When it comes to ethics and music promotion, it’s important to start at the top with the worst offenders. Mark Knight RCM blog founder tackles the paid reviews debate.
In the last few week’s we’ve come across several online articles and posts criticising music blogs for their ethics. While none have been directed at us, they peaked our interest and got us thinking….
Surely if you are going to discuss ethics and music promotion you start at the top, not at the bottom with the blogs? Accusing small, independent blogs of unethical promotion feels like saying video games are responsible for gun crime. No guns are responsible for gun crime!
We’ll get to blogs, but before we do. Here are seven of the least ethical companies working in music right now.
Here are a summary of the least ethical brands and practices harming unsigned artist promotion in 2021.
Over 300,000 videos are uploaded every day, and a large percentage of the most viewed videos contain music. However, despite their reliance on music content, it feels like YouTube’s role in music promotion has escaped scrutiny for far too long. Especially when you consider parent company Google’s mission is ‘Don’t be evil’.
What’s the problem?
They don’t pay musicians for every stream! Which in the age of streaming is surely unforgivable! In fact, musicians need to amass 4,000 hours of video watch-time within the past 12 months and 1,000 subscribers to even begin monetising their YouTube channel. These levels are beyond 90% of unsigned artists, who they don’t receive a penny for their art.
Even if you are fortunate enough to be able to monetize your YouTube, the royalty rates YouTube pays musicians are up to 10x lower than the royalties Spotify pay artists.
When you have over 1.8bn active daily users worldwide on Facebook and 1.074bn active daily users on Instagram your value to musicians as a promotional should be unquestioned.
What’s the problem?
We have two… Firstly Facebook has never told musicians how to use their platform correctly. Ok sure, maybe it’s not their responsibility, and maybe artists should make more effort to learn. But it becomes seriously unethical when they bombard musicians to promote their best performing wall posts. Musicians can easily waste hundreds or thousands on promoted posts, without ever learning how to use the Ad Manager correctly.
Wouldn’t it be great if Facebook showed musicians: How to build custom or lookalike audiences or how to retarget their fanbase. Tools that are way more effective at building an engaged fanbase that a badly targeted promoted wall post.
Sorry Facebook it doesn’t stop there. If you ever speak to a Facebook Ad team expert they will readily tell you to use the ‘Traffic’ objective to promote music. At face value, it makes sense, afterall you want to get fans to ‘click’ an advert and go somewhere to hear your music.
But you soon realise an advert click is not what it seems. On Facebook you can optimise for advert clicks or landing page views. Yes that’s right a click doesn’t mean someone will actually have visited your website, the only guarantee is they have ‘clicked’ When you look at the stats you quickly realise most didn’t clicks don’t ever land. Please can someone explain what value a ‘click’ is to anyone? Why would anyone want or expect to pay for this?
Live Music Promoters
(Pandemic aside) live music is still the primary income stream for most unsigned artists. So unethical promoters really do have a hugely negative impact on a large number of new artists.
What’s the problem?
Most live music promoters don’t promote. They just invite bands to play in their venues and expect the bands to do all the promotion. As a consequence, bands end up playing to the same twenty people at every show. Great for the bar takings, not good for a band looking to win new fans.
Over the years we’ve had promoters that refuse to pay, under pay, or even ask musicians to pay to play. Ever heard of this old scam from Brixton Jamm Bar?
Invite a new band to headline a gig at Brixton Jamm Bar on the same night Franz Ferdinand were playing a headline show at the Brixton Academy. They would call it the official Franz Ferdinand After Show Party. Then to be the headliner a band would need to buy a book of physical tickets (which contain their name and Franz Ferdinand’s name) and sell them all.
Pay to play is bad enough, but there is more… the promoter offered the same headline slot deal to 5 bands. Yes that’s right, they were making money from 5 bands and giving the opportunity to one! Franz Ferdinand and their management know nothing about the gig and were certainly not planning to attend or DJ as billed.
Music distributors play a vital role in getting music out of your studio and into the ears of fans. There are tons of them and most do a decent job. However, in the last few years a new model has appeared led by AWAL.
What’s the problem?
Let’s be clear AWAL is a distributor, not a label. But all of their marketing and language suggests something more than the functional service they provide. They make artists feel like they have been chosen or signed. In reality the only similarity between AWAL and a record label is they both take your royalties. Don’t feel fooled artists, there is no such thing as free distribution, AWAL will pocket 15% of your streaming royalties for doing nothing more than EmuBands or any other traditional distributor.
We’ve shared our opinions on radio pluggers before, so we’ll keep this brief. If you want to read more, click here for further reading.
What’s the problem?
If you are a professional radio plugger, the first thing you realise is that the air-time you are pitching to win is dominated by major label signed artists. If this is your job, there is no way you don’t know this.
So if you approach an unsigned artist and promise to get their music on the radio, you do so knowing the chances of airplay are actually really, really slim. But unethical radio pluggers don’t let this truth stop them.
Instead unethical radio pluggers will happily take hundreds or thousands of pounds from unsigned artists. Much like music PR (see below) there are no guarantees and anyone can set themselves up as a radio plugger.
Spotify effectively killed the playlist plugger industry over night by allowing artists to pitch directly to their editors. Now they need to act again to allow artists to quickly understand the real audience of independent playlists.
What’s the problem
Playlist followers do not mean listeners and if artists are being asked to pay for placement on a playlist they should be getting data about what they are really paying for. For every editorially curated playlist there are tons of fake playlists where ludicrous numbers of streams are driven by a handful of listeners in one obscure country. These fake streams screw up artist audience targeting, and at worst lead to account deletion.
Are all people in music PR unethical? No of course not. But most unsigned artists who have hired one, will have a horror story to share, and that would suggest there are way too many bad pennies.
What’s the problem?
It’s a completely unregulated industry. That means anyone can set themselves up as a music PR, charge between £500-£2,000 for a campaign and deliver absolutely nothing, As an artist or manager you hear things like… “There are no guarantees, or it often takes two or three months before new artists get any traction” So you mean you want me to pay again and again for nothing? Erm, we don’t think so.
This brings us to blogs and PR alternatives, starting with SubmitHub
When music PR is riddled with charlatans and scammers it’s no surprise there have been attempts to create alternative models. One of the original alternatives is SubmitHub. Created by Jason Grishkoff (founder of music blog Indie Shuffle) The logic is sound. Bring a load of blogs together and make it easier for artists to access them through one front door.
The challenge facing SubmitHub is not the idea, but the execution. As Ari’s Take observed in their critique of the platform – musicians want coverage not feedback. Especially when the feedback is often ill-informed and utterly subjective.
This feedback requirement was added by Grishkoff as a way to ensure the promoters actually listen to the music before making blind offers of support. This hints at the real challenge facing SubmitHub.
Is SubmitHub unethical, no of course not. Afterall, it’s really just the middleman, connecting musicians to blogs and other promoters. But as they have grown it’s become harder to vet and police their members, and sadly some of their promotional partners are unethical.
We experienced this ourselves a few years ago when someone signed up to SubmitHub claiming to be Right Chord Music. They profited from our name and it took several attempts to get them shut down and our blog name removed from the SubmitHub system.
Musosoup the way PAYG PR should be
On the back of SubmitHub comes Musosoup, they have stripped out the feedback, and cut to the chase. Yes you pay £20 to submit, but after that you only pay for guaranteed blog coverage that you agree to, there is also the option for free only coverage. If at the end of your campaign you don’t get any offers of support, your upfront payment is refunded as a token to use on your campaign. This is pay as you go PR the way it should be.
This model works well for blogs who want a vetted feed of quality music to review and it also works well for musicians. Afterall would you rather pay £30 for 3 or 4 reviews or pay £500 – £1,000 to a music PR and potentially get nothing?!
Musosoup offer a very transparent and ethical offering and they recently launched their #SustainableCurator campaign to further boost their credentials. But as they continue to scale, the challenge to avoid the scammers and fake promoters that have become the scourge of SubmitHub will remain.
Influencer marketing brings a new set of challenges
SubmitHub and Musosoup now offer musicians the chance to connect to social media influencers. After running the influencer marketing platform ‘Squall’ for a couple of years, we know this brings a whole set of additional challenges. Unfortunately influencers are used to working with brands, not bands, so immediately their prices are far higher, and they are utterly unsympathetic to the financial realities of unsigned bands.
We recently took the decision to close Squall, concluding that influencers don’t care about music, they care about money, and this isn’t why we created the platform. While running the platform, we would regularly see Squall influencers blindly making offers to every artist that submitted to the platform, regardless of quality or genre. As an ethical platform this didn’t sit well with us, and I would urge both SubmitHub and Musosoup to closely monitor the quality vs value return from social influencers. It would be easy to be accepting of expensive offers when you are taking a cut from every single one.
The RCM Indie Collective
Right Chord Music recently launched our aggregation service. The RCM Indie Collective invites musicians to submit once, in return for the chance to be featured on upto 7 different blogs. We’ve deliberately kept the number of blog partners small, to ensure quality. Read about our early successes here.
Here’s the offer:
- Submit once for free to RCM
- Choose to be considered for free or paid reviews
- If you choose paid your music is exposed to all our freelance writers and blog partners
- If you choose free, your music is exposed to fewer writers
- Even if you choose paid, you can still pick up free support
Understanding music blogs and ethics
The first thing to recognize about music blogs is the scale, for many the audience is tiny. Especially when you consider many new blogs are not even not Google indexed or SEO optimised. So even when they write about your band, you won’t be able to find the review without a direct link.
This lack of scale is why we immediately de-prioritised bloggers on our list of unethical promoters. Bloggers don’t set out to do harm, they are passionate about music and want to write about it. The moment they start, they are immediately out of pocket for the domain name and the website hosting and of course the endless time and early mornings.
When you run a music blog, you quickly realise the majority of your visitors are the artists you feature and the fans of those artists. Ok you might get a few hard-core music obsessives that visit you, but the majority of your audience are the bands and artists reading their own features.
At this level, the role of the music blog review is primarily about affirmation. Blogs give musicians a quote to use on their press release, social post, website or EPK. But for a blog to add move beyond just affirmation, their review needs to really appear in the first two pages of Google search results.
That brings us to our first conclusion. If blogs are not Google indexed, they shouldn’t be charging for reviews, because they are only doing half their job.
How do blogs scale to offer reach and affirmation?
When you are a new music blog starting out, it’s easy to write for free. Why because you receive a trickle of emails and you write about the best.
But as your blog grows in popularity your trickle of submissions becomes a torrent. Before we moved to an online submission database we frequently received over 150 submissions a week. Sadly there is no way, one person can ever listen to every track. So you quickly start to miss out on great music, and you can never review enough.
If you want to scale a music blog you need help, a better submissions process and more writers. We moved to a centralised online submissions database to address this problem. This approach allows us to give freelance writers and partner blogs access to our submissions. The net effect is more music gets reviewed and more reviews mean more visitors to the blog, and that’s better for everyone.
Occasionally you’ll find a student who wants to write for free, but it’s rare and even if you do, it’s unlikely they will stay for longer than needed to build their portfolio. The only way to attract and retain writers is to offer payment for their work.
Nobody gets rich writing blog reviews
Let’s be clear, nobody gets rich writing music reviews. On RCM we charge £5, We can’t speak for others, but would suggest the average review price is £10 or under. So consider this… Who is more unethical, the blogger for charging or the artist or manager paying less than minimum wage?
And let’s not forget the alternative. You could pay a PR £1,500 and have no guarantees of any press. So paying £25 for 5 guaranteed reviews from a writer that’s passionate about your music seems like decent value?
Editorial credibility is compromised by paid reviews
The other criticism levelled at blogs that charge for reviews is editorial credibility is compromised the moment money is offered. Let’s address that.
Bloggers work hard to build their brand and reputation for sharing great music, and wouldn’t want to risk that. Any track submitted to RCM that is open to paid review must meet certain quality thresholds, before it’s shared with our writers. If the music sounds terrible, if it’s missing a photo or press release or there are broken links it will be immediately deleted. Music only gets shared on RCM if we love it. No blogger who has spent years building their audience and credibility is going to destroy their brand for the sake of a £5 review!
Paid reviews become unethical when the payment becomes a serious motivator impacting editorial choices.
Years ago I contacted the NME to review a new band. The NME said they loved the music, but would only review the band if we spent hundreds on advertising! Now that’s unethical.
Similarly, we applied to be featured on Record of The Day. Fifteen years ago, this was seen as a very powerful industry feature. Once again the band was chosen by the editor, but for the feature to run we would need to pay £150. Paid support masquerading as free editorial features certainly crosses the ethical line.
We have to conclude that when it comes to ethics the problem doesn’t start with blogs. The scale and the money changing hands at this level is too insignificant to impact the industry. Let’s start at the top and first weed out the people and practices that are really causing harm at scale.
Words Mark Knight