The Most Important Advice an Unsigned Band Will Ever Receive
First of all, I’d like to offer a preemptive apology for this post’s somewhat clickbait-y title. But, simply put, if you’re an aspiring musician in an unsigned or “local” band, you need to read this! What I’m about to say might be the single most important piece of advice an unsigned band could ever receive. It’s that crucial. I’m not saying that to toot my own horn, and by all means I’m no expert on everything that goes into making a band successful, but I’ve seen a lot of shit go down in my years in this business… and I’ve had enough.
Unsigned bands are too often prayed upon by opportunists, fake players in “the industry” that see an easy way to make a quick buck. It’s immoral, it’s gross, it’s bottom-of-the-barrel con man-style thievery and it’s predatory. I’ve watched it happen too many times, and it absolutely needs to stop!
Knowledge is the first step in preventing that from happening. Too many unsigned bands simply lack the industry experience to snuff out a scam when they encounter one. Hopefully this article will help.
Why am I so fired up about this today? It all started with a recent conversation I had on Twitter with an unsigned band that’s been grinding and hustling in the underground for years with little to show for it as far as national (let alone international) name recognition. It started innocently enough — some basic advice — but before long spiraled into a story of a band, desperate for attention and unsure of how to achieve it, being fleeced out of thousands of dollars. Worst of all, the band did it willingly, convinced they’d finally found the secret key to unlock the door to success.
Before we go any further I would like to acknowledge that band and thank them for giving me permission to write this piece. The band is Granshaw and they’re a groove metal band from Bowling Green, KY highly worthy of your attention! Check them out on Spotify and Facebook. They have some work to do, sure, but they know that, and its that knowledge which sadly lead them down the wrong path.
The conversation began with a post I made to Twitter about turning away an unsigned band (a different one) who wanted to drop a serious chunk of change on advertising on MetalSucks and the other metal sites in the Blast Beat Network, the company we’re partners in that also places ads on Metal Injection and other sites. It’s not uncommon for unsigned bands to advertise with us, but those bands typically come in with relatively small amounts of money and a focused aim, a hundred bucks or so to help promote a new music video or single, for example. The band in question came to us with $4,000 to drop on advertising alone without a clear goal in mind and without ANY infrastructure in place. Not a wise investment! Advertising can be an effective form for promoting a band, but it works best in concert with other activities all going at the same time: a dedicated press campaign, a concerted marketing plan, an album, a video, social network posts, touring, etc. I told the band as much and sent them the names of a few publicists to contact.
I tweeted a condensed version of the above story. Granshaw responded by asking what an appropriate ad budget for an unsigned band would be:
It’s complicated, I explained, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer. You’ve got to have everything else in place, too, as I just outlined above, for advertising to be effective. Throwing a ton of money at ads doesn’t work in a vacuum.
And that’s when the conversation took a turn.
Granshaw, whose Twitter account is run by vocalist Bo White, revealed that money was hard to come by, a problem every struggling band faces, to be sure. But what, exactly, were Granshaw spending their band-dedicated dollars on? I wanted to know.
“We’re regular working guys who don’t make a ton of money for there to be a big budget backed by us,” they told me. “We could be on a major label but when they want $7500 buy on and then tour buy-ons…”
Whoa whoa whoa! Tour buy-ons?? Cue the record-stopping sound effect.
For those who aren’t familiar with the term, a “buy-on” typically consists of a flat fee paid by an opening band to a headlining band for the privilege of opening a tour. Buying an opening slot on a tour, the thinking goes, will expose that band to the headlining band’s fans. Some of that money could theoretically be earned back in merch sales (in actuality this rarely happens), but the big “get” is playing for audiences of hundreds (or thousands) of fans every single night without having to work for it. Just write a check, and those audiences are yours! “Once they see us, they’ll LOVE us,” the thinking goes, providing the “big break” the band needs to get noticed, and from there it’s onwards and upwards.
But here’s the thing: it almost never ends up working out that way. There are exceptions, but for the most part, if a struggling band hasn’t been invited onto a national tour yet, the reason is simple: they aren’t good enough yet. That’s the hard truth.
So, lesson number one: tour buy-ons are almost universally a red flag! Any band or agent asking for a buy-on is either a) desperate, b) not a real industry player, or c) both. If you, as an unsigned band, encounter a “promoter” or “agent” who tells you that all you have to do is find the right tour to buy-on to, run the other way as fast as possible!
Sure, there are exceptions, especially in the hard rock world, which traditionally has operated on more of a “pay to play” basis with big radio payola budgets and whatnot. Certain big festival tours, like Ozzfest, notoriously requested buy-ons for bands lower on the bill. But those aren’t the kind of tours we’re talking about here, nor are they the same level of bands, and for the most part, especially in extreme music, no industry “professional” who asks you for a tour buy-on is ever going to turn out to be the professional they purport to be! Any headlining band who accepts a buy-on, or seeks one out, is likely on the back side of their career, in dire financial straits, or both.
That is simply not how touring works. For most bands, they’re asked to join tours either because they have a solid buzz, they bring something to the table (fans in certain cities, for example), someone in the headlining band is a fan, or because of some kind of political boondoggle, i.e. someone in the band’s camp (manager, agent, label) owes a favor to someone in the invited band’s camp. Those bands get paid to be on those tours, even if it’s peanuts. They don’t buy on, ever.
The only times I’ve seen buy-ons in the metal world are either when a fool and their money are easily parted by a fake industry player looking to make a quick buck, or when someone in the band (or their parents) is very wealthy and money is no object. In the latter case, I have never seen a buy-on — or series of buy-ons! — result in long-term, sustained success. Not once, ever.
Back to our pals in Granshaw, that’s just the beginning — it gets worse!
The band quickly learned that industry folks who ask for money are not just opportunists, but are often running scams. Such con artists will often go to great lengths to convince vulnerable, hungry young bands of their worth. White, their vocalist, explained, “They tried to throw at me, ‘with all the young people acting stupid and overdosing nowadays, leaving the label screwed, we’ve got to have some money upfront to show your commitment’.”
And here’s lesson number two: if a record label ever approaches your band and asks for money for a contract, run the other way as fast as possible!
No record label worth a damn will EVER ask for money from any of its bands, PERIOD. Sure, record deals aren’t what they used to be, and this is especially true in extreme music. Smaller labels will often ask bands to self-finance the recording of their albums, unheard of just a few years ago, but at least will take care of pressing up physical copies, distribution (physical and online) and presumably some sort of marketing. The best-known and biggest metal labels — Metal Blade, Roadrunner, Century Media, etc. — will, of course, pay for the recording, or at least some portion of it. But you wanna know something that no legitimate label, big or small, would ever do? Ask for cash from a band! One of the main purposes of a label is to fund a band’s artistic output so they don’t have to! Any label of any size that asks for any amount of money at any time is a bogus operation. End of story.
Unfortunately, the mindset that a label would ask for money up front is so ingrained in some bands that the idea of a label that asks for nothing is a pie-in-the-sky dream. “But hey, we’ll gladly accept an invitation to a label that doesn’t want money from us, lol,” White told me. He continued, “I’m still learning things everyday. I thought I had learned that that’s how it was done. If you’re good enough that a label wants you to buy on, you do it. Then you put your name in the hat to buy onto tours and if you’re lucky ur the one that gets picked.”
I couldn’t make this shit up. He actually said that. Verbatim. Bands are competing for the privilege to contribute money to a scam! For fuck’s sake.
I’m not sure of how deep this problem goes — do a lot of bands think this way, or just a few who have had bad experiences, like Granshaw? — but the fact that ANY bands are being fed such a steaming, heaping plate of bullshit, and that some gobble it right up, is too much for me to handle.
But wait — it gets even worse!
Not only was Granshaw’s “manager” the one who pushed the band towards paying for a record deal and paying for tours… but he was taking the band’s money, too!
“He wanted 3k/ year,” Granshaw said of the band’s alleged manager. That right there is yet another red flag…
And here’s lesson number three: if any so-called manager asks to be paid a flat fee… run the other way as fast as possible!
Any manager worth their weight in salt will ALWAYS work on commission. They earn money only if the band does. End of story. A manager who asks to be paid up-front is no manager at all, but a scam artist promising the world who, I guarantee, will deliver nothing.
And that’s not even Granshaw’s whole statement: that opening sentence was such a doozy I had to address it on its own! Here’s what he actually said: “He wanted 3k/ year but was fine with splitting it up into 12 monthly payments,” as if this manager was doing the band a huge favor — just for the small guys!! “But after about five months of that, things kind of fizzled out and nothing was happening so we stopped messing w/ them.” Nothing happened? You don’t say! “Every label that had an offer wanted money upfront.” What exactly would even be in such an “offer”? Some pats on the back and a few positive affirmations?
And that, my friends, is what we call a racket: one scam artist (manager) demanding money for services, then demanding the client pay more money to his pals in other areas of the business, namely record labels and touring.
All it takes is money! May the richest win! If only it were that simple.
While money can certainly buy influence in many spheres, music — especially metal — isn’t one of them. Artistry and creativity catch up sooner rather than later, and that’s really what it all comes down to: is your band good enough or not?
Let me make it perfectly clear for the cheap seats. Finally, here it is, the most important single piece of advice any unsigned can ever receive:
No unsigned band should ever give money to anyone claiming to be a manager, record label or booking agent! It’s a scam, a total waste of money, and you will have nothing to show for it afterwards!
There are certain players in the industry for whom it is standard to ask for money up front, and these are folks you should pay. These are people who bands can hire to perform a job or a service with a limited scope or defined length of time, such as photographers, video directors and publicists. They’re worth the money, or at least as much as their past work proves. Pay them! Do some research into their past experience and track records, though… because scam artists abound all over. Once again, take it from our friends in Granshaw:
“There’s a guy here on Twitter named [redacted by request] who promised he would get us a new music video announcement from online publications like Kerrang, Loudwire and MetalSucks, so I gave him a little good faith payment so he knew I was serious and would get the ball rolling. But he never did get the ball rolling so eventually I asked for my money back and he said nope and just straight up stole $200 from me. Then he threatened to sick his attorney on me if I asked for my money back again. And I thought he was legit because he was somehow connected with the Inkarceration festival.”
A classic move amongst unsigned band scammers — claiming dubious connections to big, respected organizations in the area. When I lived in Michigan, it was Kid Rock and Eminem; every single C-level “industry” type had some kind of vague connection to one or the other. Do your research, people; it’s never been easier to find out whether people are who say they are than it is right now!
But don’t pay a manager, record label or booking agent. NEVER. Take it from Granshaw, take it from me, take it from the hundreds, thousands of local bands who have been scammed over the years. No real industry players will EVER ask for money! Just like the advice I’m offering in this article, which is completely free.
Good luck out there.