Scams in the music industry are nothing new, and as A Guy Called Gerald’s recent spout with the crooks at Rham records highlights, they’re still very much something to be aware of. Looking at that example, as well as others, we run down a quick list of the most common tricks in the industry...and how to avoid them.
Gerald Simpson, better known as A Guy Called Gerald, was and still is arguably one of the most pioneering and revered producers in dance music. Many would say it was him that was mostly responsible for the creation of acid house, and other British dance music genres like jungle in the early 90s, as well as driving the techno explosion in Europe during that same period. I would have to say that ‘Essence’, his album released bang on the millennium, is one of the best pieces of electronic music ever created. You’d think such a remarkably eclectic and gifted artist would have received the remuneration he deserves for his work, especially with ‘Voodoo Ray’, the most seminal underground hit in the British rave scene. But no, it was actually that single, the soundtrack to an era, as well as his first album ‘Hot Lemonade’ (one of the first acid house albums) that Gerald still to this day has received NONE of the profits from. Gerald did what most young artists are looking to do at the early stages of their career, sign a record deal; but that’s actually what got him into trouble, and cost him thousands, maybe even millions of pounds.
Dodgy Record Deals
This is probably the most common, and first that comes to mind when considering music industry cons. Record deal scams often happen to young artists at the beginning of their careers, with labels taking advantage of their eagerness to get signed and lack of industry knowledge. Maybe they don’t have a manager, or one not experienced enough to negotiate a good deal, and don’t get any legal advice. Or as I’ve heard in many cases, artists just signing whatever’s in front of them, without reading the small print - this is an incredibly bad idea, and as boring as it is, read all of that small print! Because as much as they seem friendly and with your interests at heart, at the end of the day they’re out to make money and one tiny part of that small print could mean the difference between £1k and £100k royalties. And once you’ve signed, there’s no going back! Also, this doesn’t just happen to young inexperienced artists. Remember Prince changing his name in the 90s due to a disagreement with his record label? Or perhaps the more recent defiance Kanye West showed towards Sony Music, together one of the biggest artists and record labels of modern times.
Always read the entire contract, and consult legal advice at the very least before signing. If you can get a lawyer you can trust with you when negotiating the deal and before signing the contract, as much as that might seem like a large expense, it could get you paid more in the long run. Also, don’t get too easily impressed or distracted by advances, at the end of the day you want to be getting the most out of your music sales, instead of just being on the payroll with a label. Remember you’ll likely have to pay all of that advance back before you start actually earning royalties from your music.
Another obvious way to avoid this, is to forget chasing a record deal entirely and stay independent - which more and more artists are doing these days. With so many online distributors, direct to consumer retailers, and online services for artists, there’s never been a better time to do it independently. Check out our previous blog post for info on the 5 revenue streams that can be produced with popular music - all of which can be done independently!
Unfair Publishing Agreements and Shifty Sync Audits
If someone comes to you saying they can get your music on television or radio, just expecting you to hand it over with nothing in writing or any agreement in place, DON’T! Like record deals, what’s in writing means EVERYTHING, and is essentially how artists and the industry make money. Also, as mentioned previously, many young novice artists get stung here by not considering the details that need to be agreed upon regarding the use of their music. You might think, “well this has never happened to me before, so I don’t have any negotiating clout”, or “I’m not bothered and just want to get my music out there to a bigger audience regardless”. At the end of the day, if your music is being used for television shows, movies, or any video for that matter, you are owed a certain amount each time it’s played. If there’s no contract or agreement set up beforehand, they could pay you a small one-time-fee when your music is being played hundreds or thousands of times on numerous outlets, how do you know?
This leads onto another example regarding audits carried out by collection societies. Sometimes even they’re wrong and you could be getting much less than you’re truly owed. When I was at university studying my MA in Music Industry Management, one of my lecturers told us of a time in the 90s when one of his most popular hit songs (I won’t give any names away here) was played frequently over the majority of stations in the UK. He was only paid a fraction of what he was truly owed because of inaccurate auditing from the collection society. He subsequently calculated that he actually lost out on a couple million pounds, but by that point it was too late. Luckily now with the advent of blockchain technology, situations like that should be much less common going forward.
Always make sure things are audited properly, kick up a fuss if you think something’s up, you’re within your rights. Make sure both parties sign a contract that is fair before agreeing to any licensing deal, like record deal it’s a good idea to have a lawyer or at least an experienced pair of eyes to check over everything. Also be weary of publishing companies paying you a fee and nothing else (especially for producers) to create music for them. Not only might the fees be underpaid, but if you don’t have a rights/royalty agreement in place, after the project is done they could be using it on the latest Super Mario game, cashing in bucket loads from licensing themselves, and not paying you a penny. I’ve even heard of publishing arms from some of the biggest music companies doing this. Even if you’re inexperienced and up and coming, you’re still owed what you're owed for your time and creative talents, and might be owed much more than you think!
Concert Con Men and Perfidious Promoters
I’m sure we’ve all heard of that time one of our friends played a show and didn’t get paid appropriately, or worse yet the promoters ran off with all the cash. Or you might have heard about these pay-to-play shows, just DON’T, those are such an exploitation of grassroots artists.
The live industry can be very hit or miss, on the one hand companies and artists are cashing in thousands or millions selling tickets for concerts, and on the other some promoters find it difficult to make any profit from the gig down at your local music venue. It’s not uncommon for promoters not to include band names on posters or flyers, lie about how many tickets were sold, or if there’s a large line up unfairly pay some acts more than others when they may be bringing more of a crowd than the promoter or headline act may realise. Headline acts will always be owed the bigger payday, and we can’t argue with that, but that doesn’t mean support acts should be paid nothing, they’re still putting their time and energy into making the gigs as best as they can be. Be weary of promoters exaggerating the clout of some headline acts to justify not paying the support acts anything. Of course there may be instances when a small grassroots band get the opportunity to play on tour with the top dogs of the scene, in which case maybe a huge remuneration isn’t appropriate, but they should at least get food and accommodation as a minimum. Also be weary of promoters from other countries booking you to play a show abroad, then cancelling your slot at the last minute with no notice or compensation. This shouldn’t happen, and if your manager knows what they’re doing and/or a proper contract is in place, they would have to provide at least some compensation if you were to travel a distance and then not play the show.
When I asked an artist I was interviewing last year how he felt to play a sold out show at the O2 (London) just before the pandemic hit, he replied,
“It wasn’t that great, the promoter basically did a shifty pay to play, got 5 bands, gave them all 45 tickets and said whoever sells the most tickets gets to headline. When we played on the night we had to ask for our name to be outside above the door next to the sold-out sign.”
Dodgy promoters like this are much more common than you think! Always make sure you know how many tickets were sold at your gigs if you’re not selling them yourself, and ask for proof! Also, if there are festivals asking you to play for free on one of their smaller stages, check out the capacity of the festival and how much tickets are selling for as well as the size of the stages, chances are they could be making tonnes of cash and should hence pay even the smaller artists something. Again, scams in this sector of the industry are much more likely to occur at the grassroots levels to younger, less experienced independent artists; so as always do your homework and know your worth, it may be much more than you realise!
We hope this has helped any budding artists new to the industry. As with any industry, sometimes it takes making some mistakes to really learn lessons, but this industry comes with more than its fair share of scams and dodgy deals. As Prince, Kanye West and Gerald most recently have shown us, scams can happen to any artist, at any stage of their career, so make sure you’re looking out for it throughout your music career. As I’ve said many times throughout this article, it’s what’s in writing that matters, so the two fundamentals that should be followed pretty much with any music industry negotiation are: have it in writing, and read all of that writing before signing anything. Lawyers and managers can help, and also knowing that the way the industry is going there’s now less of a need to rely on dodgy contracts and even more reason to be independent!