Have you come across some dodgy companies online? It can be tricky to spot the bad investments, as a new artist.
How can singers avoid being scammed out of their hard-earned cash? By understanding how legit labels, studios and managers operate and reading about the mistakes made by even the biggest stars, you can learn the ways to avoid scams in the music industry.
Perhaps you’ve already fallen prey to some illegal activity and want to avoid it happening again. Or you’re seeking to build some business savvy. In this article, we’ll give you some clear pointers on keeping yourself safe and fraud-free.
How can singers avoid being scammed?
Unfortunately, there are many people willing to exploit young artists for money in the promise of marketing exposure, record contracts and air time. And a number of seeming ‘professionals’ behaving inappropriately online.
Some musicians really struggle with the idea of hard work and will at least once, pay for a service that promises but doesn’t deliver. This often happens when they are approached by random people advertising services. Or someone masquerading as an agent or label executive.
However, this leaves artists feeling deflated because for a moment there was the illusion of being ‘discovered’. So it’s a double whammy – not only have they been scammed, but there’s a sense of a bubble having been burst too.
What are the signs of being scammed?
It’s important to manage expectations and to remain business-minded. The music industry is one of the highest-grossing in this country and indeed the world. So be prepared to come across people out to make a quick buck at your expense.
If someone you’ve never heard of contacts you offering something that sounds amazing, watch out. Especially if they speak in very general terms, rather than having a lot of specific detail about you as an artist. And if you’re being asked for money, or to sign a contract, seek advice.
11 ways to avoid scams in the music industry
Here are some of the action you can take to protect yourself in the industry, financially, emotionally and legally.
#1 Join the Musician’s Union
This is something we would always advise, not only to avoid pitfalls of scams but for its many benefits, like legal advice and benevolent funds. The MU is all about lobbying for fairness and equality in the industry. You can find lots of useful information via their online resources, covering topics like contracts and how to handle non-payment after a gig. In some cases, the MU will take on the battle on your behalf.
#2 Visit MMF (Music Managers’ Forum)
MMF is a fantastic resource giving information on the ideal competencies of managers. Reading about this will give you an understanding of what you should expect, and so recognise when things aren’t quite right. You can read the MMF’s code of practice and check out the status of any of its members – a great way to verify the identity of anyone who’s approached you asking to be your manager.
Common musician scams
#3 Self-manage your career
We’re not anti-managers. By all means, have one. But if you’re just finding your feet, don’t yet have a name for yourself and are pretty green about the industry, you could walk into a bad professional relationship. In the meantime, while you grow and learn, you can absolutely carry out this role yourself. In fact, doing so will enable you to better choose a manager when the time does come. And you’ll keep more of your earning for yourself. Later on in the article, we’ll be talking about the ways in which many big stars were burned by bad managers, by way of some cautionary tales.
#4 Trademark your artist name
If you don’t want your artistic identity stolen, trademark it. This prevents others from creating duplicate accounts. While it’s more relevant to artist further on in their career, doing it early can ensure you’ve got it in the bag, before anyone else gets there.
Music industry scams
#5 Read Music: The Business, by Ann Harrison
This highly acclaimed guide to the music industry should be top of your reading list. The recent 7th edition also covers aspects of streaming, with more up to date information. Understanding the business side of things may seem complicated and dry when all you want to do is be creative making music and performing. But a little know-how can spare you many problems in the long run.
#6 Join PRS
Not getting the money you’re owed in terms of royalties is a biggie. Fortunately, there are governing bodies out there to protect you and work on your behalf. Make sure you write down or record any of your original music and draw up clear documentation as to who has the rights. Once this is logged with PRS, they’ll make sure you’re paid what you are owed. So no interim party can get there before you and claim it as theirs.
How to tell if a record label is legit
#7 Be cautious about DMs
If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. There are fake A&R approaching young artists claiming to be interested in offering contracts. This is especially virulent on Instagram via DMs. If someone contacts you, find out where they’re from. Then look up the company or label on Google. Does it have a professional-looking website and social media accounts with very many followers? Are they mentioned by other artists elsewhere o the web, in a positive manner? If so, contact them and ask if this person does in fact work for them and in what capacity. Where there’s a very tiny online footprint, it’s probably a scam.
Another word on social media – do use strong passwords and change them regularly. It’s not uncommon for people to get their accounts hacked and as an artist, this can be a particularly challenging problem. You don’t want your fans getting spammed with doggy videos, apparently on your behalf. Don’t give your logins out to anyone, and always sign out of shared devices.
#8 Understand the different types of recording contracts
This is a complex and wide topic, so you’ll do well to read about it in detail before committing to anything. We would strongly recommend hiring a specialised lawyer to look over a contract for you (more detail on that shortly). Do not sign anything, until you are absolutely sure of what it involves and how it will affect you. Many an artist has been caught out in this way, even with the big labels. And it’s why many artists choose to record independently now.
Recording studio scams
#9 Research and get recommendations
Read the testimonials of other artists who have used a service. This applies not only to recording studios but marketing companies and managers too. Online reviews are a great source of information, as are conversations with other musicians who are slightly ahead of you. Which studios have they used, how much did it cost and what was it like? Check the studio’s website for equipment lists, transparent charges and contact information to chat through your options.
#10 Filter online ads
Watch out for ads popping up with too good to be true promises. If you’re unsure if something is legit, you can use Citizen’s Advice online scam checker. The site also has useful advice on spotting generic scams, as not all scams will appear on the checker. Paying a chunk of money to someone won’t shortcut you to fame. So don’t be sucked in by flashy ads offering a quick fix. You have to build networks, reach out to people and engage with fans. Not click a button and pay £100 for 1000 plays on Spotify form a dubious and unethical marketing company.
How do you deal with being scammed?
So it’s happened to you. Don’t beat yourself up. It’s common and we all get taken off guard sometimes. But how should you handle it and what should you do next?
#11 Get a media lawyer
It’ll depend on the severity of the scam and what’s involved, whether you take legal action. Some scams fly under the radar of legality, meaning it’s very difficult, or unnecessary to prosecute. If it’s a complex case that’s likely to have long terms ramifications on your career, it may be best to consult with a specialist media lawyer. They will be able to advise and if necessary, take your case further.
If the scam has involved the extortion of money, or offensive, abusive behaviour, you should also contact the police. They have departments dealing with online issues such as these and ways of tracking down the perpetrator. So it’s well worth seeking their help. And don’t forget to warn your friends and peers. If the community keeps fraudsters accountable by word of mouth, there’ll be far fewer scams in future.
The biggest celebrity frauds
If you’ve been a victim of music industry fraud and are feeling bad because of it, it might bring some comfort to know that it happens to some of the biggest names in showbiz. And it can help to know what might happen if you want to avoid it happening to you. Here’s how some of the world’s most successful singers and musicians have been affected by industry scams.
The Canadian singer’s business manager – Jonathan Todd Schwartz – was found guilty of stealing $4.8 million dollars from her, and forging Alanis’ signature. Furthermore, he embezzled $1.7 million from other famous clients.
Back in 1995, Sting’s financial advisor of 15 years was sent to prison for six years. Keith Moore had fabricated ‘investments’ in order to channel £6 million of the singer’s cash into his own bank accounts.
New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync
All three of these 1990s boybands (and some more besides) fell prey to the scams of manager and producer Lou Pearlman. After being sued in a federal court by multiple groups for funnelling $300 million of their cash, fraud and misrepresentation, he was sentenced to 25 years behind bars. Pearlman was Art Garfunkel’s cousin, and no doubt a source of great embarrassment to the respected singer.
The British singer discovered that her manager Gary Marella had been using her credit card to spend her money – apparently using this method to pay for his lavish wedding. This resulted in near-bankruptcy for the singer, who resorted to selling her clothes to make cash.
Showing that scamming has been going on for longer than you might care to imagine, Billy Joel’s case dates back to 1989. The Piano Man singer filed a suit against Frank Weber, after $30 million of his own money was siphoned by the crooked manager. Joel’s compensation included a sum of $6 million for punitive damages.
While it’s hugely exciting to feel like you you’ve been spotted, scouted, offered a contract or representation, it’s vital that you always proceed with caution. Any legitimate music industry professional will accept and understand this. And remember, if anyone is ever pushing or pressuring you to give them money upfront with nothing tangible in return, it’s probably a scam.
- Do record labels ask for a deposit?
On the contrary, a big record label may offer you an advance to set you up recording, making music videos and touring. Labels will, of course, make money from the artist, but this is once the royalties, ticket and merch sales and fees for appearances come rolling in.
- How can I break into the music industry without a record label?
It’s becoming easier and easier to do this now. YouTube and TikTok are ripe arenas for talent to grow followers and have viral hits. Focussing on your social media, online marketing and streaming content, as well as entering competitions, will give you the best chance of breaking into the industry.
- Is signing a record label selling your soul?
Not necessarily. It depends on the contract you’re offered and what the agreement entails. If you’re considering signing anything legally binding, it’s important to
Have you been scammed or narrowly avoided it? Let us know about your experiences and how you overcame the situation, in the comments below.