Vulture Industries: Damian Keyes, Big Joel and Small Music Culture

For both clarity and legal reasons it should be stated upfront that the entities and individuals discussed in this article are not scams or inherently fraudulent. The Damian Keyes Music Business Academy, for one, claims to be “the World’s Number 1 Online Music Academy for Independent Artists, so you’re in safe hands.” I have no proof this isn’t the case, nor do I feel a need to create any. For more, read Resident Sound’s disclaimer page.

Look! A Dollar

1998, The American Way of Death Revisited, author Jessica Mitford’s follow-up to her 1963 exposé on the American funeral industry and written shortly before her own passing, details the abusive practices common within the American funeral industry. A sort of “Consumer Reports of death” as described by author Bess Lovejoy. The American Way of Death Revisited was the first instance in my life of an approachable, open door to American cultural critique. 

“The undertaker, who pockets slightly more than half of the funeral dollar, has generally drawn the spotlight upon himself when the high cost of dying has come under scrutiny. But he is not the whole show. Behind the scenes, waiting for their cue, are the cemeteries, florists, monument makers, vault manufacturers. The casket-manufacturing companies, to whom the undertakers are perennially and heavily in debt, are often lurking in the wings like ambitious understudies waiting to move in and assume control of the funeral establishments should financial disaster strike.

The cast in this drama is not always one big happy family. There are the usual backstage displays of irritation, pique, jealousy, a certain vying and jockeying for position. There are lawsuits and scathing denunciations which arise because of the stiff competition. These can be submerged in the interests of a common endeavor, for the show must go on, and the common goal must be served: that of extracting the maximum admission fee from the paying audience.”

Mitford calls these adjacent businesses “allied industries;” businesses more or less reliant upon each other to extract as much money as possible from their targeted demographic. We see a similar albeit different practice in the music industry. 

The immense world of music is not so united in its efforts. While the “big 3” of the casket making industry, Batesville, Aurora, and York, rely on their allied industries to push profits, the music industry’s big 3, Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group and Sony BMG don’t rely so much on their industrial underlings. These juggernauts of the recorded music world have little to no interest with the well-being of instrument manufacturers, road crews, small or independent efforts, the like, and have most recently disregarded the entire realm of physical media. But the revolving door of talent needs only so many bodies each cycle; With so many rockstar hopefuls left commercially unfulfilled, who is to profit from the array of musicians left over?

Those damn vultures, that’s who. Those who aren’t above taking a musician’s hard earned money can turn to the scrapheap of hopefuls who, in the eyes of snake oil salesmen, are waiting to be exploited. 

Irrelevant to the top of the commercial music food chain, these business entities instead constitute a vulture industry, coming behind and scavenging missed dollars in the pockets of musicians and creators too useless or irrelevant to the larger music industry’s business, all under the guise of helping these musicians become a relative success. 

We may see the hard work that goes into running a business and try to be forgiving, but at the end of the day these practices rival that of snake oil salesmen: hustlers selling the idea of hustling and profiting from the insecurities imposed on their market demographic.

Countless Backs of Sad Losers…

If you haven’t seen them, a quick search of the word “Spotify” on Youtube shows results such as How To Get Onto Spotify Playlists For Free (Andrew Southworth, Apr 24, 2020), THE END OF SPOTIFY: What Next (Damian Keyes, Nov 12, 2020), How To Grow More Spotify Streams! Release Radar & Discover Weekly (Boost Collective, May 23, 2020), and many other clickbait titles. 

These business entities come in many forms, of which Boost Collective’s might be the most direct. Providing the “power of an agency in your hands,” Boost Collective offers a list of services that can be purchased with “Boost Credits” ($39.99 will get you 25 credits) and range from “Spotify Promo” to “Song Improvement.”

Andrew Southworth, on the other hand, is “an independent, very DIY minded, music creator.” A down-to-earth everyman, connected to your mindset, and currently selling a $97 an hour video consultation service.

While courses, services, and consultations are how many of these entities may make their money, they’re actually the up-sell to something much more detrimental. Yes, before you can even think of saying ‘mom’s credit card’ these entities have already sold you on the anxiety inducing mindset of success versus failure. 

A good example of this is music business teacher Damian Keyes’s personal site; a gaudy display of career accreditation and indoctrinating affirmations. It’s good business, if not a bit tasteless.

Everything you need to make a success of your music is right here.”

No guarantees. The ball is in your court, you don’t want to be a failure, right?

“…I wanted to establish a community where musicians can have more access to me & my training.”

Anyone can say they care, but only some of us can create artificial scarcity.

“Building in the music industry isn’t easy, you don’t want to do it alone.”

Edward Bernays would be proud.

The Damian Keyes Music Business Academy is former session musician and music industry guru Damian Keyes’s outlet for his courses in music business strategy. For $24 monthly, or the “pro” plan at $199 yearly, a customer of the DKMBA can have access to various video courses as well as live streams and other perks.

Outside the DKMBA, Damian Keyes offers private consultation. The Mentorship Plan, at a measly $1,495 “every month,” comes with enlightening perks, all described with legally vague terms, such as “accountability and support,” “super priority for music promotion…” and “super priority for working with Damian on YouTube challenge videos.” If paying a little more than the average monthly cost of rent for a single bedroom apartment is concerning to potential customers, they can purchase the Single Consultation Package: a “1 hour Skype consultation with Damian Keyes to discuss your goals, career & strategy” for $495. That must make Southworth’s consultation a steal.

But a different form of vulture-practice, and perhaps more egregious than faux-managerial support, is perfectly exemplified in the overabundance of alleged-scam record labels on sites like Soundcloud and Instagram. Let’s look at Beige Records, as detailed in youtuber and producer Trakk Sounds’ video Fake Music Gurus & Record Labels?! (Beige Records) (Trakk Sounds, Apr 27, 2021).

Beige Records grew in notoriety for its extensive cold outreach to SoundCloud accounts informing users that Beige Records was looking to add new artists to their roster, going as far as offering to sign SoundCloud users who hadn’t uploaded any music. Due in part to this, many have raised concerns over Beige Records’ perceived ‘scam’ practices, from charging €70 music uploading fees to accusations of bot-plays on streaming services.

“What is wild about this, and what’s an obvious, obvious sign it’s a fake playlist [using bots to generate plays] is you get automatic placement. You could probably send them a song of you singing ‘back that ass up’ in the most opera style you could, and without a doubt it’ll get placed on the hip-hop playlist with 25,000+ reach. If a Spotify playlist guarantees you placement, it is 100% false. I couldn’t even find these playlists [on Spotify]. I tried to research to see which ones they were, I couldn’t even figure out which playlists they were because they hide it so much.”

But isn’t Trakk Sounds, in a way, just another vulture of small music culture? Trakk Sounds is undoubtedly selling something. His videos, many about music business and directed at the small music community, earn royalties through Youtube’s paid-partnership program and are a direct ‘sell’ to the small musicians trying to make it (the ‘sell’ being one’s attention to advertisers). [Upon further investigation, Trakk Sounds does link to his Beatstars account, “a digital production marketplace that allows music producers to license, sell, and giveaway free beats.” But nowhere did I see any commercial copy suggesting Trakk Sounds’ production work would free you from working a day job or give you the ‘tools to success.’]

How do we differentiate someone like Trakk Sounds, whose content targets the same demographic and who carries a degree of perceived authority and public sway, from the vultures?

Gates of Steel

It would be hypocritical and perhaps a bit cynical to accuse Trakk Sounds of the crime of vying for your time and attention. We’re all doing it, be it a youtuber, a blogger (such as myself), or the very musicians which this conversation surrounds. Many of us are unsatisfied with our day jobs and would love to work on what we’re passionate about or at least something adjacent to our passions, much like Trakk Sounds, Oliver Kemp, or Anthony Fantano. So when things get difficult, when the money is out of reach, would you not turn to someone who may have the answers?

Enter video essayist and cultural commentator Big Joel. On May 11th, 2019 Big Joel released the video Small Youtube Culture as an exploration and comment on Youtube user Avrona’s floundering attempts at success and negative relations with various Youtube-success forums.

“…these forums were always a very anxious place. By their nature they’re filled with people who don’t want to be there, who want subs and aren’t getting them, and who don’t know what to do.

…I mean, I don’t want to graft my personality flaws onto everybody in this community, I don’t know if they’re all as motivated by external validation and attention as I am, but I have to imagine that a lot of them are, and that can be very painful.”

We see this same thing happening within small music. And seeing a vulnerable demographic, a vulture industry will swoop in to exploit it.

Hobbyists and dedicated artists alike are encouraged to game the algorithm, molded under an intoxicating bombardment of hustle culture aspirationalism and fear of failure by these business entities. It’s an ever revolving cycle that up-sells itself with each rotation. Watch the video, buy the class, sign up for the paid newsletter, ad nauseum with the promise of giving you the tools to succeed. 

So what separates the hustlers and helpers from the gurus and vultures? What is in good faith, and who is there to solely make money? There are some things we can do; For one, gauge if what they’re saying is even true. Do they state a certain dichotomy is definitive, and if so what does it mean to go with either side? Are they completely dismissive of those who disagree with them? Do they talk down those who don’t put money before their craft? Do they support musicians outside of their own image? Does Damian Keyes buy music?

Where small music culture differs from small Youtube culture is in the latter’s disguise of craft. As Big Joel says, “Youtube, as a medium, tends to disguise its nature as art. Vloggers, commentary channels, ‘let’s plays,’ all the most important stuff tends to feel like a guy just pressed record and acted like himself. And sure, you can kinda learn to be like that, take an improv class or learn public speaking. But Jacksepticeye is not good at improv, Markiplier isn’t. They’re just goofy, heartfelt boys with faces you kinda wanna squeeze. Their talent feels unnameable, effortless and organic. And that is a shitty thing for a new creator. Because if you wanna do what these guys do, the name of the game isn’t ‘get better at the craft;’ There is no clear craft to get better at. Instead, you’re left talking about what strikes me as window dressing: Trying to improve your audio, releasing the optimal number of videos, making eye-catching thumbnails and descriptions with good keywords. You’re left running on this treadmill hoping that someday something will maybe take off but all the while the substance of your work remains roughly the same.”

As one of the oldest art forms, there is undoubtedly a craft to music. But under the pressure of vulture industries, what we see happening to the craft of music, with centuries of input in the forms of theory, philosophy, and cultural dialogue, is quickly forgotten for these “window dressing” solutions.

A predatory entity will perpetuate a ‘success vs failure’ dichotomy that induces a fear-based approach to crafting music that can then be manipulated into creating further engagement and sales with the entity’s own brand. Being signed to a ‘label’ that doesn’t actually help you, getting on a playlist with some slick or flashy name, having the right content to post; You’ve been convinced you need these to succeed, but what you consider success was sold to you by those who stand to make a profit off your mindset.

Maggie Nelson said in her book The Art of Cruelty that any dichotomy irrelevant to the next generation is disregarded by that generation. What is success in music- in art? How do we avoid ‘success posturing’ and how do we stick to genuine artistic expression, creation because the work must be created? In our age of virtual space, with our curated identities and multifaceted motivations, is a dichotomy involving authenticity irrelevant? More importantly, how does a dichotomy that gauges success and failure by commercial means become irrelevant?

Perhaps now the question should be ‘how do we differentiate art for art/artist/audience’s sake from art made for capital’s sake?’ Because art made solely in the hopes of making capital (be it financial or social) is about as fulfilling as being a dishwasher, but is dishonorable in its contribution to cheap cultural runoff and general uselessness.

What does our collective culture get out of your work? What do you hope to get out of it? If the answer to the latter is solely money, your choice to make music was the worst business decision you’ve made so far.

It is more than okay to search for help in the arts and in the business side of art, but remember that they cannot sell the success they describe. There are no guarantees, and it is this very uncertainty that vulture industries use to manipulate your buying habits. It’s important to find the desire or joy to create music from outside financial or social capital. Your work may be the only thing you’ll ever get from it, and that is a reward no one else can give you.

Again, from Small Youtube Culture, Big Joel states:

“The joy I got in learning to make better video essays, in improving my writing, in finding out what I really like to talk about, it’s just a lot harder to get that, when it feels like the bulk of your job (the difference between your channel and a successful one) has nothing to do with your art.”

“It can be pleasant to think that Youtube is… Not governed by mysterious forces, rational, coherent, tangible. But, it’s not really like that. It’s not ever really like that. …It helps me now to just try to make whatever I want, because if I didn’t I’d just be confused and worried all the time. …Maybe the algorithm, this odd and metaphysical feeling thing, is kinda cursed. Maybe we all have a lemon tree growing in our backyard and sometimes it blooms and sometimes it doesn’t and nobody knows why. And maybe anyone telling you otherwise is trying to sell something, to you or to themself.”

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