Payola!

An open letter to music submission sites and blogs that charge for reviews

* This piece was originally published on December 2, 2020 on another blog that I sometimes contribute to: Sounds Good.

It might be because my wife and I just finished watching HBO’s incredible NXIVM documentary series, The Vow – and have since gone down a rabbit hole of cults, secret societies, and all that good stuff – but right now I’m paranoid that THEY are watching. Tailing me. Lurking in the shadows. Silently stalking my personal Twitter and laughing at my pathetically low number of followers, while they themselves boast followers in the thousands who allow them to get away with all sorts of nefarious deeds. No no no, not the self-fulfilment groups, or the deluded, quasi-religious fruitcakes, but something equally as shady: the blogs scalping artists in the name of ‘reviews’ while masquerading as ‘champions of new music’.

Everybody knows about it. Just take a look at Twitter the moment you make a post about it, or ask one of your friends who happens to be in a band. If you’re an artist or a blogger yourself, you’ve definitely wrestled with it. Most people will have a stance on it: usually it’s either okay, because everybody knows it’s a thing, or it’s wrong on every level. Like many people who run their own (in my case, tiny) blog or write for others, I’m also an artist that can look at the practice from both sides. I can see the good and, tellingly, I can see the damage.

Because of this, I wanted to explore the subject in a bit more detail. Although I have my own position, I also feel that the ‘pay to play’ subject, when it comes to music reviews, is not as clear-cut so as to be a simple binary issue. There are complexities that are maybe not apparent at first, and it’s very easy to take quite a sanctimonious position. I know that I have, and I know that some may say I’m a hypocrite for doing so. Regardless, my goal here is to explore the particular nuances that make this such an interesting discussion. I should point out that I (and Sounds Good) have no agenda here, and no desire to shit talk specific blogs or platforms that facilitate this stuff. This piece is also informed by anonymous first person research that I would be happy to share in its entirety, should anybody be interested. Send me a message on Twitter or something. So yeah, nothing is personal. After all, we’re all grown-ups here, right?

Why all the fuss?

Good question. Well, the one thing that everybody seems to agree upon as the core problem when you talk about blogs accepting money in exchange for a review is this: what differentiates this from the illegal practice of payola? Can one really expect an honest opinion when a payment is involved, and perhaps most importantly, what effect does this have on the reader? I’ll let you mull on that for a while before we return to it later.

The view from the ground

As I mentioned in the introduction above, I have my own views on the practice of writing reviews – specifically positive ones – in exchange for cash. Of course this is not to be confused with the practice of writing positive reviews when no invisible financial transaction has taken place, which is a very different thing. However; rather than lecture people on what I (the guy running a blog with follower numbers barely in three figures) think of things, I thought the piece could be bolstered with some quality primary research in the form of a survey. I couldn’t help it – having worked in further education as a lecturer for five years, I’m a sucker for this stuff. So I took to Twitter and Instagram, winning some (much appreciated) support but no doubt annoying a lot of people in the process, and emailed upwards of forty blogs; with a mixture of those who fall on each side of the divide – although curiously, of those who I know for certain do charge for reviews, only a very small percentage make this clear on their website, and absolutely none on the reviews themselves. Also, and make of this what you will, none responded to my email.

Is it ever acceptable to charge an artist for a review?

This was the first question on the survey. As I said, the respondents were a mix of writers and artists. Rather than try and crowbar the content of the responses into a big slab of text, I’ve decided to streamline them using everybody’s favourite listing method: the bullet point. The results were mixed, although perhaps as you’d expect, skewed somewhat towards ‘no’. 

No

In no particular order, here are the five broad recurring themes that were apparent in the results. It is by no means an exhaustive list, and I should point out that although a lot of people spoke about ethical concerns, there is no specific point under that heading. I feel that the nature of the whole discussion dictates that ethics are inherent in every point made.

  • The practice of charging the artist for a review creates a huge disparity, whereby coverage is unfairly skewed towards artists who can afford to pay. It creates a classist system with the prevailing assumption that those who cannot afford to have their work discussed are not worthy of it. Also unanimous among the artists who completed the survey was the idea that coverage should ideally be based on merit rather than money, and this was echoed in the views of the vast majority of responses from writers. A recurring theme is the idea that one honest, organic review is worth far more to artists than several paid-for opinions.
  • The practice of charging the artist for a review calls into question the integrity of both parties. However; it’s important to recognise that the writers and publications are in the position of power here. Artists – who are often hundreds of pounds down in real terms by the time they come to promote their work – often feel the need to create an online trail or a ‘buzz’ in order to reach more people. The difficulty is that blogs who work in this way will often churn out copy that is of little relevance or, most frequently, copy-and-paste the artist’s press release. The relationship is forced, and while the artist does get some exposure, it comes at a cost that is more than financial.
  • The practice of charging the artist for a review could be seen as an exploitative one; whereby publications are preying on an artist’s passion and/or naivety. After all, what artist doesn’t want to talk about the work that they’ve created? It is also worth noting that this topic is the one that brings up the most emotive language from artists and writers alike.
  • The practice of charging the artist for a review could be seen as an insult to the reader; who without an awareness of the transaction is not having their right to knowledge or free choice being respected.
  • The practice of charging the artist for a review could be seen as a double kick in the teeth; with many artists highlighting that blogs who have charged them have rarely, if at all, paid for the music. Of the artists who responded, none specified that a writer had purchased a copy of the product reviewed. (I hate to use the term ‘product’ but, y’know, for the purposes of the discussion…)

Yes

I have also drawn together five points from the same research that illustrate instances where writers and artists alike feel it can be appropriate for a publication to charge an artist for a review. Again, I must stress that the points presented are neither my own or those of Sounds Good, but are taken directly from the survey.

  • The practice of charging the artist for a review could be justifiable if the publication has a large reach, or offers targeted social media advertising as part of the package.
  • The practice of charging the artist for a review could be justifiable if the money goes towards supporting web hosting costs, as well as other services such as subscriptions to things like Adobe Spark, Lightroom, Photoshop etc. that are necessary to keep the publication in operation.
  • The practice of charging the artist for a review could be justifiable because the work is mutually beneficial. In theory both parties will gain exposure, with the blog introducing the artist to more followers and vice versa.
  • The practice of charging the artist for a review could be justifiable if the publication offers negotiation or a free alternative.
  • The practice of charging the artist for a review could be justifiable if the parameters of what services can be charged for, and how much can be charged, are made clear by the submission site facilitating the transaction.
A photograph from the 2019 Unethical Bloggers Ball

What about the platforms that act as intermediaries between artists and curators?

As the final two points in favour of charges above allude to; the second thing that I was interested in exploring relates to the sites that position themselves as accessible, cost-effective alternatives to PR services. Now, understandably for the vast majority of artists the idea of spending hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds on a dedicated PR campaign is a non-starter – which is just as well, because it seems (anecdotally) that a lot of people offering these services end up going straight to the same platforms anyway. Unless an artist is prepared to do their research and directly contact blogs themselves (which many do) then sites such as these are an attractive proposition. The beauty is that they take out much of the legwork – which itself is no bad thing – and as an artist you don’t have to worry about making sure all those emails are addressed to the right person, written in the right tone, free of typos, and blog-specific etc.

Two of the most common (as I’m sure you’ll be aware if you’ve got this far) are SubmitHub and Musosoup. Although different in the mechanics of their operation, both essentially offer the same thing: you can upload your music, along with its assets, to their platform and it will enable you to get your music in front of the people you want it in front of in one easy hit. I won’t try to explain how they work beyond that, because it’s not really relevant to the discussion and kind of distracts from the real issue, but you can find out easily enough by checking the respective sites. With regards to whether or not what they offer is payola, this piece on SubmitHub by Counterzine’s founder, Travis Shosa, makes interesting reading. The following point is an important one, and also one not exclusive to that particular platform, so I’ll just leave it here:

“SubmitHub is not payola. The definition of payola is “the practice of bribing someone to use their influence or position to promote a particular product or interest”. SubmitHub makes use of a loophole in this by having the money they receive not ensure promotion, but simply a click on the ‘play’ button: an essential precursor to potential promotion.”

Travis Shosa, Counterzine

So are submission sites worth it?

Whether you think they’re ethical or not, perhaps a broader question is: as an artist, what can you reasonably expect from them? Below are some interesting points lifted from my survey results:

Five experiences from writers using submission sites

  • “I’ve used both Musosoup and SubmitHub and understand why they exist and why publications use them, but they’re not for me. I started a music blog because I’m a fan of music, and wanted to hear as much new music as possible. Musosoup and SubmitHub do provide that (perhaps TOO much) but the monetary side of it strips away the genuine quality of discovering something and wanting to write about it. SubmitHub is very heavily focused on the funds, which is fine, but it forces you to think that way too. You’re given a huge list of songs, all against a time-frame which will expire and ultimately lose you money, songs and reputation. I used to balance it with a full time job and would receive messages from the owners warning that I’d be kicked off the site if I continued to miss songs, but I’d miss a day a week because of my other job. It was madness. Musosoup is a much nicer platform that gives an equal relationship between writer and artist, so I don’t have as many negative things to say about it. It’s more that I prefer to have genuine conversations and connections with artists and their music, and not have a middle platform between us.”
  • “I do use Submithub, but I don’t solely accept submissions from it and I still answer/post tracks that are sent across via email. I think it works out around 50/50 that we post (not including tracks I find elsewhere). A $0.50 tip isn’t going to sway my decision whether to post something or not. If someone wants to tip us for our time and feedback on their track, then cool. If not, the free version is there. The $0.50’s add up and go straight back into the blog to cover the cost of our web hosting, domain fees, photoshop/lightroom costs, etc with nothing left over. If Submithub vanished, we’d still keep running like how we started off. Also, Submithub streamlines submissions, so that’s good. The quality of music sent across via both bands/PR/management is brilliant. I think a lot of people think that Submithub rips off bands, but bands will pay £1000 for a PR campaign and it won’t bother them, yet the PR person they just paid will then go on Submithub and tip us to consider the song anyway! So they could’ve spent $1-50 and done it themselves. So all in all, Submithub is saving bands money.”
  • “Pros and cons to both. Submithub is good because you know they’ve actually listened to your track, Musosoup is fairer moneywise for artists (low upfront fee to get in front of the right people quickly, and only pay more after they’ve been picked.) Submithub you can still pay lots and get nothing. Both are low risk compared to the high prices of PR which could also get you no results.”
  • “I think platforms like this make it very hard for bands to submit music, sometimes, a simple email is needed to show off their work to an editor like myself – going through the process of signing up, submitting, and putting it in the right “tag” or “section”. It shouldn’t have to be difficult.”
  • “I think these platforms suck the blood out of public relations and journalism — not to mention that they fuck over artists by making them pay for something that should be free by technical definition (to be clear, this is totally different than paying a publicist for their services). They honestly make me kind of sick to think about.”

Five experiences from artists using submission sites

  • “Both good tools, Submithub seems a bit less personable and a high standard of curator / less acceptances for submissions. Musosoup is real people so automatically better, could definitely do with more tight money caps to stop writers trying to charge £10. Should be a small contribution for time like less than a fiver.”
  • “I like both, don’t love them though. Do prefer reaching out and building relationships on twitter. But Submithub is good for the amount you can send and free tokens, though those haven’t ever gotten me anywhere. I think I consider it a way of getting name recognition more? Submithub paid tokens I used in the wrong way at the start and it bummed me out a bit getting nos that didn’t get what the music was doing, so I’m less inclined to use them. I like Musosoup but always select free coverage on there. I wonder what the split is of writers on there – are more free or paid.”
  • “I have had zero luck on either platform.”
  • “I have used Musosoup before, although I did get a few decent reviews out of it, I didn’t feel it was clear enough that a] the curators levy their own charges and b] that paying for a membership to Musosoup doesn’t guarantee you reviews. I’ve had reviews through them and, honestly, although they were generally positive feedback, I didn’t feel as if the money I gave the blogs was worth it.”
  • “Hate Submithub. For the fact that people try to make money using popular artists to draw in social capital for smaller artists. If you put Lil Wayne in your playlist why should I be charged. You didn’t ask him for money. Not saying I’m Wayne but if he was good enough to get on for free shouldn’t we all get it based on merit?”

Why do people want to write about your music?

One of the things that often gets overshadowed by the discussion about pay to play is that, believe it or not, there are a lot of strange people out there (like us lot at Sounds Good!) that actually want to, and enjoy, writing about music. In fact, chances are that those that ask for a small fee probably do too. I mean, I can’t speak for anybody else, but for a couple of months in the early days of running my own blog I did exactly that. I took a total of £85.50 for 18 reviews. That works out at an average of £4.75 for each piece. However; I realised it was a burden that began to strip away my enthusiasm, and I spent a lot of time wondering why I felt so bad taking £4-6 for 2-5 hours work, and so decided to trust my gut instinct. I just couldn’t get away from the feeling that taking money for my thoughts on somebody else’s work was ultimately icky. I’m not ashamed of it, and in fact I think one piece in particular is the most personal, heartfelt, and profound thing I have ever written – and I know how much time and effort goes into making that happen – but there’s nothing better in this game than finding a great piece of music, writing about it from the heart, and getting a simple ‘thank you’ in return. The truth is that, as an artist I just want to talk about my work, and as a blogger I just want to give others that opportunity – without the inherent bias that comes with a transaction. Tried it, didn’t like it, feel it’s important to acknowledge it. Anyway, that’s me. Here’s what other writers have to say:

  • “It’s the pure passion for the music and recognising that there are so many artists out there that deserve more of a following. It’s also the satisfaction of finishing the piece, and being able to see how you grow and develop through each piece.”
  • “Looking in from the outside you’d think anybody who does it is crazy. I started a blog initially to receive loads of music as I was bored of being given recommendations by the media, and I still enjoy it now. I’ve met loads of people and artists who I’d call friends through it, plus it allows me to be creative with writing, designing etc so I wouldn’t wanna stop. It’s also a nice hobby. No clue what else I’d be doing, probably drugs.”
  • “I’ve written reviews for three years and championed new music for the whole time – writing makes me feel good and it makes me feel proud when an amazing write up goes onto my website and the band/artist read it. I think it’s thrilling and enjoyable. Finding new music and championing and screaming from the rooftops about it is the best feeling. It simply helps an artist to grow and it’s lovely to see.”
  • “When I write it’s like scratching an itch. I’m always thinking about music and what I listen to, and when your thoughts and impressions fall into a lovely order like puzzle pieces it’s so satisfying to get them down. I feel like I don’t have many people in life who want to have those sort of conversations so writing it down is an excuse. And I am just fascinated about creativity, the way people carve out a persona for what they make, why they choose the words and the sounds they do. And the more you listen the more you learn about your own tastes. It’s just one big addictive process.”
  • “Nearly everyone I know and care about is in a band and they’re working SO HARD despite the whole world seemingly being against independent music. I just wanted to do everything I could to support the talented people I know.”

In conclusion: what we need is transparency

Ultimately there’s a reason why the big sites and the submission platforms get their backs up when the term ‘payola’ rears its head.

To me, the solution when it comes to settling the debate once and for all is a simple one. If what you’re doing as a publication is the result of a financial transaction of any kind then you have to be upfront about it. Reviews, if that’s what they are, need to have transparency. And certainly if you’re charging somebody £10 or above (some of these criminals hacks offer reviews for a lot more than this) to copy-and-paste their press release, still spell their names wrong, barely offer any insight on the music, and supposedly promote the piece on social media then you need to make it explicitly clear. Both on the piece itself, and by sending the artist clear evidence that this is what you have done. Quick question for artists, while I’m on the subject: how many of us, as artists who’ve used a submission site, have paid a marketing charge to a publication and received any evidence of how it’s been spent? Anybody? Exactly.

Although I personally have decided that the payola practice (because that’s what it is) is not to my taste, I do believe that there are times when the exchange of money can be followed by a truthful piece of writing. However; the resulting piece needs to make it 100% clear that money has changed hands. After all, a small charge that both parties agree upon for a well thought out, honest, and well written piece of writing is hardly a scalping. But if a publication – however big or small – has conviction in its beliefs, then you’d better fucking believe it has a responsibility to its readers to give them the full picture. If this is you and you still do absolutely nothing to address these shortcomings; well, just know that you are sucking the life out of an industry already on its knees. Without transparency, you are contributing nothing to the world of any real value – and no matter how well you’ve managed to make that routine piece of copy you just bashed together in fifteen minutes look good, it’s still fundamentally toxic. You are actively making the work you are talking about worse. You’re selling a lie.

To this end, I’ve long since updated all 18 affected reviews on my own site with this information in the form of a disclaimer. If this subject makes you feel uncomfortable in any way, or if you also have engaged in the practice (either now or in the past) then you should too. No question. Ultimately there’s a reason why the big sites and the submission platforms get their backs up when the term ‘payola’ rears its head. I’m sure I could reel off thirty blogs in my Instagram feed right now that are charging artists for reviews, and not one of them makes this transparent in any way. Not one.

Earlier in the piece, one of the arguments in favour of charges revolved around the idea that blogs need to find money to pay for things such as Spark, Photoshop, and Lightroom subscriptions and so on. Ultimately you need to decide whether the artist should foot the bill for this. In my view that’s not too dissimilar from the idea that the publication should be making a contribution to the artist to help cover things such as rehearsal space fees, studio time, guitar leads, energy bills, food, and council tax. As an argument it seems fundamentally ridiculous to me to suggest that the artist whose work is being discussed (and who is effectively giving the publication that work for free) should be footing the bill for the tools used to discuss it. There is absolutely no way of making it make sense as a credible argument on any level. It’s fundamentally unjust, and unless you are buying the music (in which case the transactions likely cancel eachother out) just plain questionable. Do it for free. Do it well. Bring traffic to your site if your main intention is to make money. If not, then just enjoy writing about music you love. Oh, and have a little tip jar for if an artist decides (that is, they don’t get asked) to throw a little cash your way. Trust me, it feels SO MUCH BETTER having taken a grand total of £3 (thanks Remy!) over the last 10 weeks for my last thirty-one pieces – that’s about 9.7p per piece – than it did taking money from a submission site.

Are submission sites doing anything wrong?

Legally? No. Ethically? Well that’s up to you to decide. But if you’re charging artists for reviews and features, and making zero reference to this on the pieces in question, then you almost certainly are doing something wrong. I mentioned somewhere above in the vast wasteland of text that I was a lecturer for five years or so. Now I don’t know why, but when I think of this subject I’m reminded of a mandatory talk we used to have to attend every year with some bloke from the police talking about a thing called ‘county lines’. If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s kind of a way that major drug dealers are able to move their wares all over the UK using teenagers as mules. It’s fucking horrible stuff. Unfortunately it’s these kids that don’t really know what they’ve gotten involved with that have a habit winding up in trouble, whereas those that hold the real power have a tendency to remain out of reach. Anyway…

Tenuous though it is, to bring things right back to my reference to The Vow in my opening paragraph: would you sign up to a self-help course if the trainer said from the off that they were going to use hypnosis and neuro linguistic programming to erode your sense of self so that you could be manipulated? No? Probably better to look at all of the evidence and make an informed decision, right? Okay, then as a writer you need to decide whether you want to be the master manipulator or the good guy.

Just. Be. Honest.

Oh, and Merry Christmas x


Feel free to join the discussion below, or you can always contact me directly at isaidyeah@outlook.com

You could also visit my blog, I Said Yeah, here.

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