Wednesday, October 19, 2011


This article was originally published in the 10.20.11 issue of Metroland.

The Sunday Times Union had a good article about a young rapper from Ravena who got invited, and then dis-invited, 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, even lists hip-hop on its home page.

The T-U 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 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 only pay bands 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 years ago, someone asked Howard Glassman how a new band could get a gig at Valentines. 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 from Ravena shouldn’t have happened. But, you know, that's show-biz, babe!

This brought up something I’m seeing more and more these days—the unsolicited pitches to musicians from companies looking to “help” musicians get famous. A few years ago, 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 Cathy quoted me in the T-U 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 ago from record producers, 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 was 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 made you famous. Uh, no.

Just this week a local singer-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% of the proceeds, and also pitch his stuff to film and TV and pay him 50%. 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 50-65% 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 paying for 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 90-100% 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.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

10.6.11 #FMC11

Uber-dude Casey Rae-Hunter of FMC, Dave Frey (manager of Cheap Trick), Rick Nielson

Got back really late last night from the 10th annual Future of Music Coalition Policy Summit in Washington DC. As usual, it will take weeks to get my brain around everything I saw and heard there, but here’s some first impressions.

This was my fifth (sixth?) FMC summit and to be sure now it’s a different world than it was when I first went. I’m different now, too, different than the wide-eyed, fawning country rube who showed up at the conference years ago and got all ecstatic and stunned to hear all these really smart people actually talking about these revolutionary things I’d only read about. Today I’m more of a jaded, cranky, and impatient country rube who hates everything. You talkin' to me?

That being said, I felt less passion, less buzz, and more uncertainty this year, continuing a trend that for me started at last year’s conference. This may be due to the decreased attendance from previous years; and maybe that's due to the fact the conference was announced way late, barely a month out, and many panels weren’t firmed up until a week out. Or maybe it’s the location: the Georgetown University campus location is inconvenient to folks who are broke, i.e. musicians. To be sure, the lack of fireworks can be attributed to the fact that superstar musician advocate Tim Quirk was conspicuously absent this year. Quirk, a rock musician, alt music-biz heavy, and conference regular, always lit up the proceedings with his uncanny ability to break down complex issues into bite-size morsels, and to hilariously skewer the mainstream music industry. It was like he was the interpreter and id of the conference; his very presence made everybody else honest; and he wasn't there. Drag.

There’s always technocrats and enterpreneurs at this thing hawking their “musician-helper” wares, some amazing, many incomprehensible, and most laughable. This year they seemed slicker and better fed than in previous years. Is this because they’re making lots of money off musicians? If so, that’s not good, because musicians sure as hell aren’t making more money using their stuff. Or maybe it’s because there’s been an uptick in venture capital money feeding these new idea business. Which is fine, I guess. For now. But damn, these dweebs can be annoying.

The politicians and bureaucrats were slicker, too. Maria Pallante, the Register of Copyrights, moistly recounted her personal relationship to music, even dropping Frank Zappa’s name, and then went on to pitch, without naming it, the internet freedom-killing PROTECT IP Act that's currently before Congress. Later that day, Congressman Robert Goodlatte (R, VA), expertly told a couple irrelevant down-home jokes, and then, again without mentioning it by name, pitched the PROTECT-IP Act using virtually the same talking points as Pallante. I'm gonna stick my neck out and say that none of these talking points came from Pallante's or Goodlatte's staffers; they came, instead from lobbyists of groups like the RIAA and the MPAA. Disney. Viacom. One got the sinking feeling that the fix was in and, worse, that we were getting our noses rubbed in it. This became abundantly clear when both gave non-answers to Chicago journalist Greg Kot’s questions about how these proposed get-tough laws (like making unauthorized streaming a felony) would affect personal freedom in a world in which 95% of music that's consumed these days is acquired "illegally." Trust us, they both said. We won’t harm the little people! Hoo-boy. Those guarantees sure worked well with the Patriot Act. Especially jarring was Goodlatte’s repeated claim that Congress was just trying to put into action the Constitution’s guarantee that creators’ works would be protected. Dude, the Constitution says no such fucking thing, and you know it. The Constitution gives Congress the right, but not the obligation, to make laws to protect creators’ works only when such laws are in the best interests of society. Which is a vastly different thing, Congressman. Urgh.

For the last two years, my post-FMC conference articles have consisted of interesting quotes from speakers and panelists at the conference. Not only were they great columns (if I may say so myself), they wrote themselves! This year, I came away with no banner quotes. Nuttin’. Even the loquacious visionary Jim Griffin, who’s always good for two or three rocket quotes, let me down, as he had to resort to long, convoluted sentences to explain the intricacies of things like rights clearances. It seems that a lot of big issues have been settled and now we’re into the details. Which are goddamned complicated.

I was prepping my own workshop and had to skip the panel that had the biggest buzz of the conference, about building and sustaining local music scenes. According to the tweets, Chicago rapper Rhymefest singlehandedly supplied all the excitement I found missing the rest of the time. Kills to me have missed that.

The tribute to outgoing FCC Commissioner Michael Copps was moving and bittersweet. The high point of the conference? Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielson, talking about his long career and the recent spate of festival stage collapses this year (one fell on him this summer in Ottawa) spotted an attendee sleeping in the front row. He stage-mouthed “what the fuck?”, reached into his pocket and started flicking guitar picks at the guy, hitting him in the head on his third try.

I guess the takeaway is this: times are scary, uncertain, and complicated, things are changing fast, there’s still bad guys, and we gotta stay smart and focused. Can’t wait ‘til next year.