like I said, I'm a natural-born sucker, so I was excited about the possibilities behind this message. I responded as quickly as I could, and said that I was very interested and would love to talk more. I probably sat at my computer, staring at the inbox screen, tapping refresh over and over.

The "agent" talked about representing me before she even heard my music.

The "agent" got back to me the next day, and noted that she had not actually heard any of my music as the MySpace music player wasn't working properly on her computer. (Red flag!) But, but, but... she had read some of my lyrics, and couldn't wait to hear the music that went with them.

It was at this moment that a voice in the back of my brain whispered that this mighhhht not be the most legitimate business opportunity I'd ever come across. However, I was desperate for validation as a musician, and there were no other opportunities on my radar, so I had to silence all dissent in my mind, and grasp at any chance, no matter how ridiculous it might have seemed. I continued the conversation.

Over a phone call, the agent said that her company would like me to come to Nashville to record in a studio that the publishing agency had a relationship with. They would pair me up with a producer and work on recording a demo of 3 my best songs. Once the demo was complete, we would see if the agency wished to continue to work with me. All they needed was $500.00 up front to start the process, then whatever fees the studio and producer incurred. Travel costs were my responsibility obviously.

Had I not just recorded an album of 10 songs about a month prior to being contacted by this agent, I probably would have found myself on a plane to Nashville, cash in hand. However, as a result of said album, I had no cash whatsoever. I asked the agent if they would accept my incredibly expensive album as a product that they could market. She checked with her boss. They couldn't use my album. It was their studio and producer or nothing. Keep in mind, they still had not heard any of my songs. I had to pass.

I was pretty disappointed, and complained about my plight to one of my sisters. My sister lovingly let me know that I was, in fact, an idiot, and was being suckered, and suckered hard.

Now since I didn't continue along this path, I'm not sure what happens if one does go to Nashville and work with the producer. If I had to guess, (and I am definitely guessing - if you have experience with this, please share), I would imagine that the company would string you along one fee at a time. "We love what came out of this. We want to do a couple more tracks," followed by a request for more money, or "we love what came out of this, and we want to do a marketing push," followed by a request for more money.

I wish I could point to this situation as the only example of my industry stupidity, and that I learned my lesson without ever shelling out any money... that I never fell for another scam or shady deal again. God, how I wish that were true.

BOOKINGS

YOU ARE ONLY AS GOOD AS YOUR DRAW

I was a little slow to come to terms with this reality of the MIC: generally speaking, if you can pull a big enough crowd, you can pretty much play wherever you want. When you're trying to convince a booking agent, bar manager, show-runner, or whomever to let your band play, realize that they most likely don't care who's in your band, how good you are, what genre of music you play, or even what you sound like.

If you can pack a venue, it doesn't really matter what you sound like.

If you can pack the place, sell tickets, drinks, food, and keep people planted on their barstools for the duration of your set, they probably won't care if you get up on stage and read Moby Dick backwards. If you don't believe me, you'll come around once the show-runner asks you the same question every show-runner has asked every band in all of recorded history: "what's your draw?"

This was a somewhat uncomfortable realization for little naive me who started out believing that playing music in public was about playing music. With very few exceptions, playing music in public is about entertaining people so that they spend money. Most venues have a base attendance number that they need a band to commit to before they book a gig. Come show night, if you haven't hit that number, or at least gotten very close to it, don't expect a follow-up booking.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying this arrangement is good or bad. It's just the frank reality of the situation. Your communications with venues will go very smoothly if you clearly and quickly state that you can cram their house full of heavy drinkers. If you know you can't meet the venue's requirement, you'll have to decide whether you want to be up-front about it and see if they'll give you a chance to build an audience, or roll the dice and tell them you can hit the number, knowing it's unlikely.

Newer venues and inexperienced show-runners are somewhat less likely to use your draw as their primary or sole criteria for booking you. However, once they have a few failed shows under their belt, they'll start to realize that paying and/or feeding a musician when the house is empty is not an effective business model.

WEEKNIGHTS

Many show-runners have a scheme (maybe the better word is "arrangement") where they allow lesser-known bands the opportunity to play at a venue that might otherwise be out of the band's reach. The only catch is that they have to play on a weeknight when it's unlikely that the venue will be busy. They'll require the band to sell X amount of tickets. They'll book 3 or 4 bands on the same bill, who may or may not match each other's styles and genres.

Sure, kid, you can play here... on Wednesday night... at 11pm... if you sell 20 tickets for $15 each.

If each band sells their minimum number of tickets, the house breaks even or makes a profit, which they may or may not pass on to the bands. Here again, the venue is looking for the bands to bring their own audience so that the venues can turn a slow night into a busy one.

If you have a built-in audience, let's say you're in high school or college, and you have friends who are always willing to go out and party, then this might work really well for you. However, if you're in your late 20's or higher, you are probably going to have a more difficult time getting your friends and fans to come out and support you on a weeknight, especially if it means paying X amount of dollars, while also having to listen to 3 other bands that they know nothing about, and do this until the long hours of the night.

I personally think this model is a dead end for both the venue and the bands. In my experience, best case scenario is that one of the bands brings a respectable number of people, but the other three come up with nothing but their significant others and the band manager, and what audience is there comes to see their friends, then leaves after the set is over. In most cases, though, it's just the four bands playing for each other.

TOURS

Another booking-related service that is kind of scammy is the "tour" model. A company or individual offers bands the chance to book a tour, and says that they'll do most of the legwork in getting everything set up with the venue. The "legwork" typically involves nothing more than blasting a number of CD's and bio sheets out to a stale list of venues, many of which are closed or don't have live music. The band just has to provide the CD's, the bio, and pay the booking agency X amount of dollars to put everything into motion.

You can probably see where this is going. What has happened in my experience is that:

a) You get a show (or series of shows) at a venue (or series of venues) that don't have a built-in audience, and are expecting your band to provide the draw. If you don't have a marketing campaign or a contact in the venue's town, it's highly unlikely that you'll attract a lot of the locals.

b) The booking agent stops returning your calls after a couple of weeks. The tour never quite materializes.

c) You get placed into weeknight "original band night" shows. You play for the other three bands who also pulled zero audience.

NETWORKING

This type of scam is a little more generic or broad than the ones we've already discussed. I have only fallen prey to it once, but I have seen this kind of thing advertised many times. The basic premise is that you will hire an agency or agent (or producer or representative, etc.) that will plug you and your music to bigwigs. The agent just needs you to put up some cash for travel and for their time.

A key to scamming is that they tell you're almost there, but not quite. They want you to think it's an exclusive club.

They may provide you some advice on your music or your look... something to make you think that they know their stuff, and to entice you to take them seriously, yet not out of reach. As any intelligent person could probably predict, after he takes your money, the agent will likely drop off the map after offering some vague "the industry is really crazy right now" excuses about why they have no results for you.

In my case, this situation led to my band dropping a couple grand to get some connections with producers and studios, as well as getting some bigger shows lined up. This guy basically offered to mentor/manage us.

We didn't go into it entirely blind. We talked with a couple of his past clients before putting out any money. They assured us that he was the man. He got us appointments at big-budget studios. Then, after we did a recording at one of these studios, he disappeared with our money, having done nothing more than set up a few phone calls that we could have set up ourselves.

I have seen at least two other people fall into similar traps set by modeling agencies and talent scouts. They tell you that you have "it" or that you could have "it," you just need to do a little work on yourself. They set you up to get some headshots or a demo made, then they set up a website/database where the pro's can find you and decide if they want to work with you. All you have to do is use their company to do the headshots (which are ridiculously overpriced), and pay them a steep monthly fee in order to stay in their database.

GETTING SIGNED

Steve Albini, who it seems is one of the only straight-shooters in the music industry, wrote a fascinating and depressing article about being signed many years ago. It's dated, but from everything else I've read, the basic principles still hold true today. I highly recommend it, and don't feel the need to expand on it.

Steve Albini's "The Problem with Music"

If you don't feel like reading it, the TL;DR version is: don't go seeking labels. If you're doing your job right, meaning that you're building an audience and putting out quality music, the labels will come to you when you're ready.

Getting signed is not the pinnacle of success. It often means you'll end up bankrupt or in debt.

Even if you do get signed, the overwhelming statistical likelihood is that you as the artist will be bankrupt or worse by the time the label is done with you. They will use some incredibly creative accounting to make sure that they come out on top (while you come out on the bottom), while also using your desperation and ignorance to hide the realities of the system.

THE LITTLE CONS ARE THE BIG CON

It seems to me that the keys to many of these scams are:

a) Money up front. They know you're probably going to be unhappy with their product or service, so they have to get the money while you're still hoping for success. They can't allow you to wait until you see results... because there won't be any.

b) Warning you of the fickle nature of the music industry. It's not their fault that you haven't blown up, you see. They did their best, but the industry just didn't bite.

c) Not letting you in too easily. They have to make it seem exclusive... like you're almost ready to play in the big leagues, but not quite. Just put out a little money, and let's see where it goes. That rejection makes us want it all the more.

Be careful. Hold tight to your wallets. When someone tells you how great you are, then asks you for money, grip your wallet even tighter. If a company wants to work with you, there should be some risk on their part as well. You shouldn't bear the entire burden. If it's all on you, I can (almost) guarantee you that it's not a legit arrangement.

If you have scam stories that you want to pass on to your fellow musicians so that they don't get trapped, please let me know. I'd love to add them to this list. Stay safe out there.

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