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Sam Saunders on unsigned band ‘talent competitions’ such as Live & Unsigned, Surface Unsigned


In our next guest post, music writer Sam Saunders uncovers the realities behind competitions for unsigned bands…

The United Kingdom has two large annual contests for what me might call unsigned bands. One is Live and Unsigned run by Chris Grayston from Southampton and the other is Surface Festival run by Jay Mitchell from Birmingham. They started in 2007.

Their structures and aims are similar. Successive regional gigs whittle down a field of hundreds to a London final with one overall winner and a small number of secondary award winners. The process takes nearly a year to complete. Surface Festival finalists play 5 times from start to finish. For Live and Unsigned there is a very short audition followed by 3 stages for those who reach the final. In both schemes progress and success depends on audience votes, on text voting and on some evaluation by judges. Most entrants sell tickets to their supporters and many encourage text voting. These text votes incur a £1 premium that goes to the organisers. Ticket prices increase as the competition moves on. Surface Festival ticket prices rise from £5 at Stage 1 to £20 for their final “International Showcase” in London.

Chris Grayston of Live and Unsigned has a background running raves and Surface Festival’s Jay Mitchell has a recording studio and once worked in the UK for a US operation called Emergenza. Emergenza provided the model for his first years, running what was then called Surface Unsigned. While the freshened-up Surface Festival looks like a better-run and more transparent organisation than Live and Unsigned the operations are broadly similar. The offer is to provide a live music experience that allows the enthusiastic supporters of very local, not necessarily accomplished, bands to buy tickets for gigs away from home. The bands, with their friends, workmates and family all get a chance to have a grand night out in what feels like a real rock and roll environment. The personal connection between the band and the supporters is all part of the magic. A competitive partisanship and the rivalry with other outfits is all part of it. Non-League they might be, but they can shout for their team with just as much belief as anyone.

At the end, many bands come away with mixed memories, no prizes and quite a lot of expenses. The supporters, in particular, will have spent a lot, on tickets., text votes, travel and drinks. One or two bands who have spoken to me have confided in feeling a bit bad about asking their friends, however keen they are to come along.

To give you an idea of scale, Surface Festival has started 2012 with about 100 Round 1 gigs across 9 cities in the UK and Spain. London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Bristol, Cardiff, Swansea, Barcelona and Seville are the centres. Published audience voting points and numbers of texts sent (presented on line) can be added up. I have used the 21 London Stage 1 gigs held between February and April of this year as a source. The gigs were held at 229 The Venue and featured performances by 123 bands.

The bands are given a cut from ticket sales after the first 24 sales. Above 100 sales tickets earn £2.50 each for the band, with lower cuts across the range between 25 and 99 sales. Each Stage 1 gig has four to six bands playing for up to 20 minutes each. I have assumed that five audience points represents one ticket bought by a supporter of the band. My rough, rounded figure calculation for all the Stage 1 London gigs is:

• Text votes @£1: £2,500
• Ticket sales @£5: £11,640
• Total revenue: £14,144
• Bands’ share of ticket sales: £1,900
• Bands’ share of text votes: assumed zero
• Surface Festival revenue before venue and staff costs (approximately): £580 per gig.

This isn’t a verified set of figures. My aim is to give a rough idea of the scale of things based on numbers that everyone can already see online.

Some bands will have earned money too. One seems to have over £150 in their till (if the number of audience points is a guide to ticket sales). 38 others seem to have enough audience votes to have earned something on tickets but there would also have been 84 who got nothing. The median figure for those who could have been paid is £37.

Compared to the standard gigs for non-commercial or beginner bands in Leeds (the scene I know best) the costs look on the high side and returns to bands look rather small given the promoter surplus. In standard gigs venue costs to a diy promoter would be low or zero, recognition that venues make a lot of their money from drink sales. But a quote from one of my band correspondents expresses what a few have said to me recently “…like any business, [it] is first and foremost a business and has to cover its costs and hopefully show a profit at the end of the financial year.”

So what’s the beef? Why am I writing about this at all? Surely you choose whether to enter or not? The beef, I think comes in two slices. My first thing is to understand what kind of business this is. My second puzzle is to wonder who the customers are and whether they might be paying too much for too little.

In their press releases and on their websites both schemes offer images and names that evoke music industry experience and music industry connections. They present themselves as well connected insiders who can help entry-level musicians get experience of bigger stages with a realistic opportunity to go onwards and upwards. For one band member’s articulate analysis of this, see this blog. More than once entrants have told me that the sponsors and the associated brand names gave them confidence that they were dealing with organisations that would have to be genuine. What the most naive bands hope for is contact with the “real industry”, even if they don’t get far in the competition. Live and Unsigned pander to the fantasy with pictures of Noddy Holder and strings of radio presenters and former pop stars, as if they were central to their operation. I have emailed three Radio 1 presenters in the last few years asking them about their connection. The first two didn’t reply at first, but their pictures soon disappeared. More recently I emailed Jen Long, one of Radio 1’s new generation. Her name, photograph and biography were on the Live and Unsigned site and she was described as a “BBC Introducing judge”. She replied “Nope. I’m not involved with this at all. Thanks for bringing to my attention”.
Grayston and Mitchell both court companies who sell things to musicians, offering free advertisements of their logos and access to events for distribution of samples and modest prizes. Companies like string manufacturers D’Addario are happy to oblige. As a representative of Summerfield Musical Instruments emailed me, back in 2007 when things were just starting:

“We feel that this kind of marketing activity gets our strings into the hands of people who may not have heard of us or may be using a competitor’s product.
D’Addario are major sponsors of Emergenza, the world’s largest competition for unsigned bands. The partnerships with Emergenza and Surface Unsigned compliments D’Addario support and development of up and coming artists from around the world.”

More recently, small festivals have been drawn into the swirl of impressive connectedness. Live and Unsigned in particular have been pitching to small festival organisers, offering advertising placement in all their own national advertising (something the festivals could not afford themselves) and on their website in return for slots for L&U bands on the small festival stages. Not all the festivals realise that their names are an important part of that “industry insider” image that helps Live and Unsigned recruit bands. They are simply grateful for what they see as valuable free advertising and being genuinely interested in music are happy to accommodate some new names in their programmes.

So most bands seem to be getting somewhere near to “the industry”. In reality they are at the same arms length as they are in a local music shop, listening to the radio, or calling their local festival for a gig. Seen from a distance they seem to be following a Yellow Brick Road, to find no more than smoke and mirrors at the end. For a couple of bands who got right to the end as winners of Live and Unsigned the experience was demoralising and frustrating. Ipswich band Underline The Sky (2010 winners have reported their experience to the Advertising Standards Authority. A member of another winner, who asked to be anonymous, told me in a long telephone conversation that the “prizes” advertised on Live and Unsigned website were not at all what they had seemed to be. “Recording Contract” turned into a poorly recorded demo that was never released and “National Tour” was a trail around Live and Unsigned competitions the following year, playing as yet another bit of image building for the competition.

So why do they do it? As many have told me, they do it because it seems to be (and sometimes is) really exciting. They go off to a city on a bus with lots of friends and family and play in large venues with a PA and lights and lots of noise and excitement as results come in. They meet other bands, they drink together, they report the whole thing on Facebook and store up a whole load of mad stories to tell and re-tell. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip into real rock and roll. The time, the effort, the travelling expenses (even spending their own money on multiple text voting) is worth every penny. It can absorb attention for the best part of a year for a band getting to the final) Their mates and their family get the same buzz – the same insider feeling, with rival bands and fans to pull faces at.

What they don’t get, and this touches on what economists call opportunity cost, is the musical progress they could have made, the real audience they could have found and the genuinely useful contacts they could have forged in the time they spent chasing someone else’s business plan. The plain fact is that no winners of either competition have become established artists. Compared to bands who have used their local or self-organised house gigs and BBC Introducing channels, their efforts have been wasted. Compared to bands who have asked friends to get involved through Pledgemusic they have generated no music for public consumption. For those who will search, read and pay attention , even bands in obscure places, with few or no local gigs (I’m thinking of Wild Beasts here) can find a way to worthwhile involvement. IF you’re talking about doing something to be proud of The Cheap Trick is, sadly, just a trick. And it isn’t very cheap.

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4 thoughts on “Sam Saunders on unsigned band ‘talent competitions’ such as Live & Unsigned, Surface Unsigned

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  1. I find this article interesting. Talent development and discovery are important both to aspiring artists and the music business, and what if these competitions have little effect and are based on false premises? The theme of exploitation and false premises is familiar in the film and fashion industry. One objection is that many of the young aspiring artists are just doing it for fun and only for a short period of their life, so it should not be taken too seriously or as a conventional labor market situation. Still, the critique of this article should motivate the organizers to rethink and retool the concept and vision of their event. Perhaps they can find a better way of helping aspiring artists and still preserve their event? This might also be relevant for the international Emergenza festival. One thing to consider is the role of blogs and social media more generally, as they have gained a more important role in talent discovery, also to professional talent buyers and promoters.

  2. Sorry to sound a little sceptical here, Fabian, but I’m not sure the intent of such events is actually talent discovery, or that the organiser’s role is to ‘help’ artists. Unlike the old record label model, where it was very much in the interest of the organisation to develop an artist and help make them succesful, these competitions are very short-term and really don’t appear to have any long term benefits for the participants, partly at least because quantity of support, not quality of performance is what seems to help you get through the rounds. I think Sam points this out pretty accurately. It’s essentially no-risk promotion with the lure of prizes (and the ASA are currently checking those prizes out in one instance).
    Sam doesn’t mention this in his excellent blog piece, but he is a longtime community member of the Leeds Music Forum (, who have been exceptionally active in discouraging pay-to-play type policies out of the Leeds scene, as well as being vocal opponents of the kind of ‘competitions’ Sam outlines above. The LMF, to my mind, is one of the best local music forums around since it has a mix of musicians involved in the local scene who range from the young start-up bands to full time musicians who play out of the city and have developed a wider perspective as well as a lot of the background guys who keep the city’s music scene going releasing records, running venues, promoting gigs and engineering and teching, etc. In the past, through persistent interaction with venues and promoters the LMF have managed to prevent certain practices gaining a toehold in the city and the forum, if you’re not an overly sensitive soul, is a good place to pick up good advice.

  3. Pingback: Glamscams Revisited | samsaundersbristol

  4. My blog refers to a complaint made to the Advertising Standards Authority about the content of Live and Unsigned’s website. The ASA’s database of adjudications records that on May 30 2012, under the heading of “Informally Resolved Cases” “After consideration by the ASA of complaints received… Live And Unsigned Ltd …agreed to amend or withdraw advertising without the need for a formal investigation…” (this can be discovered via the ASA database here: )

    A BBC Suffolk report covers this outcome here:

    Tellingly, the report on Live and Unsigned’s own website puts the ASA result in a very different light:

    Music Week have published what looks like the contents of Live and Unsigned’s press release: without any comment frm the ASA

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