THIS IS AN ARTICLE MIKE WROTE AT THE JUST PLAIN FOLKS WEBSITE. IT IS GOOD INFORMATION FOR THOSE ATTEMPTING TO NAVIGATE THE MUSIC BUSINESS.
We often hear about singers and songwriters getting scammed. One instance I'll never forget. A woman spent tens of thousands of dollars, mortgaged her house, for what amounted to a couple of $500 demos (and I'm being generous about the price) from a man who promised her the moon. She did it after I literally begged her not to. We get posts all the time from folks asking or warning about this company or that company, but new scam companies start up and old ones continually change their names, so that's just screaming "there's a shark in the water." Well....we always knew there were sharks in the water, didn't we? We can worry about one while we get bit by another. It's time we "sharkproof" ourselves. Let's get started.
Let's look at the scams.
The most common scam a songwriter is likely to encounter is the bait and switch. This is where a publisher or songplugger offers to sign your songs, but they say you need a better demo, and it has to be recorded by them or one of their friends. The bait is that you get your song published or plugged. The switch is that they simply want to do your demo. Sometimes they will offer to split the cost of the demo with you. In reality, the "half" you spend is the entire cost of the demo...including the fee for the publisher/plugger. They will publish your song, they will even "plug" it, which amounts to sending some cds or mp3s to a label or artist which will never, ever, be heard. They might even do a decent job on the demo. But you weren't shopping for a demo, you wanted your song published or plugged. The sharkproofing? Educate yourself. Do your homework. Put together a team of advisers* (I'll get to that later). Do you need a publisher or songplugger? Not unless you are writing songs at a highly professional level, and maybe not even then. And never, never, NEVER work with someone you don't know who contacted you first (unless your team of advisers* agrees your are writing at a high level and they have checked them out thoroughly...THOROUGHLY. I'm still tempted to simply say "Never" but I know of one example in all my career of someone who was contacted by a major publisher. It's so rare as to be astonishing.)
Another songwriter scam is "We'll compose music to your lyrics as a work for hire and won't be cowriters, as long as we make your demo." These are almost never composers who are in love with your lyrics. I've heard many hundred of these songs. I can't, offhand, think of one where the music really fit the lyrics. There may be a few...I can't think of any...including any from our members here. This is perfectly legal and, if it makes you happy, I have no problem with it...as long as you don't expect the songs to go anywhere. Again, they are selling you the demo. The sharkproofing is, again, have a team of advisers* who agree that your lyrics are at a high level, then network until you find a good composer or composers who love your songs and are willing to work as cowriters including splitting the cost of the demos. If you simply want songs to play for your friends or grandchildren, or to play for each other online, I have no problem with buying a "work for hire" composer as long as you're not paying more money than you can afford to throw away.
Singers and artists will find, or be found by, folks who offer to manage them and/or produce them. The producers may be legitimate, as long as they are not promising "access to their contacts" as part of the deal. That's the scam. If a producer promises access to their friends before the deal is set, then that's the bait. I know producers who, after the project was finished, helped shop it and promote it. That is different. It wasn't bait, they legitimately want the project to succeed. It is the same with managers. To sharkproof yourself, guess what? Put together a team of advisers* who will look at the deals as well as look at you to see if you are ready.
More scams are paid showcases, cd compilations and tv shows. There is nothing wrong with a paid showcase...Garth Brooks put together paid showcases before he got his deal, but he was Garth Brooks. Are you that good? Ask your team of advisers*. CD compilations may be legit, but they are rarely useful. On the bad side, they put together bogus charts that track radio play you never got, or no one ever heard. As Brian says, the only chart that really counts is Billboard. Also, there are television shows that showcase new talent for a fee. Sometimes the only tv they are on is yours at home when you play the DVD you bought. Sharkproofing? Again, education, homework, honest assessment of yourself that includes your team of advisers*
There are other scams, but they are usually spinoffs of these, such as "contests" that are judged by producers who want your business. They all include that you pay for something you don't really need. Some promise things they can't or won't deliver. To sharkproof yourself from all of them, you must educate yourself. Get John Braheny's book "The Craft and Business of Songwriting" and Donald S. Passman's "All You Need to Know About the Music Business." Then avail yourself of online resources such as ours. Learn a little about business in general.
Perhaps, most importantly, if you want to be sharkproof you must become brutally honest with yourself. Music people are afraid to do this because they fear they lack talent. The truth is, talent is not the biggest component. The biggest component is authenticity. When you write or sing, you must be authentic. The feelings and ideas you convey must ring true and touch other people. Authenticity can be developed. You just "get real." Then you add that to whatever talent God gave you. Or, do you have false pride? Do you think you are better than everyone else? Do you think you could take Nashville, or London, or L.A., or Mumbai, or Austin by storm? You can't. It takes hard work. The sharks think the proud ones are easy prey. You also must be honest about your chances. Do you have the time and energy to work harder at this than you ever have worked at anything else in your life? Are you reaching for the wrong goals? Do you want to be a country star, but you are over 40? Maybe you need to look at Americana. The best tool you have for self assessment is your team of advisers*
So, sharkproof yourself. I've seen people quit the music business because they didn't. I know one fellow who spent a quarter of a million dollars recording, pressing and promoting a cd which now, literally, fills his rather large garage. He spent his retirement. He's quite good, but he has quit playing music anywhere but church. Come to think of it, he is, in the real sense of the word, a success.
*team of advisers
I recommend a team of at least five advisers. I recommend at least one be someone who is successful in the music business; one who is successful in a business other than music; at least one good friend who will always be honest with you; no more than one family member; at least one entertainment lawyer. This team does not have to all meet at once, though as your career goes on, that could be a good idea. You should take them out to lunch or dinner as a way of "paying" them. If your career takes off, you might give them a token percentage. Once successful, you may find your publisher and/or manager from among them. (You don't need either until you are successful) Their biggest job will be protecting you from your own and each other's egos.
There are sharks in the water. The shark feeds on egos.