A Los Angeles-based company called Raw would like to give your band a show. And also, possibly, an award.
In exchange, it would like a few dollars.
Raw's clunky, full moniker is RAW: natural born artists — it's not an acronym but rather references “unpolished” performers. It puts on parties in more than 50 cities each year, showcasing not just musicians but also designers, photographers, filmmakers and other artists. A typical event features a fashion show, live music and a film screening, along with photos, jewelry and other crafts on display.
It's all capped off each year with a national awards ceremony, which this year takes place in Los Angeles on Jan. 13 at the Belasco Theater. Fifteen hundred people are expected to attend, and awards will be dispensed: The prizes for musician of the year include meetings with music executives and with influential KCSN DJ Nic Harcourt, an ad on the homepage of ReverbNation.com, an electronic press kit produced by indie company Eenie Meenie Records and more.
Founded in 2009 by event producer Heidi Luerra, Raw's headquarters are located in a subleased office in Laguna Hills. Its website says the company's mission is to “hand-pick and spotlight local artistic talent.” It has received overwhelmingly positive coverage, described alternately as a “grassroots movement,” a “support network/showcase for aspiring artists” and “a budding creative's wet dream.”
The problem? Although this isn't mentioned on Raw's website — or in most of the write-ups about it — the talent has to pay to play. Artists, bands and designers who want to be in a Raw showcase need to sell 20 tickets at $10 apiece. If they can't, they must make up the difference out of pocket.
It's the same presale system L.A. Weekly wrote about in 2010 at some Sunset Strip clubs. Even today, management at the Key Club and the Whisky A Go Go place the burden on some bands to fill the venue.
Raw's Luerra puts a positive spin on the practice. “We created the ticket requirement not to be a pay-to-play but to give artists who have 'starving artist' status access to participate by basically crowd-funding with their supporters,” she tells the Weekly.
As we reported in December, groups increasingly are turning to crowd-funding websites such as Kickstarter to pay for their projects. Is Raw's system the same thing, or is it just another example of the much-derided pay-to-play? Bands and artists we talked to paint a mixed picture.
Sacramento pop-rockers Wrings don't mind the presales, lead singer Zack Gray says, because many Sacramento clubs have the same system. As far as he's concerned, Raw is worth it as long as you win an award, which his group did from the local Raw chapter in November. They also won at the national level, which means they get the prize package and will perform at the Belasco.
Their victory got them meetings with some small labels, one of which helped the Wrings land a deal with Los Angeles-based Position Music, a publishing company that places music in movies, TV shows and commercials. It's not as good as a record deal — and it hasn't led to any licensing deals yet — but Gray is optimistic.
L.A.-based alternative soul musician Elaine Faye — who with her band, The Big Bang, performed at last year's Raw Awards — recommends it for musicians who are sure they can sell all of their tickets. “It really gives you the opportunity to play for a huge crowd,” she says. “We made back the money three times over in CD sales [at the event].”
Raw's critics, however, complain about a lack of transparency. “Before I agreed on anything, they basically booked me for the show,” San Francisco-based jewelry designer Meryl Pataky says, adding that she was still willing to participate and pay for the tickets, as long as she received a written agreement detailing what she would get from her investment. She didn't get that, nor statistics she requested about Raw's website traffic. It wasn't until Pataky decided to drop out of the show that Luerra finally informed her that Raw's website gets 170,000 unique visitors a month.
After reviewing her emails with Pataky, Luerra tells us: “It looks like I had a chest cold and was out of the office during this time.” She adds: “We were also less than a year old at this point and our showcases were just getting started.”
She admits, however, that Raw doesn't sign contracts with its artists: “As far as written agreements, my experience working with artists for the last 10 years is they hate signing contracts.”
But a contract would have helped someone like Geoff Decker, an Orlando-based photographer who says Raw misled him about the ticket policy this past June, and then tried to pressure him into handing over $200 at the last minute. “Multiple times I had asked, 'What happens if we cannot sell the tickets?,' and the only response I got was, 'That never happens, and if it does, we will work something out,' ” Decker says.
Luerra counters that each participant receives an email explaining that he or she will be expected to hock passes. But if that's the case, why not post it clearly on the Raw website? “I'm not opposed to that,” Luerra says. “And actually we are changing some things with our system next season.”
Visual artist Benjamin S. Sawinski, a friend of Decker's who regularly curates art shows in Orlando, says that Raw approached him asking for his help hosting a show — for free. Sawinski declined.
“It is taking advantage of the community, on a pack of lies,” Sawinski wrote in a post on his website, Bssart.com. He says Raw told him that it gives money back to the local community, but never gave him specifics. (Luerra says the money simply goes back to funding Raw.)
“It is just a pyramid scheme for artists,” Sawinski adds via email.
“We're the only organization that does what we do and gives the benefits that we give for so little,” insists Luerra, who originally came to Los Angeles to become a fashion designer. “The ticket thing is really just a way for us to provide a platform. … We have no corporate sponsors, we do not have any corporate investors. This organization is for artists by artists; there's three people in our headquarters, who essentially work their butts off to keep this going.”
It's true that Raw provides more than does a typical pay-to-play show. For one thing, its showcases tend to draw a substantial crowd, and each artist receives professional photos and videos of his performance.
The pyramid-scheme accusation seems a bit harsh, considering the setup is not very different from comedy clubs that send aspiring comedians onto the street to sell tickets to their own shows.
In the end, however, it's understandable why the presale system doesn't sit right with many people. “Raw was founded on the basis that every artist deserves the chance to be seen, heard and loved,” says a line from a promotional documentary on its site. While this may be true, paying a company for the opportunity just doesn't seem very rock & roll.