What should I be doing instead of this?
November 14th, 2008 By mbreen | Music | Posted In: Local Music, CEAs

Rip Off, Artists


I hate when hard working people get ripped off. These kind of injustices can range from phishing scams to pickpockets, insurance companies' denying claims by any means necessary to bank CEO’s using bailout cash for beer money. It’s heart breaking to hear the stories of identity theft leaving people broke and in perpetual debt, or stock- and 401K-holders losing their future to corporate malfeasance.

Not that it is by any means “worse,” but I get a special bug up my ass (I’ve named him “Tony”) when I hear about artists and musicians getting ripped off. Having written about music for 18 years and played music for over 20, I’ve seen all kinds of scams designed to make cash off of the creative endeavors of others. From “battle of the bands” contests with exorbitant, unnecessary “entry” fees to club owners deciding at the end of the night that a band’s performance fee suddenly didn’t fit his budget to record labels putting no money into a project only to blame the band for not selling more albums (and coming at them to “recoup” costs), not paying or actually taking money from artists is its own little cottage industry within the music industry.

If there is a hell, Satan has a roped-off V.I.P. section for these sleazeballs. Firstly, artists mostly have little-to-no money (the money they do have usually doesn’t actually come from their art), so it’s kind of like stealing a homeless person’s winter coat in the midst of a blizzard.

Secondly, art is often a personal, emotional experience for the creator, something they’ve produced from the depths of their souls. (Well, usually.) There’s nothing wrong with art becoming a commodity (all the better to make a living doing what one loves), but when tricksters make big promises they never have any intention of keeping solely to make a few bucks off of some wide-eyed hopeful, that commodity becomes an Albatross that can shatter dreams. I sometimes wonder if our greatest artists haven’t been burned by scammers early on in their artistic life, only to give it all up for a life in accounting. Having aspirations crushed is one thing; losing a ton of money in the process is just soul-searing.

The Internet has been a great tool for artists and musicians, but it has also become (as it has for the general population) a cesspool of swindles. Several months ago, I started a MySpace page for some recordings on which I’ve been working. Nothing fancy. I’m not looking for a record deal or anything; I just wanted to get my art out in the ether.

Due to the MySpace page’s on-the-down-low nature (I even made up a fake band name with fake band members), I rarely get any message sent to me through it, outside of show notices from other musicians and the occasional “Good stuff!” But about a week ago, I received an e-mail essentially offering me a record deal.

The message was from something called “Millennium Records Inc.” and someone named “Kathey Lowery.” In the message, I was informed that the company sees “great potential” in my cheap little GarageBand demos. It also said they would like to “possibly” manage me and get me a record deal with Millennium or one of its many offshoot labels (that I’ve also never heard of).

“We see a bright future in you and would love to help further your music career and accomplish your dreams and goals,” the noted ended.

My dreams and goals at this point in my life are to get a good night’s sleep, not die and raise my child. But for a micro-millisecond I thought, “Wow, wouldn’t it be funny if, after all my time playing music, these little demo recordings would be the things that got noticed.” I’ve never played music to make money, but, if they’re being honest, there are very few creative people who wouldn’t jump at the chance to quit their day jobs and do art full-time.

That, as they say, is “how they get ya.”

Luckily, I’ve been around the block enough times that I’m able to smell bullshit of this type from thousands of miles away. I did a quick search and found, thanks to the message boards on the site songwriter101.com, all I needed to know about these assholes. Also masquerading as “Dreamtrax Records LLC,” the “company” sends out mass phishing e-mails in an effort to snag unsuspecting and/or nave artists in their net. For a mere $20, you can have a record deal! I think I can safely say that has never and will never happen.

Locally, a lot of musicians have been confused by the sudden departure of the online local music resource site, cincymusic.com. The site had been around for a decade and was once a bustling hub of activity, with a user-generated calendar, band profiles, CD reviews and interviews. A couple of years ago, the site owner seemed to give up on the site. There was no more original content, users complained of problems with their profiles and their inability to get in touch with the site owner to correct them and the always popular message boards deteriorated to the point where only a handful of users participated.

Then a month or so ago, without warning, the site disappeared. Let me make clear that I have no hard evidence on exactly what happened; the site owner had become largely unreachable by most over the past two or three years.

The few people who I’ve talked to who have had contact with him have said their communications were limited to short e-mails with little real information on the site’s status.

The site simply disappearing isn’t a huge deal. It happens all the time. A lot of artists still used the site’s calendar and I must admit, I felt like I lost a way to keep up with what some of the local music community was feeling and doing (those message boards could be infuriatingly imbecilic, but, with users able to post anonymously, they often provided brutally honest insight).

Just taking down cincymusic.com is one thing, but the site’s owner also hosted (for a fee, of course) several local musicians’ and bands’ Web sites, as well as the MidPoint Music Festival Web site, which CityBeat inherited after buying the festival earlier this year. Neither CityBeat nor any of the artists who had Web sites through cincymusic.com were informed that their sites were going to be completely gone. They just went “Poof,” leaving many angry. Web sites are the main way musicians communicate with their audience these days. Taking away their sites is like stealing their drum kit and amplifiers — they can still conduct business (thanks, MySpace!), but it’s nowhere near full-steam.

The whole cincymusic.com mystery/debacle is a different kind of rip-off than the MySpace scammers. There probably wasn’t any malicious intent, but the argument that there was ample neglect stands strong. Again, it’s taking money and dashing aspirations. Musicians have enough to worry about; taking away their fundamental tools can be incredibly deflating.  I don’t think the site owner should be strung up on a flagpole via a super-wedgie, but it would be noble if he would at least respond to the folks who have given him money for the past 10 years or so. Pay them back. Give them their data and domain name. And apologize.

As mentioned, not having the cincymusic.com boards (sites like cincinnatimusic.com, cincygroove.com and neussubjex.net, plus new sites like cincymusic.ning.com and cincylives.com, have picked up the slack somewhat, but the old cincymusic.com crowd seems very spread out now) has meant a loss of one of the community's “fingers on the pulse.”

The other day, some CityBeat folks were talking about how the loss of the site has made it hard to gauge the public’s reaction to this year’s Cincinnati Entertainment Awards. In the past, we could always count on a CEA thread running several pages long, with some good comments and suggestions, and the usual barrage of complaints (also very useful at times).

As we’ve come to find, some in the local music community have strong feelings about the CEAs this year. Namely, some feel that CityBeat has now become the “rip-off” artist.

I’ve learned to have a thick skin over the years, so I can take some tough talk. But it stings a little to be accused of taking advantage of the same community I’ve worked for almost two decades to celebrate and spotlight. To be lumped in with scammers like “Dreamtrax” is a pretty awful feeling.

The controversy this year (besides the usual, “This band isn’t Punk!” or “My band didn’t get nominated!” stuff) essentially involves numbers. For the first time, CityBeat has had to asked nominees to buy tickets (for half-price) to attend the ceremony.

That sounds just awful, I know. You work hard all year, are honored with a nomination and then — “Hey, that’ll cost ya 10 bucks.” I bet The Grammys never do that (although given the economy, maybe they're next). We’ve heard directly from a total of one nominee upset at this new practice. Then we looked at some other message boards and found several others willing to go public with their complaints.

The knee-jerk reaction is, again, understandable. But the full explanation of why nominees are being charged was basically ignored (admittedly, the reasoning probably should have been better explained in the initial letter to nominees). I would probably do the same thing, but most artists seemed to only read the part of their ticket-request e-mail that said, “$10 per ticket.”

The full explanation is this — the CEAs’ new home, The Emery Theater, is much smaller than the Taft Theatre, where the event was hosted the past few years. Then, it was easy to give out tickets for free, because we could still sell enough to give money to the charity that receives all of the ticket-sale proceeds. The Taft was big enough that every artist could get a handful of freebies. We probably gave away 500-700 tickets (to nominees, sponsors, judges, staff, etc.) when the event was at the Taft. The Emery Theater’s capacity for the CEAs this year is … 700 people.

The CEAs have been one of the primary fundraisers for the Michael W. Bany Scholarship Fund for the past several years. The fund awards college scholarships in music to students interested in that career path, but who could otherwise not afford to pursue it. Not to be too hyperbolic, but what if Mozart or The Beatles or Jay-Z had no resources to pursue their music?

The general public’s interest in the CEAs, unfortunately, has been relatively low over the years. Non-nominated artists usually don’t show up either. So while our great sponsors help with the production costs (no ticket money is used), no tickets sold would mean that the charity would receive nothing.

This year, public demand for tickets — like our production costs — will be higher. With Ralph Stanley performing a rare show and Bootsy Collins actually playing bass (and not just “hype man”) on stage and leading a James Brown tribute, we are hoping to sell more general public tickets and raise even more money for the scholarship fund. There’s even a chance the CEAs could sell out for the first time.

Even with more public support (and finally some city support this year), CityBeat is not making a dime off the event. We never have. We usually lose money (which, given our unsteady economic times, is a hard hit to take).

But we do it for one reason. As CEA Producer Dan McCabe said in an eloquent post directed at musicians over at cincinnatimusic.com, “We’re fussing over you.” Having been musicians for a long time in Cincinnati, Dan and I both agree that it is painful to ask local musicians for money. But, as the show is currently set up, it’s the only way it can be pulled off outside of just saying, “Screw the charity,” and having a big party. And losing our asses.

I guess the point of all of this is to say, “We hate scammers and we would never scam you because we love you.” It is hard to see myself and my colleagues lumped in with the schemers who destroy dreams. Call us dumb, talentless, ugly, hairy, bitter, mean, wishy-washy. Hell, call us Hitler if you want. But, please, always know that we would never try to take advantage of our city’s great artists and musicians.

Dan McCabe has crafted another excellent response to the “pay-to-be-honored” controversy, sent to nominees with their tickets and reprinted below:

Dear CEA Nominee and Attendee,

Music is a powerful thing. It can and has been harnessed to change the world.

I believe music’s power lies in the music-makers innate ability to dream. As musicians you may be aware that dreaming doesn’t come easy to everyone, but with a well-crafted song you can help the listener dream with you. That’s powerful.

The 12th annual CEAs have been built by and for dream enthusiasts, so while you’re enjoying this year’s production, I invite you to dream the night away.

Start by dreaming of what our music town could be with an operating Emery Theater made available to the community. The doors of this Cincinnati landmark will be opened for the first time in almost a decade to host our local music celebration. There’s no excuse for the Emery to go dormant again after our visit. Your participation this year will help demonstrate the Emery’s viability and Cincinnati’s thirst for this venue. Speaking of thirst, buy a beer while you’re enjoying the show. All beverage sales are donated to the non-profit Emery Center Corporation to further the cause.

It’s time to begin dreaming of a functioning King Records Label here in Cincinnati. Imagine the sounds of our present day music-makers carrying the name of King Records into the 21st century. The same label that launched James Brown, Bootsy Collins, Ralph Stanley and a long list of other impactful musicians. You’ll learn more about this existing plan and its’ progress at The CEAs as we celebrate the 65th anniversary of Cincinnati’s iconic King label.

The Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame and the City of Cincinnati are coming to the table. Both entities have worked together to build a daylong celebration of King Records that culminates in our CEAs. Dream of what our music town could be if our leaders and citizenry embraced Cincinnati’s longstanding reputation for excellent music output. As most of you know, Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame Director Terry Stewart is quoted as saying “There are three cities that have the rightful claim to the birthplace of Rock-n-Roll: Memphis, New Orleans and Cincinnati”.

Dream of what comes next after the embrace of Cincinnati’s music as our finest natural resource. Yes, that resource should be harnessed to market Cincinnati to the world as a fun place to live, work and play. But after recognizing the importance of this resource, plans must be made to nurture and sustained it. I suggest our leaders start by educating Cincinnati citizens on the impact our music town has on the world stage. The goal: Cincinnatians known not only as chili eating Reds fans and Bengals boo-ers, but also as music fans. Let’s get some more butts in the seats at your shows!

I can’t thank you enough for coming to this year’s CEAs. Your participation is helping to nurture and sustain these dreams. And dreams, like music, can be very powerful.

Dan McCabe
CEA Producer and Dream Enthusiast

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