In June 2012 I had a long telephone conversation with Adam Turner, a 24 year old MC from Bognor Regis. Soundcloud. Adam has been writing, making tracks and rapping since he was 14. He has a loyal following, and a confident stage show. In the Spring of 2011 he registered for Chris Grayston’s Live and Unsigned national music competition.
He turned up at the audition with his backing track and a strong hope that his performance would make an impression. He waited four hours in a warm and airless room before being called into what he thought looked like the kind of room your cousin might have a wedding reception in. He didn’t know the name yet, but Chris Grayston was in there, ready to watch and listen. Adam put on his track and started the show. Less than a minute in, and before the track reached the first chorus, the track was switched off. That was it.
Adam waited back in the first room for another hour, and a man with a clipboard came in to tell him he hadn’t got through. Time to go home. He shrugged it off and went back to the family problems he was dealing with at the time. He tells me he wouldn’t have been in a good frame of mind to tackle the competition anyway, so it was probably for the best.
Adam’s step-father was a support for him. a kind of manager in his musical life. They forgot about Live and Unsigned and started scouring the internet for ways of moving things on with management or a label. They had found a name, Ben Price, who had a radio show of some kind. Ben responded and he listened to a track that Adam had made. Ben said he would like to offer a publishing deal. A contract was sent, checked with a solicitor, signed and returned. It seemed positive.
Time went by, nothing much happened. Price told Adam he would have to wait. He wasn’t going to get “overnight success”. Emails went back and forth. Adam asked him about a footer in Price’s emails referring to Live and Unsigned. Price explained that he was sometimes a judge. What Price didn’t tell Adam was that his regular radio show was a once-a-month football phone-in show on High Peak Radio, broadcasting to Glossop and Buxton in Derbyshire or that he was answering email press enquiries on behalf of Live and Unsigned.
At the beginning of 2012 Adam got an unexpected phone call from a woman who asked if he wanted to perform at Live and Unsigned 2012. She emphasised the fact that Sky TV would be coming to film it for television broadcast in the summer. The event, an audition just like the previous one, followed the same pattern. A long wait, stuffy rooms, a minute to perform. Staff seemed disorganised and unsure of what was happening. Adam had to share a stage with three other acts. It was another very short performance. The result was good this time. The man with the clipboard told him he had been chosen for the Regional Final and Chris Grayston himself handed over a big white envelope with 25 tickets, a Live and Unsigned Magazine and a set of instructions. Adam felt happy enough and set off home to read the details. This was more progress.
Actually reading the details dampened Adam’s optimism quite a lot. The performance, at the same Portsmouth venue, would be just one original song and one cover squeezed into 3 and a half minutes. The £8 ticket price came as a surprise. But Adam was in now and he did know he would be able to sell all the tickets. Maybe something good would come of it. He put in the effort and sold 45. He took the cash along to the Regional Final in Portsmouth’s Highlight Club. He also took £40 to ensure his performance was video recorded (there would be an additional competition for artists clocking up YouTube viewing figures) and £20 for a set of professional still photographs. His fans (for their £8 plus travelling costs) did get to see his whole three and half minute set along with all those of the other contestants in his third of the day’s proceedings. After the gig he was told he had been chosen for the Area Final, this time in Portsmouth’s Guild Hall. Again, mixed feelings, but this time there was the excitement of progress to a bigger stage and maybe to a bigger audience with lots of new faces in it. Success in this Area Final would then mean a trip to London and another new and bigger stage with even more people to play to. The now familiar Chris Grayston handed over a second big white envelope.
The tickets this time were £9. Adam and his step-dad set to and sold 70, Adam told me. They persuaded people from all over the country to come. The £40 video made at the Regional Final, although not HD as promised, had been OK and the photographs were fine. So on arrival at the Area final Adam had a total of £790 to hand over in cash, making £1,210 since the start.
It’s worth mentioning at this point in the story that in the dodgy world of “pay-to-play” gigs, artists would usually expect to keep a share of any money they had raised from their fans and supporters above an agreed minimum. Not so with Live and Unsigned. Live and Unsigned want it all. It’s as if they see selling yourself as a vital competence that the competition needs to encourage.
In the parallel but more productive world of diy (self-organised) gigs two or three bands can get together, share costs, hire a sound system and a room and charge friends and family £5 for a whole evening, with money left over after meeting all their costs. Each band or artist need only sell 20 tickets and there would be some out of pocket expenses left for each of them. If the artists were any good at all, they would be asked to do it again and word would go round. If they weren’t so good, well, very little has been lost.
But back in Portsmouth Adam found that at the Area Final the venue staff didn’t seem to know what was happening. A video crew were there early, making a lot of fuss, according to Adam’s account, about three of the artists. The crew were interviewing them, he said, recording their sound checks and following them around the building, ignoring everyone else and shooing away anyone who tried to talk. There was no indication that they were from Sky. After sound checks bands were given their “Wildcard” text numbers.
These Wildcard numbers were to give the unsuccessful Area Final artists a second chance to perform in the London final. Adam hoped he wouldn’t need his. But in the end he did need to ask his followers to give him a chance to get through to the London final. He estimates that there could have been as many as 1,000 texts sent.
As he talked to lots of audience members throughout the whole of the three-show day of the Southern Areas Finals he started to feel that he had sold more tickets than most and felt confident that the audience vote would give him a good chance of getting into the final. His piece of paper from the famous Big White Envelope had promised him, he thought, that the act with the most audience votes would go through to the grand final.
Adam’s supporters were all there ready to shout for him and he was feeling confident. He was scheduled on second to last in his show (the last of the day’s three separate shows) but just before he went on, one of the Live and Unsigned team came into the waiting area and announced that everyone would be asked to come backstage in a second as the judges had made their decision about who was going through to the final. With himself and one other artist still to perform this was unsettling news. The video crew were still giving all their attention to the same three acts as before and Adam felt very uneasy. He went out and gave all he had to his short set. Backstage again the video crew were still focussed on the three acts they had been following all day. And before any real wait, the on-stage announcement declared two of them as the Area Final Winners. And then the third of them, a singer called Mee, was declared to be the Audience Vote choice for a place in the Final.
Adam told me that at this stage there was consternation among the waiting bands and some shouts of “fix!”. He clearly felt that the whole thing had been, in some way, a set-up. Unlike the rival competition “Surface Festival” Live and Unsigned has no easily-found public account of votes cast at each event.
I asked Live and Unsigned via email about the perception that there was something fixed about the competition. My question was:
“I have had a conversation with one entrant who believed that his own band’s wildcard text voting and audience votes in a Regional Final had not been fairly represented in the announced results. How do you keep artists and their supporters informed of progress and results in the various competitive elements of Live and Unsigned? Do you have any independent verification of counts? Could I see copies of result sheets for the various parts of the competition this year?”
“We publish leaderboards throughout the period that the wildcard voting system is in place. The wildcard text voting system is run through WIN Plc which actually took over from the BBC and they are heavily regulated and under tight guidelines which of course we need to adhere too to use their service. We simply take the results from their console. We don’t have allegiance to any of the bands therefore it makes no difference to us who wins the wildcard vote and progresses to the next stage. It’s important to stress the wildcard is optional, not all acts put on a campaign to win the wildcard. There is no pressure put on the acts to do this, it’s their choice. As stated on our website; http://www.liveandunsigned.uk.com/faq”
Clearly they gave no response on how live votes by judges or audience are recorded, verified or published. The faq referred to does clarify one point about audience votes. It says:
“Those acts not in the highest judges’ scores will be eliminated before counting of the audience vote.”
But it doesn’t say how many would be in or out of the running by this criterion. Nor are the judges’ votes published, as far as I can tell. I have a feeling that Adam hadn’t read the faq in the same detail that I did and it’s clear he did not clearly see the implication of what that phrase (acts not in the highest judges’ scores ) could mean – basically it meant that however many text votes his fans paid for, he would not progress if he wasn’t high enough up in the judges’ table of voting, a table that was hard to find.
I also asked about the video crew.
“Is it likely that the team making a video of Live and Unsigned focus on just three acts at a regional final, explicitly excluding other contestants, before the performances and decisions had been made? I was told that this did happen at one Regional Final this year and that the three artists concerned were subsequently named as the very three who went through to the final.”
The answer was:
“See original paragraph [not quoted here] regarding conspiracy theories. It’s quite simply not the case.”
When Adam got home that night he used Google to do so some searching on the background to Live and Unsigned and found some of the critical opinions about it being a “scam”. On the same evening he got an email from Ben Price, the man with his publishing contract. It was an invitation to join Chris Grayston’s music academy, a chance to develop as an artist. Surprisingly, perhaps, he didn’t rule it out immediately. He went to see what Grayston had to say about it. Some cheap or free studio time would be helpful. But by the time he had spoken to Grayston about the “academy”, its vocal coach, its industry insiders and its small charge for studio time and equipment, Adam decided he had had enough. Even after the meeting Ben Price encouraged him to take part in Grayston’s other national competition “Open Mic UK”, a singers’ contest run on very similar lines to Live and Unsigned. Adam said “no thanks … no more pay-to-play”.
The separately listed limited company that had been responsible for Open Mic UK at the time was being wound up under a voluntary creditors liquidation procedure (June 2012).Open Mic UK is still advertising on the web for entrants, with its parent company now given as Future Music Limited, also owned by Grayston.
Adam sums up his conclusion from this jumbled tale in his own way:
“Anyone even thinking of doing Live and Unsigned or Open Mic UK, DON’T DO IT. It ended up costing me hundreds of pounds on travel, ticket selling and performance outfit money. Every single aspect of it is just a money making scheme with no benefit whatsoever.”
As a footnote, I checked on Adam’s sense of injustice over a subsidiary competition – the Facebook picture competition. A free photo-shoot was promised to the one artist in the Area Finals who accumulated the most likes and shares for their Live and Unsigned published photograph. Even though his friends had racked up a winning number by the deadline, but again he was knocked back in favour of someone who had seemed to Adam to have been in the running. What he didn’t realise perhaps is that a lot of his shares had the same name on.
More importantly, perhaps, he was quite well aware that friends of entrants were positively encouraged to vote by text as often as they wanted. Perhaps raising the money for the £10,000 cash prize was more important than consistent voting policy.
Adam and his step Dad are plugging on with their efforts to challenge what Live and Unsigned have been doing. They say they have asked for written details of the procedures and results from the competition’s judging and voting. They also tell me they have sent their worries to BBC’s Watchdog.
Challenged via Twitter to confirm that the “£100,000″ first prize for this year’s winners Coco Butterfield was real money, Live and Unsigned were unable to do so. The best they could offer was
” it’s £10,000 that they get to spend however they like developing their music. Perhaps ask them in a few months if they got any?”
A conversation with a member of a previous winning band indicated that a figure like £10,000 would be Live and Unsigned’s own evaluation of unspecified services provided by them.