Fund Me Fest is a grant competition that took place on Friday, May 5th, 2017 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. As a musical artist (of any popular music genre), you were to submit an original track by Monday, April 17th, 2017 to have it reviewed according to a set of criteria outlined in the Rules & Regulations, to become a potential Finalist to win a $20,000 grant towards your music career.
"Each piece of criteria is judged out of 10, creating an overall score of 40.
1. Originality: artistic integrity, uniqueness
2. Musicality: performance/delivery, skill, technique, interpretation, energy
3. Song: writing, arrangement, composition, vocals & lyrics
4. Potential for commercial success: relevance, salability, potential audience engagement"
Semi-Finalists would be chosen from this pool of submissions and have a chance to perform at Fund Me Fest for a chance to win this $20,000 grant. According to these criteria, I felt like I could make a worthy submission, so I followed through. To submit, you had to become a member of “Fund Me Fest”, which cost a $50 fee. Along with this membership came a survey of your journey and needs as an artist, with a promise of future events to follow in the same vein using this info, and a list of industry A&R contact information. At least I wasn’t getting nothing for the money is what I decided, even if I don’t win, so I went ahead through this process.
I had a song I felt would be a strong candidate against all the criteria provided, but I needed to get it past demo-treatment. I brought it to a professional studio, re-recorded several elements, had a mixing/mastering engineer do his work on the track, and I had it ready just in time for the submission deadline. I even encouraged several other artists to do the same.
After my submission, I wasn’t sure I had followed all the rules correctly, upon revision. So I contacted the Fund Me Fest information email, and they replied to me with re-assurances that they were following up with all applicants who may have had some discrepancies in their submissions. This prompt response and statement of their intentions re-assured me but also concerned me, due to the competition being for a music grant. Many people in the industry had told me over the years that grant submissions are usually very strict with their guidelines. I was relieved that I would be able to correct my submission, but I had my guard up for any kind of scam.
A few days after my submission and following up on any discrepancies, emails started rolling in from Fund Me Fest telling applicants to start reserving seats; getting 2 complimentary tickets and additional tickets reserved at a special price of $25 until a certain date, after which they would go up to $35. Tickets reserved under an artist’s name would be entered into a draw for 2 performances at the start of the show as well as a $100 prepaid gift card.
This was throwing up red flags for me, as I figured that a grant competition’s priority should be to notify artists of when semi-finalists would be chosen, and what else to expect from the process, etc. I was also completely taken aback when I received an email expanding the pay-to-play style options available, and encouraging people to buy-in with a $500 payment to guarantee a performance (although not for a chance to win the grant), and also receive 25 tickets as part of the deal.
I let these red flags go because I was already within the whole process at this point, but from that point on I did not place a priority on getting people out to the show, and focused on my own abilities to win the $20,000. Since it was a new company running this event, I also withheld a final judgement on their honesty vs. inexperience. I reserved my 2 complimentary tickets and continued to let people know about the opportunity, but gave no compulsion for anyone to buy tickets for my sake.
On Wednesday, May 3rd, I got an e-mail from Fund Me Fest, indicating that I was selected as an official semi-finalist for the event.
I was elated at the chance to perform on such a stage as the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Originally, I had thought that 10 semi-finalists were chosen to perform, and out of those 10 performers, 6 Finalists would be chosen to win the runner-up and grand prizes. Being on the cusp of such an opportunity, I felt a need to announce it to all those who supported me, which I did on my artist Facebook page. This is when I was contacted by Fred E Fame through the same page to clarify the meaning of the email.
I was initially confused about his contact, because at the time I had some other opportunities on the table, which I had announced in conjunction with the Fund Me Fest news, and his name was not associated anywhere within my correspondence and affiliated pages of Fund Me Fest. I was familiar with his name through the many hip-hop artists I had known throughout my time in the Toronto hip-hop scene, but had never dealt with him myself. I hadn’t heard anything negative about him to that point, but I did know that he was an event promoter in the hip-hop scene who dealt in a lot of pay-to-play style opportunities. I, myself, I have never taken part in pay-to-play opportunities, because I believed the proficiency of an artist should be enough to secure their opportunities. Their individual missions and messages should be valued enough for them to be paid if possible, not the other way around; nevertheless, I’ve believed that there are different paths for different people who are willing and able to make the most of them.
When I contacted the number Fred E Fame provided, he picked up and said, “Fund Me Fest”. Naturally, I was confused, as well as worried that I had received the semi-finalist email in error, as similar things have happened to me before. He went on to ask me to open the email I had received and to read it to him, as he was not the one who sent it to me. We went over the wording in the email and to my relief it was not sent in error, but to my slight disappointment, the stipulation was that semi-finalists were a pool of potential performers who would be selected as Finalists at the event. These Finalists were the 10 who would have a chance to perform, and 6 of them would be chosen for the prizes. This correction did follow the outline of the Rules & Regulations, but for some reason I had misread them. I was still feeling good after this revelation, though slightly sobered about my certainty of performing on stage.
Fred E Fame informed me that his role within the process was to handle connections and artist relations, but this correspondence also made sense of the pay-to-play opportunities because this was already established as his M.O. He was brought in by V Media Productions due to his ability to make the necessary connections they needed to ensure the success of this venture.
With this information, I carried forward, not really knowing what to expect, but remained steadfast in my own energy and capability to be worthy of a Finalist selection, and, once again, focused on being ready to perform and outline my intentions with the money.
May 5th arrived, and I ventured out to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. The email said to be there for 6pm sharp, and I assumed there would be some prep time and a briefing for semi-finalists who were attending. I arrived right at 6pm to see a long line-up going right around the building, and getting longer. Keep in mind, Fund Me Fest first showed up on my radar through a Facebook ad (most likely targeted to me as an artist), but after that point, I had seen no indication of the event’s existence outside that exchange, including Z103.5’s website and Facebook pages, and there was little to no public engagement on the Fund Me Fest Facebook page and event pages themselves. A lot of artists I spoke to, had no knowledge of it as well, which seems surprising for a $20,000 open music grant competition. My first thoughts were, “Ah, so they must not have lured many people in with the pay-to-play options and Z103.5 must have stepped up the promotion last-minute to get people in.” I was sorely mistaken.
It turns out most people in this long line-up were other artists and their supporters. I walked to the front of the line to inquire about getting entry, only to run into a cluster of artists who I knew or had previous contact with before that point. I asked them if they knew what was going on, and they said they were chosen as semi-finalists as well, but we had to wait in the line for entry, which started at 6:30pm. I was excited that artists I knew were semi-finalists and I felt that they were worthy of this opportunity, so this news did not alarm me, although I felt the process of artist-intake was a little off. I also justified the long line-up to myself by reasoning that other artists who weren’t chosen as semi-finalists, still made their way to the event for the value of meeting other like-minded, driven artists and to take in the event they paid $50 to apply for.
As promised, there were ample networking opportunities, which naturally arise from having that many artists in one place, along with the other promises outlined on the website. One thing that wasn’t present though, was a “Grant Writing Workshop”. I wasn’t looking for it at the time, but in retrospect, that was not present. We walked into the building and Fred E Fame was there greeting artists and doing whatever else his job was at the event itself. I noted that he encouraged me to pay a visit to the bar, as we were directed to a line-up for artist interviews with Z103.5, and then a photo shoot with a professional photographer. So far, they seemed to be delivering a decent event worthy of the commitment, but there was a lot of aimless standing around in the lobby of the building once the interviews and photo shoots were done with. There wasn’t much direction, and no indication of who was who, so it was a matter of connecting with other artists at random. As I did so, more and more artists were revealing to me that they also had been chosen as semi-finalists, including several other artists who I knew and hadn’t communicated with in line. I probably met at least 7 people who said they were semi-finalists. This seemed like an unlikely coincidence for a room filled with that many artists, but given my history of experience and the caliber of artists that I know, I wasn’t alarmed, once again.
Then these artists started telling me that they met other semi-finalists, and the reality started trickling in. I was in the middle of practicing my performance and post-performance spiel when another artist asked if I was a semi-finalist. I told her yes, and she informed me that she was also preparing because she was a semi-finalist as well. Then her mother sat down with me and my girlfriend and told us that she met other semi-finalists throughout the building. There must have been at least 100 artists present, and I knew at this point that most of them had received the same email. Due to this understanding on my part, in conjunction with all the other red flags I had mentioned before, I started to prepare myself for another shitty “taken-advantage-of” experience. I had not experienced too many before, because I avoided situations that gave off that feeling, but I had heard many stories from fellow artists. As we were let in to our seating, I told my girlfriend that I am on the lookout for this event to be another situation taking advantage of young ambitious artists, specifically hip-hop, but I REALLY was holding out hope that it wouldn’t turn out that way. The random draw performances went first, starting with a country singer, followed by a hip-hop artist.
This was a random draw, but at least I could see that there was representation here from across the spectrum. After this point there was a small delay, then they proceeded to start the Finalist announcements and performances. I had got my hopes down about having the chance to perform, but as a person who keeps myself ready at any moment, at every announcement I was gripping my girlfriend’s hand and getting myself mentally/emotionally/physically prepared to finally have my music on the stage I felt it deserved. And every time, I was let down. I’m sure many artists felt this way as well.
As the first couple performers went up, I had to accept that my chances were getting smaller and smaller, based on numbers alone. The disappointment was not based in a sense of misguided entitlement; but as the 5th and 6th Finalists were called up, there was a trend playing out before our eyes that was filling me with a sense of dread. It could not be confirmed just yet, but it felt like my worst anticipations for the experience were becoming true. This sense of betrayal and bitter familiarity was starting to linger in the crowd around me, yet was unspoken. This came from a string of pop acts from Finalists #1 through #6 being called onto the stage, or music that wasn’t purely “pop” but was something you would hear on pop radio stations. I was surrounded by a large amount of hip-hop artists who were slowly feeling like they’d been “had”; whether they felt foolish for it or disbelief that it actually was happening. Yet we all held our mouths; and hope.
There were still 4 acts left, and there was one woman directly behind me who was very vocal from the beginning. She seemed simply eager to see so many young artists on the stage vying for such a huge opportunity. She seemed very well-versed in what made someone a strong artist, and had light-hearted to enthusiastic commentary on anything from their hair, to their charisma, their stride, their presence on the microphone, and seemed excited to see the acts when they were doing well and executed something outside of her own expectations, as well as providing sobering criticism. I’m sure only those within a certain radius could hear her at this point, and it was a mostly positive experience, exuberant as she was.
The 7th act was called up, and by this point, the optics and the sound of the music performed was not conducive to many other conclusions than the one I had been dreading myself. People waited to see who she was. This is no judgement on the artists themselves, as they did not control these circumstances, but she was a young white girl with blonde hair who was performing R&B that was, once again, of a more pop-oriented strain. Obviously these descriptors are very subjective, but there was an unspoken consensus among the other artists who surrounded me and were spread throughout the venue, that was starting to show itself through angered yells and call-outs of the competition from beyond the circle of people immediately around me. The bad optics and proceedings continued on, and the crowd started to get restless. As the 7th act took the stage, the same woman who was contributing her robust commentary to the ongoing proceedings, decided that she had to vocalize her criticisms for all to hear at this point. She was yelling, “Where’s the curly hair!? Where’s the reggae!? Where’s the hip-hop!?” and various other questionings of the competition’s integrity as an “open” music grant competition. Other people vocalized their views in harsher ways, which fell on no objections. Furthermore, the 8th act was not present when her name was called, and according to the DJ, Mike Stoan, she was a hip-hop act. There was no way of knowing this at the event though, as Mike Stoan provided me with this information on Facebook – in comments on a post I shared regarding the experience - the next day after the event. It was presumed that she was among the same disheartening trend – whether due to sound or optics - that the Finalists had followed up to that point. It was an uncomfortable scene, made even worse when the next artist took the stage.
I am not naming specific names, besides those of the people who were part of running the event, as the regrettable experiences and circumstances of the night do not fall under the responsibility of the artists who took the stage. The next artist who came up was an artist with a visible physical disability and was pushed on stage in a wheelchair. I want to clarify that I actually have heard of this artist before this event, and commend him for pushing through on his journey to carrying out a message for others to hear. Unfortunately, it seemed like they had called him up to replace the 8th act, as well as to silence the crowd, because nobody wants to be the person calling out the proceedings and ruining this artist’s chance to perform. However, he was actually a special guest performer, who they had not listed on the program for the night. Since he was announced as a contestant, it felt like he was unfairly selected as a last-second replacement for the 8th Finalist and this caused people to cast the integrity of the competition further into doubt. He performed, and they even asked him what he would do with the $20,000, and he was given feedback from the judges, as per the other Finalists. They announced after he got off the stage, that he was in fact a special guest performer and he was called up as a contestant in error, but the damage had already been done. He was also a hip-hop act, and I felt it was even worse that it went down this way, because they asked him what he would do with the money, yet there was no opportunity to even win it. As cringe worthy as that is, this sounds a lot like how we all felt by this point.
The 9th act was called up and finally the optics and sound were in the favour of those who were upset, but it was too little, too late. We waited to see if this artist would be able to salvage the experience and represent the Urban genres/black demographic that had not been present for the majority of the selections. He was promising, due to his charisma and relatable character on the stage as he interacted with the host and judges before his performance, which was of a variety that had not been seen up to that point. He performed a Reggae song, but the music played and he started his performance and it was clear that he was not an experienced vocalist enough to compete with the other Finalists before him, especially if the formula they seemed to favour was of the Pop Radio variety. The judges did mention this to him, and he responded by revealing that it was his first time singing on stage. They seemed perplexed, and he responded by telling them, “You picked it!” in regards to him putting together a recorded version that was polished and refined down enough to fit their pop sensibilities and get through their selection process. He made a point of echoing the sentiments of most of the crowd, by telling them that he knew they wouldn’t pick any hip-hop, so that’s why he did what he did. Many people cheered at this statement, but this was the only time throughout the night that anyone was able to have their voice heard on the issue.
As he left the stage, people continued to berate the judges for their pre-disposition to typical Pop music, and berate the event for its apparent mishandling of the whole night and lack of integrity regarding selections, and prioritizing having filled seats over actually caring about the artists they brought out. People had had enough of it to that point and several artists and their supporters started to leave the building before the 10th act was called.
Apparently, they were not allowed to leave until the event was over. I don’t know if anyone was able to leave anyways, but I turned around to see the exits and most people who had gotten up were now standing around the doors watching as the 10th act took the stage. This Finalist was the 2nd Urban artist on the night, and his sound was more in line with a lot of the artists who were disgruntled, but we already felt like there was not even a chance to win, so this had lost all effect to appease anyone. Also, unfortunately for this artist, a lot of people were no longer in their seats watching his performance and were calling out their criticisms of the event as he took the microphone. He did his thing, but it was not optimal circumstances as it continued on. Even as he was being judged, people were calling out the judges and drowning them out. The same vocal woman from before was now at the back near the exit and was yelling, “NO BLACK PEOPLE! NO BLACK PEOPLE! NO BLACK PEOPLE!” The Finalist on stage was a black person, as well as the 9th Finalist before him, but she was clearly calling out the entire competition’s integrity as a whole at this point. I didn’t really expect the host or any other parties involved with the event to take on any backlash directly, but that further contributed to the hostile environment and negative experience, as a whole large portion of the crowd was ignored on top of already feeling disheartened and taken advantage of.
Now that the performances were finished, people still were gathered at the exits and it seemed that they were still not being allowed to leave. I had remained in my seat, because I wanted to sit the whole experience through, to be able to have my own full honest perspective of how it all transpired. The judges spent about 15 minutes deliberating on the top 6 Finalists, and then they were called up. All 6 Finalists, as expected, were among the aforementioned Pop or Pop crossover varieties. Even this process seemed rushed, in order to get the event over and done with. The host lined up the 6 contestants, and was supposed to announce the runner-up winners, then the grand prize winner; instead he named the $20,000 grand-prize winner right away, and literally seconds later, announced the end of the competition and thanked us for our attendance. That was it. Within less than 2 minutes, the contestants were lined up, the grand-prize winner was announced, and we were told we could leave. The grand-prize winner didn’t even have a chance to celebrate or talk with the host before it was all over. As people proceeded to leave the building he was presented with the big fake cheque, as he and the other top 6 Finalists had a photo-op. You could see that they just wanted to get the whole thing done and over with. The host left the stage before the photo-op even began.
Most artists had stopped paying any mind to the competition by this point, and we all started filing out of the building. Some artists remained and spoke to each other about the event, but most just decided to write this one off and head on to where ever they needed to be. My dad had actually come to this event, and this was the first time he had been to any musical event of mine. I didn’t know he had come, and he found me on the way out. Unfortunately, that was one $40 ticket they were able to coax out of me. My dad drove me and my girlfriend to our next location for the night, and I started to contemplate.
The next day, I started receiving messages from other artists asking me what had happened, and I kept it brief and/or vague because I simply wanted to move on to the next chapter. But I looked up other artists I knew who were there, to see that they had chosen to vocalize the experience for others to know about it.
I felt that I wanted to vocalize my experience for others to see that this wasn’t an isolated perspective. Reading Chris Castello’s recount of the experience re-affirmed that this was an established and wide-spread problem in the city that I had had the fortune of having limited direct experience with myself, but I did know of and had run into on smaller scales before. I don’t know if this was pure luck, or diligence, as I tended to simply avoid anything I really couldn’t be sure of to that point. As you rise in confidence and ability, you get bolder in the risks you take, and maybe this was bound to happen to me at some point soon. I also felt that Chris Castello and Dijah Payne - another artist present at the event that I was familiar with - had nailed down not only what was wrong with the event, but what was wrong with the city’s approach to music, specifically of the Urban variety, as a whole, within their posts on the subject. This negative experience was magnifying as more and more young artists are venturing out to start their journeys in this time of seemingly increased opportunities and momentum for artists from Toronto and the surrounding GTA.
I chose to share these posts by Chris and Dijah, as a way to relay the negative experience of the night, and echo the sentiments they provided. I also wanted to show to non-artists that these kinds of events not only happen, but how damaging they can be to an artist and their journey. My post on Facebook was largely met with sympathy and condolences.
Due to the attention my post was getting, it attracted the aforementioned DJ, Mike Stoan. This is not an attack on him, as the grandiose mess of the Fund Me Fest experience was beyond his scope of influence, but he did come onto my post in defence of how the night went down. Many people were not happy with that. Even Fred E Fame asked me to call him so he could explain things. I won’t get too in-depth on these interactions, as I would like to focus on what is to be gained from this experience, and the common perspective of me and several other artists cannot be denied.
Mike Stoan’s key statements were that the competition was based on song choices alone, so there was no possibility of racism, and that 50% of the Finalists were “Pop” and 50% of them were “Urban”. Myself, and many other artists would disagree on the genre categorization of the Finalists. I also brought up that an “open” music grant competition for that much money should have had more attention to representation from even more genres in the selection process, as well as more integrity in recognizing that different genres have different strengths and markets to be considered under the criteria presented in the Rules & Regulations. Only one formula was considered when lining up the submissions to these criteria, and that doomed the process from the start. Also, Fred E Fame outlined the costs of the event to me, to defend that it was not a money-grab. I can say, that going by his numbers, the money made – and that they could have made if more people came – compared to what was spent to hold the event and dispense prizes, would not have resulted in any kind of profit for V Media Productions, but somehow I guess they had an aim to make back their return on investment in as many ways as possible, and this was on the backs of a majority of the artists who wasted their time at this event. According to these defences, honourable intentions were in place, but the optics of the night simply did not help this case, and it did not change the unfortunate experience encountered by several artists.
This brings me to the reality that there are so many younger and/or inexperienced artists who would not have had enough diligence or knowledge to avoid what I experienced at Fund Me Fest on May 5th. Even worse, there are artists who would not have had the strength or experience to withstand such a disheartening blow as this one. This is another form of trauma, on a personal and artistic level. There is so much invested into our journeys: from family sacrifices, working through mental/physical/emotional pain, being broke, investing time and money into your craft and production, putting yourself out there to countless people you don’t know with various intentions, not knowing if what you’re doing is even going to get you anywhere, etc. Another artist could have a dream dashed for life. Another artist could lose faith in the society and people that surround them. Artists are treated like commodities, and should be regarded for the special messages and unique experiences and perspectives they provide. There will be many interests that are in line with supporting that value, but many in our current socio-economic climate can only do that to a certain point before they eventually turn this value into another discarded element in the quest for the bottom-line or metaphorical podiums that only have room for everyone else but the artist.
I’d like this experience to enlighten artists on their journeys of expression and seeking a place in this world. Eventually, we have to fall back on the power of our art, the will of our minds, and the determination of our hearts to make a climate where our vision is accepted and respected as it should be; equally across the spectrum of expressions. Artists should be diligent and do their research, and always never be afraid to ask questions to those around them, and those offering them an opportunity. All artists have to take their own forms of risk, and that won’t stop after this event, but hopefully more are aware of what to expect as they navigate the ongoing gauntlet of life, decisions, and opportunities that will come their way. Building your own form of success is an art in itself.
I’d like to think that this picture ironically sums up the Fund Me Fest experience.
No, Fund Me Fest, thank YOU.
- Sir Michael Zordon