The Basics: Advice on making sensible decisions & avoiding getting ripped off as an unsigned artist

Blog by Louise Dodgson under Artist Managers

The music industry is a complex beast, perhaps best summed up by legendary author Hunter S. Thompson when he said, “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side.”

An entertaining outlook…but when you’re an emerging band or musician trying to get ahead with little experience under your belt and relying on the expertise of others to promote and sell your music, it can be incredibly daunting and difficult to know if you are making the right decisions for your music career. 

We’ve put together this blog to offer some guidance and pointers to help you approach some of the typical situations you may come across as an emerging act. This advice, combined with your best judgement, will hopefully help you avoid pitfalls and steer clear of those looking to take advantage of new bands and artists.


Be wary of paying up front…
Ok, when it comes to ordering some merch for your band or booking that studio time, you will be called upon to pay a sum in advance. However, there are some services that you should approach with caution if money is being asked for up front. 

Management deals, reviews and features on website/blogs or radio airplay… these are all examples of situations where you should tread carefully if you are being asked to part with your cash up front. It’s tricky though, as it’s not necessarily wrong in all instances to pay in advance for some of these services, however we would always recommend being wary if this is requested and to check it out thoroughly. 

As a general rule though, if people see talent and really want to work with you, you won't have to pay for reviews on a blog or airplay. Even Annie Lennox, globally established artist of over 30 years, was targeted by a radio station offering a pay-to-upload deal, clearly not realising who she was and presuming she was an up & coming singer songwriter. It just goes to show that some services will try to exploit and target unsigned acts so try not to let your heart rule your head – if something sounds too good to be true, be sure to investigate fully!

When it comes to managers, booking agents and the like, they often work on the basis of taking a percentage cut of your income earned as a band, so put on the brakes if you are being asked to pay up front. Percentage cuts vary depending on the role and area of the music industry, so do some research online or contact Musicians’ Union to make sure the percentage is a standard rate.


Be wary of guarantees/promises of PR coverage
Employing the services of a PR company to promote your music to press, blogs, radio and TV can be a great way to push a new release into the stratosphere, but this is another area in which you need to tread carefully. 

A decent PR company will be armed with all the right contacts to promote your music to, but they cannot and should not guarantee that this will result in coverage and airplay for your music, as ultimately that decision still lies with the radio or TV stations, magazines or blogs they’re contacting. If promises or guarantees of this kind are being made by a PR company to try and get you to commit to working with them, take a step back and do some research before proceeding further. Tempting as it may be to hear that your tune could be played on Radio 1, no amount of money can guarantee that, and a reputable PR company will not take this approach to taking on an unsigned band.

The Musicians’ Union offer their advice on working with PR companies here: “Looking for PR companies is something you need to be really careful of. The problem with PR companies is that legally, they can do the absolute minimum, so it’s important to work with a PR company that you feel believes in you and your music. A lot of the smaller PR companies will work with whoever approaches them, so it’s always a good idea to look at who they’ve worked with in the past and whether they’ve worked in a similar genre or with similar artists/bands.”

Read more on the Musicians’ Union advice on this & many other topics in this blog.

Our director, Stef Loukes, spoke a while back on BBC Radio 4’s consumer affairs programme, You & Yours, on the subject of unsigned artists and PR companies working together. Listen back to his advice here.


Make sure you know what is agreed up front
Whether it’s getting paid for gigs or festival performances, or deals with management, PR, agents or labels, it is imperative you know exactly what you are agreeing to and what is to be expected from everyone involved. Don’t be worried about asking questions and getting clarification on anything you are unclear about. If anything raises a red flag for you, make sure you check it out further and get professional advice if necessary.


Always do your research
Speak to other bands, check out Facebook groups to ask for input and advice, as well as tips on companies you should avoid. Ask for recommendations of companies to work with from fellow bands or people working in the music industry. Where possible, shop around and investigate other options. Take your time to weigh things up and come to an informed decision - if you’re being pressured to commit to something, then that’s usually not a good sign.


Don’t be scared to seek professional advice 
There are many professional bodies in the music industry on hand to help you out and offer their advice. The Musicians’ Union can assist on a huge array of matters, and particularly useful is their Contract Advisory Service. The Music Managers’ Forum, PRS For Music and Help Musicians UK can also help in their respective areas of expertise, so don’t be scared to pick up the phone or drop them a line if you want a professional opinion.


Booking gigs? Make sure you ask promoters these essential questions

Advice on artist & band management contracts from Musicians' Union

Music PR & promotion for emerging bands. Essential advice from I Like Press


Tips and advice for unsigned bands and artists on music industry deals


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