THE STRANGE SAGA OF PROJECT INDEPENDENT
A 10 Year History of a Pay-To-Play Company
Selling Tix - P2P - Documentary - Critique - BOTB
PIAA - Webcast 2013 & 2014 - DVD - PI Touch
Merger - WoodBangers - Spokesmodel - Products - Changes
NOVEMBER 2014 UPDATE: AND THE WHEELS COME OFF THE CART! (What happened just after this report was posted!)
JANUARY, 2015 Project Independent is back asThe North American Independent Rock Music Association - NAIRMA
(New name, same old routine)
WATCHING PROJECT INDEPENDENT
Where do you start with a company like this? For years people have asked me why Project Independent has never been mentioned on this website. It would certainly qualify. The simple answer is that it has changed so often over the years, it’s just about impossible to keep track of the details. It’s been a confusing roller coaster of a ride, even to the hundreds/thousands of musicians who have actually played it. But one thing that never changed was the fact that every band needed money up front to participate. That was pretty much the only constant. That, and the caustic/unprofessional tone of Jeff Totten, the owner of PI, who has spent a lot of time fighting with anyone who would dare to criticize his company. But recently even bigger changes have hit PI and in 2015 everything will again change drastically and hopefully this time for the better.
After all my years of researching Project Independent, I still feel compelled to tell this complicated story, now as more of a history of what was and what could be. Even though the owner wrote me a rather threatening email before he (spoiler alert) signed over the company to another organization, I think the details are interesting and relevant (especially in some of the claims they are still making). Because I’ve gathered about 300 screen shots (see fair use) from social media sites over the years, I still believe this story it’s worth sharing. I’ll use some of them to illustrate what I’m talking about. I will try to keep them as generic as possible. One warning: If lots of cursing offends you, it's best to stop reading at this point.
|10 YEARS OF PAY-TO-PLAY
Project Independent was started in 2003 by Jeff Totten and a group of associates listed on the PI website. It is a national tour/battle for heavy metal bands (which earlier was said to have had a European division but this will concentrate on the U.S.). This “program” (it was stressed that this wasn’t a normal showcase or - “Heaven forbid” - a battle of the bands, but a program) has been operating for 10 years. Among the prizes (manufactured CDs, custom T-shirts, etc), every year they’ve offered one winner a 60 day tour which typically hits about 45-50 cities with an estimated 350 bands participating.
Owner Totten went on tour with the winner (headlining/featured band) from the previous years PI voting rounds. All the local bands were then required to pay between $300-$500 to play when the tour came to their town. Participating bands had the chance to get a critique from Jeff Totten, learn about the “industry”, get a DVD of the performance, appear on a documentary or appear on a webcast - depending on what year it was. Project Independent brought a small camera crew and sometimes a host (metal spokesmodel Metal Sanaz and in 2013 Horns-Up Rocks' Jo Schuftan) to interview the bands for the DVD/documentary/webcast. Each year after the tour was over, selected bands (those that got enough points from their critique) began a beg-fest for votes (some years it was two months, others one month) to win the opportunity to be the next PI featured artist and go on the next Project Independent tour. The 60 day tour was the grand prize that all the bands battled for.
Different years had different prices. The 2013 Project Independent Tour cost each band $350.
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|FINDING THE BANDS TO SELL THE TICKETS
Just like other P2P companies, Project Independent would find 8 or 9 bands to play their shows by posting big invitations on the bands’ facebook page. Several bands complained about a P2P company posting random “opportunities” on their FB band page, which resulted in some major verbal misunderstandings with the company owner. The show was filled when PI could find enough bands to pay the fee. Performing bands were required send Project Independent a deposit of half before the tour and the remainder on show day.
PI would send each band tickets to sell to recoup their losses. These tickets were actually advertised as a great way for your band to make money, that is providing you weren’t a lazy good for nothing who couldn’t move them (see "lazy bands" comments). However, this style of tour actually works against sales, since the tickets are more expensive than normal and it is difficult to promote a show with a “national” act (PI winner/headliner) most people have never heard of. It was always the popularity of the local bands or the fact they might win a huge life-changing opportunity that was the incesntive to buy tickets.
This year (2014) the shows are costing each local band $350 (a $175 deposit must be sent before the tour leaves). Instead of tickets, it’s now VIP passes...which bands are selling like the tickets so I’m not sure what the difference is there but they made a big announcement about it. The 2014 Project Independent Tours goes from August 29th to November 2nd.
BUT IS IT PAY-TO-PLAY?
It appeared that having the bands pay up front was the only way Project Independent could subsidize this tour. Unlike a normal band touring on the road (where they actually get the club to pay them because of their name recognition and popularity) PI often needed to rent the club. This forced them to get the money from the local bands. Three hundred fifty bands paying their $175 deposit meant that PI should have managed to start out with a budget of $61,250 before they left the driveway, with the other $61,250 collected along the way. Over the years it was interesting to see the arguement about how this wasn’t pay-to-play. They spun it every way they could until finally in 2013 they just admitted it.
It's not pay-to-play, it's presale...
No wait, it's "promote-to-play"...
IT WASN'T A BATTLE OF THE BANDS / IT WAS A BATTLE OF THE BANDS.
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|EARLY INCENTIVES IN PLAYING THE PROJECT INDEPENDENT TOUR
LIVING LOUD, THE AMERICAN METAL UNDERGROUND EXPOSED DOCUMENTARY (2011-2012)
In the ever changing world of Project Independent, there were several ideas that have since been changed or abandoned. In 2011 there was filming for "Living Loud, The American Metal Underground Exposed", which was the documentary of that year’s tour. For an unknown reason many bands actually thought this would be filmed for a FOX reality show for the summer of 2012! During their ticket sales pitch, they would urge people to participate just to get themselves on television. The fact that there were fliers posted at PI events mentioning being filmed for “possible inclusion in future television programs” might have aided in confusing people. Despite this misunderstanding by many bands, there was no reality show. A documentary DVD was released but of course, not all 350 bands could be featured in a 90 minute film.
THERE ARE 60 EPISODES TO CHOOSE FROM
SEATTLE, WA - DAY 13 - I love when these pay-to-play companies invoke the names of grunge bands. You realize that they never would have paid $350 to play this, right? In fact, they probably would have laughed you out of town. I know this personally.
SALINA, KANSAS - DAY 20 - In Wichita, the bands complained so much about the pay-to-play requirment, that the show got moved to Salina, KS.
CRITIQUE BY JEFF TOTTEN AND SCORE CARDS
For many of previous tours, PI went for a more of an educational tone. Participating in the Project Independent show was an all-day workout. Bands were expected to show up to the club early for a 90 minute tutoring session given by instructor Jeff Totten. In this educational session bands learned about the history of Project Independent and how the voting process worked. There was also a session on “the industry” and how you probably aren’t in it, but could be if you followed his advice. Some bands didn't appreciate the help.
After class it was finally time for the show and critiquing the eight/nine bands. Immediately after getting off stage, bands would stand in front of Jeff Totten and some other guy...oops, industry professional, for their critique. Bands receiving 25 points or more would be eligible to participate during the on-line vote getting portion of the contest for the assorted prizes and the grand prize 60 day tour (including $5,000, which is actually what is referred to as a per diem).
A BAND GETS A CRITIQUE HERE
AND ANOTHER HERE
AND ANOTHER HERE
One band was not impressed with their critique...
This is just me, but the absolute last thing I need when I’m done playing a show is to stand up in front of a table like I’m at the principal’s office and get critiqued by supposed industry bigshots. This is one of the features that was eventually abandoned. In 2013 there was a phone critique after the tour finished and before the on-line voting began.
A band posted the score sheet where they received 28 points. They were "fun" and the bass player was "entertaining as hell" but needed straplocks.
Another band not too thrilled with the critique process.
ON-LINE BATTLE FOR THE 60 DAY TOUR
It was advertised that this wasn’t a battle of the bands but that seemed strange when all the bands were competing to win a 60 day tour. All the bands who made it through the critique session went on to the next stage of the contest, on-line voting. Each band had to go through the on-line voting beg-a-thon, by bugging the crap out of their family, fans and social media contacts. I have to admit that it was hilarious to see all these “masters of darkness” begging for votes like high school girls trying to make the cheer leading squad. But many bands were convinced that winning this contest would change their lives forever, so they’d do just about anything to achieve that. Depending on the year, the vote was either two rounds or in later years started on December 1st and continued until the 31st - so you could include a vote message along with your holiday greetings. The winner was determined by a combination of on-line votes, their score from the tour and a panel of industry professionals. This entire process made for confusion and many accusations on the fairness of the contest which was handled what I’ll call “the Project Independent style”.
Then during the 2013 Project Independent tour, it was decided that winning the 60 day tour would be changed. Now, instead of one band winning the entire tour, several bands would win regional tours and become part of a new organization called the Project Independent Artist Alliance (PIAA) which was no longer just for metal bands but would include "hard rock". This seemed to cause more confusion since some of the bands yet to do their show, still assumed they were still trying to win the 60 day tour.
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The Project Independent Artist Alliance was implemented at the end of 2013 and was advertised as a way that more bands could benefit from their association with Project Independent and form a stronger national metal/hard rock alliance between bands. After the voting and industry evalutation was done, not just one band but about 40 from different regions would be selected for inclusion into this exclusive group. They would then go on to win the opportunity to be the regional headliner for several shows in their area during the Project Independent Tour. The PIAA is also a more like a fraternal organization (with closed access) so exactly how the benefits work out is not shared publicly.
THE PROJECT INDEPENDENT WEBCAST
In the last few years, all the Project Independent shows have been streamed live over the internet. It is free to watch on the Project Independent website. The first year they claimed that 80,000 viewers were watching this webcast. In 2013 they claimed it was a 400,000 average. In fact, the numbers seem to get more incredible/unbelievable all the time. At the end of 2013 they claimed that 2.2 million (yes, that’s million!) people had watched these Project Independent live-stream shows. In the post (below, left) they also stated this: "The entire entertainment industry has contacted us in the past week to inquire about our technology." The entire entertainment industry? And one of the believers thinks that music industry execs use this webcast to scout talent.
In 2014, Project Independent claimed their 2013 webcast reached 2.2 million unique viewers.
Many bands never question these statistics. They automatically believe that they are actually being watched by 400,000 people. I’ll agree that it does make your performance seem a lot more exciting. Even though a band might only be playing to 40 in the club, when they factor in those 400,000 extra viewers, the show takes on a more important aspect. It makes the high cost of playing seem worth it.
There are still some who are trying to be the voice of reason.
MY OPINION ABOUT THE 400,000 ON-LINE VIEWS
I hate to admit it but I’m a skeptical person by nature. These posted web streaming statistics seem impossible. Logic and common sense prevent me from believing these astronomical numbers. I was skeptical when it was 80,000, but now at 400,000 I’m totally not buying it.
In addition to my skepticism, I’m also on the compulsive side. That’s why for the 2013 Project Independent Tour I watched about 95% of the live webcasts. I made screen shots of each show I watched. It was a daunting task but I always feel that if I’m going to write on this website, I want to make sure that my opinions are based in research. The opinions below are based on what I personally watched. I want to say that I never joined these conversations. I only observed. And as an observer I want to acknowledge that the bright spot in these webcasts was the 2013 PI host, Jo Schuftan of Horns-Up Rocks, who was hired to introduce and interview all the bands. He seemed to be genuinely sincere and likeable. The first accounts of his experience can be found here (PART ONE, PART TWO)...I wish he'd written more.
I also want to mention that I was contacted by Jeff Totten who gave me the stats for each show from PI’s streaming company. Yes, the numbers were huge, but unfortunately I can’t take a bunch of random numbers in a pdf as any kind of concrete proof that up to 600,000 people watched certain webcasts. I'm not that gullible.
* The live-chat itself. With real streaming videos when a “live chat” was featured, the chat-bar is so clogged with comments you can hardly read them. They would go by like numbers on a gas pump. The Project Independent streaming video’s live-chat seem to indicate that very few people were actually watching and many days it was the same people. Lots of times it was relatives who wanted to see their family member’s band. They could even have conversations with each other!
I also personally thought it was unfortunate that some bands would have paid to be included in the live-stream only to have the people on the live-chat criticize them.
* Social website numbers do not reflect that amount of on-line viewers. Yes, you can't always rely on Facebook numbers, but I certainly believe you'll get a bump when you perform a big show. A very tiny one percent (1%!) of 400,000 webcast viewers would be 4,000. The bands who played the PI tour did not get much of a bump at all after they finished being viewed by hundreds of thousands of people. Even with the low figure of 80,000, at one percent these bands would get 800 Facebook “likes”. And if Project Independent really believes that they had 2,000,000 (again, that’s two million) viewers, their social media presence (facebook, twitter followers, etc) should be huge. It’s not.
* Their information on domain analyzation sites does not reflect huge numbers. This site reads "visitors: 50 everyday". I could see where it might be a few hundred off, but not a few hundred thousand.
* The visual aspect of 400,000. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. Lambreau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin seats almost 81,000 people. Project Independent is claiming that about five stadiums worth of people are watching their webcasts.
So...400,000 PEOPLE ARE TUNING IN...
AND THE NUMBERS CONTINUE TO RISE...
Bands are now posting that during the 2014 Project Independent Tour they will be playing to 500,000. People, please think about what you are saying!
2014 PI TOUR: As this is posted the 2014 Project Independent Living Loud Tour has just gotten underway. Unfortunately the big chickens at PI have dispensed with the "Live Chat" which is certainly understandable. There's no sense showing the world what people think of the often-times technically inferior live-feed, and how many people are really watching those webcasts. It does, however, make it way less entertaining. By the way, during the interviews, where's Jo Schuftan when you need him? It's my opinion (and I should be allowed one after watching this crap) that this year is harder to watch than last year, if that's possible.
So far the turnout has looked pretty sparse and there have been some technical problems (audio not matching visual, lighting so bad you can't see anything, etc). Some of the interviews I saw were so dark you would never be able to recognize the band members.
2014 PROJECT INDEPENDENT RED CARPET
To make the experience more exciting and interactive for the audience, PI has implimented the "Living Loud Red Carpet" event. Bands have been selling their VIP passes with the idea that their audiences will walk the red carpet to the show.
Just my opinion: I think the red carpet should look less like a hallway runner. And a vacuum wouldn't hurt either.
"Have you ever wanted to go to an LA red carpeted event? Here's your chance."
THE VIEWER STATS ARE COMING IN FOR 2014...AND GET THIS...
So the 2014 Tour is going on and Project Independent is posting their statistics for each show which are even more riduculous than last year. Again, are you people serious!? And bands just take this at face-value, never questioning these numbers. How can people be so gullible?
Yes, they are claiming that 8,000 people (8,000!) were logging on when nothing was on! That should prove that something is off with these statistics. PI just chalks it up to 8,000 people not paying attention! I watched the Seattle show and really? Project Independent is posting that 1.2 MILLION people were watching this thing. Again, bands don't even think about this. It's so easy to just believe that one million people watched you play to a handful of people.
This is the Project Independent show at Studio Seven in Seattle.. I've been to this club before (Seattle's home of pay-to-play) and I've seen big shows here. If there was a big crowd, the front of that stage would have been so packed with people you would hardly have space to move. It's clear to see that this show was not that well attended. And Project Independent claims that 1.2 million wanted to see this? Highly unlikely. By the way, that big stadium camera boom seems to really be in the way. I sure wouldn't want that thing hovering over me!
I hope his jaw was dropping to the floor because these stats are batshit crazy!
AN EDITED DVD OF EACH BAND’S PERFORMANCE
Part of Project Independent’s claim that shelling out between $350-500 to play a show in your town is worth it because at the end of the tour each band will receive a “fully edited DVD of your performance”. They have constantly written that this is a service that is not available anywhere else in the US.
This is my opinion: In this day and age of rapidly changing technology I believe that anybody can get good video of their performance. Every year this technology becomes cheaper, with better quality and is more accessible to anyone. I find it impossible to believe that the only way bands in some very major cities can get decent video is for Project Independent to travel thousands of miles to do it for them. And why not support local filmmakers? There are also many film students throughout the country who love to use bands as a subject for their class projects (and the result can be good and fairly inexpensive). Again, when it's possible, support of local filmmakers is always preferable.
But since I’m not a film expert and in my own compulsive way, I decided to ask a local filmmaker if he thought this technology is something only Project Independent can provide. I gave him the link to the Project Independent video edit from one of the bands who played in 2013. He emailed back to say:
Project Independent is now advertising that a new overhead camera crane will also be part of the traveling video technology for the 2014 Living Loud Tour. It will be interesting to see how this massive piece of equipment (which looks more suitable for a big stadium show) works in some of the smaller clubs.
By the looks of the recent 2014 webcast, it appears this massive equipment is more just in the way than anything. During the webcast, I noticed it swinging around the room and getting in the way on stage. Good thing there wasn't much of an audience or there could really have some accidents! This crane is more useful when the crowd is more than 50 people like Bumbershoot (right).
GETTING GOOD VIDEO: The the first requirement of good live video is having an audience that is engaged in the performance. I believe this is crucial. How well you are playing is important but the crowd reaction is even more important. Afterall, isn't playing to an excited group of people why you are on that stage in the first place? This is what you are showing off when releasing live video. Many of the Project Independent shows just aren't that packed, especially if you pull one of those 4:30 PM slots. I've personally watched bands play to nobody. I've seem some play to a few barely interested people who seem to be mingling around aimlessly. No matter how many "cameras roll" - if the crowd isn't there, the video looks lifeless.
Here's one of the recent videos from a cool band playing the 2014 Project Independent Tour. You can tell by the applause in between songs that not many people are there (probably a lot of other bands also performing). The fact you can hear people having a conversation during the quiet part to their song is annoying. Also be sure to notice the big crane swinging around! And another band in Chicago seems to be experiencing the same situation.
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|THE PROJECT INDEPENDENT TOUCH
One thing that has set Project Independent apart from all other companies is the confrontational style in addressing its critics. The owner would often verbally slap down anyone who dared to criticize PI. He made it clear that he was in “the industry” and you were not. He also made it clear that speaking up could cause you to be blacklisted from this “Industry”. These are a few of the collected screen shots over the years to illustrate this point. I'll admit some people were just egging this guy on but restraint would certainly appear more professional. Whether this is just being “heavy metal” or not, I believe this style of internet combat has no place in a company that is trying to help a music community.
In the Industry
View the CEO in action in this installment of the seven part tour documentary, 2009 PROJECT INDEPENDENT METAL SHOWCASE TOUR featuring EMINENT. By the way, this band that won the 60 day tour took a major hiatus and recently seems to be reformed with a new singer.
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THE BIG MERGER! AND NO PAY-TO-PLAY?!
So the company taking over Project Independent is called WoodBangers. In my opinion and many others I have talked to, the name WoodBanger conjures up something completely different than what is described on their website. To the creators of WoodBangers, a woodbanger has more to do with carpentry or someone who can create something from nothing than what my dirty minded friends think. One thing is for certain: At least people will remember the name!
PEOPLE ARE CONFUSED
This new transition seems to be confusing to everyone. After some time has passed, it doesn't really seem like Jeff Totten left at all. He's still blabbing about it and he'll be running the new North American Independent Rock Music Awards (to be qualified you must play on the Project Independent Tour and sign your band up for a profile on the WoodBangers website). And everyone must be inquiring since Project Independent felt the need to post this on their Facebook page (right).
October, 2014: Back to the same old routine.
HELL, I'M CONFUSED
If the WoodBangers company had enough capital to aquire Project Independent in a 1.2 million dollar deal (also claiming this will allow for ample funding of the PIAA and will stop all the pay-to-play shows), why would they need to post requests for donations? Again, it's confusing.
LOOKING FORWARD TO THE FUTURE
Even though WoodBangers seems to be getting off to a bit of a strained start (as their recent blogs, “A Rant To Remember” and "The Development of WoodBangers" and
"A Huge Need" would indicate) I know everyone really does hope that they will be able to pull off non-pay-to-play tours in the future.
Attaching themselves to a controversial company like Project Independent certainly seems like an uphill battle. At the secret board meeting I would have voted to start a fresh tour rather than try to build something off the ashes of another. I would also have recommended that WoodBangers take over PI after the 2014 Tour and not before. I think it will be difficult to be attached to PI in 2014 while the bands are still paying $350 to play a local show and selling the new VIP passes. And especially difficult when theese bands know Project Independent will be free to play next year. Seems like that would tend to cause more confusion - “you’ll pay $350 in 2014 but in 2015 there will be no charge”. It will be interesting to see how this all develops.
The saga continues...
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PRESALE IS NOT REQUIRED BUT...
In other words, the WoodBangers version of the Project Independent was never designed to do away with pay-to-play as they advertised. It only changed one minor requirement. And of course like Gorilla Music’s requirements the deck is stacked so that anyone with any brains would never participate without selling tickets. This is set up to put the non-ticket-seller at such a disadvantage, it playing the show without selling the tickets would be a waste of time. It’s very clever. Like Gorilla they can say they are not pay-to-play because technically they don’t require the money up front, but the disadvantage is so extreme, the bands will go ahead and sell them. How they could think that bands selling $10 tickets and turning in $7 wasn’t pay-to-play is a mystery. Also the PIAA bands are not required to sell the tickets which puts the burden of the financial responsibility on the participating locals. They will be subsidizing the Living Loud Tour and essentially be classified as second class in relation to the bands in the Project Independent Artists Alliance who get a free ride.
So...WOODBANGERS WAS PAY-TO-PLAY ALL ALONG
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