An entertainment lawyer said the company's practices should have sent up red flags.
By KATIE-NELL SCANLON
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
BOARDMAN -- Arlene Gwendolyn Dean said she doesn't consider herself a songwriter. She doesn't have dreams of becoming a star on Hollywood or fantasize about shuffling down the red carpet.
She simply attended a service one afternoon at Anointing Force World Outreach Church in Youngstown where her son, Pastor Brian C. Dean, delivered a sermon she couldn't forget.
The 61-year-old retiree said she was inspired by God to have that message heard.
After writing a song titled "I am a World Changer," Dean said, she researched copyrighting in case the right person might be interesting in getting her message out. By filling out standard copyright forms she obtained through the library, Dean sent the $30 fee, and she had a copyrighted version of her music.
Only two weeks later, Dean received a letter from HillTop Records, a record company out of Hollywood, interested in her music.
"I had just finished writing the song when I received the letter in the mail," Dean said. "It had come at the right time, and it sounded promising."
She suspected the company had obtained her mailing address through a list of copyrighted artists and songwriters.
The 'America project'
On July 16, 2001, she received another letter from HillTop congratulating her on her recording, stating that it was chosen to be screened for its "America" album, a compilation of 25 tracks. The letter stated that if her song was included in the "America" project, it could be a breakthrough for Dean, and that negotiations had begun for possible play on cable television.
Dream come true? Not exactly. The company promised production would begin immediately -- after Dean's payment of $429 for the screening process and a signed contract.
"That should be a red flag right there," said entertainment attorney James Major of Major and Associates in Broadview Heights. "A company will never ask a client to pay fees up front. In legitimate cases, they will cover initial costs and get their payback when sales start to occur."
Major said the scam is not unusual in the music or fashion industries and usually results in the company making a profit off clients' money rather than sales.
Dean sent in a check and a signed contract, with the understanding that this was the risk she needed to take to get her music to the public's ears.
She tried contacting HillTop by phone at the number on the letterhead but reached only an automated message that requested, "all correspondence in writing," for "your benefit as well as ours." A prompt response is promised by mail, and ... dial tone.
Dean never spoke in person with a representative from HillTop, but she said the company kept her up to date through letters, keeping its word to respond quickly. She said company officials made her feel that things were being handled professionally.
But where exactly were the letters coming from? According to the company report on HillTop Records from the Better Business Bureau of the Southland in Colton, Calif., complaints began in July 1993.
The report contains the same phone number on the letters Dean received, but two addresses were found -- Sunset and Hollywood boulevards, Hollywood, Calif. in addition to the North Vine Street address Dean's letters are from.
The BBB report states that "mail sent to this company was returned by the post office as 'moved; left no forward address,' 'forward order has expired' or 'unable to locate.'"
A check of the yellow pages for HillTop Records turned up no street address -- only a Los Angeles ZIP code and the same phone number that plays the same automated message.
HillTop was rated as having "an unsatisfactory business performance record based on a pattern of unresolved complaints," according to the BBB report. Complaints allege misrepresentation in selling practices and failure to fulfill contracts or provide services in a timely manner.
"The warning bells should have been going off," Major said. "The risk for the publisher is minimal since all costs are underwritten by the author or composer. Therefore, the client rarely sees any profit, and they've paid most of the cost."
But Dean said she was told from the start that profits would be small. She considered HillTop a stepping stone to having her music heard more widely. It was the song's message she valued, not the cash.
When asked if Dean spoke with any other artists about the company's legitimacy, she said HillTop remained fairly private about their clients, which she could understand.
Dean did receive a copy of the "America" album and said she was pleased with the production of her song. She was even considering submitting another song for a future recording.
Dean said she is optimistic about the future of her songwriting.
"If it was inspired by God, then God will allow this to progress," Dean said. "But this is something that needs to be known."