Let’s face it, most emerging artists are inexperienced in the ways of the music biz and can’t always identify a fraudster from a legitimate resource. Here are 11 things you can do to avoid getting ripped off.
It’s a well-known fact that there are more shysters, scoundrels, and con men (and con women) in the music biz than in most other industries. After all, there are many easy ways that a con artist can rip off a music artist. They prey on artists who dream of fame and may be enticed by a smooth-talking “expert” with big promises.
There’s no single formula for success in music. And for that reason, there are no clearly established rules for how to get a hit, for example, which makes artists susceptible to schemes and scams that promise a quick path to fame.
And, there’s no doubt, the numbers side of the music business can be complicated and there’s a significant lack of transparency. It’s one big reason the major record labels have been accused of abusing artists for as long as they’ve existed. Underreporting royalties, paying themselves first and the artist later… even Disc Makers has experienced some of this over the decades. If the artists are paid after the label manager and staff are paid, the pressing plant is paid after the artists get paid. And trust me, there have been many occasions where we’ve had to wait a really long time to get paid for the work we’ve done. This complexity and lack of transparency of the numbers is just another opportunity for independent artists to get taken advantage of.
I’m sure there are a number of other ways that artists get taken advantage of by promoters, lawyers, managers, program directors, DJs, financial advisors, and assorted other music industry experts. Just look at the recent high-profile $3 million lawsuit and counter-suit between Chance the Rapper and his manager. They were regarded as the epitome of a successful artist/manager partnership until the lawsuits started flying.
11 things you can do to avoid getting ripped off
So how do you chart your path in the music business without being ripped off? Can you trust anyone in the music biz or are you doomed to do it all on your own? Well, of course, the answer is yes, there are people in the industry you can trust; and no, you’re not doomed to do it all by yourself forever. As your career advances, you will need to build a team.
However, in the music business, as in life, you can’t automatically trust people. That old cliché of ‘trust has to be earned’ absolutely applies. Here are 11 tips to help you make sure you don’t get ripped off in a major way as your music career progresses.
1. Do as much as you can yourself for as long as you can
That’ right, do as much as you can for yourself when you’re starting out and, in the process, learn as much as you can about the music biz by reading and asking lots of questions from people you meet. No, you won’t have to do it all forever, but the more you do now and the more you learn and understand, the less likely you are to be ripped off when you start hiring others to do that work for you.
2. Be a skeptic
Whenever you meet an industry expert and are in discussions about how they might be able to help you, go in with the assumption that “this person may be looking to rip me off.” This will make you sensitive to claims that sound too good to be true.
3. If it sounds too good to be true, it is
Be wary of offers that sound too good to be true. Success in this biz is hard and if someone promises you a quick, sure-fire solution, they’re probably trying to take you for a ride.
4. Be leery of people who approach you with offers to help
As an indie artist, you’re an easy mark for scammers. Ask yourself, “Why is this person coming to me before I’ve had any substantive industry success?”
5. Ask for detailed proposals
Always ask for a proposal in writing and make them spell out in detail what they will do for you; what milestones there will be along the way; how much, how, and when they will charge you; how you will measure success; and what happens if you’re unhappy with the results.
6. Ask lots of questions
There is no such thing as a dumb question, and you want to learn about your potential partners’ part of the business and how it works. You won’t learn anything if you’re afraid to ask questions. If they get annoyed by your questions, they’re probably not legit. Any legit person or company will be happy to answer every question while scammers are usually just looking for a quick score on an easy mark.
7. Ask for — and check — references
The best references come from people you know. Has this person helped any artist that you know personally? If not, can you talk to other artists they’ve helped? Legitimate industry resources with a solid track record will always be happy to provide references. If you can’t get a reference, you probably don’t want to work with that person.
8. Keep the money flowing to you first
This business is ultimately about money. As much as possible, you want to be the one to whom the royalties and payouts go so you can pay your partners — not the other way around. After all, if an agent of yours controls lots of your money, there would be more of a temptation, if they’re crooked, to have some of that money disappear before you even know that they got it.
9. Check the numbers carefully
Look at royalty statements, expense reimbursement requests, and other financial reports and invoices very carefully. If you don’t recognize a vendor’s name, question it. If the numbers don’t add up or don’t make sense, question it. If you’re not familiar with the numbers, you won’t know when you’re getting ripped off.
10. Have a lawyer check your agreements and contracts
Most companies, vendors, and agents put clauses into their contracts that are one-sided and friendly to them. If you decide to be your own lawyer to save a few hundred bucks, you may not recognize which clauses are set up to work against you in the long run.
11. Imagine the worst-case scenario
Ask yourself, “what is the worst-case scenario for how I can get burned?” I often do this when making business decisions for Disc Makers. I ask, “what’s the worst that can happen?” You can do the same. That forces you to consider all the scenarios where things go badly and how you can protect yourself.
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So, what does this all add up to? In the music biz, you just can’t be gullible. Sometimes, you are your only advocate. And while you will eventually need or want to work with others to help your career grow, bringing a skeptical or, as I like to call it, a constructively paranoid attitude to your business dealings and negotiations will help prevent you from getting taken for a ride.
Watch more great videos on the Disc Makers YouTube channel.
Tony van Veen is the CEO of DIY Media Group, the parent company of Disc Makers and BookBaby. As a college student, he played in indie bands, created his own LPs, cassettes, and t-shirts, and sold them at shows. Today, he collects CDs, vinyl LPs, and concert t-shirts to support the artists he loves.
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