Artist’s Journal #3: Guarding Against the Dream-Eaters

Low Hanging Fruit by Johnny Beaver

Having spent a good number of years working in various capacities as a sound engineer and producer, I’ve seen just about every scam under the sun. Young bands and artists are especially susceptible because the hooks appropriately play to desires of recognition, money, and other goals that often come along with artistic ambition. These companies and individuals essentially prey on dreams, which firmly places them about as low on the ethics totem pole as one can get.

Although the increased area of the DIY movement has made some great improvements in this avenue, it has also created a larger pool of self-reliant, self-promoting artists to feed off of. Who could be better to rip off than overeager people churning out exploitable content on their own dimes? Some of these scams can be rather clever and hard to spot; however, it is possible to protect yourself from all but the worst of them by way of a sprinkle or two of common sense and a healthy dose of skepticism.

Being a type of scam in and of itself, I thought that getting out of the recording industry would place me far enough away from the nastiness. No such luck. Just recently an artist in my guild (the Temporary Artists’ Guild) was approached by World Wide Art Books, a company that charges about $1,000 a page for visual artists to be included in a “juried” volume they publish called International Contemporary Masters. Laughable taste in titles aside, a deeper look into this volume and the organization behind it revealed a predictably unfortunate underbelly.

Although portrayed as an elite collection of juried art, in reality it is an incredibly heavy business card slapped together by folks that have next to no credentials apart from the ones they’ve given themselves. According to some forum posts by the proprietors, this fat volume costs as much as it does to get into because “The books are either sold at cost or sent out free to selected recipients, so nobody makes money from sales.”

I find it important to note that World Wide Art Books is not a registered non-profit organization, and when contacted about this aspect of their business I was given a multitude of cold shoulders. Sweetening the pot, Director Despina Tunberg operates the Omma Centre of Contemporary Art, a vanity gallery of the highest order. Vanity galleries, as they are known, make their money by charging artists for space rather than through the sale of art. Most professionals and experienced artists will tell you to avoid these like the plague for myriad reasons, not the least being the fact that the owners are subsidizing their jobs out to the artists themselves. Imagine a boss who asked you to pay him for the privilege of doing his job. It makes no sense.

As a further curiosity, when Tunberg isn’t vacuuming up money, she likes to curse and fire off frivolous legal threats in the face of criticism: http://www.atelier-rc.com/Atelier.RC/Art_Alarm.html.

And what’s the moral here? Throw the idea that “all scams are illegal” right out the window, and make liberal use of the internet when considering an opportunity. It took all of 10 minutes after first learning about World Wide Art Books to scrounge up the details. The surest sign that you’ll want to steer clear of some Pay-for-Play, Poetry Contest, We’ll Get You Exposure! con is the number of piranhas that start circling after you dip a toe in the water. If something positive is being done for artists, there should be plenty of evidence floating around instead.

It’s a shame that you have to be this careful, because the pairing of art and business is already awkward enough. Sometimes you’re pecked at for small amounts; for the more elaborate rackets, the associated fees are usually more than an active artist will make in six months to a year. As an artist, if you can drop a grand on some wonky exposure game then you’re probably doing well enough to not need it. I do fairly well for myself, and still, the last time I counted my pennies they were on an over-limit credit card.

But, I could go on about this forever. And although I firmly believe that nearly everything that falls into this exposure game category is nothing but a blatant cash-siphoning scheme, it isn’t always going to be like that. And it is definitely worth exploring your options, as there are indeed a great many businesses and individuals out there who legitimately want to help artists and have the skills and experience to make it happen. Just don’t be in a hurry, and use the resources at your disposal to protect yourself.

The list below is by no means comprehensive, but if you ever find yourself confronted with a related situation, it won’t hurt to graze on it a bit:

1. If anyone is asking for money up front for inclusion in something, it is likely a scam—especially if they reach out to you via email. Look for legal terms that guarantee your money back under certain circumstances. Does the organization behind the situation in question operate from a real brick and mortar building? Are they attached in any way to a known, legitimate entity? Are the only good reviews on their own website? Are they asking you to pay an exorbitant amount for a service that merely circulates your work?

2. If you’re looking to promote yourself to anyone of authority (a critic, reviewer, or collector), stay far away from vanity publications, galleries, labels, and so on. Those that are well connected and hold weight in any scene won’t bother with those sorts of things because the only rite of passage to get there is a wad of cash. Anything with a buy-in that promises to expose you to an appropriate authority should be considered especially suspect.

3. If your work is being praised, test them on their experience of it. Back in my later touring days, I had con artists praise my work and refer to me as a band, despite having been obviously a solo act.

4. If something feels like a scam, but you’re not sure, a simple tactic is to ask a contact to explain to you, in person or over the phone, what makes them different from what you have come to learn are cons. Nobody reasonable is going to fault you for being professional.

5. Contracts! Don’t do anything without one, and certainly don’t sign one without reading it.

6. Keep your self-respect intact. The “I don’t want to accidentally screw this up so I’ll just…!” artist is an easy target.

by Johnny Beaver

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2 thoughts on “Artist’s Journal #3: Guarding Against the Dream-Eaters

  1. I had just posted a rather large money order to my contact in Nigeria, where, as it happens, an abdicating royal personage has chosen me to hold and profit from the interest on the royal jewels, which will be sent to me as soon as the money order is received (money to cover “incidentals,” as I understand it) when I came across your article. Thank you for the information! Anyone else reading this article really should click on the embedded link to atelier for a frighteningly large number of other examples of chilling swindles. Coincidentally, when I get my jewels and the profit therefrom I plan to go on tour w/my band, which is also called “Chilling Swindles.” So.

  2. very useful post- particularly #4… this is my favorite test of emails that invite me to use “something on your website that we think would do well.”

    Even auction sites trying to retain me have used this and use an old link or email address that they have and once tried it with a broken url! I asked them “what items? I see nothing when I click this…”
    Another model that can be dangerous are the ones that day “we take NO commission!” but ask the artist to sell tickets to the event otherwise pay for all of the door fees for those tickets themselves (essentially paying for their space rental).

    Younger entrepreneurs are starting galleries/studio venues as well and should also NOT use those emails as models for finding talent! I can say legit galleries have approached me with very vague emails like that and it’s been difficult to get communication clarified. If they are real people and have a real business (not just a FB page or something) they should be able to list credentials in their signature for artists to check. We like to do our homework too!

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