Last week my band ‘Gravity Dave’ was approached by yet another ‘Artist Development’ company through our Facebook page. Up popped a message from ‘Sweet Home’* music in our inbox telling us that:
“I listened to your tunes and I really like them! What are your plans this year? – Bob.*”
At last! Thought we. This seems like a music company taking interest in what we do after all the hard work we put into writing, rehearsing and performing our original songs, at our own expense, regardless of the overwhelming odds against us. So with excited fingers, we thank the mysterious yet tantalising admirer, and tell them that naturally (being a band and all) our plan is to record and have more gigs, you know that kind of thing, the thing that bands do. He replies (ever so quickly and efficiently):
“We might be able to help you with that guys, you should come up for a chat.”
A chat! A chat! With a real life music company! A chat? Us? Why, dreams really do come true. We knew it was only a matter of time, and faithfully, time has delivered to us the prize we sought.
But hang on, we say, steadying ourselves and desperately trying to suppress the bubbling excitement that has us wide eyed and gripped with anticipation; maybe we should just check, and be sure, as we don’t really know who these guys are yet. It’s just a precaution of course, sure it won’t make a difference. They’ve already told us how much they like our tunes and that they want to ‘chat’, but just in case…
“Can you let us know what you can offer us?” we ask cautiously, not wanting to put our heads so far down this gift horse’s mouth that they may be bitten off. But it was ok (phew!), Bob was obviously keen not to let us wander down the path of uncertainty, and obligingly and quickly answered our query:
“We can help you match up to industry expectations! Every band wants better gigs and more exposure, but there is a way of doing it…”
He’s right you know! This guy must know his stuff. Every band does want better gigs and a wider audience. Damn those industry expectations, even though he thinks we are good, we obviously mustn’t be the right kind of ‘good’ for the industry. Thank the God of Rock that these people got to us in time to tell us this. Only one more little question to ask and then we can start down the path to enlightenment, leaving fear and uncertainty behind.
“Will it cost us anything?” we ask, almost jokingly, because by this point we’ve checked out the website, and the ‘artist development’ spiel doesn’t mention costs or services, it is a selective process that only the acts they want to work with are offered. They solicit acts to ‘send in’ mp3s for consideration. But in our case (cos we’re special) – they’ve come to us. A Brucey bonus of epic scale. We eagerly await Bob’s reply, a mere formality of prudence we are sure, but still. And then he tells us, with dream shattering clarity:
“Ha ha ha! Lol. We’re not a charity for musicians! But we make bands what they need to be at an affordable rate.”
At this point, I will drop the sarcastic appraisal of this conversation. We never really expected anything different, having had our time wasted by a similar company in the past who ‘liked our tunes’ and ‘wanted to chat about being on their exclusive development label’. We wasted a whole afternoon travelling to their studio and being told that they could produce our music, from the bottom up, reworking our songs, adding production, making them ‘fit’ the industry and then promoting them to all the ‘right’ people and radio stations (BBC Nottingham no less! How could we refuse?). They paid us vague compliments which didn’t specify any particular tune they liked or anything about it. They looked and sounded like they were making this speech for the hundredth time that week. In short, they finished their pitch, and at the end, when they asked us if we had any questions, we asked the same thing… “Will it cost us anything?”.
Guess what? It would have. I can’t quite remember now, but it was around £1000. That included the recording of three songs (with massively intrusive production methods to re-work them and add ‘strings’ and ‘horns’) and then some vague talk of promotion, of which only BBC Nottingham Radio was actually mentioned. As we drove back, having thanked them for their time and promising to let them know what we thought of the ‘deal’, it dawned on us that they weren’t really a well-known promotion/recording company. That they didn’t really like (or probably even listen) to our tunes… they were just after our money! The charlatans! They were basically just a recording studio trying to find ways of getting clients!
You might find this hard to believe, but we found that day, as we did again last week, that there are people in the music-business who will basically lie and deceive to get your money from you! Who would have thought it? In such a happy and creative industry! So when Bob from ‘Sweet Home’ music was giving us the same pitch and tried to laugh off our genuine question regarding costs… Something inside me flipped. (this is my response verbatim…)
“Why does your website not make it clear when asking acts to contact you with their tunes for consideration that they will end up paying? It’s not really ‘consideration’ when you are charging bands… It is just basically a recording studio under a different name trying to make out that they are offering an ‘exclusive’ service, rather than presenting costs up front. We’ve had this before from other such studios that tried to convince us they heard something ‘special’ in our music and then wanted £500-£1000 to develop it. It’s a shame that this sector of the industry is turning in on itself for revenue, rather than looking to audiences. We are okay thanks. If you really felt we were worth it, you would take some risk with the costs and negotiate a share of the resulting revenue. If you want to not seem like you are fleecing people, maybe mention the costs in the first approach rather than wasting time calling meetings and making it out like the acts has been chosen, when really it is just another potential customer. Good luck, but I don’t think your business model will be the one that cuts it in the new digital age.”
He didn’t like that. This is an interpretation of his response:
“Thanks but your attitude is wrong. Everyone needs to put food on the table.”
Food on the table? Food on the table?! He wants to dupe us into using his companies recording studio under the guise of some vague promotional activities, as if it was exclusive, and he thinks that putting ‘food on the table’ is a valid excuse? These guys own a recording studio. We know that if we want to record in such a facility it will costs us money. That is a service. A service is a service, end of. It is not an exclusive offer or opportunity. It is money changing hands for an agreed itemised service. Why all the cloak and dagger, vague compliments, offer of chats, no mention of money on the website?!! I retort:
“Just be up front with the fact that you charge people and it wouldn’t be an issue. It’s like someone saying ‘You’re a really good guitarist and I’m a talent scout – all you need to do is pay me £500 and I’ll make you even better!” – it doesn’t make sense. It’s a pitch. And as a pitch, I think it’s a bit of a sneaky one. – I’m a self-employed composer and writer outside of this band, so I know about ‘having to eat’ but I still have to go after genuine projects and am constantly dodging people who want money from you to achieve ‘success’ so I believe my attitude is one of logical self-preservation and I will be advising everyone I can not to get wound up in these dubious schemes. Golden rule – if someone is asking you for money while promising success, it is they who have the wrong attitude. Been the same for time immemorial. You’re not the first to make almost exactly the same pitch to us so we’ve already been burned by the ‘come along for a chat – we think you’re good and we want you on our label’ – and then finding out they also want £1000 for it! Appalling. Watchdog beckons, say hello to Anne Robinson for me.”
He liked this even less. His response, again interpreted, was:
“How dare you accuse us of not running a legitimate business? We are selective with our clients but we earn enough to live on and are very good at what we do.”
That alas was where I terminated the conversation for the sake of my own sanity and constraint (the next things I said would not have been the prettiest of words). Apparently the people who ‘need to put food on the table’ were actually earning a good living. They are, they say, selective with their clients. But why would you be? If you believe that you know what the industry wants, why wouldn’t you produce the hell out of anything that comes your way if you are getting paid for it?
My regret is that I did not calm my rage and string Bob along for a while, but I was overcome by the same feeling you get when a cold-caller rings you up and starts asking you questions about your life before telling you who they are, what they are selling, and how much it costs. To summarise the thorny:
- If you liked our tunes so much, why do you think we need ‘re-shaping’ into something the industry wants?
- Why would we want to be ‘re-shaped’ into something the industry wants? The industry is in flux. We are the industry if we choose to be. There’s this thing called the internet, look it up.
- Even as a pitch it is lazy. Just adding the name of one of our songs to the opening gambit may have helped. Let alone some qualification as to why they ‘liked our tunes’.
- The website of said company is sparse, makes no mention of costs and gives a strong impression of exclusive deals being brokered if you are chosen. This is just plain misleading, if not criminally so. (I’ve emailed the OFT about the general status of these companies – if they reply, no doubt that will be another blog).
- It’s just a really, really shitty way to do business. They may not have known that the average age of my band is around 38, but for young bands, they really would have felt that surge of excitement and joy with an approach such as this. They would have gone to the meeting and been easy targets. Their parents would have picked up the bill and at the end of it, they would be just another band, with a handful of recordings and songs that have been ripped apart and rebuilt by some meddling middle men who think they know what the world wants to hear. The only difference is that they (or their parents) would be several hundred, if not thousands, pounds lighter and tensions would be high.
I researched this phenomenon a little and found that as the music industry has contracted over the last decade or so (due to the internet), the first to go were often the ‘A&R’ men. A lot of these A&R men set up recording studios with the added dimension of an attached ‘promotions company’ that could draw on their experience of the industry. The general warning is to avoid at all costs. These are the people who were first out when the traditional industry collapsed… why would you pay them to try and shape you into something that they are no longer part of? These were the bull-shitters, and they now reside in small recording studios up and down the land, ready to exploit as many musicians as possible. They’re not after success for their acts, why would they when they have no incentive? They are paid upfront for their services that are limited and temporary. They aren’t willing to risk anything on anyone, they just want your money, our money, the money from the musicians who don’t have any to start with.
And I’m sure that there are those companies out there (this may have been one) that if you pay them enough, will accordingly promote you as much as they can and may even help you to move a notch or two up the ladder of notoriety. But this is a service, and one that other companies legitimately advertise as so. If the opening message had been something along the lines of:
“Hey guys! I am from a music promotion company. We can offer you a competitive package to record and promote your music. We have listened to some of your music (I especially like the driving hooks of ‘Here we are’ and ‘Clearly Wrong’ by the way!) and think that what we offer is something that can really help just polish it up to the standard that some parts of the industry want to hear. For a full list of our services and basic costs, please visit our website or feel free to ask me anything you want. Good luck with the band, we hope you would like to work with us as we would like to work with you.”
… then at least we could have had the courtesy of saying ‘no thanks’ with full knowledge of just what the hell they were talking about. And even so, this kind of practice is attempting to re-align a failing industry to one that makes its money primarily from the artists, rather than the audience. It is negative practice, and I am aware of bands out there who have ‘paid their way’ to success of sorts, literally having hundreds of thousands of pounds spent on them to get onto TV and radio, and still aren’t that well known. It is the death throes of a dying practice that needs to disappear. So I would urge you if you are in a band yourself, or know others who are, and come across this kind of offer, to walk away with two fingers held firmly and defiantly aloft. If you must spend money, spend it on yourselves or use those companies that don’t present as one thing when they are really another. If you want to spend money on promotion, there are plenty of people lined up to take your money without pretending that you are ‘special’ and that it is ‘exclusive’ – they will simply take your money and do what they do, without the confidence tricks to get your business.
Anyway, there is surprisingly little out there on the net about such companies, and obviously I’m not going to cite the one’s mentioned, so here is a little to go on (below). Thanks for reading and please share your experiences of this with me (if you have them) in the comments below!
A good blog on some red-flags to look out for:
Another blog, read the ‘Artist Development’ section. It also does a lot to define what is and isn’t a ‘scam’, which legally, can be quite important! (I’m not saying that these companies are scammers – they are just unethical and treading a blurry line between scam and legit)
Of course, my band was mentioned so…
* The company name and contact have been changed. If there is a real company called this with a ‘Bob’ working for them, that is a coincidence and quite accidental!