Paying to get your music reviewed. My attention on this issue was pricked when one of the editors saw a plain WordPress blog was charging four pounds to do an interview with your band. The more I dug the stranger it became – blogs charging bands $35, $50, $65 to review a record and put the link on their Facebook and Twitter. It soon became clear that there's a whole lot of people out there wanting to make money from small bands trying to get heard above the noise.
Now I'm not saying making a buck is a bad thing. There should be day jobs that are part of the music world (I'm deliberately going to keep away from the term “music industry” because it occurs to me that it suggests it's only about making and selling products). If you can offer, for money, a service to a band and they think it's good value for what it provides them, whether it's mixing an album, marketing that album, or reviewing that album, then I think that's the band's decision to make. But how do bands know what is good value? How do you know what you are really getting for your money?
I've offered my own thoughts and included some from others associated with the music world – particularly independent/underground music. This includes artists, bloggers, managers, publicists, journalists and labels. My sincere thanks to those who had input into this article. I've found that there are so many people out there with a vast range of experiences who are happy to offer free, constructive advice to players old and new.
Let's have a look at three types of review-for-money services out there:
Paying for a review to add to your press kit
This service is generally explicit about saying it's like a bio service or that service you might get from a record label, manager or promoter. Reviewyou.com says it's so you can get gigs at festivals and through booking agents, who want to see reviews of your band to decide if they will book you. They charge $45 for one album review or $385 for ten reviews of that album.
They are not hiding the purpose of the review and as it seems to be a full time business you would expect to pay. There are testimonials on the site but as with all of these it's impossible to gauge exactly what you get for your money in terms of outcome.
Indiemusicdigest.com offer to build your press pack and more for $100 but the site provides samples and heaps of free advice and information. However “non-paying” submissions for a record review take ninety days (as opposed to four to six weeks) and “run the risk of not getting reviewed at all”. So there.
Muzikreviews.com labels itself as providing “artist services” and charge $25 for a guaranteed review which they then post on their site and also to a number of syndicated sites including Progarchives and Sea of Tranquillity. They make a point (as all the sites charging for reviews do) of saying that the review will be honest and accurate. I looked at the last twenty reviews on their site and all scored 4/5 or 5/5 except one which got 3.5/5.
Paying for feedback from a professional writer or market testing
The premise behind this is like paying a market research company to test your product on a big group of people so you know if you have what it takes to hit the big time, or to have someone with years of experience give you an honest appraisal of your work. It seems to be aimed more at those who want to be mega-stars.
An example of this is soundout.com who charge $45 for 125 reviews of your song (yes, 125) and give you a report. They work in conjunction with slicethepie.com who arrange the actual reviewers. The sample report looks pretty neat. This is not about getting your music heard, it's just about knowing what people think, and it is designed for songs, not albums. Reviewers get paid up to about 10-20c for each review. (Dan, you owe me at least four bucks by now!) The reviewer streams a song without knowing the artist and after ninety seconds can start typing their review into a box. There is a complex and secret system of ratings that determines your rank and how much you get for each review (and you'd be spewing if you got 13c and you though your review was worth 18c, wouldn't you?).
Reverbnation have crowd reviews which promise that you might get more exposure through them and on radio if you score well. I couldn't see the pricing as you have to sign up.
These first two main types of service appear on the face of it (certainly in the ones I found) to be very clear about what they provide for the money – a PR kit service, or a market testing/appraisal service. I don't have a problem with that in principle; you may have a problem so please leave a comment if you feel the urge to disagree!
Other related services are sold by sites like musicsubmit.com and beatwire.com who basically send an email to heaps of blogs and labels and charge bands for this. I have no idea how effective that is but if it's a shotgun approach I can imagine many editors would send these emails straight to spam. More on relationships and targeting later.
Pay for a review and/or interview on a blog
This is the service that originally caught my attention and that I'll focus on from this point. Characterised by a statement along the lines of “We get shit-loads of music submitted for review on our blog. If you give us some money we guarantee we will review it. A bit more and we will interview you too and even post a link on Facebook and tweet the link to, say, 3500 followers. You can still submit your music for review for free, but I wouldn't hold my breath.” OK, not all say that your music has no chance if you don't pay, and in fact no site will guarantee to review everything that turns up in their inbox.
Some of these sites say that paying helps them prioritise what they review and put on the site, which editors would probably agree it does. After all it means the ones that come with a $50 note are the only ones you review. No more time-consuming looking for the good ones worth reviewing.
What all this means is that if a blog can only review a certain number of albums, reviewing a crap record by a band because it has paid potentially means a good record or band missing out.
Musicemissions.com is a good example of this kind of scenario and costs up to $65, $2-5 of which goes to the person who reviewed it. I clicked on the first review on the banner and it's of a live Counting Crowes album from 2011.
Midtnmusic.com have a similar offer where an album costs $20 for a few paragraphs and a stream, and you can pay up to $50 for the “Crank it up” package. They say they charge, in part, to "monetize our sacrifices and dedication to the indie music community". Of the sites I read, this was the most frank declaration that they felt what they did was worth being paid for. I read a couple of the reviews, which were very short and said very little about the actual record as if it's just the guts of a PR blurb and 30 words on the sound. The site and reviews look nice though and are quite a lot newer than the site above. There was more news and event related content that the other sites I looked at.
Marsbands.com charge varying amounts to speed up your review, but unlike the other sites they don't say that not paying probably means no review. These reviews look OK and have no rating, unlike the other sites above. Since posting this story Mars Bands and I have had a lively conversation and they have decided to make a change where paid write-ups will no longer be called reviews, which I think is a good decision:
MarsBands will continue to provide free reviews for independent bands and musicians who request one, as we always have, provided we enjoy their music.
However, should a band or musician choose to offer MarsBands money in exchange for an expedited, review-type promotion, we will write up a promotion for them and label and tag it as such.
For $35 you can get a guaranteed review at themetalreview.com that gets promoted and gets out to their community (followers, likers and people who read the site). The page you complete to submit your music says clearly that free reviews are not promoted so I wrote to them for more information. I was told only 3% of their reviews are paid for and that 95% of the work their staff do is voluntary:
We have the option to have a paid review or interview most bands prefer our free option. The only reason we have paid reviews/interviews is when a band wants their material to be priority and done right away. Due to the fact that they are paying us we will promote these.
Let me explain the process. Most bands select our free option. If our writers like their music then they will promote it in a number of ways (facebook, twitter etc) money does not need to be exchanged for this to happen. A few years ago we had a number of bands that were adamant and persistent they wanted us to focus on their music. They offered to pay for the time and effort our writers would put into having to stop their current work and review/interview their band. Since then we introduced the option for bands to jump the queue with an incentive for our writers. This gives our writers some pocket money for the work they do. Keep in mind 95% of the work my staff do is voluntary it is only every now and then they receive paid work.
They also clarified after a second email that all reviews get posted on the website, some will get posted on Facebook and Twitter, and that the reason there are not many up at the moment is because they have had a major redesign some months ago. That is at odds with what the submission page says, so perhaps that needs to be made clear. There are 22 reviews posted for the last two months which isn't a large amount, but I don't know how many writers they have. The most recent tweet I could find on their Twitter that linked to a review or interview was twelve months old. I don't use Facebook so I can't confirm whether the reviews were promoted there. (Ed: Seems mostly to be news on there rather than reviews and interviews).
Not all of the sites that seek payment for review declare on individual reviews that they are paid for. None of the sites above state clearly and up front on the review page, home page or about page anything like the words “These/some of these reviews are paid for by the artists”. You only find out if you search for how to submit a review or click on a disclaimer link at the bottom of the page. (see my comments above re the intention of marsbars.com to make changes)
Readers should know if content has been paid for. This is both common sense and a media standards issue. In India, for example, paid news has become one of the country's greatest scandals. In Australia the "cash for comments' saga involving Alan Jones led to amendments to broadcasting standards.
Bands/musicians by and large want to share their music with as many people as they can. Certainly those who seek some publicity through blogs are looking for affirmation of their skills and/or a bigger audience. What they are ultimately looking for varies between individuals and bands, but there are some key things at play when it comes to blogs that charge for “guaranteed reviews”:
Despite the proliferation of music blogs out there, it's hard for an unknown band to get reviewed.
Most bands don't know the measurable value of a review on one of these blogs
The charge, in the scheme of things, is nominal (How much did the recording cost? What's another $10 - $65 on top of that?)
I asked some people I know from different parts of the independent and underground music world (artists, label owners, managers, publicists, journalists, writers, engineers and bloggers) for their thoughts and I have compiled their responses later in this piece.
My own view is that I feel privileged to be able to listen to and absorb the fruits of countless hours of someone's artistic endeavours and then write my thoughts about it, and I'm thrilled when a fan of the band or another writer says “awesome review” or even if they say “the guy who wrote this is a moron”. I actually get to ask artists who I admire questions that I want to ask, and I can't begin to describe the satisfaction of hearing them say “wow, no one's ever asked me that before”. I'll sometimes buy physical copies of downloads I've reviewed because I like them so much and I know several writers who do so far more than me.
I'm not a journalist. I didn't study writing and this is not my day job. My comments may help a small band sell a few more CDs or get a few more punters to a gig, or the opposite. I will not make or break anyone's career. I may make some fans feel good about knowing someone else likes the band they like and wrote about them on the internet. If it's good music there's a good chance I'll keep pestering my friends and others to listen to it for some time to come, but there are more and bigger factors that will influence the success of a band or artist. Such as is the music any good, do they play a niche style and how much do they want success, whatever that looks like to them.
As for thinking I have the right to ask an artist to pay for me to write about them – Fuck. Off. Dan, Sander, Myron, Ray, Mitch (my editors) – if I ever think I'm more important that the bands, please kick me really hard up the arse.
There are hundreds of writers who feel the same, and hundreds who have different views. That's OK.
I asked a few people from different parts of the music world for their thoughts on the idea of blogs charging bands to write a review. I also tweeted about the topic and it generated a fair bit of emotion. I wasn't the only one who had no idea this was going on, and who thought it was not on.
One band who used a blog that charges for reviews told me they had paid $30 for a review that was positive, but contained a high amount of spelling/grammar mistakes, including their band name. They felt “instant regret” and describe it as “just a kick in the teeth. Why do they deserve to hold the right to charge people for their opinion?”
I asked the others what part music blogs play in the success of bands/artists.
Lachlan runs Art As Catharsis and plays music. He started writing opinions and reviews for an online zine in 2001 and then started working for DIY labels in 2004 when helping out Grindhead Records with their digital and press stuff.
Music blogs are really just online music communities. Nowadays the music press is dominated by scores of these little blogs rather than the bigger, more-consolidated music mags of yesteryear. When you think about it, that perfectly mirrors the current state of bands too; loads of small, highly fragmented sub-scenes.
These little blogs can be far more specialised, and have a better chance of carving out an interesting niche or audience (though, like with the explosion of the number of bands in the world, the quality will vary greatly).
I know from my work with Art As Catharsis that some blogs can have absolute minimal impact; but out of no where one small blog can lead to quite a few sales. It's a hugely mixed bag. It depends on audience and relevance.
Angela is editor of online publication Soot Magazine, and freelance music journalist for Rolling Stone and Australian Penthouse. She’s been a journalist for eight years and the editor of Soot for over a year:
I am wary of music blogs in general because they are often run by fans or those with no training in media law or as a journalist. This means that while those running the blog may be considered by some as experts in a field, their skills may be limited. However, if a blog is run properly and by someone with training or knowledge in the field, they can assist in a band’s career. The band’s success depends on the blogger’s following, online presence and access to material that their readers or followers are interested in. If it’s a start-up band, then blogs may provide them with a review they can use on their press materials to start approaching larger media outlets. And if they target their audience through a blog that shares a similar readership, it can make for a great partnership. However, this is also true for smaller online publications, so it’s not exclusive to blogs.
Music sales are in decline, but a lot of bands are making their music available through online platforms and publications but I’m not sure how that translates to sales.
Ray is writer/founder and chief editor for Ghost Cult Magazine. He also writes the occasional review for other webzines, including Midlands Rock and Metal-Rules. As a writer he’s been active for the better part of 15 years. As chief editor and various assorted roles, around four years.
Music blogs and websites play a pivotal role in getting the word for bands and artists that cater to a certain niche market, like Metal and Jazz, usually the type of music that get (willfully) ignored by more mainstream orientated media. It's hard for me to judge in which way promotion that is generated online translate in actual sales, but I'm sure it doesn't hurt either.
Jake has been an engineer for five years, a writer for two, and a musician for “much, much longer”:
Music blogs can be huge for exposing bands if it's the right blog, with the right band, at the right time. Like everything with music it's all about the timing (and luck).
Myron has been a writer and editor for a couple of blogs for around five years:
I don't know if blogs play a huge part of success of a band, they may be a rung on the ladder or maybe a part of a rung on the ladder.
S (who chose to remain anonymous) is a publicist:
It’s hard to say, there just seems to be so many music blogs popping up all over the place. I don’t think you can just rely on blogs to sell gig tickets or to sell albums. You have to bit hitting print as well as radio and then blogs. You have to be everywhere to make an impact.
Simeon has been a performer / artist for ten years – he performs under the name SEIMS
How big an influence are they on things like music sales? Professional opinion and critique is always an influence on sales and traction. Whenever I have received any public recommendation or mention, my website's traffic will triple for the next few days. It has definitely been a key influence on sales.
I asked if any had seen one of these blogs or knew anyone who had used one. There were some strong emotions around this.
I do know of online publications charging to review the band’s music, but I have never implemented this for Soot Magazine. Firstly, it undermines editorial integrity, and secondly, if the band’s paid for the spot and you don’t declare that fact, then it’s really an advertising spot not a review, so readers deserve to know that. I’m not sure if the money changing hands alters the review to be favourable and not honest. I understand why publications do it as digital revenue is pretty much non-existent and you need to make money to live, but charging for reviews and not declaring that fact is not the best business model. –Angela
I've heard about these type of blogs and I feel they're giving reputable online publications like Ghost Cult Magazine a bad name. I don't know anyone personally who charges bands for coverage, but I think it's a disgrace. It almost like mobsters charging people for protection money so that they won't get hurt. I like to stay away from these people as far as I possibly can. – Ray
I have not, I don’t think any band or artists should pay to have their work reviewed. The band has done their job producing good music, it’s a publications job to hold up their side of the bargain. It’s their job to ensure they are bringing in revenue and eyeballs to the sites. It’s just poor business and I think it is really unfair/mean to target young musicians who have nothing. A website site would never ask The Rolling Stones to pay for a review so why should they ask that of someone starting out? Where has the love of music gone? Everyone has to start somewhere. It’s funny how easily people forget that. - S
No. that's insane. - Jake
Would any of them recommend anyone pay a blog to guarantee a review of their music or an interview?
No. I already spend money to;
·Rehearse, write and play music (provided its my own band)
·Record, mix and master an album
·Print the release
·Print nice glossy press materials
·Mail/post the release to press outlets
·Design and print posters for tours
·Undertake any additional advertising
I don't make a profit for anything I do. The chance I would pay for a guaranteed review is very slim. I want to work with people with the same mindset as I; very much independent/DIY focused and doing what they do because they love music.- Lachlan
I would be checking out the stats of the blogger before handing over money if you feel that is the best blog for your band and you feel there is no other out there. Firstly, do you research. Can the blog give you a press kit or outline their unique visitors? If they can’t or won’t, check out their online profile. Do they have a large Twitter/Facebook following? Do they have access to exclusive articles? Do you like their content and will it match your audience? If you aren’t happy with any of these things, I suggest keep looking. - Angela
I would recommend against doing it. Even if this generates the desired effect, you end up having a biased coverage. As chief editor I get swamped with requests from bands to review their music and as much as I want to, I can't cover all these bands on Ghost Cult. I totally understand that bands and musicians are desperate getting the word out, but there's only so much I can do and we can cover as a publication. – Ray
NEVER. – S
Never, I'd rather assault the website with hate mail and pressure them until I grew tired. - Jake
I would never recommend anyone pay a blog. We could all write that the music is sunshine and lollipops if we want to (or blood and guts depending on the band) but in the end I think people want to hear what another has to say about music. There are plenty of people that I respect writing that even their recommendations sound like crap to me. Music is personal and you may make a choice based on someone’s opinion, but that’s all it is an opinion. In America we have a saying, opinions are like assholes, we all have one and they all stink. – Myron (Mine doesn’t – GP)
No, I would not. If your craft isn't good enough or bad enough for a professional critique, you're clearly not doing something right. There are plenty of "free" sources out there happy to promote your music - all you need to do is ask (and make sure that you have something worthy of promoting, of course.) - Simeon
Would you recommend against it?
People can do whatever they want. There are a million different conceptions about how things can be done - but, personally, paying for a review does not fit in with my label ethos. My goal is not to get famous or sell a million records. If it is, perhaps paying for a review is worth considering. – Lachlan
I certainly do. It's a matter of principle. Blogs and websites shouldn't charge bands and artists for guaranteed coverage. It's a whole different ballgame when labels and pr persons approach me for coverage for bands. - Ray
HELL YES. It is just plain mean. - S
It's each individual's choice on how they choose to promote their band / music. If the only people willing to critique your craft are the people who will only accept a payment to review your work - I think there's a bigger problem that you should be considering. - Simeon
Finally I asked what tip/s can you give bands about how to improve their chances of getting their music reviewed by quality blogs for free. (other than make sure your music is not crap).
I give this advice all the time. Want to maximise press coverage? Here are some tips:
·Spend time finding the right media/press for your particular release; put time and effort into establishing meaningful relationships with them.
·Give press your release at least 6 weeks before the public (get it).
·Print physicals and let press know their copy is en route (physicals = more chance press will give you coverage).
·Book a decent national tour (tour announcement promoting the album shows press you are serious, and they will be more willing to spend time covering you).
Have a good bio or press release. Pay for a professional in the field to write it for you (probably the only thing you should pay for, not the review). Do your research. Take note of the blogger’s name and use it in the email. It will be somewhere on the blog, so don’t be lazy. Remember that blogs, like most online publications, can get up to 500 emails per week if they are a large blog, so you need to do what you can to get noticed. Any mistakes in your bio or email means it will most likely end up in the trash folder. Include links to your music, website, Twitter and Facebook, and all your band members’ names in your bio – bloggers can also have day jobs or other things on the go all at once, so including all these things is very important. This is the same way you would approach larger music publications, so try to be as professional as possible at all times. Keep in contact with the blogger, and perhaps if you haven’t heard back in a week or so, send a friendly and polite follow-up email. - Angela
A professional presentation certainly helps, like a well-written letter/email and an EPK that contains all the information you need as a writer/reviewer. Some form of PR representation or being signed to a label also helps. It's a mark of quality to a certain extent, a sign that a band has their act together. Another thing bands and musicians shouldn't do, is pestering writers and publications about when their music will get reviewed. It's very annoying and downright unprofessional. Of course there's a difference between a decent and polite follow up and spamming one's inbox with requests. - Ray
It is nothing but hard work, and there is no easy way to do it. Get on the phone, get talking about your bands – make sure you are proactive. There are amazing blogs out there who love uncovering Australian bands, but they won’t know about you unless you tell them. Tour, send music to community radio stations, be active on social media. There is so much young bands can do for them self, your money is better spent on printing posters or CD’s rather than paying it to a blog who can’t guarantee anything. In this business there is no guarantee, so we have to be careful where we are chucking our money. You might as well keep it where you can see it. – S
Pick relevant blogs, not just any/all of them. Look for people covering the same stuff. Target particular writers if they dig the same shit you play. Present the music as well as you can. Make it EASY - encode your mp3s properly, send a Dropbox link that has a PR in it. Lyrics are nice, photos are great. A follow-up email somewhere down the line doesn't hurt but it still won't guarantee anything and any more than once and you become a bit of a dick. Be a cool person, not an asshole, in your emails.... use formats people are familiar with such as Bandcamp (rather than your flash-vomit labyrinthian homepage). Describe your music as well as you can - spend as much time writing about yourself as you do writing your music - the more accurate and inspiring (but not pretentious) the description the more likely I am to read it. If you say you sound like Pink Floyd meets Radiohead and you sound like a shit Coldplay I will not only not review you but I'll probably find you and burn you. – Jake (I think that burning business is a metaphor for ‘curse you for a couple of seconds’ – GP)
Be polite, courteous, and don't send a blanket email to each source. Know your demo, and who the key players are in your demographic. Read other reviews on their site - get an idea of their tone, and whether they'd actually consider your music in the first place. Also, make something worth reading. - Simeon
For bands, don't pester blogs, people do this for free in their spare time, it takes work to shop albums to writers, convince them that it is good music and the like, and sometimes it can take time. We all jump on the big names because we may be long time fans BUT for editors we love it when people jump on the big names because that can often equate to more hits and more visibility. So for a band starting out, or one that's been around trying to make a name for themselves, be patient with us. You music may just click, and next thing you know you made a friend who has access to help promote your band for free. I point to Bovine, came through as a complete unknown, got my interest up because of the unusual name, and now I may be their biggest American fan and have talked them up many times over. – Myron (Many, many times over – GP)
So that’s it – great advice from those who know. The only tip I would add is to ask around for advice, and make friends. The people above were all too happy to share their thoughts (I swear Lachlan got back to me within 30 seconds), so don’t be shy.
I do also have some advice for blogs that charge for reviews:
Don't do it
If you are going to do it, make it clear to readers that you charge for reviews, and the circumstances/reason.
Give the promos to your writers without telling them they are for paid reviews (unless they are all paid reviews, of course)
At the top of each paid review, state “This review was paid for by the artist”, and if the reviewer did not know, “The reviewer was not aware that it was paid for until after the review was submitted”
After two weeks, provide the full data and analysis of the hits on that story to the artist.
Comments are welcome.