Every year around January it starts. My inbox slowly gets filled by artists who have reached the live rounds of the UK Live & Unsigned contest and would like help promoting themselves before the show. What’s the UK Live & Unsigned contest I hear you ask? Well, it’s a national battle of the bands that has been running since 2007 and I’m going to look at it in this article. There are of course other similar contests and a lot of what is said here could be transferred to them, however L&U is the main one in my area so I’ll roll with it.
The format is simple, you pay a small fee to enter and you go to an audition. If you get through the audition you get to the live rounds, where you have to impress a panel of judges and collect votes in order to advance through the competition. If you do well enough you can advance to the Grand final at the Indig02, perform in front of some industry judges and potentially win some nice prizes.
Here is their current (2012) promo video, featuring footage from the 2011 final, an endorsement from Kerrang’s Alex Baker and a few of the basic details of the contest.
It all sounds good, one could easily believe that it’s a gilded path to instant fame and riches. However, as with many things the truth is slightly more complex. So this article is going to try and shed some light on the competition for those of you that are thinking about entering. I’m not going to tell you what to do, it’s your career. However the more clued up you are in this industry, the better choices you can make. Here are some things to take into account and ponder over before you jump in:
“You are the winner!”
Firstly, let’s deal with what you can expect if you happen to win. At the time of writing, no L&U winner has come close to becoming a household name. Look them up if you want, some do seem to be forging a small amount of success but nothing that a good act couldn’t get on their own. I don’t say that in a derogatory manner, the competition doesn’t promise the earth, but I would not enter this at the expense of all other ventures. This may help you on your way to global domination, but unlike X-Factor (which is much bigger) it will probably not be the chariot that takes you all the way to the top of the charts. What you can expect from doing well is that it will put you in front of a few extra people, maybe get you some nice equipment and help you meet some contacts.
The website states that it has a prize pool of £100,000 worth of prizes. Some of these look cool, others may be neglibile such as “extensive coverage on Youtube”. You know, that site where anyone is free to upload anything except porn whenever they like? I’m being petty, £10,000 to develop your act may not guarantee a hit but it’s certainly not to be sniffed at, whatever T&Cs may apply to it. Some of the live shows on offer could be quite cool too. But the basic point I’m making is that this competition probably isn’t a reason to quit the job or drop out of college just yet!
When I researched this piece the most contentious point among people who entered was the fact that you are encouraged to sell a lot of tickets for the live rounds. This year you will be given 25 tickets at £8 each and while you don’t HAVE to sell them, you will be expected to. This is nothing unique to L&U, to an extent every promoter relies on the artists to sell tickets in some way. Personally, I don’t force artists to sell tickets to my shows when I put them on because I believe that that is the promoter’s job. But I do encourage them to spread the word about the show and I do notice when nobody turns up to see them in/around their home town.
So if you do sign up to this and you want to do well then make sure you have an army ready to assemble at your command. However, be aware that your army may get tired of paying £8 to see you play two songs.
Yes, two songs. An original and a cover. Once again, if you’re cool with this then go for it. But I will state now that if you are a decent artist and you are able to sell 25 tickets at £8 then think about this. Consider finding three other acts of a similar genre and popularity and try putting on your own show. It may be tough work and the show will be smaller. However you will be playing a full set to an audience that probably likes your style of music and will give you a fair chance. Compare this to L&U where (from my experience as a spectator) most of the crowd is only really there to see their friend or family member and won’t show too much interest in anyone else.
Also, if all 4 bands sell 25 £8 tickets (although it should probably be cheaper) then you will have a £800 cake to take a fair slice out of. There’s no reason you can’t do this and compete in L&U, but compare the two experiences and I reckon you will find my suggestion far more fulfilling.
“Being part of something this big will give you a news worthy story that the media will really want to hear!” The L&U website proudly declares, and it’s true. This was how I found out about L&U as a local radio DJ in 2008, when I had a few local artists on to the station to plug their upcoming L&U show. As a contestent in L&U you are expected to get coverage in the press to plug the show and get people to come along. This can be beneficial to the artist as it puts them in front of a wider local audience and can introduce them to some useful contacts in their local media. The experiences from that alone can be fun. However some artists tend to view this as free advertising for L&U, who will benefit from your hard work.
An argument I can sort of understand, it’s supposed to be a talent contest not a PR drive. But at the same time I think you should try and contact your local media if you have a show in the area and the L&U people have a point. If you have a good story then people are more likely to be interested, this is what drives most acts to get in contact with the local press.
But what always surprises me is how many artists will contact me asking about coming on the show because they are involved with L&U, but not at any other time. Are you really doing nothing for the other 11 months of the year? If I’m honest, an artist getting through to the finals of L&U doesn’t interest me that much any more. I hear it all the time and to someone who knows the history/standard of the contest it isn’t particularly exciting. Personally, I’m much more interested in a really good gig, a single launch party, a tour or an album release. Contact radio stations when you have one of those too and see if you can get anywhere. If you’re unsure of how to do this then check out our article on How To Get Your Music On The Radio. Obviously, you can apply this knowledge to your L&U quest too if you like. The point I’m making is that you should be employing these skills for every big thing you do, not just when someone in a competition tells you to.
The Live Shows
The video above only shows the live final of L&U, it looks pretty good and it has some well known judges involved. But the earlier live rounds are (from my experience) still reasonably impressive. The venues are quite nice, the stages are fancy and while I wouldn’t call the judges prestigious, they are still decent enough contacts to have in the local area. A lot of the artist’s said that the live show was quite fun and let’s face it, it’s what the whole thing is based around! Although a point I would bring up is that maybe if they spent less on the venues & stages, maybe they could spend that money on promoting the winners.
As a punter, my main problem was that for every really good act there tended to be another two or three that were there to make up the (ticket) numbers. For £7+, I’d rather see 5 exceptional longer performances instead of 10 mediocre short ones and another few that had the potential to be great. But at L&U that is what you will be part of. If you think you can shine in one song and are willing to put the work in for it then cool. If you’re an act that takes a little bit of time to get in to then you may not be in your best environment when you only have a couple of minutes to impress the judges and a potentially tricky crowd.
Speaking of the crowd, this was what I found weird about the live shows that I attended. Most of the crowd were only there to see one act and they showed only polite applause when other acts were on. You were playing to an audience, but it was mostly biased against you. The ones who had bought a lot of people were heavily at an advantage and this makes sense. But I saw one of the best female solo artists I have ever heard at one of the shows. She hardly bought anyone and she didn’t get through, yet some very average ones that had bought a ton of friends & family did. I have no idea where the average ones are now. However, the girl I liked has joined a band, recently supported Mumford & Sons, had excellent reviews in many major publications and toured the US, twice. Now you would hope that a talent contest would pick up on that sort of ability, it didn’t. Mainly because she didn’t bring a big crowd with her.
How an artist progresses from one round to the next was never quite made clear to me as an audience member, or to some of the artists entering the competition. The first show I went to our tickets all had a space for us to write our votes on, so did the second show but we were supposed to text vote at that one. Needless to say, we could vote as many times as we liked at £1. But the judges also decided. Are you confused? Because I was. I had no clue how or why some artists had got through and some hadn’t. I think it was an odd amalgamation of how many tickets were sold, how many votes were cast, what the judges thought, how much press the artists accumulated and maybe some other variables. One person I spoke to said he felt like he was ripping his fans off by getting them to come to the show, then getting them to text vote in and then to find out that it might not make much of a difference if the judges didn’t like him. As someone who was at that show, I understood exactly how he felt.
It’s a bit different now. There are no text votes until the grand final, or the “wildcard” entrant (look it up…) and in the earlier rounds votes are only counted if the artist is in the judges top scores. The judges scores are probably affected by the volume of your crowd, so bring a crowd that will make a noise for you and thus they will help your voting too. So in short, bring a lot of people if you want to do well.
As I’ve said, this piece isn’t about telling you what to do. I’m just raising some of the common issues and addressing them as fairly as I can, both to you and L&U. On their website they do state that “You are expected to make the most of this by working hard to: get press and publicity to support your participation in the competition, galvanise fans and friends to support you, practice hard and take onboard feedback were applicable.” That’s cool, but if you’re serious about making it in music you should be doing this anyway. You shouldn’t need a competition FAQ to tell you, by that logic you may not need a competition to help you make it anyway. But at least they’re upfront about it.
Ultimately the decision on these sorts of competitions is yours. Getting good gigs can be tough and one of the main draws of these contests is the opportunity to play some larger venues, no matter how short the set. However don’t be fooled into thinking that this is the only way you’ll ever get to play these sorts of venues. Hard work, originality and smart planning can be incredibly powerful tools if you use them right. Keep an eye on MusicBud over the coming weeks as I’m putting together a few pieces on how to get gigs AND make the most out of them.
To finish I’d like to leave you with the thoughts and opinions of some people who took part in the competition between 2007 and 2011. Every one probably has a context, so read as little or as much into these as you like. They are not definitive accounts of the competition, just the recollections of individuals who want to share their experience to help you decide what’s right for you.
When writing this article I had over 5000 words sent to me about people’s experiences with Live & Unsigned, both good and bad. Needless to say, I don’t have space to fit them all in here and I don’t want it to seem like I am cherry picking by only selecting a few. But I appreciate the time that they took to write to me and a lot of it may still be helpful if you are thinking about entering. So for people who are interested, I have posted up all of the responses here.
Lastly, I want to reiterate that this article was only focussing on Live & Unsigned as it is the main one in my area. I didn’t want to comment on similar competitions (Surface Unsigned, Open Mic UK etc.) as I would only be going on a few secondary accounts. But a lot of the issues raised here may apply to them and should give you food for thought if you do want to enter them.
Best of luck if you are entering Live & Unsigned, best of luck with your career if you’re not. If you’ve entered any of these competitions in the past then feel free to write your experiences in the comments box below.