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Middlemen: User Beware

by Paul Rapp on October 20, 2011 · 1 comment

The Sunday Times Union had a good article about a young rapper from Ravena who got invited and then disinvited to perform at Red Square at a show put together by an Atlanta company called Afton Shows. Afton Shows trolls social-media music sites and invites bands to play gigs it sets up in local clubs all over the country. The bands are expected to sell a certain number of tickets to the shows and Afton splits ticket money with the bands if enough tickets are sold. The kid in the article got bounced from the show, according to Afton Shows, because Red Square didn’t want any hip-hop in the club. Which is strange, since Red Square has hip-hop shows all the time, and even lists hip-hop on its home page.

The TU writer, Cathy Woodruff, called me last week to talk this out. While what Afton Shows did to this kid wasn’t cool (it appears he really got bounced because he hadn’t sold enough tickets), what Afton does generally doesn’t offend me terribly. It’s a pay-to-play situation, and that’s something that’s not uncommon out there in clubland. Plenty of clubs pay bands only after they’ve brought in a set amount of money at the door, which is more or less the same thing. At a club-owner panel I put together for a CRUMBS Night Out at the Linda a couple of years ago, someone asked Howard Glassman how a new band could get a gig at Valentine’s. Howard’s response was, “Promise me 50 people on a Tuesday night and I’ll book you.” That makes perfect sense.

So Afton Shows gives unknown musicians the opportunity to gig in a real club, something that might not otherwise happen. And really, if you can’t sell 15 or 20 tickets to your gig (which appears to be Afton’s number), maybe you shouldn’t be gigging. So, is it a rip-off? Not really, although Afton could be more upfront about the ticket thing. What happened to the 16-year-old rapper shouldn’t have happened.

But this brought up something I’m seeing more and more these days—the unsolicited pitches to musicians from companies looking to “help” the musicians get famous. Back in the day, this was happening on MySpace, and now I’m seeing it happen on SonicBids, ReverbNation, Facebook and Bandcamp. The pitches are all similar—the company really digs your music and wants to “sign” you to a deal—a deal for distribution, maybe to pitch your songs for film, and so on. Of course you’re flattered, because you dig your music, too, and everybody wants to get famous. But beware.

First of all (and as Woodruff quoted me in the TU article), if the pitch involves you paying money to them, run away as fast as you can. A real music deal involves the company paying the musician, not the other way around. There was a flurry of unsolicited offers made to local musicians a few years from record producers, usually guys who’d produced a minor hit or two, years and years ago. The deal was that you’d pay the producer thousands of dollars to produce your music (and, of course, this amount is but a fraction of the producer’s “going rate”), then the producer would shop your stuff to labels and publishing companies (and the producer is, of course, oh-so connected), and you’ll split all the money you make after the producer makes you famous. Uh, no.

Just this week a local songwriter asked me to look over an offer he’d gotten through SonicBids. It was from an Australian company called Blue Pie, and they wanted to digitally distribute his album and pay him 60 percent of the proceeds, and also pitch his stuff to film and TV and pay him 50 percent. And they wanted to “administer” his publishing, too. Not unreasonable on its face. But the more I looked, the worse it got. The digital distribution was through the Orchard, a company that handles digital distribution for lots of labels. The pitching to film and TV appeared to be through a number of online click-through licensing companies like Pump Audio and Rumblefish, which themselves charge 50 to 65 percent for placements. Blue Pie was aggressively soliciting musicians on SonicBids through “contests.” The deal my client was offered came through Blue Pie’s sales department. If a musician wanted “promotion,” there were packages that could be bought.

Clearly this company was looking to fatten its catalog on the cheap, and if something pops, great, if not, well, no loss other than a little bit of server space. I told my client that he could accomplish everything Blue Pie was offering in an afternoon on the Internet. Anybody can get comprehensive digital distribution through companies like CD Baby and TuneCore, and after a modest amount of upfront money, you keep 90 to 100 percent of the dough. And there’s a zillion placement services on the web that will offer your stuff to film and TV, and they’ll pay you directly, too.

It’s a jungle out there. Be careful.

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