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If there’s anything in your heart that still harbors something like love for the music industry, stay far away when musicians talk shop about marketing. The professionals ain’t that bad — you can pick up a few things from people whose paycheck depends upon them knowing a little about pushing tracks off the conveyor belt and into the public consciousness. It’s the amateurs that will kill anything you love about this gig.

James Blake had it right when he recently claimed that platforms like Spotify had mindfucked everyone into believing that music was valueless. “The brainwashing worked and now people think music is free,” he said.

But that’s only half of the brainwashing. Artists themselves have been convinced that likes and playcounts have replaced money, and are willing to spend a bunch of it to get big fast.

Lean into these conversations or drop into forums where marketing is being discussed and what you’ll hear is the great monotone roar of frustrated ambition, manifested as an impatience to make the numbers go up on Spotify. Atomized and without any firm ties to the communities they’re making music for, artists are seeking shortcuts to the vital connection with the very real people who are on the other side of every record buy and every stream.

Earning a living on Spotify (or even indirectly from Spotify fame) involves, by most measures, more luck than purchasing a winning lottery ticket. That’s not a business model, but more importantly it’s just not going to take you into a good place. People have been gaslit into thinking that the playcount on Spotify is remotely meaningful or translates to much more than a headpat from plutocrats.

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Nobody wants to eat shit forever, or at all. But if you talk to successful artists and people that make a living from making music or DJing, you’ll often hear that “the journey” — the formative period when someone found a community, developed their skills and a sense of taste — was the most important part of their career. How many interviews have we published in which someone describes how the most important connection they ever made came on a Wednesday night in a dead club when nobody had any reason to be there?

A few issues back we wrote about the rise of paid submission sites, in which payola is conducted quite openly by unknown artists who pay for a few seconds of attention from reviewers and playlist curators (and of course the mediating site itself, which takes a huge cut for their troubles). These sites don’t represent the downfall of civilization or anything: they are a perfect outlet for these artists looking for a shortcut to community (and smarmy industry creeps willing to intentionally subject themselves to bad music for $1 per banger.)

‘There’s something behind this “shortcut” mentality that is really pretty ugly. It sees a group of people not as a community you belong to, but a market to exploit. You’re not contributing to the community, just extracting from it.’

Artists who use these sites claim they just need a hand up — a way to find a list of the industry players that can give their music a boost. But if you were a member of the community you’re trying to reach, you would already have a list. You’d know a bunch of playlists to submit to. If you were part of the community, you’d know which sites would welcome your music. You’d be following and listening to and reading these places already.

There’s something behind this “shortcut” mentality that is really pretty ugly. It sees a group of people not as a community you belong to, but a market to exploit. You’re not contributing to the community, just extracting from it. You’re not looking to share your music — whether it’s deep house, shoegaze, d’n’b or lo-fi beats. You’re just looking to “place” it.

Where do you find interesting music? If the answer is “nowhere,” then the problem is probably with you.

This is the era of anti-community, in which aspiring participants approach their scene as a market to be penetrated rather than a community to participate in. There’s nothing countercultural about it: it’s the reduction of every manifestation of culture into crude economic units. Markets.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that the artist or some errant generational stereotype is at fault here. They’ve walked into an industry that’s been bled white. Everywhere they turn there’s someone trying to sell them something, and in the industry that usually involves some kind of scam. The guideposts that exist are behind a paywall with a price tag attached and most are as scummy as the guides that sell them.


5 Mag Issue 212
Out April 2024

BELOVED: This was originally published in 5 Mag Issue #212 featuring an oral history of Freerange, DJ Paulette, Black Sjuan, Elbert Phillips, Dark Heaven and more. Become a member for $2/month and get every issue in your inbox right away!


It was the industry that first turned the audience into followers; readers into visitors; experiences into streams. It’s hard to remember there are people behind the metrics when you’re told that making the metrics jump is all that matters.

But if money is off the table for the people who make music, as James Blake says it is, then none of this shit actually matters at all. If we’re investing in our music without the expectation of a dollar-for-dollar return, we should be getting more out of it than a pleasing playcount in a cheery monthly email from Spotify. If not, we’re on the psychic equivalent of a starvation diet, and this isn’t going to end well.

The journey still sucks, I’m not sure if it was ever worth it for an artist but it can’t be worse than this great emptiness.

Photo by @felipepelaquim on Unsplash


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