The Worst Music Industry Scams (What to Watch Out For)

Music industry scams generally involve advanced payments made by artists to fake or ill-intended record labels, A&Rs, managers, producers, audio engineers, and promoters. Absurd contract deals and fake music services (such as useless music websites) are other common examples of music industry scams.

If you’re an up-and-coming artist trying to make it in the music industry, it’s crucial to know how to differentiate a scam from a real opportunity. Artists make for the overwhelming majority of music industry scam victims and, sadly, music industry scams continue to be customary today.

This article should help you to learn about the most common type of music industry scams and how to avoid them. But first, it’s important to understand what makes the music industry such a scammer-friendly environment.

Why is the music industry so prone to scams?

Scams are everywhere, but they’re exceptionally frequent in the music industry. This happens due to three main reasons: because the music industry is a tough business, because it deals with people’s dreams, and because it’s based on the delusional promise of overnight success.

The music industry is different from most industries because it’s, in great part, made up of people who don’t earn enough (or even anything) from their labor. Nobody in the mining industry is a struggling miner; nobody working as a supermarket cashier is putting in free hours; countless musicians, however, are willing not only to work for free but also to pay for working opportunities (such as better gigs or features in blogs and streaming playlists). For this reason, music-industry workers, and artists, in particular, are the perfect victims of scammers.

In addition to free or paid labor, up-and-coming artists also tend to be incredibly invested in the idea of “making it.” In other words, the music industry often revolves around people’s dreams. Dreams can be rational, but there’s always an emotional aspect to them. Scammers thrive by exploiting the emotions of artists. They make their victims feel special, pretend to value their work, and are not ashamed of profiting from their aspirations.

Finally, the music industry is particularly prone to scams because of the promise of overnight success. Overnight success happens in music, and there are plenty of stories (some fictional, others partly true) involving famous artists whose lives changed in a heartbeat. But overnight success is not the norm. Scammers exploit this delusional notion in the same way that the gambling industry exploits the promise of instant fortunes, exorbitant jackpots, and breakneck millionaires. Unfortunately, it’s never that easy to go from rags to riches in the music business.

The most common types of music industry scams

There are countless music industry scams out there, and scammers have a way of always coming up with creative new schemes. However, the following are some of the most common and dangerous types of music industry scams.

1. Fake managers and A&Rs

Every struggling musician dreams of being contacted by a music pro who can help him or her find success. But every sudden contact coming from a “manager” or “record-label A&R” should be scrutinized. Unfortunately, music industry scams involving fake managers and A&Rs are very common.

How does it work?

The scammer gets to know an artist and spots an opportunity to make money. The scammer then “seduces” the artist into thinking he or she is well-connected in the music industry. In some cases, fake A&Rs even create fake record labels or appropriate the logo of an existing record label to look more credible.

Their modus operandi involves asking artists for money for stuff like submission fees, executive costs, and any other fake expenses they can come up with. In extreme cases, fake managers will try to convince artists to sign contracts in the hope that, if they one day “make it,” they will have enough leverage to continue to ask them for money or even blackmail them.

How to avoid this scam

If contacted by a manager or A&R, don’t do anything before having as much information as possible. If a legitimate record label is interested in your services, they will never ask you for money beforehand. The job of record labels is precisely to finance and support the artists in their rosters.

Signing contracts without having all the details is also a big no-no. Contact a lawyer and look for the advice of someone you can trust (like a fellow artist who’s already signed to a record label) before putting your signature anywhere. You should learn more about how record-label deals work. Understanding music royalties is also a big plus.

2. Pay-to-work scams

Perhaps one of the most despicable types of music industry scams, the pay-to-work scams are generally plotted fake or ill-intended music promoters looking to cash in on an artist’s dreams of performing in big venues or opening up for a bigger artist.

How does it work?

Promoters contact the artist with a working opportunity that sounds too good to be true. They lure the artist into getting excited about performing in a big event or opening up for a more famous musician. But then, they ask the artist for money instead of doing the opposite.

Because the artist will do everything for a great opportunity of promoting his or her work, he or she will find the scammer’s demands reasonable. At first, it may seem like the promoter is trying to help the artist; but as any experienced musician knows, paying to play and even performing for free is damaging not only to the artist him-herself but also to the music industry as a whole.

How to avoid this scam

No matter how good an opportunity seems to be, don’t forget to value your time and refuse to pay to perform. Music is the result of your hard work, and you should earn from it, not the opposite.

The first thing you should do is spend money on your music project by investing in better equipment, a home studio, or stage props: that’s not only reasonable but also advisable. But when others are cashing in on your music, they need to pay you the fair share you most definitely deserve.

3. Mixing and mastering scams

Unless artists know their way around the fine arts of mixing and mastering, they need to put some money aside to pay for professional mixing/mastering services before releasing a single, EP, or album. Sadly, not all people selling “professional audio engineering services” can be trusted – some are just trying to take your money.

How does it work?

Fake or extremely inexperienced audio engineers promote their services online or elsewhere and charge the artist for an advanced payment. Once the artist pays, they either ghost the artist or provide him or her with a lousy mix/master. Even if they don’t receive the full sum beforehand, they will always earn from the artist’s naivety.

How to avoid this scam

Once again, knowledge is power. Naturally, not all audio engineers asking for advance payments are scammers. Many legitimate engineers do so. However, you should never give money or even request the services of audio engineers who don’t have a flawless reputation.

Many professional mastering services (even at the very top of the industry) are reasonably affordable for unsigned, up-and-coming artists. Most times, you can save time and money by paying a little extra for an audio engineer who knows his or her craft instead of going for a cheaper (but uncredited) alternative.

4. The useless music service

We live in a technological era, and web-based music industry scams are as prevalent as online spam in today’s world. One of the most common types of Internet music scams involves paying for music services, often promoted by seemingly-legitimate websites, that are either useless or just pretend to be useful.

How does it work?

The scammer sets up a fake website or music-related business promising to help up-and-coming artists get professional music promotion help (and other music-related services). Naturally, their “top-notch” help must be obtained through the payment of a fixed sum of money.

The fake music business looks legitimate enough, but is often either useless (doing nothing for the artist) or based on a useless scheme. Some services are allegedly based on fake bots that contact paying artists to make them feel as though their audience is growing. This is merely an illusion, as there’s no real advantage in having an audience made out of cheap, automated bots.

How to avoid this scam

In two words: use Google! If you’re considering paying for a music promotion service to reach a wider audience, just Google the name of the website followed by the word “scam” to see what comes up. Be as thorough as possible, as some scammers know of clever ways of fooling Google’s ranking algorithm.

5. Dishonest beat sales

In the age of hip-hop, selling beats is one of the best ways for music producers to earn from their work. But sadly, not all people selling beats to artists are trying to make an honest living out of their tracks.

How does it work?

Ill-intended music producers sell beats to artists without disclosing the entire information on how their beat-selling contracts work. They often overcharge the artist for non-exclusive beats without being transparent and letting them know the details of the exchange. Many problems may arise from this, especially if the beat used by the artist ends up being used in a successful song.

How to avoid this scam

Buy beats from trustable sources and avoid overcomplicated beat-selling contracts. Look for transparency and use beat-selling websites with a good reputation (though you still need to be careful when using any online marketplaces or services).

6. Other common music industry scams

While the aforementioned music industry scams are the most pertinent in today’s music scene, there are many other historical examples of music-related schemes that have impacted countless artists.

These include scams such as Payola, in which radio DJs charged artists and record labels for money to spin their records. The Double-Dipper scam was also very common in the pre-Internet days and was the work of greedy record-label executives who also served as the managers of their own artists which creates an obvious conflict of interest.

There are also many scams involving fake consultants; as a rule of thumb, any music-industry professional charging wild sums for mere advice is kind of scamming his clients (even if he’s a legitimate industry professional). 

Finally, there are also many music industry scams involving journalists and webmasters who charge musicians for a review, magazine feature, and blog appearance.

Famous examples of music industry scams

Falling victim to music industry scammers isn’t just something that happens to up-and-coming artists. Music-related schemes are so common that even some of the world’s top musicians have lost lots of money at the hands of despicable managers, manipulating producers, and greedy organizations.

The #FreeJojo scandal

One of the most successful pop artists of the early 2000s, the American singer Jojo was reportedly “held hostage” into a former contract with a label and was prevented from releasing new music or performing live for seven years. Her struggle was such that it even gave way to an online movement known as #FreeJojo. In 2014, she was finally able to break free, as reported by Buzzfeed.

Sting’s bad financial advisor

Sting’s career was never put to a halt quite like Jojo’s, but the famous bandleader of The Police lost millions of dollars due to a series of reckless investments made by his former financial advisor. Fortunately, justice was made when his former advisor was arrested for six years in the mid-90s. Sadly, Sir Elton John wasn’t as lucky and ended up wasting $30 million after losing a lengthy suit against the accounting firm Andrew Haydon & Pricewaterhouse Coppers.

Billy Joel’s family betrayal

Proving that trust is hard to come by in a business as ruthless as the music industry, the American singer Billy Joel was forced to sue his former brother-in-law Frank Weber for $90 million once he realized that he had been repeatedly stealing from him. Joel fell victim to Weber’s clever schemes for years before starting legal action in the late 80s.

Lou Pearlman’s Ponzi scheme

Finally, no list of famous music industry scams would be complete without a mention of Lou Pearlman, arguably the most infamous music scammer of all time. Taking advantage of the fame of his notorious clients, which included the likes of NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys, Pearlman ran a Ponzi scheme that lured people out of millions of dollars before being convicted to 25 years in jail. While Pearlman’s schemes didn’t affect his clients’ money directly, they blemished their reputation forever.

Some things to keep in mind to avoid music industry scams:

  • Make the first contact: When you need help to get ahead in the music industry, try to make the first contact. If a music-industry professional is looking to help you out of nowhere, there’s a decent chance he or she may be a scammer.
  • Don’t pay in advance: While paying in advance for music-related services is sometimes unavoidable, not paying in advance for anything is a good rule of thumb for avoiding music industry scams.
  • Don’t pay to work: This one is pretty self-explanatory. Unless you’re doing a free house gig for a friend of yours who really loves your music, working for free (and especially paying to work) is something no artist should ever do. It’s bad: not only for you but for every up-and-coming artist out there.
  • Trust actions, not looks: Scammers have a way of looking like the real deal when they’re not. The music industry is filled with “posers,” and some may be extremely convincing. For this reason, it’s essential to be rational. Don’t get fooled just because people have big charisma and expensive clothes.
  • Take your time: It’s important to give yourself some time to process potentially big career moves. If a person proposing a business deal is pressuring you to sign contracts without giving them due consideration, then this should be a red flag.
  • Do your research: Before getting involved with anyone (from managers to record labels), do your research. Information is widely available in this day and age, so don’t trust any undocumented so-called music pros.

Conclusion

Music industry scams are incredibly prevalent and, unfortunately, they will most likely always be. Does this mean the road to success is one you must walk alone? Is everybody trying to help you to get your music out there a scammer who can’t be trusted? Surely not.

The best thing about the music business is that there’s one wonderful, honest person trying to help up-and-coming artists for every despicable scammer trying to hurt them. The key is to learn how to differentiate the good from the bad and that comes with experience, having a clear head, and being aware of the dangers.

If you want to “make it,” start by surrounding yourself with people you can trust and who have proven to be legitimate friends/business partners. The path to success is filled with many dangers, so it’s always nice to bring a friend along on the ride.

Brian Clark is a multi-instrumentalist and music producer. He is passionate about practically all areas of music and he particularly enjoys writing about the music industry.

Leave a Comment

Leave a reply

Musician Wave
Logo