Friday comment: Hitting the right notes?

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Hitting the right notes? A report on Live and Unsigned
By Sean Murricane

Are you in a band, or a solo act? Want to “make it” in the music biz? How about win the chance to play in the O2 London, and £10,000 to spend on your musical ambitions?

Several competitions have been offering just such an opportunity, including two of the biggest; Live and Unsigned, and Open Mic UK. Sound too good to be true? Well, perhaps. In recent years the competition has been growing to accommodate the thousands of participants all keen to score that big contract. But as the competition has grown, so has the controversy around it.

It works like this. After paying your £5 entry fee (£10 for bands), first comes the audition. Held all over the UK, aspiring musicians play a 4 minute audition, comprising of one original song and one cover. Assuming you get through this, you get through to the Live Regional showcase. Tickets for this show go for £8 and you must sell at least 25 to your fans. You, and the rest of the bands, don’t get any of this cash.

The auditions take place

During this show – of which there are four per region, held in one day – you play another 4 minute set of one original song and one cover. Those that get through go to the area final, where fans are asked again to fork out £9 per ticket. Again, the bands providing the original content and entertainment for the crowd, don’t get any of this cash.

Doing the sums is difficult due to the numbers involved, however after the starting 10,000 have paid their £5 or £10 to take part, the 15 or so bands playing the 4 regional showcases in 5 areas have persuaded 25 of their fans to part with £8 (and 15 x 4 x 25 x 8 x 5 = 60,000 just in case you’re wondering), then the Area Final ticket sales start – it’s clear this is big business. The bands don’t get any of this cash.

Unless you win, of course – however, even then, the level of support you get may fall short of what you’re expecting. Rock category winners “Underline the Sky” recently took their experience to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) complaining the promised prizes didn’t live up to expectations, after the festival slots they were due to play were cancelled, and the amp they were promised was removed as a prize just before they were announced as winners.

2011 winners The Trinity Band claim their prize

Allegations of corruption, or just plain incompetence, surround both competitions. Despite listing BBC 6 Music DJ Chris Hawkins as a judge on the website, he has, through his twitter account, denied being any part of it.

Successful promoters like Si Glacken from Music and PR agency ‘I Like Press’ works with acts like Lone Wolf, Castrovalva and recent Futuresound winners Post War Glamour Girls. He gives involvement with the competition the thumbs down, saying “putting live and unsigned down as an achievement for your band actually acts more like a deterrent for labels, managers, agents etc”.

Internationally renowned guitarist Jon Gomm tells me “Bands think this is a way to “make it”. It isn’t. NOBODY ever got anywhere by doing these competitions. All these bands are telling their local promoters is A) “We will play for free” and B) “We will bring a rent-a-crowd of family, friends, etc and do your job for you”. It will get them nowhere, but because they think it will, they neglect ACTUAL advancements they should be making. Playing local gigs for local promoters, building a network of contacts, growing a REAL fanbase and learning how to win new people over by playing the right places, and developing industry connections by recommendation, which is the only way that matters.”

Jon Gomm: “This is not the way to ‘make it’”

Following the ASA’s investigation, Bingley Music Live announced they were withdrawing from their association with Live & Unsigned “due to the pressure locally and to restore some faith in the local music scene.”

Chris Greyson, who runs both Live and Unsigned, as well as taking on the Open Mic UK brand since it went in to liquidation last year, promises “This year the winners of Live and Unsigned will take home £10,000 in cash to spend on developing the act as they wish. They’ll also get a further £10,000 spent on publicity and will take on a UK tour of up to 100 shows. Live and Unsigned is also offering festival slots in Canada, Italy, Latvia and Ireland, as well as gigs at UK festivals like Beach Break live and Osfest.”

The ASA called an end to its investigation, saying that the claim was from too long ago (2010), however added that it was “too early to tell whether or not [this year’s] prizes have been substantiated”. Time will tell.

Still want to play the O2? Who wouldn’t? There are many ways, and if you’re one in 10,000 you might just get to. If you don’t mind sacrificing the respect of a large section of the industry, and asking your fans for a lot of financial support, of which you won’t see a penny.

Sean Murricane is, amongst other things, a music fan, musician and blogger based in Leeds. You can keep up with his musical news and reviews through his Foxes and Convicts Facebook page, or follow him on twitter at @seanmurricane. He has declined three separate invitations to take part in Live and Unsigned.

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