Will Tompsett, head of marketing at the revered independent label 4AD, doesn’t have kids. But you wouldn’t know that from trawling Instagram, where recently several people have set up accounts impersonating him, touting their connection to 4AD. (One account even went so far as to incorporate stock photos of children and present them as Tompsett’s.) The people behind the fake profiles use them to reach out to aspiring artists, praise their talent and express interest in signing them before asking for a sum of money — typically between $300 to $500 — in exchange for considering their music or covering a vague administration fee. And it works. Tompsett’s been hit up multiple times by artists who believe they are on the verge of being signed, only to find out they’ve been duped.
Since the summer of 2021, there appears to be an epidemic of these scams — based on targeted impersonations, often on Instagram or Gmail — sweeping around the independent label community. Tompsett estimates that over half of 4AD’s current staff “have had fake accounts made in their names over the past month to six weeks.” And more than 15 labels in the independent community have reported similar experiences to Billboard, including several of the most prominent companies. Some aspiring artists, including a few teens, are falling for the con and shelling out cash to fake label employees.
“Initially, it was a bizarre, kind of novel thing,” says Tompsett. “It’s been increasingly frustrating and guilt-causing.” Another indie label executive who requested to remain anonymous got a “just checking in” call from a father after his two sons had already paid a scammer a fee; the pair were on their way to the airport because they had bought plane tickets to go to a label meeting that didn’t exist. The fraudsters “are preying on people’s hopes and dreams,” the executive says.
“It’s sad,” adds Dennis Murcia, who handles marketing and A&R for Codiscos/Tropisounds. “And it’s bad for the industry.”
The uptick of these spear-phishing campaigns in the independent label community takes place against the backdrop of an increase in scams across industries. “The pandemic really rocketed everything up,” says Ron Culler, principal for Hoyle Technology Consulting and a cybersecurity expert. People stuck at home spent more time online and on social media. As a result, Culler continues, “everybody puts everything out on the internet, but they don’t realize that putting things like email addresses and home addresses on public websites is a forum [for other people] to go out and collect data.” That gives anyone with malicious intentions the tools to help them take advantage of the unsuspecting.
The music industry itself is no stranger to scams, even before the pandemic. But indie label executives say the recent spear-phishing campaigns intensified last summer, reaching a new level of sophistication and scale. “I’ve never seen anything of this depth before,” says Matt Brinkworth, head of digital at Omnian Music Group (which includes the labels Captured Tracks, 2MR, Sinderlyn and Manufactured Recordings). “It is worrying.”
His colleague Jane Abernethy, managing director of Omnian Music Group, found out she was being impersonated for the purpose of scamming artists in July 2021. “They had sent an email asking for $300 to get on the radar of Captured Tracks,” she says. In the course of targeting a number of aspiring acts — executives suspect the scammers look to target those who follow labels on social media — they sent the message to JayWood, an artist who had just signed to the label. “His manager emailed me to say, ‘Hey, someone is impersonating you,’ ” Abernethy adds. Someone also sent emails posing as Captured Tracks’ owner Mike Sniper and Saddle Creek Records co-founder Robb Nansel.
In some ways, the music industry makes an especially “ripe target” for this type of behavior, according to Culler. Artists and labels post a lot of information on social media; it is common, maybe even essential, for people to make quick connections through these channels. But an unfortunate side effect of that practice is that “it’s easy to get taken advantage of,” Culler says. “Somebody tells you, ‘One of our guys saw your video, we want to sign you,’ and immediately it’s just click, click, click.”
“For talented musicians who aren’t signed, [the fake reach-outs expressing interest] confirm what they already believe: That they are going to get a deal,” says Tompsett. “Of course I’m getting contacted in this regard.”
“When you get a message from an established label you like, you want to believe it,” adds the executive who requested anonymity.
Information asymmetry also plays to the scammers’ advantage. More than half a dozen executives say they don’t know of any “reputable” label that charges to listen to music. In fact, the industry is actually set up around the opposite premise: Labels pay the artists for the privilege to work with them, in the hopes that both parties eventually make heaps of money. But an aspiring artist, especially a young one, may not know this. “It’s obvious to me it’s a scam,” says Abernethy. “But it might not be obvious if you don’t have that insider knowledge.”
Similarly, contracts that show up in the scam emails are often laughable, according to multiple executives who have viewed them. Aliem Jumpp, who leads SpacedOut Studios Entertainment, says the deals he’s seen offered in these situations are “poorly organized,” with incorrect formatting. The email sent to JayWood offered a “marketing/distribution publishing deal” — a mishmash of nonsense to anyone in the music industry. But many artist hopefuls have never seen a record deal before. And even successful artists have admitted that they didn’t even bother looking at their first contract.
Unfortunately, cybersecurity experts say labels don’t have much recourse when they or their executives are being impersonated. Several music companies say they have reported a slew of fake accounts to Instagram, which then moves to take them down, only for them to pop up again with a slight variation in the names used. “Claiming to be another person on Instagram violates our Community Guidelines, and we have a dedicated team to detect and block these kinds of scams,” a spokesperson for Meta, Instagram’s parent company, said in a statement. “We know there’s more to do here, which is why we keep working to prevent abuse and keep our community safe.”
Omnian Music Group also reported numerous impersonations to the Internet Crime Complaint Center, though Brinkworth says he hasn’t heard anything back. And many labels have posted on their social media accounts warning about scam attempts and explaining they would never solicit money to consider music.
This strategy has been effective for Saddle Creek, according to Dawood Nadurath, who oversees digital marketing for the label. “I’d already seen Polyvinyl, Bayonet, some smaller indies posting about this happening on social media” in the summer of 2021, he says. “Once it became an issue for us, we spoke on it.” In the wake of that post, he adds, “there haven’t been any repeat attempts or other people hitting us up saying that it happened again.”
Others were less hopeful about being able to deter the scammers in any concrete way. The indie executive who did not want to be named says that eventually, the company “gave up trying to get to the bottom of things.” Dishearteningly he adds, “nobody was really responding.”
Aspiring artists have to remain vigilant. “The prevention part falls mostly on the artists themselves,” Culler says. “They have to pay attention to what they do online.”