In early 2018, Jay James was gearing up for the rollout of his new album, when all is said and done. Although it wasn’t the San Diego-based composer and producer’s first project, James believed that the album could be his big break. For the first time in his music career, the young artist decided to invest some money into marketing and PR.
A few months earlier, James had been followed on Twitter by someone who appeared to be a big player in the music industry. Billing himself as an “artist helper” in his Twitter bio, the verified account had almost 100,000 followers and seemed to be an expert in the field of artist development and digital marketing. In between regularly dishing out music industry advice aimed at budding artists and producers, he also advertised his abilities to consult and execute marketing campaigns that targeted press, social media, and even Spotify playlists.
James sent him a DM to get more information. “I was super stoked at the time—this was exactly what I was looking for,” he remembers. After learning James’ budget, the man pitched him a package deal that included a targeted ad campaign, Spotify playlist placements, and media coverage in a number of reputable music publications. James hired him and agreed to pay $300. When asked if he could secure a premiere on either FADER, Pitchfork, Complex, or Pigeons & Planes, his new business partner’s response was assuring: “Usually a premiere isn’t a problem. You’re [sic] content is good so there won’t be an issue.”
“He guaranteed me a few specific sites, even gave me the dates they were supposedly going live. Not sure if he blocked me or changed his number, but calls stopped going through." – Jay James, Artist
James sent him the first installment of $150 over PayPal and they talked on the phone later that night. “He guaranteed me a few specific sites, even gave me the dates they were supposedly going live,” James recalls. Communication following their initial conversation was sparse, and soon, James stopped hearing back from the man altogether. “Not sure if he blocked me or changed his number, but calls stopped going through,” he explains.
Weeks went by with no updates, and none of the promised placements ever materialized. James considered it a lost cause and took it upon himself to do the outreach and promotion himself. He never got the $150 refunded. He’s embarrassed to even discuss his experience. “I wanted this shit so bad, man. I saved up $500 for marketing my album, and I thought he was the guy.” Now he looks back on the whole ordeal as a learning experience. “I can’t imagine something like this ever happening again with me. I thought I was the only person who thought he was a scammer.” As James later learned, he wasn’t alone.
In October 2018, New York City-based entertainment lawyer Adam Freedman received emails from dozens of people who had all been scammed by this same man and were looking to see if they had any legal recourse. As Freedman tells us, there wasn’t much that could be done. “Most of the payments were only $150 at most, so that was the problem. It's just not financially worth hiring a lawyer to go after it.” To this day, the person continues to advertise his music marketing and consulting services on Twitter, all while keeping up the appearance of being a legitimate industry player. And, unfortunately, there are hundreds more like him.
MORE OPPORTUNITY, MORE COMPETITION
All things considered, there has never been a better time to be an independent artist. Digital platforms have significantly leveled the playing field for independent acts, giving them an edge when it comes to getting music heard on their own terms. With platforms like SoundCloud, YouTube, and Bandcamp, artists can easily and freely share their music with the world without the need for traditional distribution channels or the backing of a major record label. Digital distribution services like DistroKid, TuneCore, CD Baby, and others have upended the former label-distributor-retailer chain, allowing artists to supply their music to any of the digital streaming platforms and online stores for a low cost.
Building an audience and communicating with fans is easier than ever before, too, with social media acting as a free marketing tool for anyone with an internet connection. It is now viable for independent artists to find success without a direct line to an industry that has long been closed off to outsiders, and thanks to recent changes to the Billboard charts, a DIY artist with a strong online presence can compete with the major label acts. With one album unit now equivalent to 3,750 SoundCloud or Spotify streams, it’s now much more feasible for emerging artists to share chart space with signed, established acts.
All things considered, there has never been a better time to be an independent artist.
There is perhaps no better example of the confluence of these trends than rapper Lil Nas X, who in March of this year went from virtual obscurity to overnight superstar after managing to secure a No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for his tongue-in-cheek country-rap song “Old Town Road.” It was a one-off track he made using a $30 beat when he was still just 19 years old, uploaded to SoundCloud tagged as “trap country” and “hick hop” in December of 2018. A few months later, the song became a viral sensation on Tik Tok, Twitter, and YouTube, due in large part to Lil Nas X’s social media savvy, proving that even lean, DIY promotion strategies carried out by artists themselves can make a genuine impact on the charts.
These artist-friendly developments in the digital music space have had a clear democratizing effect, leading more people than ever to try their hand at making and releasing music. According to Ailsa Chang, co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered podcast, independent artists now make up nearly 40 percent of the global music industry—the highest share of the market since the early 1990s. Naturally, this growth of the independent sector has led to a highly competitive environment.
THE PERFECT STORM
With more artists vying for attention on the internet, there is now a much larger market for artist services aimed at independent musicians. Just like with any other burgeoning market, it’s attracted plenty of well-intentioned entrepreneurs looking to do honest work, but it's also opened a lane for plenty of scammers looking to exploit vulnerable up-and-comers. So it makes sense that there’s been a rise in the number of grifters who view this influx of prospective artists as the perfect opportunity to make money by exploiting the eagerness of so many to gain traction in a cutthroat marketplace.
The very same tools that enable artists to build brands and grow a following allow for scammers to do the same.
The very same tools that enable artists to build brands and grow a following allow for scammers to do the same. There is now an epidemic of self-styled music industry professionals—many of whom have little to no actual expertise in the field—using disingenuous branding and manipulative tactics to convince budding artists and producers of their expertise and clout in order to swindle them out of money.
Many of these new artists know the basics of laying a foundation: producing the music, distributing the music, using social media to market the music. Taking things to the next step isn’t so simple. Streaming has changed the way people listen to music, and the major streaming platforms’ fine-tuned algorithms are a mystery to most. There are a lot of misconceptions about playlist marketing and how to rally support from official curators, who now have so much influence over what music gets pushed to the forefront of these streaming platforms and what gets lost in the mix. The lack of transparency in this new playlist-centric landscape has left artists vulnerable.
The person who scammed Jay James and dozens of others appeared to be a bona fide music marketing guru, thanks in large part to a Twitter profile adorned with a blue check and a large follower count. There’s no evidence that the young man—who also claims to be the founder and CEO of a record label—has the industry experience or expertise he claims to have, but he’s not impersonating someone else. On top of that, the services that he offers—PR and marketing—are things that artists and labels can and do pay for.
Scammers of this kind often claim to have personal connections with writers at prominent music publications or curators of popular Spotify playlists, guaranteeing placements on blogs or playlists based off the strength of these relationships.
Another common type of scam involves an impostor that poses as a real and reputable industry professional. Nigil Mack is an industry veteran who now focuses on artist management but has acted as VP of A&R at Republic Records and A&R at Motown (where he signed Kid Cudi in 2009 and A&R’d his first four albums). Earlier this year, Mack suddenly received a deluge of DMs from independent artists on Instagram, checking to see if the emails he sent were legit. Mack had no clue what they were talking about until he started asking questions.
“Someone made up a fake email with my name, but [the email domain name] didn’t say Universal Music. They were lying, saying they were me, saying that I would give [the artists] a record contract if they sent in X amount of dollars.” Mack posted a screenshot of the illegitimate email to his Instagram with a caption clarifying that it was all a scam. He responded to everyone that reached out about the email via DM, telling them the email was fake and that they shouldn’t respond to it. “It’s sad that people take advantage of people’s dreams," Mack says. "I hate that shit. I think it’s horrible."
“It’s maddening to me that people are charging young artists who are working day jobs to pay for services that keep you in the same place you were at before. It kills me.” – Chris Cline, A&R for Canvasback Music and Atlantic Records
A different version of this scam is when someone, using their real name and identity, claims to be an A&R who will listen to submissions and provide feedback for a fee. Some take it a step further by charging artists to shop their music around to different labels under the pretense that at least one of the labels will likely show interest in signing the artist. While some name a label they work for, many others claim to be “independent A&Rs” with connections to all the right people at various labels, and suggest they can secure offers or land placements on signed artists’ songs.
"There are people with a lot of relationships with A&Rs and executives at labels,” explains Ruddy Rock, artist manager and A&R consultant at Island Records. “But they're not going to take your money. Usually it'll be along the lines of taking a percentage of a deal once it goes through, or brokering it through a production company… Stay away from cats who tell you to pay for this or pay for that. There's a lot of ear hustlers out there."
Chris Cline, an A&R for Canvasback Music and Atlantic Records, says he’s seen musician friends fall victim to scammers who aren’t actually putting in the work to help the artists advance: “It’s maddening to me that these people are charging young artists who—if they’re a young artist they’re not making money off their music anyway—are working day jobs to pay for services from these companies that keep you in the same place you were at before. It kills me.”
HOW TO AVOID GETTING SCAMMED
Perhaps the most crucial step to avoid getting scammed: do your research. “If someone says they’re an A&R, label, or whatever, always do your due diligence before responding,” says Mack. Any legitimate music industry professional should be able to provide examples of past work and references, and a quick Google or Twitter search could reveal red flags like scamming accusations. A booming social media account and a nice website can easily be manufactured, but a network of clients who vouch for your work is much harder to fake.
“I always tell people to stay attentive—if something seems too good to be true, it probably is,” Mack says. “No one’s gonna email you from a record label and say ‘I want to give you a contract, send me two thousand dollars.’ You can’t buy your way into the game, it doesn’t work that way.”
“It’s important to know when to pay people for things and when not to,” Cline adds. “Paying for services from people at a very early stage most of the time rings as a scam.”
“No one’s gonna email you from a record label and say ‘I want to give you a contract, send me two thousand dollars.’ You can’t buy your way into the game, it doesn’t work that way.” – Nigil Mack, Artist Manager/Industry Veteran
The best way to learn this is to familiarize yourself with how the music industry actually works and what tends to be standard fare as far as independent musicians navigating their career. Donald S. Passman’s All You Need to Know About the Music Business has long been considered the definitive guide to the music industry, covering everything from the structuring of record deals, to songwriting, publishing, copyright, royalty splits, fees and commissions for managers, agents, and lawyers, and more, all in thorough detail. Every few years an updated version comes out to keep up with the rapid industry changes, and the tenth edition is set to be released on October 29, 2019.
When it comes to learning how to navigate your career as a musician before landing a record deal, one valuable resource is Ari Herstead’s (of the blog Ari’s Take) book called How To Make It in the New Music Business: Practical Tips on Building a Loyal Following and Making a Living as a Musician. An updated second edition is set to be released on November 5, 2019.
You should also be aware of certain red flags. Be wary of anyone guaranteeing specific results like a certain number of blog write-ups or playlist placements. It’s impossible for any legit music marketing or PR professional to say for sure what a campaign’s results will be. If an individual or company has a “buy now” button on their website or takes on any client that comes their way, it’s a telltale sign that the connections they do have with press outlets or playlist curators are probably not meaningful.
On a similar note, be wary of any services offering to boost your social media following or the number of streams for your music on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, Soundcloud, and other platforms. Often, the people offering such services are using fake followers and listeners or bots to inflate metrics, which is a clear violation of most platforms’ policies. Tactics like that can get your account suspended or banned entirely.
“People have figured out how to scam the music industry since it began,” says Chris Cline. “I don’t think it’s something we can eradicate permanently.”
"The scam I know is the NY industry hustle that's been going on for a good little while,” Ruddy Rock says. “They get all the artists to pay a fee to perform, and they say there's going to be A&Rs from this label and that label, but it's just a money grab with a bunch of artists paying to perform. That scam has been going on for a while, but it's changing and we’re seeing the end of that because now everything's popping online.”
The landscape will look completely different in a few years. By then, a lot of the current scams are going to be obsolete, but as the way we consume and market music evolves, so will the scams.
Scamming and shady business practices in the music industry are nothing new. In past decades, labels would buy out record store inventory, payola was rampant, and promoters have long been running pay-to-play shows. At least in those days, the results were tangible: records would be sold, shows would be booked, and radio spins could be heard.
These days, it’s all happening on the internet, and results can’t always be measured so easily. Small-time scammers are operating on the periphery of the music economy, and their victims are often budding independent artists and producers who make for easy targets. The new digital environment means any artist can distribute their product, grow an audience, and market themselves. The flip side of that is obvious: so can the scammers. Nobody knows exactly what is going to happen next in the music industry. It's a given that in such a quickly changing industry, the landscape will look completely different in a few years. By then, a lot of the current scams are going to be obsolete, but as the way we consume and market music evolves, so will the scams. Just be careful what you pay for.