We all know, because we’ve all experienced it in one form or another, that unsigned bands are ripe for exploitation. At its basest level this involves a shady promoter (whom is invariably paid by the venues to bring in punters) getting bands to play for free, encouraging them to bring in their mates and then pocketing the money from the venue (who, in return, enjoy increased bar profits) and the ticket sales. The bands, being unsigned and therefore unnoticed, do all the footwork, printing fliers, placing posters and pulling favours. The promoter puts a sign, in chalk, on the blackboard outside the venue. The result? Many young bands actually lose money on the gigs they play and while this is, in one sense, to be expected – music is for many nothing more than an expensive passion to indulge – that does not entitle these slovenly ‘promoters’ to cream the little money that might be recouped away from the people whose talent they are exploiting.
However, recent experience has introduced me to a company whose shameless exploitation of bands, and whose aggressive methods of controlling negative press, are breath-taking. Ladies and gentlemen, please meet Surface Unsigned.
Surface Unsigned are quite remarkable in the audacity of what they’ve put together. Like, say, Glastonbudget they have put together a festival which – at its heart – provides a few bands the opportunity to play a festival that will potentially offer great exposure. Sponsored by an enviable array of mid-level audio equipment manufacturers, the actual outlay Surface make is minimal (unlike Glastonbudget who actually have created a festival experience off their own bat) as backline and equipment is all provided from external sources. Operating regionally, Surface hold rounds. A large number of bands are initially ‘invited’ to these rounds but there’s a catch. When my band were offered the chance to play, an email told me we would pay a deposit to guarantee that we would turn up. Now I’ve promoted gigs and I know what a pain it is to have bands drop out – we have dropped out of precisely two gigs in our history, once because of illness and once this time because we resent slavery in all its forms. A deposit, therefore, seemed harmless. However, to my mind, a deposit that guarantees attendance should be paid back when the band attends. For surface, however, the deposit ONLY gets refunded if the band have ALSO sold 25 tickets at £6.00 a pop. The band are offered a portion of the ticket costs (as per the rules and regs) – an almighty £1 for every ticket sold AFTER the initial £25. In contrast, Glastonbudget costs £3.00 to enter. The bands do not have to sell any tickets and are judged on ability – ask Dakesis, they came in, whooped ass and got on the bill – not sales, which is as well because they didn’t sell 25 tickets (nor in a city that they don’t come from, could they be expected to), because Glastonbudget have already figured out such an arrangement would be farcical.
So, let’s take a break from our comparison and do a little hypothetical math. All the bands pay Surface £50 as their ‘deposit’. If each band pays the outlay and manages only ten people then Surface make, for one gig featuring six bands playing 20 minute slots, £660 as they don’t need to refund any deposits and they get the ticket revenue (this is excluding any money they might make from door sales and the venue). THEY say they have to pay for ‘security, bar staff, venue hire and PA/Lighting’. When I promoted at a local venue I charged £3 a ticket and went 50/50 with the venue. They paid for bar staff, security and the like and I sorted the PA. The bands all got a few quid and it cost me nothing. Even if we DO assume that Surface are dealing with these things can we seriously believe that a pub will ask Surface to pay bar staff? That Surface haven’t already sourced their equipment from sponsors? Rubbish – that’s not how any other system in gig promotion works – either we’re paying for Surface’s naivety in getting conned by some truly dodgy bars, or they’re raking in cash from bands who should know better.
So let’s extrapolate further – each band pays their £50 and brings 15 people…. Surface have now made a stunning £840 whilst barely lifting a finger. 20 people for each band brings in £1020 and so on. The bands, meanwhile, have made nothing, blagged money out of their mates (or bought the tickets themselves) AND they are only likely to get through based on ticket sales, not votes, and certainly not the text vote system (which even before we pulled out we were too ashamed to publicise to our friends and fans) which costs £1 a shot and gets you next to nowhere.
So, to return to our comparison, Surface and Glatstonbudget are both offering very similar things but from very different angles. Glastonbudget judge on ability and the comparative scarcity (or profundity) of your band and the type of music you play. If you can get your fans along they pay a minimal £3 on the door, but as a band you have outlaid only the typical costs of mounting a trip to the venue and other such gig costs. You are not pressured, harassed or made to feel worthless if you don’t bring a specific quota of fans and you have a good chance of getting on the bill providing you don’t suck. In contrast, with surface you will win only if you bring the right number of people. As we all know numbers have nothing to do with quality. If they did the Spice girls would not be on the list of greatest selling albums of all time and bands like Dakesis, Siren and (hell, I’ll say it) Final Coil would not be lower down the food chain than Lady Gaga because at least we can all play our instruments and write our own songs… we don’t have meat dresses though, although Dakesis may well make that work in the future(!)
So why does it matter? It matters because companies like Surface don’t only make money, they create and then destroy hope. They shatter the illusions and beliefs of young bands whilst increasing public cynicism about the value of good unsigned band showcases. They are the last remnants of a shattered, money-driven system and the exposure they offer to bands who are already bringing in a large number of punters is motivated purely by greed and not by anything so laudable as a love of music. Talk to the Surface people themselves and you’ll probably find they all admire Simon Cowell and Malcolm McLaren. I have no problem with battle of the bands, festival auditions or even being at the bottom of a very large food chain with my own outfit. I play because I love music and I love expressing myself through one of the greatest and most variable art forms ever to have been conceived, not because I need the money or I have any great dreams of stardom. People such as the Surface organisers do not respect or value talent or ability. They value your business acumen and your ability to remove money from friends and colleagues. They place strain on an already damaged system and they will continue to cream off the money that should, by rights, go to the bands themselves unless we, as a musical community, rise up to fight them off.
My final word – be informed about these so called promoters. Be wary of promises of instant fame and fortune and be true to yourself. Final Coil are a proud, independent band and while we will always look to increase our audience, we will not do so at the expense of those who already take time and trouble to listen to us – it’s asking too much and an abuse of their trust. Surface are a vile, abusive, and endangered organisation who will market aggressively in the face of negativity ( so much so that if were to re-print their terms and conditions we’d be liable to find ourselves on the wrong end of a law suit – hardly the actions of a reputable organisation). Whatever your motivation may be for reading this piece we hope it encourages you to pause for thought before entering in to any such competition and ultimately we hope it will promote unity to a scene once famed for its strength and solidarity. There are many, many great acts out there – 2nd side made, 3rd angle projection, red cow down, Dakesis, (final coil!!!) and The resonance association to name but very few and there are many great ways to discover them – particularly at a time when the internet offers ease of access and venues are crying out for quality acts… don’t be fooled by pretty posters and empty promises for that is all you’ll ever get from Surface.