Last year I wrote a post “The Trouble With Factor” that generated a lot of press. The essence of that argument remains true: the FACTOR system benefits business-people and not musicians.
One year later, FACTOR has doubled down on their exclusion of non-business/capital minded Canadian music enterprises. Far from opening the system through an increase in juried submissions, there is currently only one pathway to the wealth of FACTOR funding, namely soundscan reporting.
Recent changes effectively eliminate participation from players outside the managerial Canadian music class at the expense of developing music in Canada.
Tiered System – We are the 95%
Factor runs on a tiered system to separate commercially viable bands from the teeming hordes.
Level 3: This is the highest ranking you can get, granting bands and their management a blank cheque to get as much grant money as they need. This level capped at 100 bands/musicians (roughly the top 2%, depending on applicants in the system).
Level 2: Level 2 is sweet. You get to apply for everything Level 3s do, but everything is a little more scrutinized. If you want tour grant from FACTOR (the one thing bands I have worked with and talk to want), you need at least Level 2. Level two is limited to 200 bands/musicians or roughly 5% of the bands in the system.
Level 1: Last fall, most of the bands I worked with fell into a Level 1 ranking, even if they had been a level 2 previously. There were more than 3,000 bands in the system as of the September 2013 re-designation, and apparently even more right now. There are no public numbers, but roughly 93% of the bands applying will end up ranked here. If you get Level 1, you can apply for showcase ($1,300), juried sound recordings, demo grants and little else. But competition at this level is tough, and if you are a touring band who has used FACTOR to help fund touring activities, you are out of luck. The bad news is, recent changes have bumped pretty much every band I have ever worked with – as a band, label or promoter – to a level 1.
Leaving many to wonder: how am I a level 1, and how could I move up to level 2?
Criteria for Ranking – Sales, professionalism
Bands are ranked according to the following criteria:
Sales: Previously, if you sold fewer than 1,500 units, you would not have to provide proof of those sales. This has since been changed to 3,000 units sold cumulatively over all releases. This is a huge change, one that will exclude 100 per cent of the bands we work with. How do you prove sales, anyway?
SoundScan Title Reports
Reports from digital retailers (e.g. iTunes, Zunior, Tunecore)
A Sales/Royalty Report from a FACTOR Recognized Distributor
How do these change effect Canadian bands without a management-team behind them? Let’s take my own band, Ketamines, as an example. To get access to Soundscan numbers, we would need to get a subscription at $500/year. These rules were changed in the midst of artist ranking (after all the artists submitted their yearly reporting), without notice. The problem? You can’t go back and report, so all of your sales up to that point are ineligible, so cumulative sales goes back to 0.
They changed the system because there was fear that bands, who didn’t have to prove sales under 1500, were faking their sales numbers. Even though, for a band dedicated to “faking”, it would be just as easy to get a venue manager to sign off on 100 album sales at a show and fax those numbers in.
Take my band as an example. Our record “You Can’t Serve Two Masters” sold 500 copies on vinyl, so we assumed that those sales were eligible, alongside our other releases such as “Spaced Out” which was pressed in an edition of 500 and sold… 500. HoZac pressed 800 copies of “Line By Line” 7” and sold them online, and at merch tables. Due to this new “prove all your sales” rule, all of these past sales are now ineligible.
The elephant in the room is that many independant/DIY musicians trying to work in this system struggle to report even basic expenses. Getting soundscan reports faxed in every 48 hours will be difficult at the best of times, and will not help FACTOR escape fraud, misreporting, which is what they are worried about.
Sales can also come from a FACTOR recognized distributor. Mammoth Cave is distributed through RPM (Factor approved, I would think), which has distributed about 50 of the 500 vinyl copies we pressed. RPM is great, they have been ramping up their support of the fertile Canadian underground and taking chances on offbeat releases.
Live Performance: You need to provide an overview of all your shows from the past year and all shows planned for the next 12 months. But because FACTOR ratings are mostly based on sales, live performances don’t really matter that much.
Lets take B.A. Johnston here as an example of how this works. Playing 200 shows a year, B.A. Johnston is now ranked Level 1 because FACTOR changed the rules on sales. From this fact alone, we know that sales is the only thing that is differentiating a level 1 and a level 2 band, because I don’t know any band, anywhere, that plays as much as B.A. Johnston. Period.
B.A. Johnston tours Coast-to-Coast in Canada twice a year, the only musician I know to support himself from touring alone. I don’t know a musician who knows B.A. who doesn’t love and respect him. He is playing in Prince George, he is playing in Fredericton, often multiple times a year. His shows are almost always jammed with people. Promoters love him. But, at Level 1, B.A. is ineligible for FACTOR tour support because his sales at merch tables (which I have worked many times and make up a huge chunk of his income) are not through recognized FACTOR approved distribution sources and are not immediately seen on Soundscan reports.
Radio Charting: Split between commercial and campus/community radio. I can’t even imagine how any band applying for FACTOR is getting top 100 commercial charting, so let’s look at Campus/Community. The only thing that counts is getting into the top ten nationally. Ketamines got number 1 nationally last July, number 8 overall for all of 2013, Yet we were placed at level 1.
The one thing FACTOR gets right is that the never-ending battle of the bands that is the R3-30 is ineligible.
Social Media: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube. They count the followers/likes/plays, which can (and often are) be easily faked by purchasing followers and views on sites like Fiverr.com. FACTOR should instead be focusing on engagement statistics (retweets, comments, thumbs up on YouTube)which are basically impossible to fake. And should having a Twitter account be the criteria for a band to get funded?
Press History: Top ten press articles about your terrible band. Doesn’t seem to impact artist rating either way.
Team: Artist Manager(s), Booking Agent(s) and Publisher(s) that work with the Artist. For a Team Member to be considered eligible, they must be someone other than individual(s) listed on the Artist Member section. Indie is in, independence is out.
Which is to say, many bands starting out do not need a team. And even bands who have been doing this for years, they do not need a team. I’m perfectly capable of setting up tours, promoting my own records and managing the business end of everything we do. I’ve been doing it for years to relative success. Why do we need a team? The answer is that we don’t, and are completely uninterested in participating in this particular game.
Synch Licenses: New to FACTOR ratings! How many car commercials did you sell your song to? As an artist ranking system, this should have absolutely nothing to do with a bands eligibility.
Garbage in, Garbage out
The revised FACTOR system was placed online last spring, roughly around the time my first post blew up. The system is set up so that you have to enter every detail in the online database. Each addition takes roughly 5 minutes. Take entering an album into the database. Each song has to be entered individually into the system. For an album with 10 songs, it takes 30 minutes to an hour, and is the most boring thing you could possibly imagine doing. It seems like work for the sake of doing work, and is a singular reason why I now get the sweats when I log onto FACTORs website.
Take entering information on a tour that was more than a week long (or like B.A.’s tours which are often 50+ dates)? Every single show has to be entered when you apply. Then, when you are filling out completion forms, you have to enter them again. Digital managerialism run wild.
Imagine you get to hell, but then once you get there you find out they have this thing called superhell. That is what uploading information to Factor’s database is like. The user experience is horrible, and the server takes forever to upload. There are a few qualifying elements to successfully filling out a proposal or a completion report, such as knowing how to take and upload hundreds of screenshots. The fact is that the pain of actually doing this takes forever.
Money, Money, Money
So, after all my “whining” last year, I took FACTOR at their word that their new system would fix all of the things I complained about. We were actually successful in getting a few modest touring grants, which was a nice feeling, but the thing is that you don’t realize when you are new to the system is that it actually takes a really long time to get paid. Months. And you will be audited, which is comforting in a way.
Last year, I had intended to help a lot of my friends out with navigating the FACTOR system, and I know that I let a few people down for which I apologize. Setting up a new artist profile alone takes an average of five to 10 hours. And when you work on this on behalf of bands that tour, sell records, chart only to get ranked at Level 1, there is a singular sinking feeling like you just wasted everyone’s time.
When you submit your band which is actually successful in every other measure to a jury, and those jury members are not tuned into what you are doing (for a variety of reasons – can’t there be screening like “did you own Stone Temple Pilots CDs in the 90s?” to weed people out of this process?), you waste everyone’s time. When all you are eligible for is “showcases” and you aren’t a “showcasing” band, you waste everyone’s time.
The jury system is its own separate issue, and from all evidence there is little effort to combine jurists and artists in a way that makes sense for both. That is, if you played me some band that I am unable to like for personal taste reasons, and I am then in charge of the fate of their funding? Forget it.
But FACTOR actually gave us money despite my critique. It was actually nice to go on tour and not stress about things like eating. But then the rules got changed yet again to lock us out completely, and so we return to the frustration with which we started. In this “new” system, nothing changes. The same big players walk away with the big money. The gap between “have” and “have not” musicians continues to grow without evidence that either are successful on a popular scale.
This isn’t about Metric. This isn’t about the big indies and their output. Everyone is working with the system we have in whatever way they can.
This isn’t about taste, or what bands you think deserve money or not.
FACTORs recent shift towards emphasizing sales metrics as their defining ranking point systematically eliminates developing musicians from getting the grants they need to compete, further separating the haves and have-nots in the Canadian music economy.
In an article on the FACTOR blow-up last year, Duncan McKie responded with the following statement:
“Their ability to commercialize their recorded music was the sole criterion at one point. Now it’s only one out of many.”
I couldn’t agree more. There are so many elements of success for Canadian musicians, which the overall qualifications criterion does really nicely. Is your band playing shows and touring? Is your band getting radio play and charting? Are you getting press? Do you have an engaged online fanbase?
McKie also said:
“Someone who just picked up a guitar, walked into our office and says ‘I’m ready to go’ can’t just get money.”
Which is why these changes are so troubling to me. Because bands who are far from “picking up a guitar” and demanding money are being shut out.
Which leaves us to the inevitable conversations that will probably happen as a result of this post. Do we need FACTOR? Is this an argument to eliminate FACTOR? Absolutely not. I still believe (and always had) that arts funding has a place in the development of Canadian music. But this current system still needs work, in making programs available to every artist, regardless of “rank”, and to formally acknowledge that bands have a variety of paths towards viability that may or may not involve funding at all.