The text that follows had been stored as a Word document in a file store service, whose owners were persuaded to take it down by Chris Grayston with vague "legal" threats about its contents. The text matches conversations I have had with a number of people who have entered Live and Unsigned in the past. It also contains descriptions that can be verified by other web postings in other places.
I am not claiming its 100% accuracy on all points - some of it is speculative, and the author acknowledges that. The importance of this article is in the articulate way it breaks down the false implications of Grayston's sales pitch and describes the wretched experience of many of those who enter it. It does makes an honest attempt to break down the weasel words used by Grayston.
Live and Unsigned 2011
I came across Live and Unsigned through a Google search for band competitions. On viewing the web site it seemed fairly clear, concise, well organised and constructed. It gave the impression of being a competition that could further a band’s career whether they won or not as they would gain exposure to a panel of influential judges and new audiences. However, on closer inspection…
Live and Unsigned website
Promises, inferences and suggestions.
The home page you see is very persuasive – lots of “partnership” deals with other companies which suggests this is a serious commercial venture with influence in the music business. Noddy Holder, a one man musical institution, points out like Lord Kitchener implying that “You” are needed and also, like The National Lottery finger, suggesting that “It could be you” who wins, gains fame, gains those things that you want from life, and not what you and your band currently have. You could be tomorrow’s next big thing. On later pages more celebrities and industry names are invoked to convince you further of how legitimate and promising this all is.
Under “The Prizes” it shows a wad of money being held as if you can hold that much if you win. It mentions “£100,000”. However, it does say “up to £100,000 in prizes” so there is a disclaimer built in – i.e. that’s the potential maximum amount of money in prizes they could give away over the whole competition, including the RRP value of amplifiers and other kit that Live and Unsigned is getting at cost price or for free from one of their partners, such as Black Star Amplification. In other words, you are not going to get that wad of £100,000 notes in your paws, nor anything approaching that figure.
The photo of the Live and Unsigned event at the 02 looks snazzy and persuasive showing spotlights, glitter balls and an apparently huge crowd. Other venues: Cardiff Coal Exchange, Sheffield City Hall, Royal Concert Hall Glasgow, etc. They are well known and are hired by major artists. However, “hired” is the point. These venues are businesses, and Live and Unsigned hired these venues as can anyone if they pay. So, for example, one venue is The Hove Centre, Brighton. According to LandU “Some of the world's best acts have walked this stage”. Maybe so. A quick look at The Hove Centre’s web site also shows that on Feb 26th at 10.30am the venue will hold a “Psychic and Holistic Fair” featuring “a gathering of Top Class Mediums, Clairvoyants and Astrologers”. Mediums. Clairvoyants. Astrologers. So basically anyone can put on what they want at these places if they pay. The rest of the wording on the “venues” page uses a superlative vocabulary: prestigious, largest, best, huge, regal, elegant. There is name-dropping: The Beatles, Hendrix, Blur, Black Eyed Peas, The Prodigy. By implication, your band could too be as big as these, playing venues as impressive as these.
I could continue in my slightly anal analysis of the many implications the web site throws out but I’d be here forever. However, I was vaguely convinced and thought I’d give it a whirl with my band. So here’s what happened:
What happens if you enter – actual events on the audition day
How To Enter: On the web site you fill out the form and pay them £12.50 per band and “if successful” (I wonder how many bands who paid were not successful…) you will be invited to the first audition. Not a bad deal considering what you’ve been promised on the web site – major national venues, serious and influential judges, lots of money, professional gear as prizes, national exposure, a record deal… It’s worth a punt. I paid. Details arrived via email. We were successful. Go to Cardiff Coal Exchange on Sunday 9th January where you will have the chance to perform for “up to 2 minutes and no longer” in front of a “prestigious judging panel”. Again the words “up to” appear, as in “up to £100,000 in prizes”.
The First Audition
We waited in the foyer with a load of other bands for about two hours, instruments out, ready to go. The staff were very courteous. They wore Live and Unsigned tee shirts. Very thorough, very professional. Bands were led in to the performance area through a door on the right, and came out to the left. We did the same. The gear on stage was fine and seemed to be of good quality. However, there was no time to sound check. A “prestigious” judge asked us some perfunctory questions and then we played, at most, one minute of a song. The sound was terrible due to speed of set up. They stopped us mid-track, said thanks. We moved off to wait with the other bands in our group – bands are arranged by name alphabetically, A-D, D-H, etc., each group given 1 hour. We were all then gathered into a small room and told how well we’d all performed, give yourselves a clap, the “prestigious” judges have never seen such a high standard before. And the results were given band by band. “So and so ... You’re through!” No one failed. Every band was through. Brilliant! Our £12.50 had been worth it, as had getting us all together for the day, waiting for 2 hours or more, and driving two vehicles to Cardiff and back. And the money and time and effort of every other band had been worth it too.
When you win – sign a form and cough up
One band member is then required to fill out and sign a form about the next round of auditions – “The Showcase Regional Finals”. In all honesty, I don’t remember many of the details of the form. I signed it. Oh, and in order to guarantee that LandU aren’t wasting their time on bands not turning up you have to give them a refundable deposit of £30. I paid. So now I’d forked out a total of £42.50. You have to speculate to accumulate, right? And I’d get the £30 deposit back. I handed over the form (you don’t get a copy presumably so you can’t remind yourself of what you agreed to) and the money (as did, as far as I could see, every other band who got through) to a man at a desk with a laptop. He didn’t say much. He handed me my golden ticket to the chocolate factory – a white envelope containing further details for the next round and twenty five tickets for friends and family to come and watch. Great! We’re through. We’ll go to the next audition at a prestigious venue in front of another, presumably bigger and more prestigious, judging panel, and we’ll get some serious exposure in front of a big crowd, and we’ll get our deposit back, and perhaps someone important will be there and we’ll get booked for some gigs that pay us money rather than the other way round, and maybe we’ll get a record deal and …
The White Envelope
We piled into the cars. We drove off. I got out the magic envelope. On the front, apart from the LandU logo, were the cryptic numbers 1151 – 1175. Nothing else. Inside were 25 tickets (which I assumed were a reward for us getting through) and a sheet of A4 headed, “Essential to read, keep and refer to”. I read it, since it was essential. There was a lot of congratulation. We would be performing “alongside the best talent in your region”. I guess by implication we fell into that category too. There would be “industry judges including National Radio, BBC Introducing, Regional Press and celebrity judges plus a special guest act”. We had taken “a big step”.
But taking part wasn’t that simple. We couldn’t just turn up and do our stuff. It was going to be tough. “Now is the time to focus on the live show and your regional final … It is important that you read the following information to maximise your chances of winning … and to ensure you organise early”. The information was already flagged as “essential” but now it was “important” that we “focus” in order to “maximise” our chances. Could we do it? What was needed? I’d never maximised before. They explained.
The “Essential to read, keep and refer to” sheet - requirements for entering the showcase regional final
The information sheet is divided into several sub-headings:
“Now is the time [again] to get loads of publicity from your local papers, websites, radio, social networking sites, your own social network and media to give you maximum coverage … your ability to do this demonstrates, not only to us but to the music industry, your motivation and enthusiasm – more importantly it gives you exposure and media contacts.”
So if you are motivated and enthusiastic about your band you will sell it hard in order to demonstrate to the music industry how motivated and enthusiastic you are. What sector of the music industry? Who in the music industry? It could be pointed out here that getting yourself “loads of publicity” also gets LandU loads of (free) publicity that “you” do all the work for. The more publicity you generate the better because, you find upon further reading, there are “awards” for the best publicity drive.
Well, not the best, but the biggest.
This is where “up to £100,000 in prizes” kicks in. You might win something tangible once you’ve put in a shed load of effort into selling yourself, or more specifically Live and Unsigned (and possibly annoying the hell out of everyone around you). But we’re assured it’s for our own good because, “you will get out what you put in, and it’s something you should be doing anyway!”
“There will be an award for the act with the largest quantity of submitted publicity material in relation to the competition. The act with the most press cuttings or recorded radio interviews on each Regional final day will win a free day in the recording studio of their choice worth up to £250.”
There they are again – those two little words, “up to”. In my experience one day in a good studio is about enough to do a basic demo of 3 songs. And surely any band can cobble enough money together for one day in a studio. And I suspect most bands entering this competition have already done so. Not much of an award then, really.
The prize is for “quantity”. Not quality.
“Blackstar Exposure Award”
“There will be an award for the act with the largest quantity of submitted publicity material in relation to the competition. The Band with the most press cuttings or recorded radio interviews on each Regional final day will win a free Blackstar HT-5 half stack amplifier and cap worth in the region of £550.”
“In the region of”. A Google search reveals that these amps retail “in the region of” £399 at most online stores. And that word “free”. A free amp. A free day in the studio. How could you win something and it be anything other than free?
The prize is for “quantity”. Not quality.
“You Tube Exposure Award”
“There will be an award for the act with the highest number of You Tube views of their Live and Unsigned filmed footage. The winning acts or bands each month will receive a support slot with one of our headlining acts at the showcases (see below for act names).”
OK. So that doesn’t cost LandU anything they haven’t already spent.
Oh, and the prize is for “quantity”. Not quality.
Now here’s the rub … The 25 tickets for friends and family aren’t gratis. You can’t just give them away, you are expected to sell them:
“As a minimum, acts will be expected to sell all 25 tickets to fans, family and friends. In most cases it would be expected that contestants will come back for more.”
(You thought this was about musical talent and inspiration?) And if you don’t sell the tickets you can’t go forward.
25 tickets at £7.50 each is £187.50. You have to hand over this money at the showcase regional final if you want your deposit back, and if you want to play. So now you’ve paid £12.50 entrance fee, plus a £30 refundable deposit and you’ve sold £187.50 worth of tickets (or if you can’t sell them all I guess you buy them yourself). You give this money to LandU. You get your £30 deposit back. You have made LandU £12.50 plus 187.50 so far - £200.
What have you got in return so far? Probably nothing really because the chances of you winning the above “awards” (do you get a statuette?) are slim given the huge number of bands who enter the first auditions and then get through to the next round. But you do get to perform at the showcase regional final (more on that in a minute). However, you and your band mates will have done the following so far:
1. Paid an entry fee of £12.502. Travelled to and from the audition venue and waited with a lot of other bands3. Performed about 1 minute of one of your song to a panel of about 8 people4. Most likely got through to the next round, along with all the other bands in your group5. Been told you are very good, congratulations6. Sold 25 tickets at £7.50 each to friends and family netting LandU another £187.507. Worked very hard at producing “the largest quantity of submitted publicity material” in an attempt to win one, two or all of the above awards in order to get an amp worth “in the region of £550”, a day in a studio “worth up to £250” and a support slot.
“Tickets” - But that’s not all …….
You are encouraged to sell as many tickets as possible, not merely 25. Why would you do this? Because:
“On each Regional final day we will award the act that sells the most tickets with an offer of supporting some of the UK’s best known acts such as; Kate Nash, You Me At Six, Twisted Wheel, Dodgy, Bury Tomorrow, Twin Atlantic, Sandi Thom, Toploader, LightsGoBlue, Everything Burns, The Xcerts, Not Advised.”
Again, a support slot is the “award” that motivates you to “sell the most tickets”. That’s a lot of work for a support slot. A lot. Who you support is decided “according to genre and region.” Hmmm. I wonder if the band gets to choose what genre they are and who they support, or maybe LandU decides. Any thrash bands want to support Kate Nash?
(Aside: Money made so far
At this point the cryptic numbers hand-written on my white envelope start to make sense. “1151 – 1175” must be the quantity of tickets given out so far at Cardiff Coal Exchange by the time I handed over my £30 after our audition (1151 plus our 25 tickets equalling 1175). We were on towards the end of the day so let’s imagine we were the last band. That’s 1175 tickets handed out with an expectation that each ticket be sold. 1175 times £7.50 = £8,812.50
There are 16 audition centres. 16 times £8,812.50 = £141,000
Also, on each audition day bands are grouped alphabetically into 7 time slots of one hour each. You have a max of 2 mins to perform. We were definitely in and out before 2 minutes were up. 2 minutes into 60 = 30 bands. 30 bands per hour times 7 time slots = 210. 210 bands times 16 venues = 3360 bands. 3360 bands times £12.50 entry fee = £42,000.
So by the time the showcase regional finals begin LandU have made some pretty serious money. £141,000 plus £42,000 netting a tidy sum of £183,000 so far. All this, of course, assumes that each band sells the minimum amount of 25 tickets. If you want those prizes you need to sell more. Much more. Of course, some bands may drop out before they begin the hard sell but, hey, LandU still have your £30 refundable deposit which they won’t give back to you because you let them down, so it’s not all bad news. LandU will point out that they have big overheads. To the tune of £183,000? I wonder.)
“Tickets” - another reason for you to sell as many tickets as possible:
“In order to progress to the area final you must be in the top Judges score, the highest judges scores will automatically proceed. For the remaining acts; their Judges scores will be added to the audience voting and ranked (audience get to cast two votes for who they think should proceed to the Area final using their tickets). The acts with the combined highest ranking from audience and Judges votes will progress to the area final.”
So. One act from each region gets through based on the judges’ scoring alone – i.e. you might get through based purely on what the judges consider to be talent. The other bands get through with a combined score using judges ranking and audience votes. Audience members (i.e. ticket purchasers) get two votes each so the more friends and family you have sold to, the more that turn up, the more votes you get, the greater your chance of getting to the area final.
So, if you’re relying on, say, talent, artistic ability, musical aptitude, well … Sell more tickets, since the band with the most mates and family voting for them is going to get through.
Still motivated? Still feeling like you can cut it in the rough and tumble world of the music industry? Yes, because you are a creative soul in a creative band with great tunes and you’ll do what it takes to show the world.
The Showcase Regional Final
“Sound checks and registration on the day”
“As soon as you arrive one representative form each act must register in with the organisers. At this point please have ticket sales all calculated in full and in an envelope along with your publicity. Ensure it is all completed, marked correctly, in advance and ready to hand in at this point. Please do not register until you have checked this is done correctly. – if this information is not provided we cannot complete registration and you will not be able to compete.”
In other words, show us the money or get out, and forget your £30 deposit. And note how woolly language like “up to” and “in the region of” has suddenly been replaced when you need to do something for LandU. It’s very, very specific now. They’ve even underlined it.
“All acts are asked to perform 2 songs in the order they like … to total 3 minutes and 30 seconds maximum and the songs should flow seamlessly into each other … These times are strict and you will be penalised by disqualification from the competition if you go over this time.”
3 minutes and 30 seconds for 2 songs. After all your work publicising on local radio, You Tube, the local press, websites and social networking sites, after trying for the various prizes by being “the act with the largest quantity of submitted publicity material”, after flogging a minimum of £187.50 worth of tickets and paying your entrance fee, and travelling to and from the audition venue, bugging your fans, friends and family to come in order to make sure you get a good chance at getting to the area final you get 3 minutes and 30 seconds to perform 2 songs. That’s less time than most pop songs take in entirety. And that’s hit the stage, play, get off within that time or you are disqualified. Regardless of how much publicity you generated or how many tickets you sold.
What time is the sound check by the way? The one at the Coal Exchange in Cardif is at “5pm” and our performance time was down as 8.15pm. It takes us about 1 hour and 20 mins to get there. That means – leave at 3.30pm. Get there at 5. Perform at 8.15. Wait for the show to end to find out results (can’t see anything about end time on the sheet). Drive home. That’s a long time – possibly 12 hours total. To play for 3 mins and 30 seconds. In front of a prejudiced audience who have bought their tickets from their buddies and family members in the band they’ve come to support, an audience that is not going to vote for you no matter how good your band is.
“On the day of the show it is planned to obtain feedback direct from the judges, so please check out Judges comments’ after the weekend of your show on the website and Facebook. The judges will also provide selective feedback on acts on the day during shows.”
I don’t understand the first sentence. I don’t think it makes sense. Overall, I think what they mean here is that only a small number of acts will get actual verbal feedback on the night. Other bands might get some feedback on a web site but they’ll need to look it up because LandU don’t bother to send useful feedback to you directly at the web address you’ve given them. Despite your efforts so far and the money you’ve made them. Once again, when it’s about LandU giving you something the language has suddenly gone a bit woolly. What on earth does “it is planned to obtain feedback” mean? Could the plan go wrong?
“Professional photos” (£17 for 12) and “Filming” (£37, no specified length – “a vital marketing tool … a great value for money opportunity”) are also offered. Of course, all shots and films of your band on stage at the showcase regional final will have a large banner in the background saying “Live and Unsigned” so you’ll also be paying them for the privilege of advertising them again.
And the final words on the info sheet:
“Go for it and enjoy it! You will get out of the competition as much as you put in … Best of luck!”
My band is stopping at home. No selling ourselves and thus LandU to “fans, friends and family”. No hassling the press or local radio, or bombarding websites and social networking sites. No giving LandU masses of free publicity at our expense. No paying £187.50 to play for 3 mins 30 seconds. No attempt to win amps we can buy without too much grief. No effort to get a day in a recording studio worth “up to” £250. No making ourselves hideously unpopular by telling all around us that this is a great opportunity and if you believe in us, in me, you’ll fork out your money and come to support us on the night.
But we still made LandU £42.50 for the privilege of playing for 1 minute without a sound check to about 8 anonymous people who gave us no feedback.
The website again: “Previous Winners”
Have you heard of them?
2010 – “The Lottery Winners”2010 – “Underline The Sky” (Apparently they won in the Rock category, although I’m a bit confused by this as I can’t find mention of categories in other years)2009 – “The Detours”2008 – “Kiddo 360”2007 – “B-Kay and Kazz”
That’s where the list stops.
A Google search of previous winners shows me this pretty quickly:
The Lottery Winners do not seem to have a web site. They do not appear to have a CD for sale. They do not appear to have any notable commercial success. Their MySpace page lists 9 gigs pending for 2011. Underline The Sky have a downloadable EP available via their web site. They do not appear to be signed to any label. The Detours don’t seem to have a web site or a record deal. Or many gigs. Kiddo 360 don’t have a web site or anything for sale in a shop. Or many gigs. B-Kay and Kazz have no web site or record deal that I can see.
All seem to have a MySpace or Facebook site, but then anyone can put one of those up for free.
Perhaps I’m not looking hard enough. I would but I’m getting tired of all this now …
Live and Unsigned is well-presented, glossy and convincing. It promises great things. It offers promotion, record deals, live exposure, music industry connections, prizes, studio time, publicity, professional feedback, tours, support slots, major venues, success.
What it delivers is something akin to pyramid sales – pay £12.50 for a chance to excel! Come inside! Guess what? You’ve won! You’ve got what it takes. Now we need a deposit of £30 for your big chance, but you’ll get it back.
Now go sell Live and Unsigned to your “fans, friends and family”. Sell a lot. Sell at least £187.50 worth of tickets. Why? Because you have to in order to enter the regional final that you have qualified for, and to get your deposit back. And don’t forget, you qualified at an audition where the impartial and “prestigious” judges saw that you have talent, you’re in with a chance, and you wouldn’t want to squander your talent, would you? You could be on stage like The Prodigy or Hendrix or Blur. You could make it!
But sell more than 25, because if you are truly committed to your talent you will want to sell more, and you’ll also be getting more votes for your band. Remember, each ticket is worth 2 votes and the more you sell the better your chance of getting through to the area final, whatever your talent or the talent of others.
Sell not just tickets but the idea of Live and Unsigned. Sell it hard. Sell it to the press, to radio, to social networking sites. Sell it under the guise of selling yourself, because you believe in yourself and your talent, because selling impresses “the music industry”. And then the base of the pyramid spreads. Maybe mum and dad will sell tickets for you and tell everyone about their kid who got into a prestigious band final. Perhaps other bands will hear about your progress and will want to take part in LandU. Perhaps they’ll pay, and then sell tickets to their friends and family and hassle the press and local radio and then the base of the pyramid will go to another wider layer and, hey presto, you’re not a musician after all. You’re a salesman flogging snake oil to whoever will listen. You’ve been duped and now you’re duping others. How insidious. Still, at least the head of Live and Unsigned made a ton of money, eh?
I dread to think what awaits bands that get through the “showcase regional final” and hope to play at the area final. Another white envelope inscribed with cryptic numbers?
If you know someone in a band - please pass this on to them. "I wish I had known before I signed up" is not such a good place to be.