Portland boasts a ton of bands. Heck, I'm in one with my girlfriend, Blair. We're called—drum roll please—"The Blair-Rich Project." Not exactly pushing for stardom, our demo is Blair's old solo CD, with a note saying, "Imagine this faster, with drums." But, like plenty of other local small bands, that disc and some friendly banter has been enough to get us a steady run of satisfying shows around town for the last year or so.
Last month, in a fit of half-assed promotional energy, I turned to MySpace, and set up the skeleton of a band account. A day later—before I'd even posted any of our music—a company called BigTime Entertainment (BTE) left a message, seeking to set up shows. Wow! Not 24 hours have gone by, and a booking agent wants to work with us before even knowing who we are or what we sound like.
I was skeptical.
There were more red flags: For starters, BigTime's introductory note suggested we play Loveland. Did BTE mean Rotture, the new club that's been in the old Loveland space since at least September? Or did BTE just send me an outdated form letter?
I responded, but immediately set out to do some online investigating.
BIG TIME RIPOFF?
Salem natives Ryan Kintz and Dan Robertson, both 23, founded BigTime Entertainment in 2004. It boasts a staff of "40+" team members that work in at least 10 "markets" (what most folks call "cities") from Seattle to Phoenix, where BigTime rents clubs by the night. The bands sell the tickets—which BTE's website notes pay for the venue, sound and security staff, and garners 23.4 cents on the dollar to the band. The band selling the most tickets picks their time slot.
The deeper I dug, the more questions I had. Why did BigTime Entertainment's website continually emphasize that BTE is not "pay for play"—despite ticket sales being tied to the order of the show? If this isn't pay to play, what is it? Why is a "Big Time" company booking a church hall? Why haven't I heard of any of the bands BigTime claims to be working with, and why are most of them impossible to contact?
Apparently, the biggest client of BTE was one of two "featured bands," the now-defunct-but-still-featured Faded. Faded had played for over 200 people and its members included BTE's founders, Kintz and Robertson.
It turns out I'm not the only one with plenty of questions—or criticism—about BigTime Entertainment. There's practically a cottage industry of musicians with complaints against BTE.
Portland hiphop performer Echoik—who spoke out against BigTime in a CD Baby forum—is upset that she sold $80 worth of tickets for a BTE show in December '05, but didn't get paid. Rock-blues band Right Left Grand, also from Portland, wrote on their band's blog that BTE was "the least professional, most uncoordinated, and greedy promo outfit" they had ever heard of—the band wasn't let into the venue when they arrived as instructed, and the sound guy didn't know he was the sound guy.
Then there's "BigTime Ripoff," a website sponsored by the Tacoma band Girl Trouble. There, drummer Bon Von Wheelie repeatedly calls BigTime Entertainment a scam. BigTime Ripoff also has its own MySpace page, which allegedly once got a message from BTE, offering a show and complimenting the non-existing music. Wheelie rants about BigTime's model of bands headlining a show based on ticket sales: "There's no pre-set lineup of bands per show. So if a band desperately wants that top spot all they have to do is buy up the tickets themselves."
Even if bands don't buy their way to being headliners, they are pressured from the first email on to sell a quota of tickets to the show, which generally falls on a Sunday or weeknight—not exactly peak days for people going out to catch a live show.
"CONNECTING FANS WITH BANDS"
It was time to check back in with BigTime Entertainment, and get the whole story. The sender of my original MySpace overture was Whitney, the Portland booking director of BigTime Entertainment, who never told me her last name. Whitney's subsequent email requested my phone number, but didn't give hers, and reiterated that BigTime is "*NEVER*"—her caps and stars—pay to play, a term officially meaning that a band pays a promoter for the opportunity to play at a live show, instead of getting paid for their performance. (I may be jaded, but the only other time I've heard someone protest that much was when a houseguest kept telling me he wouldn't steal anything. And then I caught him.)
Whitney repeated BTE's mission, "to connect bands with their fans." Included in the follow-up email was the form that all BTE bands need to fill out, requesting general info, asking if the band sings or talks about "politics, religion, race, or gender discrimination." She also included a note about the quota of $8 tickets I needed to sell to play various local clubs, once again including Loveland. It wasn't until I directly asked about that club that she admitted, "Loveland isn't booking any shows to my knowledge..."
BigTime has a sub-site devoted to praise from clubs and bands they have worked with, along with praise from their own staff, none of whom are listed by full name or even location. Clubs overall seem to like the added income of BigTime shows, and the Hawthorne Theatre praised them to me outright. However, I had a hard time getting a hold of any of the dozens of bands BTE lists as endorsing them in order to confirm the sentiment.
One exception was Off-Centered, from the Seattle suburb of Issaquah. BigTime gave Off-Centered's fans refunds to a show that went "horribly wrong," and the band now has professional live recordings thanks to a BTE show. Bassist Pete Lacher happily told me about making $40 via BTE, after selling 34 tickets at $7 apiece to friends and fans. Yet Lacher's explanation of the selling and payment process matched almost word for word the complaints from older musicians who note the additional $198 might be put to better use. If anything, the pay scale Off-Centered describes was even lower than the way BTE critics described it.
Here's how BigTime Entertainment's promo model works: BigTime sets up a show by renting a venue for the night and emails each band a ticket template that the band copies on cardstock, and hand numbers in blue pen. (Yes, the guidelines are that specific—there's no word on what happens if tickets are on the wrong paper or numbered, say, in red Sharpie.) A band must commit to a show before these templates are even emailed. The band then sells tickets to fans, friends, and family. Lacher, of Off-Centered, explains that if a band sells less than 25 tickets, they make nothing. If they sell 25 to 30 tickets, the band gets 50 cents for each ticket. The scale bumps up to a dollar if 30-40 tickets are sold. Selling 29 tickets—quite a crowd for up-and-comers on a weeknight—would bring in $203 for BTE, but yield less than $15 for the band. Selling 24 tickets would bring in $168 for BTE, but nothing for the band.
Lacher, and his band's vocalist David Osborne, each mentioned that BTE sets up shows with a bill of "similar-sounding" bands. That seems logical—indeed, it's standard practice with most other shows, venues, and booking agents. But other bands' experience with BTE is much different: Bon Von Wheelie's experience in a BTE show included five bands from different genres, each with its own crowd coming and leaving in time for the specific set. Most bands who have played BigTime shows seem to support this; the Royal's Chris Bauer played a BTE show with his former band, the Existential Existentialists, but they were bill-mates with bands they "should not have done a show with at all."
BigTime also listed Stevie Boy of Tacoma's the Grenerds as a supporter. He's not one anymore.
"I didn't realize how badly BigTime was screwing us over," Boy now says. "After about the sixth show of us not receiving a dime we began to see BigTime for what it truly was... a scam."
Thanks to a phone number provided by Von Wheelie, I was able to get in touch with Western Division Coordinator—and BTE founder—Ryan Kintz himself. The "Western" in Kintz's title might imply there's an "Eastern" division, although none exists... yet. Like the drop-down menu full of cities BigTime isn't "currently" working in, this shows that BTE is structured with "growth in mind." Kintz told me a little about his now-defunct band Faded, which is still "featured" only because they haven't updated BTE's website to remove that part, even though I could've sworn I've seen other updates during my research.
While some bands made Kintz out to be a guy difficult to get a word from, he was quick to respond to everything I asked, telling me how excited he was to talk to me, stating that he thought that, "the majority of complaints about what we do are rooted in a lack of information, or blatantly false information."
He elaborated on BigTime's stance against flyers as ineffective marketing tools—instead, BTE encourages bands to give out demo CDs, under the theory that a flyer can't connect people to music, and discussed how BTE "levels the playing field" for bands who wouldn't want to wait the weeks it might take for a venue to respond to show requests.
Throughout a back and forth email conversation, Kintz mostly reiterated BTE's marketing speak, answering many questions by directing me to their site, but asking that I not quote it.
"The content in this site is contextually sensitive and quoting only parts of it may confuse or distort the actual meaning," he explained.
Granted, much of the material on said site, including all the "strategies" for bands and the anti-flyer stance, is based on the work of Tim Sweeney, a music business consultant with no ties to BTE, save that they've come to his seminars. The other content is either repeated rhetoric—BigTime "connecting bands to their fans" phrased in different ways, but not explained any further—or itself a quote out of context, such as a "thank you" from the Mods, which seems as much about stating that "the Mods will no longer be a band" as praising BTE.
Will Bury of the Mods is quoted on BigTime Ripoff, describing the "creepy" BTE rep who rudely asked for ticket money without saying "hello," and who left shortly after the show started—another common complaint among the bands disgruntled with BTE.
When I contacted one of Kintz's "favorite artists to work with"—Downside from Portland—the band told me they'd talk about BigTime only if I came to their jam session. I declined.
COMMERCE FIRST, ART SECOND
So, is BigTime Entertainment a scam, preying on Portland's youngest bands? Or is it a way for new bands to get a foot in the door of local clubs, and learn the ropes of putting together a show?
As vocalist Gabe Bledsoe of Eugene-based Ahimsa Theory told me, "Most of the bands that do BTE shows are very inexperienced, and all the bands generally end up losing money. I'm not sure why we even played the few pay-to-play shows that we did." I should mention that Ahimsa Theory were another "favorite artist to work with."
Indeed, even inexperienced bands can get shows on their own. While I knew Loveland itself was no longer, Bennett Yankey—the booking guy at the new club in that space, Rotture—told me that bands could get shows there by submitting a demo and promo packet, just as it works at most Portland clubs. In other words, a Portland band doesn't need to work with a company like BigTime Entertainment to start playing shows... they just need some patience.
After interviewing Kintz, I got the vibe he's not as greedy as his critics make him out to be. He might honestly think he's helping bands by giving them a shortcut. The only real reason I could see for bands to work with BigTime: getting to play a bigger venue than they otherwise would. Perhaps Off-Centered wouldn't have played Studio 7 in Seattle, one of the venues BTE sometimes uses—with a bigger stage, louder sound, and brighter lights. We live, after all, in a world where stardom is defined by the super-sized exposure of game shows like American Idol (which eerily comes to mind when seeing BTE's silhouetted vocalist logo).
Why spend years honing a craft and developing a following when you can take a shortcut? And what's wrong with a couple guys selling an almost-real-life rock-star experience to some aspiring musicians with a MySpace page?
For bands who are nervous about finding a place to play, Portland hosts an especially thriving basement show scene, as well as many other options with no middlemen and cheaper covers. Many local nonprofits are looking for bands to play fundraisers or volunteer parties. It's not a cakewalk, but putting together your own shows is a great experience.
"Nobody sits around discussing the big shows they played, it's the weird ones that give us character," says Von Wheelie. "Stage craft is something you gotta work up to, it's an art by itself."
"Art is not about the money until someone rips you off," Echoik told me, "and BigTime will do it and expect you to thank them."
For all their defensiveness, BigTime's words always seem to be about money, tickets, sales, and networking. Flyers might be ineffective marketing, but they adorn fans' walls and create art exhibits. Neither "art" nor "craft" is mentioned much by BTE. I sure didn't see much discussion of "fun" or "creativity" in BigTime's world. "Talent" seems beside the point. And "friends" are only mentioned as people who will buy tickets. Working with BTE could very well be harmless, but I'd prefer to connect with my fans through art and creativity.