February/March 2013

by Thomas Goss

Building Blocks: The Gentle Art of B.S. Detection in the Music Business

by Thomas Goss

Building Blocks: The Gentle Art of B.S. Detection in the Music Business

There are some facts of life in this business, and one of the most annoying is that people lie. They lie to each other, they lie to you, and they even lie to themselves. Sometimes it’s a little white lie, designed to cover for someone else’s personal business. But usually, people lie to gain advantage. They want to impress you, or distract you, or get a higher degree of co-operation from you. Or they simply want to rip you off.

Practiced liars operate on a different level of reality from the rest of us. Their self-image needs constant grooming, clipping away at the truth bit by bit until things look just right to them. After 30+ years of being a professional musician, I’ve met so many. The entertainment industry seems to attract them like sandflies.

Some liars are harmless, just pretending to be a little bit bigger deal than they really are. But others can really do you a lot of damage. They can manipulate you, abuse your trust and pull you into their fantasy world. A musician’s social toolkit needs to include a B.S. detector, to help weave a path through all the mendacity out there. Here are some red flags, along with some keys to unlocking the baloney and getting at the truth.

Name-dropping is one of the most obvious forms of show-business lying. “I met so-and-so, he was such a great guy.” It’s also one of the most common, because some people actually have worked with legendary musicians, and are rightly proud of it. Their stories get repeated, with a liar as the guest star. More insecure fans will dream about meeting their biggest hero and then make up a story to tell new friends.

Name-droppers are basically telling you that they are special because they’ve met someone special – not because of anything they’ve actually done. If someone starts name-dropping, try to get them off that subject and ask what they’ve personally accomplished. That will help you establish the truth (though it also might lead to the next topic – anecdotes). Name-dropping is mostly harmless but still, those who really are professional don’t need to name-drop, they’re more interested in getting their music across than talking about other people who are also doing it.

Anecdotes are closely related to name-dropping – but they’re more like ‘situation-dropping’. These liars will tell stories about themselves. 

They’ve travelled the world, performed at important festivals and venues, been signed to a record contract at 16 years old and so on. They’re like a celebrity that no one’s ever heard about. The motives in this case are often harmless as well. But they can also be sinister: the anecdotal liar wants you to believe that they’re a big wheel. You’ll gladly sign their contract, loan them money, do them favours, and be their friend.

When you hear a lot of great stories from someone, always ask yourself, “Why is this person saying this? What do they really want from me?” Experienced professionals are usually reluctant to play up their careers, because its work to them, not something to brag about. The exception is when a pro is giving you advice – and in that case, it’s rare that the pro will make themselves the hero of their own story.

Evasiveness is a common result when you try to pin a liar down. If you ask them when exactly they met Bon Jovi, or when they played Big Day Out, and they get rather vague, then the safest thing to do is to not believe. A real working musician has a programme saved, or a photo taken, or some other actual evidence of what they’ve done – not to show off to you, but for their resumé. If a claim is made, you should be able to verify it.

Of course, you don’t have to become a professional cynic or skeptic, openly challenging everything you hear and being a bore at parties. Sometimes it’s better to just withhold belief in a claim, and let someone you suspect of lying dig their own hole. You don’t need to be the truth police. But if someone like me says, “I worked with Che Fu and Orchestra Wellington in 2008,” you should be able to go online and check the veracity of that statement with a simple websearch. Period.

The ‘word on the street‘ claims that people are talking about something important in a general way, which could be good for your career. It’s mostly used when a manager or publicist wants to reassure a client that he’s done some legwork on their behalf, and things are positive because of his efforts.

“Word on the street is that your EP is going to get snapped up when it’s released.” “People are saying an edgier style is better for bands like yours, and that retro-pop thing is dead.”

It all boils down to manipulation. By using a vague authority, these unnamed ‘people’ on the mythical ‘street’, you can be talked into delaying plans, working with the wrong people and making decisions based on anxiety rather than reason. The word on the street isn’t worth the nonexistent paper it’s printed on.

Dangling promises is generally what liars are attempting with the “word on the street”. Sometimes the truth about the music business can be so discouraging that it’s hard for a manager to be completely honest about the challenges a band faces. But that’s no excuse to pretend anything, like if the band just holds on to their management contract for a little bit longer, then the chance of success is substantially higher. Or that if they invest in an expensive tour, that they’re very likely to be signed by A&R reps who attend certain festivals on the itinerary.

The way through this type of lie is to verify the success rate of the promise dangler. A straight-talking manager won’t lie about things they can’t deliver, and will be frank about the unlikelihood of any attempts.

The lying never ends – something that a musician learns when they go pro. At every step along the way, some people involved in this business are not only incapable of telling the truth, but also try to reshape the system so the actual truth is impossible to determine. Just Google the terms ‘creative accounting‘, ‘payola‘ and ‘record pressing plant overrun’ to read about institutionalised dishonesty in the music industry.

The best thing that a working musician can do is to be an honest person, and try to work with and encourage other honest people. At least that way there will be a little more truth out there.

Before you even get the cost of investing time and money into a proposition that may be dodgy, you’ll see that there’s even a cost to simply accepting what people say, without question. Those costs get higher as the lies get bigger. Eventually, you’ll realise that trust is a kind of investment that rarely pays off when it’s placed in a lie. So be careful, have some healthy skepticism and tell the truth to each other, whether it makes you look good or not.

Thomas Goss is a producer, band coach, and composer/orchestrator with an international clientele that includes Che Fu, The Idea of North, and Canadian jazz superstar Nikki Yanofsky. He is Education Composer-In-Residence for Vector Wellington Orchestra