Since the dawn of civilization, scams are part of our everyday life. If you cannot think to anyone who put together a scheme to get your money, your help, your sympathy, your virtue, etc. then you either are incredibly lucky or you don’t have an email account.
The music business is filled with its own share of scams. Think of Magic Alex, the guy who took the Beatles for a ride. Think of the… shall we say problematic situations of major artists like George Michael or the Rolling Stones ranging from alleged malpractice to outright frauds.
Scams & us
OK, that’s for the big stars… but what about Joe musician? Unsurprising, since the media rarely cares about minor or “unknown” names in the business like you and me, it rarely publishes stories about scams that could affect us.1
Does that mean we are immune? No, not really. Every musician can waste his money on frauds designed to fool him or her, regardless of the stage of their career and the genre they perform.
This series of articles is designed to recognise a possible scam (particularly the electronic ones, so pervasive today) and defend yourself against it. In this first article, we will talk about the difference between cold sales and scams and the different types of products that people will try to sell you.
Cold sales: the pumping heart of the music business
A cold sale is an offer to buy a product from someone you usually don’t know. Ever got a phone call by someone trying to sell you a new contract for your landline phone? That’s a cold sale.
Cold sales are the life of music business. When you send your demo to record label X, you are performing a cold sale. The same happens when someone contacts you saying that he can put you on the cover of any magazine if he’s allowed to manage your career.2
In this series of articles we will concentrate on possible scams most musicians will encounter sooner or later in their career.
For our purposes, I acknowledge the existence of three types of cold sales:
- Bona fide deals: these are offers by real professionals. They might be embellishing their role and knowledge a little bit, just like everyone does in their CV, but they are not out to get your money and will paint a reasonable picture of what they can do for you and what you can expect of them.
- Mild exaggerations: people making this proposals have lied to you in at least one area. The picture they have painted starts to look a bit too good to be true. They might not be total thieves, but you should be even more careful than usual.
- Outright scams: “Sign on the dotted line and you will be bigger than Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Madonna, Nirvana, Britney Spears, and Lady Gaga all rolled into one!”3
Of course life is much more complicated than this and there are several shades of gray (and black), but for our purposes these three categories are more than enough.
“What can I sell you today?”
This leads us to another list, namely that of the type of products normally offered to musicians, regardless of the stage of their career:
- Album art, including covers, photography of the act (that’s you and your band), graphic design, etc. Also, I have recently received some offers for art for websites, both personal pages and social media accounts.
- Written commentary on the music, the process of the recording, how the music is placed in the history of the genre it belongs or in the career of the artist, or pretty much anything you can think of and that you have seen in the albums you own and treasure.
- Interviews to the act to be ready to be published on their website, offered to music publication, or included in a press kit.
- Passages on internet or “normal” radios.4
- Special sales on music instruments and equipment, studio time, album pressing, rehearsal spaces, etc.
- Access to management or booking services.
- Access to services designed to propagate your music in one way or another (often through the internet). These are almost gone since the invention of MySpace and Facebook, but sometimes someone still tries to put together some social network or website where all the new, cool things are based.
Of course salesmen and scammers alike are incredibly creative and they are always on the lookout to invent something new, but these categories are broad enough that most offers you receive. New technologies, especially those popularized by the media, are an obvious source of new sales, both honest and dishonest, because often the product is so new that it’s difficult to tell the value of what you’re buying.
Ok, you have enough to absorb for this time. The next article in the series will deal with how you can correctly approach these cold sales to see whether or not they are worth your attention and money.
Simon Mas is a composer and musician. His name is uttered in fear by scammers in seven different countries. He lives with his mother and his record collection.
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- This happens for many reasons. First of all, the mainstream media rarely understands the mechanism of the music business well enough to understand where to trace the line between “might-be” scams and bona fide ones. Second, for good or bad, the music press nurtures the idea that readers only wants the glam and the might, with the little man or woman disappearing without anyone missing them. [↩]
- If you think about it, even having your song on radio is a form of cold sale: you are implicitly trying to sell your album, your concert ticket, your merchandise, etc. to someone that doesn’t even know who you are. And if you think that is an exaggeration, here’s a thought for you: even if you had sold 50 million copies of your last records, chances are that a very significant part of the population of the planet (6 billions, remember?) has never heard your music. Heck, they might even never heard of YOU! [↩]
- Unfortunately, very few outright scams are so easy to spot. Most care craftily worded and they will fool you, even when you’ll have a long career under your belt, if you don’t know how to read between the lines. [↩]
- Note that this is not payola if the payment is clearly requested upfront, if the anyone accessing the service would be required the same payment, and if the listening public is aware of how the radio works. [↩]