Breaking and Unlocking the Truth About Monsters, Part One

Rock On The Range 2015 - Day 3
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Hey there. It’s Ron Mexico again. About the only writing I do these days are guest spots on Heather McDonald’s most fabulous Music Careers column. 

This is the first of a two-part analysis series on the plight of New York City middle school metal band Unlocking the Truth. Today, we focus on their deal.

Breaking a Monster, a documentary about the band’s plight, debuted at this year’s SXSW (pronounced South-by-Southwest).

Since the showing, just about everyone with a blog has taken a swing at it. If nothing else, the youngsters have drawn a glut of attention to their professional situation. Funny how that works.

Things Aren’t Always What They Seem

Unlocking the Truth is a lesson in the unconventional. They are a metal band comprised of three African-American children who first gained notoriety performing on the streets of New York. After becoming Internet celebrities for their instrumental shreddery, they ultimately received a recording contract from media giant Sony. As you should know from paying close attention to Heather’s wise words over the years, record contracts are only beneficial if they make sense to your plan. That’s to say, you should have a plan and your partnership with a record label should help you execute it. The deal should not be the first step down a rabbit hole where you meet a Cheshire Suit who controls your life and only appears when it is time for you to do something scary.

According to the many other blogs already covering the situation, the youngsters find themselves disillusioned with recording industry dealings and direction not long after the ink dries on the contract. Sound familiar?

The band garnered much press in 2014  after it had been reported they had signed for $1.8 million.

That’s quite a haul for three sixth graders with no history of sales or tour revenue, right? Well, as you should also know from reading this blog, that number is not an up-front payment. For starters, it is a multi-album deal (reportedly six) and the $1.8 million dollars is broken up into multiple recoupable advances based on previous performance. [For example: you get a $300,000 advance on your next record if this one sells 200,000 units.] They’re not pocketing Sony cash or stashing it in their college funds. Once that name is on the dotted line it’s time to do the dance.

Discord, Disorientation, and Dismay

The documentary presents a ball of confusion. Major label dealings are tough for anyone who is not accustomed to the environment. Even the sharpest adults are encouraged to have strong management and reputable legal representation before signing anything with a record label. This is especially true in today’s ever-evolving musical climate. This is not to say that record labels are pure evil. [Though I do adhere to A Tribe Called Quest’s industry rule 4,080.] They are businesses trying to make a profit just like any. Artists come to labels for the same reason. However, labels can and do use the home court advantage and legalese to their advantage when dealing with rookies.

The boys came into the deal with the naive expectation that they would only be responsible for rocking out. In a perfect world, that’s how things would work. But because large record companies want to do large-scale business, music is not always the first priority. The youngsters were immediately met with marketing schemes that put the cart in front of the horse. They were being guided into a presentation that they would be a pop-friendly boy band who happened to play instruments, instead of the instrumental-only hardcore trash that turned heads in Times Square in the first place. Fairly enough, as Sony pushed, the boys pulled. And here we are at the ever-popular impasse signed artists find themselves.

Breaking Free

If the boys are unlucky, they have already recorded the debut record that is the culmination of their young lives’ work and ambitions.

If they have made such recordings, they are the property of Sony and will have to be bought back somehow. If Unlocking the Truth wants to break free from “the monster,” they may have to serve up a pound of flesh in order for Sony to receive their contractually obligated recovery. Because a record label does not have the authority to send artists to debtor prison like they did in the olden days, this impasse usually results in a mutual parting of ways where those recordings remain in a Disney-like vault, never to be heard again. Or, at least never to be heard until the boys hit the big time elsewhere and Sony decides to capitalize with a snazzy album of UTT’s earliest work.

The boys have legal representation. They are no slouches. If anything, they have reluctantly learned much about the music industry they had thrown themselves into when they were just some pre-teens who wanted to rock. They know there may be a lengthy and bitter battle ahead. But participating in a documentary about their experience and presenting it to their eager fans and supporters may have given them a nice little bit of momentum to get what they want.

This could all be a covert fabrication from Sony as well. We could just be watching the Paranormal Activity faux-reality entertainment of record promotion. Okay, I don’t think that’s the case, but I would not put it past anyone these days. Everyone is scrambling for ways to brand, draw attention, and somehow turn ephemeral public focus into a few bucks.