Threatin: Fake News, Fake Fans, Fake Reality
Two stories that have been in my conversations as of late are that of the feature article in MetalSucks "L.A. Band Threatin Faked a Fanbase To Land a European Tour No One Attended,"and Bobby Owsinski’s article "Artists Gaining Fake Spotify Plays From Unexpected Source."Two stories about less than honest approaches to trying to obtain success in music.
For those that are not aware of these stories, according to the media front man of Threatin, Jared Eames (AKA Jared Threatin), invented his own record label, management company, and PR company, paid for fake followers, and then sold the hoax to venues in Europe in order to book a tour of Europe. In was meant to be the start of a world tour. The result was playing to empty rooms and ultimately venues notifying the media after catching onto the hoax. Since the story broke, more details have ensued including hired band members quitting the band, complaints from venues being overstaffed on the nights of the concerts, and general concern of Jared's dishonest actions. But it came at a cost beyond public embarrassment. Jared took a hit financially as according to testimonies including those of club owners and band members, Jared paid in full, and upfront, the cost of renting the venues, flights, etc... Most recently, and despite the negative press, Gavin Carney who played bass on the infamous tour has publicly thanked Jared and his wife for the opportunity to "...see the part of the world I would never normally have been able to see. And I didn't have to pay for it at all."
Bobby Owsinski's article on Hypebot tells a similar story yet one that this time involves the fans of an artist that were willing to do anything to see their idols rise to the top.
"Apparently the fans of the K-Pop band BTS were determined to make a recent release go to number 1, and some even employed a widespread strategy to pull it off.
Here’s what they did. Fans in the US created accounts on various music streaming services in order to play BTS’s music and then distributed the account logins to fans in other countries via Twitter, email, or Slack. The superfans then streamed BTS’s music continuously, sometimes even using multiple devices at once. Many of the fans went as far as to use a virtual private network (VPN), which reroutes a user’s traffic through several different servers across the world, in order to fake their locations.
One BTS fan group even said it distributed more than 1,000 Spotify logins to make it appear as though more people in the US were streaming BTS music in order to increase the Spotify chart position, which in turn would also influence Billboard’s charts as well."
Bobby’s article of hacking the system might be relevent in today's streaming world, but it isn't anything new, it follows in line with countless stories of fans banding together to call radio stations to request their favourite artist’s single and move it into rotation. I’ve seen this work first hand with indie bands and major acts alike. Where there is a will, there is a way. And there is always a way to organize the action into a strategy. Not everyone plays by the rules, especially if there is an “easier” way to win. It appears to be human nature to try and beat the system.
The media is full of negative commentaries regarding the Threatin story and to a degree rightly so, but to be fair, hasn’t variations of “hype” been going on since the beginning of the music industry? Not to mention PR stunts. Had Threatin played to clubs at least partially full of fans to see him, it would have been a success, and no one would have been the wiser for it. We simply would not have heard about it, and it would just be another industry story known to a small group of friends.
Inflated stories and skewed realities are the ingredients to the legends of rock n' roll. According to Wikipedia, Rick Rubin’s early band The Pricks "…biggest claim to fame, was being thrown off the stage at CBGB after two songs for brawling with the heckling audience. These hecklers were friends of the band instructed to instigate a confrontation so as to get the show shut down and create a buzz. Somewhat anecdotally, this story was confirmed in an interview with music journalist Zane Lowe. Although he had no authority in New York City, Rubin's father traveled from Nassau County, New York, to Manhattan wearing his Long Beach auxiliary police uniform as he attempted to "shut down" the show..."That's a great story but how about removing 5000 seats from a 10,000 seat venue in Miami for an Elvis show in order to say it was sold out when in fact only 5000 tickets had sold. Nothing like a perfect career of sold out shows. Or record labels purchasing their artist's albums to create platinum sales and chart toppers. What about the queen of social media, Taylor Swift, who started fan accounts in the early days on MySpace to build buzz? How about RCA's infamous pump and dump of shares in the late 1920's. It is certainly not limited to the music industry. "Emissiongate" or "Dieselgate" comes to mind. Volkswagen almost got away with their reportedly low emissions tests, an appealing reason for many to buy the cars, then the truth came out that, according to the BBC, they had "...designed a system to switch on emissions controls when the cars were being tested, and turn them off during normal driving..." But people clearly don't seem to mind as even after the scandal, last year Volkswagen broke record sales. A personal favourite is the story of a number of Fortune 500 companies buying 100k worth of an author's book in order to turn it into a New YorkTimes bestseller in exchange for the author taking them on as a client... Major companies and politicians use media to manipulate our perception of the world we live in and to steer us into taking the actions they want. It's called social engineering. We live surrounded by hype and, for the most part, accept it as reality.
This "improved" version of reality gets applied to every part of our lives. We can all be guilty of contributing to it. Often our lives appear better online. With cell phones that can take high-res photos, with colour-enhancing filters and with time to select the perfect shot from a large amount of digitally taken photos, people get to see only what we want to share with them. What is shared can be an enhanced reality. We pick and choose small slices of our lives to share with our networks. Wanting to show the positive moments, the best hair days, the most incredible meals, the most fabulous views, and happiest smiles. But seeing only the augmented version of people’s lives, the most celebrated takes, can be very misleading. And wanting to live up to others’ “enhanced reality” is tough.
The story of Threatin seems like someone who got caught red-handed and was exposed to the public. Perhaps what is unusual is that he was caught as more people get away with their "hype." To a degree and from a certain point of view you could say Threatinis a victim of the system.
I don’t know a band that didn’t build up their hype in order to land the opportunity that then justified the hype. Fake it till you make it if you can deliver the goods! Threatin went too far or perhaps he didn’t go far enough...
If he had wanted to pull it off Jared should have done a better job hiring opening acts that had a draw. Done right it isn’t uncommon for local acts to bring out bigger crowds than the headliner. At the club level, touring bands popularity differs on the tour market they are in, especially when they are attempting to break into a new market. So choosing show openers based on their ability to bring out a local crowd is reasonably common. It wouldn’t surprise me if the openers for Threatinsaid they would bring out more people than they thought they actually would, hyping their own impact. A chain of hype.
If we want to get really creative with our thinking, Jared Threatin could have gone a step further and turned around and sold the European dates to sponsors, taken the money, purchased enough tickets to show real sales, incentivized the audience with free tickets, offered door prizes or even outright paid for people to attend on the condition that they act like crazy fans, "we're filming a live DVD tonight so go nuts..."He could have filmed the shows from the audience, uploaded the videos from “fan accounts” and then spun the “successful” tour back to the press, engaged real agents, labels, and managers to secure real deals. It goes without saying that at some point it could all come crashing down as it started with “fake” fans. However, it takes a certain amount of likes/views/shares for people to be motivated to share something they have found. And we already know that gatekeepers are looking at the numbers. Among others, respected music and tech executive Jay Frank has talked about these magical numbers for years. People simply don’t share a video that only has a handful of views. "Buying" fake fans has been going on for a long time. And many times the fake fans lead to real fans. For better or worse, in Threatin's case, "fake" fans lead to "real" tour dates.
What gets to me is that online numbers have become so important. Sometimes with good reason and other times to a detriment. The interpretation of Big Data is often used to craft content specifically created to fit what appears to be the public’s most significant interests. The data drives the content. To that point, I am aware that writing a blog about Threatin while he is trending gives me a good chance to increase my average views. So do you write about what you want and hope people read it or do you write what you think will get the most readers? And at what point does Big Data that shows us numbers from the past create the culture of the future? It used to be that the arts created culture, and musicians contributed their voices to speak the truths and pains of society. Now we are looking at data as the inspiration to what we create.
If you want a grant, then make sure your social media numbers are up! Everybody wants to see numbers and stats that impress. Comedy clubs bring in comedians that have more social followers than talent over a talented comedian with fewer followers... the idea of online numbers equal potential real-world ticket sales. The club audience can tell the difference between talent and crap and the bulk of online followers often can't make it out to the show in person. Something is out of whack.
When I think back to being in bands in my early days, I can vividly remember the excitement of booking and playing gigs. Especially those far from home. The dream was always to tour internationally. Of course to perform to crowds of adoring fans, but ultimately to "be on tour." If you had told me I could make an international tour happen faster by hyping the band by whatever means necessary, I’m not sure I know anyone who wouldn’t have taken the opportunity. At the time we would probably have thought "if we just get on stage we’ll blow anyone away that shows up and turn them into fans." We would have thought the clubs would already have their "regular" audience built-in. I don’t know if we would have thought about the negative consequences. If it meant we would hit the road I’m pretty sure we would have done it. In fact to a degree a band I was in did... Our second gig ever was 14 hours away from home headlining a venue with a 1000 person capacity. We hyped ourselves up to the venue, and they bought into it. And although we rocked out like it was packed, less than 50 people showed up. We were lucky that the opening act brought out fans and there was a snowstorm which lowered the expectations for turn out. After securing the gig at the big venue, we were able to turn it into more concerts at smaller venues in neighbouring towns. And like that, we got our first small tour. Most importantly for us, we got a taste of the road and a band bonding trip.
I remember lining up in the rain one evening in Spain to meet a childhood idol backstage of a live event and thinking, "I don't want to just come across as a fan, I want to make something more of this."So when it came to my turn, I said: "I'm a promoter from Canada." It was the best I could come up with. My idol turned to me and said: "I've been looking for a promoter in Canada, somebody I can trust." I could hardly believe my eyes when he went to his guitar case and brought out a bunch of papers with contacts on. He said, "these are Canadian promoters and festivals that want to bring me out." You can't make this stuff up. I faked it until I made it, but I was 110% all in. I was committed to securing dates for the band and making it happen. The cart came before the horse. The result was I set up a tour and was introduced to many artists and industry folk along the way. That moment of self-hype got my foot in the door.
The music industry is riddled with people trying to find the shortcuts. It's an industry built on dreams. And the truth is you can't sprint if you want to win a marathon. A career in music is a marathon, and that is how it should be. I have seen and heard of countless musicians that pay money they don’t have to a person who tells them they will make them a star. It’s the mentality of the musician who doesn’t see their own hard work as the way to reach the top. There is this idea that somebody else will make it happen for them. "Build it, and they will come" mentality. The classic rock n' roll dream that one day an artist will just be handed a contract from the side of the stage and suddenly become a rockstar overnight. I guess a quick fix appeals more than hard, honest work.
I'll be curious to see where this leads.