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Controversial Los Angeles-based organization RAW:NATURAL BORN ARTISTS relaunches a dubious pay-to-play operation in Cincinnati

By Danny Cross and Maria Seda-Reeder · March 12th, 2014 · Cover Story
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Heidi Luerra believes in the local musician who needs that first gig to get things rolling, the overlooked fine artist toiling in anonymity, the underground filmmaker and the local hairstylist who might one day open her own salon with the right opportunity and exposure. 

And Luerra has something to sell people in Cincinnati who dream of putting such creative talents to better use — inclusion in her official artist network, RAW:natural born artists. 

Luerra’s Los Angeles-based organization purports to understand, respect and admire creatives across the globe who yearn to be noticed for their talents, especially those yet to develop the networks or business acumen to make a career out of their artistic skills. 

RAW’s mission statement reads in part: “to provide independent artists within the first 10 years of their career with the tools, resources and exposure needed to inspire and cultivate creativity.”

The mission was on full display at Bogart’s Jan. 30, when a motley crew of creative people packed the concert hall’s lower level for a one-night celebration of their myriad creative interests. Visitors navigated the wide variety of work displayed in a U-shaped collection of booths between the stage and bar area, checking out exhibitions of large, colorfully painted canvases adjacent to pop-up handmade jewelry counters. Beauty school students displayed Paul Mitchell hair styling options while models wearing Touch Me Tees’ color-changing clothing slipped in and out of a makeshift changing room near the bar.

But the DJs thumping bass and enthusiastic hosts introducing artists on stage couldn’t mask the fact that something was different about this night than typical events that have packed the 1,500-capacity concert hall in the past. Snoop Dogg’s performance at Bogart’s Feb. 21 did not include a silver-painted man sauntering through the room like a robot, as this one did.

Where did all of these artists come from? 

Who came here to see them?

RAW’s January event concluded a two-month process that begins in Southern California and ends when dozens of Cincinnati artists pay the mysterious organization $300 to be part of their own art show. RAW espouses the potentially career-changing opportunities these events provide artists, downplaying the $300 it costs anyone unable to pass the fee along to others by selling tickets. 

“We encourage the creative success of the many visionaries and storytellers of our generation,” RAW’s website states. 

What the company doesn’t make clear, however, is how these so-called visionaries are financing for-profit events all over the world. What began as an application-based selection process during the company’s early years gradually morphed into a well-coordinated recruitment effort, often by RAW employees located thousands of miles away. 

CityBeat spoke with more than a dozen artists for this story who either participated in a RAW showcase or decided against doing so after being recruited. One Cincinnati filmmaker was happy to win a Cincinnati “RAWard” — one of the company’s yearly titles — even though RAW listed him as the only finalist in his category. Two others participated in Cincinnati events last summer but never paid the artist fees, eventually seeing their profiles yanked off RAW’s website. One well-known local singer signed up for the January showcase at Bogart’s then backed out after learning more about the company.

[Find a collection of local organizations that work with emerging artists in Cincinnati here.]

RAW’s virulent spread across three continents has overcome its share of skepticism along the way, but the organization today faces a growing collection of criticism that peaked in January when an anonymous person posted more than 80 internal documents online detailing monthly revenues, attendance numbers and memos from Luerra about corporate retreats, responses to criticism and plans to hire specialists to force online critiques lower on Google searches.

The escalating conflict begs the question: Is RAW on the cutting edge of artistic empowerment, or is it profiting off the idea that inclusion in its network is the next step to artistic relevance in exchange for a one-time fee?

Local curators and booking agents are not impressed with the final product. 

“It’s so hard to talk about this without sounding mean,” says Chris Reeves, former member of alternative art spaces Third Party Gallery and Museum Gallery/Gallery Museum (MG/GM). “Someone really naïve is going to look at this show and say, ‘Hey I’m on my way to making it.’ I know this because I’ve been this person. The reality is that you don’t have to spend that much and I don’t understand how somebody wouldn’t know that.”

Despite the debatable value of RAW’s product — essentially participation in a one-night event, a profile on RAW’s website and a mass-produced video interview — the company has grown significantly during recent years, operating in more than 60 cities in four countries today. Its website touts the recruitment of 15,000 artists in 2013 alone, a figure that amounts to $4.5 million in revenue if each artist sold the required number of tickets. 

Luerra says RAW has never turned a profit to date, though her willingness to finance employee retreats to lavish Mexican resorts suggests the company’s financial outlook is less than dire. 

Luerra views criticism of her “baby” as an affront to the thousands of artists she and her team have inspired worldwide over the past five years, and she’s quick to go to war with people who turn on her, including former showcase directors who played a part in the company’s ambitious nationwide expansion during the early years. 

“While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, giving false information is not cool, and there is nothing that makes my blood boil more than an injustice,” Luerra wrote to her staff last year while explaining plans to repair the company’s poor image online. “As Vy said today, ‘Our baby is being bullied at school.’ So let’s take this bully down!”

Luerra's history of pushing back includes publicly accusing a former director in Philadelphia of stealing money from workers and silencing people from San Francisco to London with complaints about copyright infringement. She felt compelled to copy her lawyer on the email interview response she provided CityBeat while demanding that documents in our possession be handed over. (Luerra said she was unable to participate in a phone interview because of RAW’s end-of-season awards show and a weeklong vacation in Mexico for her birthday, which turned out to be a company retreat.) 

When the curtain closed on RAW’s 2014 kick-off at Bogart’s and its artists headed home after a celebratory experience they funded themselves, Cincinnati showcase director Brittany Mendibles flew back to L.A. with good news: The event broke Cincinnati’s ticket-sales record, launching what she believes is the beginning of a lucrative new era here for RAW:natural born artists.

I WENT TO RAW AND ALL I GOT WAS A T-SHIRT AND A SCREECHY GUITAR SOLO

Mendibles buzzed around the crowded event space at Bogart’s during her inaugural Cincinnati showcase, hustling between the front door to check attendance totals and the bustling artist area on the lower level. Before showing up to restart the local chapter of this rock/art/craft/fashion hybrid, Mendibles had set foot in Cincinnati only once, on the day she walked her Cincinnati artists through a concert space most had likely visited in a more traditional capacity several times before. 

As the drinks flowed like the Ohio River that she probably has never seen, Mendibles spoke to a reporter on Bogart’s empty balcony, which she says will someday be RAW’s VIP area once this chapter grows.

“Everybody was so welcoming — I think about 90 percent of our artists I booked were actually here in zero-degree weather,” Mendibles said. “I think there were only four that couldn’t make it because they were coming from Kentucky somewhere. But they were extremely welcoming.”

Mendibles would never have come to Cincinnati if RAW’s original subcontractor-based business model was effective here. RAW allows locals in some cities to oversee their own locations in exchange for sending a franchise fee back to L.A. after each event. If independent contractors across the country could recruit enough artists to make a profit themselves, RAW would sit back in L.A. counting franchise fees without ever showing up in a place like Cincinnati. 

But both of Cincinnati’s previous directors quit because they didn’t make enough money after repaying RAW for upfront costs and various fees.  

Enter Los Angeles-based showcase directors like Mendibles, who scour the Internet for talent in cities across the country by searching Etsy shops, Vimeo pages, band profiles and personal websites. Once directors get an artist on the phone, they follow a well-honed script written by Luerra to seal the deal. 

It begins with: 

Hi ______________ (first name).

This is ______________ (showcase director first name) from RAW- how are you?

Great, well thanks for taking the time for a call. I wanted to ask you some questions about your work first, if that’s OK, then I can tell you a little bit more about RAW and we can see if this might be a good fit for both of us.

The company’s “2013 Showcase Director Handbook & Training Guidelines” detail the booking pitch among 75 pages explaining RAW’s mission and guiding directors through artist recruitment techniques, event-planning protocol and various other correspondence. The two-page script explains toward the end how the artist can make it worth RAW’s time to come all the way out to Ohio and put on a show featuring him or her as the main attraction.

All that we ask in return* from our RAW artists is that they sell 20 tickets to the showcase for $15. 

It is a $300 commitment, but most artists crowd fund their showcase by selling tickets and it doesn’t cost a dime. 

(*Emphasis added by RAW.) 

RAW’s Cincinnati artists followed through on their end in January, with many turning to family and friends who support their creative endeavors to help fund the experience.  

Local fashion designer Lizz Godfroy displayed jewelry and accessories from her Lily In Flux line, though she didn’t sell much and says she doesn’t know if she would participate again. Godfroy sold all her tickets by “bribing” her family and friends with a handmade necklace she created as thanks for their support.

Aly Stacy of Kreative Mindz handcrafted goods sold 15 tickets and paid the remaining $75 balance. She didn’t make many sales on the night and says she was frustrated to have to pressure Mendibles into giving her runway models time to practice before the event started. Then RAW’s photographer only took three shots of her models when she was promised seven. 

“I figured that even if I don’t sell anything, I’ll still have the photo shoot and videos,” Stacy says. “But so far the quality of what I’ve seen has not been great.”

Painter Kelly Langdon says she’s glad she participated in RAW, although she didn’t sell much, either, saying, “It didn’t really seem like a buyer’s market.”

Langdon, who Mendibles recruited through an Etsy site, sold all her tickets to friends and family, with some kicking in money from as far away as New Zealand and England just to be supportive. Langdon says RAW was definitely different than other art shows and craft fairs she’s been in. 

“RAW had a similar setup but had more of a party atmosphere because of the music, performers and, let’s be honest, the bar,” Langdon says. “Since the artists are selling the tickets, it makes it feel like a bigger deal. I’m still trying to figure out if it’s actually a big deal or if the people involved make it seem so.”

Mendibles says her first event in Cincinnati was a rousing success, starting with the fact that she hit her sales goal. 

“My thing for this show was just ticket sales,” she said, “and we’ve already surpassed any other (Cincinnati) RAW show for ticket sales — we’re talking way over double the ticket sales. With the capacity of this venue I’d like to sell a thousand tickets here.”

By Mendibles’ count, the 600-plus tickets she sold to Cincinnati’s January event broke records, but she ostensibly hit that total without attracting a single door sale. Because RAW required each of the 30 or so featured artists to sell — or purchase — 20 tickets, Mendibles sold 600 before she even set foot in Cincinnati. 

Locals are skeptical of these ubiquitous out-of-towners. 

Dan McCabe has been booking bands at Cincinnati clubs since the ’90s. He’s a part-owner of MOTR Pub in Over-the-Rhine and the artistic director of the MidPoint Music Festival, which is owned by CityBeat. 

McCabe points out the fundamental difference between his booking model — paying bands to perform and profiting off people willing to come out to see them — and RAW’s. 

“My model might be more pure in that I am trying to profit by their attendees,” McCabe says.

“I’m motivated to attract a crowd to be there to see the band, because when that crowd shows up they’re buying the beer or, in the case of MidPoint, buying a ticket and I’m retaining that.”

RAW argues that its model is also pure but has a different intention — that putting so many enthusiastic, creative people in a room together benefits each person via “networking opportunities” and “cultivating creativity.” RAW’s recruiting pitch touts the “exposure” artists gain by being involved, the company’s mission statement riddled with entrepreneurial keywords like “networking” and “crowdsourcing.” RAW also grants artists inclusion in one free show in an outside city, assuming they’re willing to pay any associated travel expenses themselves. 

The live music performances at Mendibles’ Cincinnati showcase demonstrate the difference between a band McCabe might pay to come in from Nashville to play MOTR and a group that pays RAW to let them drive down I-75 from Fairfield for their 15 minutes of local fame. 

A band called Frankly Speaking interrupted CityBeat’s discussion with Mendibles by breaking into MGMT’s “Kids” during the set. CityBeat asked Mendibles if RAW typically books cover bands.

“No cover bands,” she said, before realizing the band was playing someone else’s Grammy-nominated song as she spoke.

“He’s just playing covers, but he’s an original artist. I think he’s playing a couple covers for his set — he probably just doesn’t have enough material for a whole set,” she said. “I mean, it’s like any band will throw in a cover here or there to kind of fill out the set.”

Minutes later, the band finished up with another cover, The Killers’ “When You Were Young,” before the next band took the stage, its lead guitarist gracing the largely distracted audience with the type of screechy, behind-the-head guitar solo typically heard at a high school battle of the bands contest or, more appropriately, echoing down the empty halls of a practice space as a joke. An older woman covered her ears and shuffled toward the front bar with a pained expression on her face. 

McCabe says this type of show doesn’t help bands further their careers and that artists should be skeptical of out-of-towners offering to showcase them in their own backyard. 

“As far as what (RAW is) doing, their only revenue model is off the artist,” McCabe says. “The artist is directly paying them and that’s not fair. I would tell them to stay away.”

Experienced curators doubt RAW can adequately display so many forms of work together or benefit fine artists in the long run.

“It looks and feels like it’s trying to be American Idol or some other form of mass-appeal commercial exposure,” says Jason Franz, executive director at Manifest Creative Research Gallery and Drawing Center in East Walnut Hills. “Like warehouse raves — there are plenty of those to go around.”

“What seems weird to me,” says Reeves, of MG/GM, “is that in Cincinnati you’re presented with a thousand other options for considerably less money but have reliable results.”

Franz says being part of a RAW showcase can actually hinder fine artists’ careers, as connections to unreliable organizations like RAW can negatively affect their credibility — and chances of being shown in galleries like Manifest later. 

“When we review solo proposals we do look into the exhibition history of the artists who submit,” Franz says. “And I can tell you that having too many exhibitions like RAW on their resume could be seen as a negative factor in our consideration.”

THE CORPORATIZATION OF ARTISTIC EMPOWERMENT

Luerra and her team of about 20 work out of the Pershing Square Building in downtown Los Angeles’ historic district, just three blocks away from the nightclub where they hosted the 2013 RAWards in January. The culmination of RAW’s fifth official season, the RAWards honored national winners in nine categories: visual artist, fashion designer, musical artist, makeup artist, hair stylist, filmmaker, photographer, performer and accessories of the year. 

The contest follows semifinal events in each of RAW’s 60 or so cities, with winners invited to fly themselves to L.A. to be part of an event so grand it attracted 26 corporate sponsorships. That doesn’t mean any revenue RAW’s full-time “sponsorship coordinator” secured made its way to winners, however, as RAW describes the reward for becoming a national champ as “career-building prize packages such as placement in boutiques or galleries, products, services, consultations with the judges and the exposure of a lifetime.”

To understand how the celebration of such a seemingly disjointed collection of creative endeavors grew to such great size, one must go back to the late-2000s, when an early-twenties Luerra created a precursor organization called Project Ethos, a tri-annual collaborative fashion, music and art event in Hollywood, Calif. 

RAW takes Project Ethos to the next level, involving even more disciplines and playing up the RAWards.

Luerra moved to L.A. from Northern California straight out of high school, created a clothing line for tweens and then built Project Ethos into an event so buzz-worthy it was briefly considered for a reality show. She also started a special events company called Heidi Luerra Productions and an “eco-friendly entertainment company” called Humanitaire.

Despite launching so many different professional endeavors, Luerra’s bio says she knew all too well what it was like to be a starving artist back then, a description supported by a 2008 small claims court judgment that says her parents were on the hook for $5,000 worth of rent she didn’t pay until five attempts to serve a summons proved successful. (A sheriff’s deputy on Aug. 28, 2008 classified Luerra as “evading service” after knocking on her door only to find “occupants inside walking around closing doors.”)

Luerra also worked in corporate marketing for CBS Radio, which likely aided the creation of the official RAW handbook and training guidelines, an extremely thorough collection of literature that leans hard on the nobility inherent in empowering up-and-coming artists. Luerra’s crew goes all-in on their dedication to making people’s dreams come true by initialing various pages of pledges and goals, forever adopting RAW’s corporate mantra of “Creativity & Justice for All.”

Even though she wrote the handbook herself, Luerra is quite defensive about who gets their hands on it. CityBeat’s email interview with Luerra referenced a section of the handbook that advises showcase directors to make something up if an artist asks a question during the booking process to which they don’t know the answer. 

“If you are nervous, confused or can’t answer their questions, you’ll almost never book them,” it reads. “Have an answer for EVERYTHING (even if you don’t know); it works to your advantage.”

CityBeat asked Luerra the following question: “Why do you encourage directors to try to answer questions to which they don’t know the answer? What ‘advantage’ does this give the director? Doesn’t this contradict RAW’s value of ‘honesty’ listed on page 3 of the same handbook?”

Referencing the handbook prompted Luerra to copy her lawyer on the response and demand that CityBeat return the book and disclose who provided it. 

“Our attorney is CC’d to work directly with you to resolve this issue,” she wrote. 

She went on to answer the question: “Because this is a training manual and the directors are new they may not have an answer to everything off the bat. It’s a lot of information to take in. We don’t believe we are being dishonest by asking them to confidently give responses to questions they might not have the answers to just yet. We have answers to everything, including questions new directors might not have.”

A section titled “An Artist’s Psyche” speaks to the fundamental reason the recruiting pitch works: “Artists most likely don’t know the business side of their work, how to sell it, promote it or promote themselves.” Luerra advises directors to cast a wide net for such ignorance, encouraging them to overbook every show because many artists will back out. 

In addition to the introduction email template, booking pitch example script, selected artist packet and “You’re Booked!” confirmation email, the handbook offers tips on how to engage with local media, and the template works. Newspapers and websites covering local art scenes, including CityBeat, have published previews of RAW events all over the country. CityBeat’s gushing 100-word blurb from May 2012 read, “The organization showcases artists in their first 10 years on the job in hopes of making their dreams come true.” (Such high praise appears to have earned CityBeat’s logo a lifetime spot in RAW’s “Featured On” section on its homepage, as it was still displayed there when this story went to print.)

RAW’s claim to have empowered more than 15,000 artists last year suggests the company is looking at millions of dollars in annual revenue, and the income likely doesn’t end there. RAW’s ever-growing audience opens the door for sponsorships of its awards series and classified advertisements on its website, plus additional door and drink sales at dozens of events around the world every month.

If RAW’s revenue potential isn’t enough to pique one’s interest in this emerging international company, its similarities to multi-level marketing operations (MLM) might be. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission frequently sues operators of large-scale pyramid schemes for violating federal securities laws through MLM programs. The Federal Trade Commission doesn’t take kindly to them, either. 

Ayla Benjamin, who ran RAW’s Cincinnati chapter for seven months in 2012 through local marketing firm Spotlight 360, compares RAW to Mary Kay and Pure Romance — multi-level marketing firms that allow “consultants” to run their own small businesses using the company’s name and products. 

“There are people who decide to get involved with those companies and they are very successful,” Benjamin says. 

The SEC’s Office of Investor Education and Advocacy details six pyramid scheme warning signs, including “no genuine product or service” and “emphasis on recruiting.”

“In an MLM program, you typically get paid for products or services that you and the distributors in your ‘downline’ (i.e., participants you recruit and their recruits) sell to others,” according to the SEC. 

In Australia, where RAW operates in 13 cities, the government’s Competition & Consumer Commission offers similar warnings, noting that “pyramid scheme promoters disguise their true purpose by introducing products that are overpriced, of poor quality, difficult to sell or of little value. Making money out of recruitment is still their main aim.”

The SEC only oversees securities, and Federal Trade Commission spokesman Frank Dorman says the FTC has taken no action against RAW to date. 

Dorman says independent contractors should be wary of opportunities to make money based on recruiting efforts.

“Which, of course, is not to say that any particular offer is necessarily problematic,” Dorman adds.

Luerra flatly denies that RAW is a scam.  

“My response to anyone that assumes we are a scam or a pyramid scheme is simply that we’re not,” Luerra wrote to CityBeat. “I believe that there is misinformation and miseducation occurring by individuals who simply have an opinion — and in fact were once very enthusiastic about participating in RAW.”

Whatever one chooses to call RAW’s profit-sharing model — soliciting directors in various cities via Craigslist to recruit artists who sell tickets to their own shows — it didn’t work in Cincinnati. Spotlight 360 chose not to renew its contract after one season and RAW’s next Cincinnati showcase director backed out a few months later. 

A RAW RESPONSE TO CRITICISM

San Francisco fine artist Meryl Pataky recently found herself at the center of growing backlash against RAW. The 31-year-old silversmith and neon artist wrote a blog about her experience in 2010, when Luerra recruited her for a show in L.A. but allegedly didn’t explain details about selling points like a “homepage feature,” paired her with a designer whose work didn’t go well with her own and never offered a formal agreement. Skeptical, Pataky decided not to participate. 

“It seemed to me that they were using artists to promote them instead of the other way around,” Pataky wrote at the time. “You are paying them to be the entertainment. Questionable, at the least.”

Pataky’s blog drew so much attention it became the top hit for anyone Googling “RAW artist scam,” and others reached out to her through Tumblr and Facebook sharing similar stories, according to an update she posted after LA Weekly spoke to her early last year for a story titled, “Controversial Promoters Raw Put Bands in Front of Audiences – For a Fee.”

Pataky didn’t know at the time, but 400 miles south Luerra and company plotted ways to silence her. 

According to a collection of internal documents posted online by an anonymous group calling themselves “Snowden” — a reference to NSA leaker Edward Snowden — Luerra rounded up the troops in response to the growing number of people calling RAW a scam. The documents, posted to photobucket.com by username “RAWtten,” included more than 80 images of staff emails, slides from conference calls, individual event reports and screenshots from RAW’s event management system detailing ticket sales from 400 events in 2013.

A slide titled “Stupid Blogs” assured RAW employees that Luerra was on top of the increasing criticism creeping its way into the public realm through Pataky’s blog. 

“An artist (who never participated in RAW) is upset that I tried to pair her with a designer that she didn’t like in 2010,” Luerra wrote. “She’s a little unreasonable to say the least and somehow still finds time in her day to write blogs and try and start an I hate RAW uproar.”

Luerra asked her directors to email any “stoked-on-RAW artists” who might be willing to write positive testimonials on key sites where each director was supposed to open RAW accounts, including Twitter, Pinterest, Google Plus and various community government websites. She later updated the staff in a page titled “Stupid Blogs Update,” which detailed plans to employ a search engine optimization (SEO) company to bump positive feedback above stories criticizing the company. 

The plan was in full force by last May, when Luerra sent the staff an email introducing “Operation: Dumbo Drop.”

“Welcome to your first edition of our super secret mission, Operation: Dumbo Drop (not to be confused with the Disney movie),” she wrote. “In relation to the blogs we told you about we’re taking some strides to get this off the front page of our Google search. We just met with an SEO specialist and will hopefully be able to bring in the big dawgs soon. In the meantime (since we have a small army involved with RAW), we can really make some headway on our own.”

CityBeat asked Luerra in an email why she started the SEO campaign, and once again she prefaced the response in a litigious tone: “Note: This again references company information that was disseminated illegally and said parties are now in breach of contract.”

She then answered the question: “The SEO campaign was created to simply help others understand who we are and what we do without being clouded by misguided and misinformed individuals.”

Such proactive measures successfully drowned out some of RAW’s most vocal critics. 

After photobucket.com deleted Snowden’s original collection over copyright complaints, Pataky decided to remove the images from her blog because she was afraid Luerra might sue her. (Snowden later reposted 48 documents at bayimg.com/album/CAaibaAAc.)

Snowden declined CityBeat’s email request for an interview, stating that the group who posted the documents preferred to remain anonymous because some members still work for RAW. The operator of a “Critics of RAW” Facebook page didn’t respond to an interview request and then deleted the account shortly after writing on Feb. 2, “So who wants to take over Critics of RAW: natural born artists for me? I’m tired of all these RAW: natural born artists thugs threatening me legally and having their followers defend their mistreatment of artists.”

Luerra even intimidates artists halfway around the world. British fashion designer Caroline Hanks declined to speak with CityBeat for this story because of potential “repercussions” after writing on Facebook in December, “I did the RAW showcase last week in Camden, London — I was a bit suspicious in the ticket sale push prior, but TOTALLY now know they do not care about the artists and it’s purely for the money.”

Luerra in January accused former Philadelphia showcase director Frederick Calalang of stealing money from contracted photographers, videographers, lighting and audio specialists who never got paid for work on Philadelphia’s RAWards in December. 

In response to a worker calling her out on Facebook for stiffing everyone, Luerra wrote: “In this specific case your contracted director pocketed these monies. Being that this is now in the hands of our attorney and under a legal investigation things have been slow to progress. (Director of U.S. Events) Molly (Waseka) and I have spoken about this matter and have every intention of paying you for services rendered, on behalf of the previous showcase director that stole your monies and monies from RAW. Any anger on this should really be directed toward Fred Calalang. He has also done this with several other of his staff members.”

Calalang denies the accusation, telling CityBeat: “I was shocked, stunned and appalled that she would literally personally get on there and attack me on such a public forum with something that was unsubstantiated and just simply not true.”

In addition to detailing Operation: Dumbo Drop and the “mucho margaritas” Luerra and the gang planned to consume during a corporate retreat at the Samba Vallarta Resort in Mexico from Jan. 21-25, the documents detailed ticket sale totals for hundreds of events between February and December of 2013. RAW sold more than 30,000 tickets in April and May alone, with Nashville, Phoenix, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Dallas, Austin, Texas, Hartford, Conn., Omaha, Neb., and Riverside, Calif., breaking their own records during the two-month period. Thirty-thousand tickets should have brought in somewhere between $450,000 and $500,000, depending on how many were sold at a higher price at the door. 

Things would be simpler in RAW’s world if every location operated as smoothly as Phoenix, where a single event on Oct. 17 sold 852 tickets, totaling $12,915. Because a subcontractor ran the Phoenix chapter, RAW took back $3,300 in upfront costs and a $2,000 franchise fee, leaving $7,615 for showcase director Laura Fischer. 

But the Cincinnati chapter never attracted enough artists for subcontractors to make a decent profit, which led to its abrupt shutdown last fall. And Cincinnati likely isn’t the only place having such problems: RAW’s website last year proudly touted chapters in more than 80 cities. Today, that figure is down to 60.

CINCINNATI CHAPTER TROUBLES

The biggest issue facing RAW today is not the growing number of frustrated former employees and artists pointing out issues that RAW might correct, leading to a bright new future for the company and thousands of artists around the world. 

Unfortunately, according to Luerra, RAW’s biggest problem these days is showcase directors making the company look bad even though she interviewed them three times, subjected them to a personality test and gave them a “lengthy scenario assignment” and corporate training. 

“This, in turn, translates into poor experiences for some artists in specific instances,” Luerra wrote to CityBeat. “We do our very best to remedy these by offering a solution to any artist that has an issue with their RAW experience. I take full responsibility for these hiring decisions and, as an employer and a leader, I know that I’m not the first or last to hire someone who does an unsatisfactory job.”

RAW counts former Cincinnati showcase director Jody Bacon among those who let the company down. 

Bacon ran two RAW events last summer before resigning because she wasn’t making enough money to justify the time she had to put in. Despite working 50- and 60-hour weeks recruiting artists online from her home in Lawrenceburg, Ind., Bacon’s first show netted her only around $1,000 after covering upfront costs and RAW’s franchise fee. Her second show brought in even less. 

“That’s kind of when I was like, ‘Hey, come on, we’ve got to do something different this time,’ because $1,000 wasn’t enough and I ended up making nothing that second show,” she says. “And I was like, ‘I can’t continue to do this. We’re not making improvements, we’re actually declining, and I don’t want my name tied to that.’ Understanding what they do, I don’t need to pay someone $5,000 to do it. I could do it myself for free.”

Despite the money Bacon sent to California and her seemingly professional representation of the brand until resigning in August, her former supervisor, Waseka, blames her alone for the Cincinnati chapter’s shutdown last fall. 

When contacted by CityBeat in late October — with Bogart’s actually unaware that RAW wasn’t going to show up for its scheduled show just a couple weeks later — Waseka refused to shoulder any responsibility.  

“It’s definitely a disappointment and we really liked Jody (Bacon) and I think she is a quality person and had a lot of potential for what we do and to do great things with us in Cincinnati,” Waseka said. “But the way that she departed from us and us not really knowing what was going on and trying to kind of pull everything together and pick up the pieces was a little bit difficult.”

Bacon’s background suggests that RAW should at least share in the blame for the Cincinnati chapter’s troubles — if it is indeed in the business of empowering artists — because her résumé clearly states that she is an entrepreneur with a business background who has zero arts experience, a fact she never hid during the interview process. Bacon’s personal website prominently features the quote, “In the business of creating business.” The most recent job listed on her résumé involves buying and selling used cars.  

For her part, Bacon holds no ill will toward RAW, even after witnessing her replacement, Mendibles, recruit her own husband, a videographer, for the January showcase at Bogart’s.

As an entrepreneur, Bacon views the situation as an opportunity that just didn’t pan out.  

“It was a choice I made,” she says. “It was a risk I took, and I’m not a pouter. So it’s unfortunate, but it could have been worse. I lost some money, but at the end of the day I didn’t lose my integrity, and I’m OK with that.”

Bacon's initial interest in RAW speaks to the power of the company’s corporate story. She gravitated toward RAW because it seemed like an opportunity to make money doing something creative and fulfilling. 

But the pay-to-play model quickly presented a quandary for her, as pressure to recruit enough artists to turn a profit brought Bacon front and center with the company’s ultimate question: Are successful RAW showcase directors curators first and recruiters second, or the other way around?

“That’s the part I don’t like,” Bacon says, “having someone sell all these tickets to their friends and family thinking that they might actually be good enough to move forward and maybe even someday have a career as an artist because I told them, ‘Hey, yeah, you’re good enough to be in this show because I need to sell my tickets, but you’re not actually good enough to be an artist.’ Therein lies the moral dilemma of being a director, but then it’s fueled by the financial dilemma.”

Locally based directors, Bacon says, need the freedom to cater their events to their respective markets for RAW to legitimately benefit artists, a sentiment echoed by Calalang in Philadelphia and former San Jose and Sacramento, Calif., showcase director Greg Gioia, both of whom were fired last year — they say for speaking out against RAW’s new sales-driven direction.  

“We really did seem to become more of a factory,” Calalang says of changes that took place last year. “It just seemed like it was more about growth — growth, growth growth, growth — and less about what I had been doing, which was providing a platform for artists to get their work and their talent and their business to the next level, to be a sounding board for them, to give them an opportunity to get early adopters and put on good shows.”

“I do feel that they have radically misrepresented what they are about,” Gioia says. “I feel the way they portray themselves used to match up with what they were doing, but I think as of the midpoint of the 2013 season I began to notice that they were radically departing from that.”

Luerra tells CityBeat that the company spent the final quarter of 2013, “identifying the individuals we believed were not properly following protocol or in RAW for the wrong reasons and we have made the necessary changes to remove those individuals from the organization.” 

Such moves were part of a restructuring process that involved promoting Waseka to director of U.S. events so Luerra could focus on international growth, according to slides detailing changes for the 2014 season. One of the reasons was “to help provide more stability during a crucial period of growth for the company.”

While launching a new Internet radio tool called “RAWdio” and making plans to open an online retail store, the company brought five former subcontractors in-house last year, including Mendibles, who oversees RAW’s Cleveland chapter in addition to Cincinnati, and Phoenix’s Fischer, who took on New Orleans as well. 

The company is currently looking ahead to expansions into Paris, Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax, Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto and Winnipeg, according to its website. 

Whether RAW’s subcontractor-based model proves successful or it continues bringing directors in-house to recruit artists online and then swoop into various cities to inspire them in large numbers, the debate over whether RAW’s cause is indeed noble or a couple dozen people in California are living it up on the dime of thousands of starving artists around the world will rage on — so long as artists keep signing up. 

In the meantime, Luerra says no one is getting rich off the endeavor and that RAW reinvests everything it makes back into the company. 

“In fact and contrary to your belief, RAW has never turned a profit to date,” Luerra writes. “Any earnings go into growing our network and incubating our community further. I can assure you with humble laughter that if we were ‘in this for the money’ we would have been gone a long time ago.” ©

 
 
 
 

 

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