Why do you make music? Why are you in the industry? How much is your music worth to you, and are you willing to translate that into money?
I hope not, because the going rate is about one dollar.
The first site to charge artists money for “guaranteed feedback” took it on the chin. People hated it. But you didn’t have to be a genius to see this was a growth industry. Snookering artists who have more money than patience has always been a good business, if not good for your karma.
5 Mag has been contacted by at least a half dozen of these sites, often repeatedly. They’ve been created to attract artists pining for influencer attention, playlist fame, glossy mag profiles — or, at least, a guaranteed listener for their music. They always frame their offer in holistic terms: they are “pro-artist,” they say, which is a fun new spin on the old pay-for-play pitch.
The rise of paid review platforms is directly related to the collapse of recorded music industry. Most records today are self-released. You do everything yourself, but you’re really a musician, a producer or a music-maker of some kind. You didn’t start making music because you were good at promotion or filing your quarterly taxes. You have to do promotion and accounting because you like to make music and want to keep making it.
Enter pay-for-play hacks, now called “music submission platforms.” As an enterprising artist, you pay cash money for on-site “credits” (for some reason they all require you to buy their version of Disney Dollars, probably because it distances the participants from confronting the reality of pay-for-play mechanics). In return you get a gang of reviewers, playlisters, radio hosts and down-on-their-luck DJs to send music to.
Because the average pay for the reviewer is around $1, you will get about $1 worth of feedback. This is tastemaking on an industrial scale. You’ll see totally worthless critiques like “needs more oomph” or “the beat is unchallenging” — banalities dashed off quickly, brainlessly because when you’re being paid $1 for your time, time really is money.
In an industry of endurance runners, this is the new race to the bottom. Artists want any kind of attention for as little money as possible, and “curators” will begrudgingly give as little attention as they can in exchange for a $1 payoff.
In between them is a platform that takes 50% of it, making money by bringing together the two most frayed ends of the music industry in 2023.
With average pay around $1, this becomes tastemaking on an industrial scale — artists demanding attention for as little money as possible, and ‘curators’ giving as little as they can for a $1 pay-off.
These sites are easy to clone, but it’s pretty hard to charge more than a couple bucks per “feedback.” As a result, they only distinguish themselves from one another by claiming more and better curators than any other. The site admins must spend as much time hustling into the Instagram and email inboxes of “influencers” as they do attracting artists. 5 Mag is again nothing special here, but we get non-stop pitches, often multiple times from the same platform. Some of them sell it as a replacement for PR agencies, though I have yet to hear of a single PR person quaking in their boots over the threat to their livelihood. In fact, I’ll tell you that I don’t believe a single credible artist has switched from a well-regarded PR firm to snapping up $1 tokens via “music submission platforms.” (Many have likely fled from terrible PR firms to paid promo platforms, though — only to find out that many of the latter are run by the owners of terrible PR firms themselves.)
Other times these roving salesmen hawk their platform to influencers and curators as “music submission management” in the literal sense, encouraging reviewers to only accept music submissions from those willing to slam $1 credits down their hungry hole. One of them, from “Groover,” sent us three messages in a month, which in a victory for spam blockers were funneled straight to Instagram’s “hidden” notifications.
Eric, our happy Groover representative, didn’t dress up the real lure of this service for reviewers. “It’s a great way to generate extra revenue from music submissions!” he shouted cheerfully into the void. (Since this article was originally published, yet another Groover representative contacted us with an even better offer: two dollars per feedback. This makes four Groover reps total in a little more than a year.)
5 Mag Issue 208
Out July 2023
WE STILL CALL IT HOUSE: This was originally published in 5 Mag Issue #208 featuring the story of Chicago house music collective 3 Degrees Global, a tribute to DJ Deeon, a cover mix by and profile of Gratts, Detroit vocalist Diviniti, John Davis of the disco’s scariest orchestra, the great vanishing of pirate sites more. Help keep our vibe alive by becoming a member for $2/month and get every issue in your inbox right away!
And it never stops. While writing this article, we received our fifth unsolicited pitch from still another paid promo platform always on the hunt for potential $1 recipients. This time they sweetened their pitch with a guaranteed pay-off, sent “directly, a set amount each month, in return for you providing some coverage to some of our artists.” This bag of cash-for-coverage presumably contained more than their usual $1, but probably not much more.
If Instagram doesn’t filter them for you, you can also block them at the source (as we did) but it doesn’t matter: some frustrated label owner, fossilized music blogger or failed PR hack is setting up another pay-for-play clone as we speak. Those are the three who start these type of sites — people resentful their services are no longer as prestigious as they once were, but who imagine they might feel better wiping away their tears with $1 bills.
Charging artists money for criticism is disreputable. I expect sleazy people to do it, and the music industry has always attracted sleazy people. So that shouldn’t be surprising.
If you gather that these type of sites attract awful people, I’m not going to talk you out of it. To start with basic concepts: Charging artists money for criticism is disreputable. I expect sleazy people to do it, and the music industry has always attracted sleazy people. So that shouldn’t be surprising. But know that you’re dealing with the bottom of the barrel, which is why sites, playlists and reviewers you’ve actually heard of and perhaps listen to or read yourself will never be found on these platforms.
If you decide to throw in with them, you will absolutely get what you pay for. In this case: appearances on low-rent blogs, pay-for-play content farms and the foreign language editions of brands that peaked around the time Peter Frampton did. But to hear disgruntled artists tell their story, it’s even more of a joke than I thought. Playlist curators, with few means to monetize their work, should be prime candidates for vacuuming up $1 tokens from pay-for-play sites. In reality, even they sense there’s something kinda gross about it. They’ll take the money of course, but playlisters with any kind of legit following will often create separate playlists that nobody follows and stuff it with the tracks they positively reviewed for $1. From this practice (which is fairly widespread), you can judge yourself what they really think of the artists whose money they take.
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The people arranging this transaction would like you to get the impression that you’ll leap from this bargain-bin to the big-time, but it’s not going to happen. I’ve kept track of some of these artists that have come into contact with us. They’re not all bad, but most of them aren’t very good yet. Over time, they don’t attract the notice of unpaid outlets, I’ve found. They just supplement a bunch of garbage pay-for-play content with even more garbage pay-for-play content. It’s never better, just more.
But this is the really wild thing: the whole pay-for-play system is built upon a myth, the fundamental misunderstanding that it’s hard to get press. If you’re good (and you actually want it and make that known), it’s not. A site covers probably a hundred artists a month. Go ahead and count how many are in this issue of 5 Mag. Many from the editorial side measure success or failure in part by how many new artists we write about. We like to find new music and share it. It’s why we do this.
It is hard to get press interested in writing down your life story and proclaiming you an unsung genius and perhaps savior of the music industry. A media outlet is obviously only interested in that if they think there’s a market of people who want to hear it (or, of course, if it’s true.) The solution here doesn’t involve throwing tiny wads of cash at the problem like your exorcising devils. It’s to create an audience of people that want to hear about you.
There is actually a shortcut for that. You are correct in believing the shortcut is, or requires, money.
Unfortunately, it’s more than $1.
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Photo by Kenny Eliason.