Editorial: On Music Blogs Charging Bands for Album Reviews
Writing about metal is a labor of love. I’ve been fortunate enough to call it a full-time job for the past eight years (and I’ve been doing it paid or not for over a decade), but I’m the exception rather than the rule: most folks I know who write about metal do so in addition to other jobs they keep, or do it simply for their passion for the genre without getting paid at all (the occasional free merch or show guest list reward aside). I’ve been incredibly privileged to call MetalSucks a job; that fact isn’t, and never will be, lost on me.
But what about the legions of writers and small-time bloggers out there? Do they deserve compensation, too? Specifically, is it OK for them to charge bands for coverage on their sites?
Metal Twitter has been afire the past few days over a decision by Arctic Drones, created and run by members of the popular Post-Rock Facebook page, to start charging bands for album reviews. Are the site’s proprietors and writers entitled to compensation for the work they do if bands are willing to pay? What does that say about the site and its credibility? What does it say about bands who choose to pay for coverage?
Let’s get this right out of the way: MetalSucks has never, and will never, accept money from bands looking for coverage. We’ve been accused of accepting money from record labels to positively promote bands (not true) and we’ve been accused of “selling out” for running paid advertisements of bands we hate and openly talk trash about (the latter makes no sense at all — if anything, that makes us the complete opposite of sellouts). Bands and small labels email us regularly asking how much it costs to get an album reviewed or a video posted. The vast majority of these requests come from Europe, where this practice seems to be standard even amongst major outlets, although American bands certainly ask sometimes, too. Nevertheless, our answer is always simply, “Sorry, editorial coverage is not for sale.” MetalSucks has accepted money from companies outside the music industry for sponsored posts, but you will know those very clearly when you see them.
To accept money for editorial coverage would completely undermine the credibility of this site. I’m certainly not deluding myself that MetalSucks is at the top of the metal cred chart (shit, our site’s name should be a good enough indicator of that), but our position as one of the most widely read and longest running metal media outlets in the world is such that our opinions on music are trusted by many. To accept money for coverage would be completely dishonest because it would necessarily color the flavor of the resulting piece: would any reviewer trash a band who paid them? Of course not, because it’s bad for business.
Arctic Drones has a policy pre-dating their decision to accept money for reviews stating that the site’s writers only cover bands they like. Does that get them off the hook for accepting money from bands they might write about anyway? Perhaps a little: the site claims it will only approach bands who have first submitted music for review, that they will do so only if any of the site’s writers enjoyed that music, and THEN they’ll pitch bands on the fee. Sure, that’s better than if the site simply advertised their pay-for-play service publicly or pitched it to every band that submitted a demo. But it’s hard to imagine the existing policy won’t impact the way the site’s writers approach those submissions: if you knew you could get paid for something, wouldn’t you listen to it a little bit differently? There is ALWAYS something good — or at least adequate — that can be said about a band or their album. “They’re a bit raw, but they show potential for the future.” “They aren’t reinventing the wheel, but they do a good job of <x, y and z sub-genre tropes>.” “The bassist is good.” Accepting money for coverage necessarily impacts not only the way bands are covered, but which bands are covered.
Nor does Arctic Drones’ position as a much smaller site give them more freedom than, say, MetalSucks, to accept money for coverage. Sure, the site may not have much of a following — Alexa.com, the industry standard for measuring website traffic, places ArcticDrones.com at 380,000 in the U.S. and 904,000 in the world (by comparison, at the time of this article MetalSucks sits at 9,861 U.S. / 27,970 world) — but the Post-Rock Facebook page (run by the same folks as Arctic Drones) has over 100,000 followers, including several of my own friends. Clearly it’s got a following and music fans use it as a resource, raising the distinct possibility that many of those people won’t know they’re being swindled with a review that’s been bought. And unless the writers of Arctic Drones view the endeavor purely as a hobby — which obviously they do not, hence this whole brouhaha — presumably their goal is to grow the site into a formidable destination.
Arctic Drones explained their decision to move to a paid model in a lengthy Facebook post this past weekend. Here’s the relevant section:
A week ago we had to switch to a paid model. To have a rough idea, please see first the generic email we send to submitters that we are interested in covering below.
“Thanks for contacting and for your submission to Arctic Drones magazine.
Please note that we recently had to switch to a paid model. We recognize all the work that goes into any project, and we’ve so far covered many bands – regardless of their popularity – to help them spread their name. And the magazine has been a labor of love for years, with all technical costs coming out of our pocket and a huge amount of time spent for it.
But as of today, we’re currently able to cover only one in twenty submissions. With the immense growth of submissions received & posts published in time, maintaining the blog began taking too much of our time and money. Almost all of our staff have full-time jobs, but the promo work has turned out to be a part-time job on its own – taking hours daily for some of the AD staff.
The reason you’re getting this email is that one of our writers, … (cc’ed in this email), is interested in covering your band (We still take only releases that we like, and get back to only submitters we’re interested in covering). If you want to help cover AD writers’ time and costs for a quality written piece, please find your options below:
(1) Review – €15
(2) If you need an extensive promo and exposure, and would like to reach a much larger audience through a number of different options, feel free to get in touch with us at Outro PR as well: email@example.com
*Note these prices are calculated based on this submission only and they may vary for future submissions.
If you’re still interested in AD coverage, we’ll follow up – and if you have any questions please feel free to ask.
Thanks again for your understanding and submission. And no worries if this is not up your alley – hope you’ll understand our situation and excessively demanding workload.
At the heart of the matter, then, is this: will Arctic Drones be informing their readers that the content they’re reading has been bought? Dan Salter, proprietor of music site Echoes and Dust — whose Twitter account has been at the center of the debate over Arctic Drones the past few days — posed exactly that question, and it seems the answer, as provided by Arctic Drones’ Robert Westerveld, is “no,” which is certainly troubling:
Westerveld’s answer is truthful in at least one regard: the site will become a glorified PR agency. Convenient, then, that last year he launched his very own PR agency, Outro PR! Conflict of interest much? And who exactly are “the people” that Arctic Drones will be “promoting music straight to” anyway?
In the end I suspect the answer to that question will be the site’s self-defeating death spiral. While some bands may be willing to pay, way more will steer clear because they simply aren’t interested in paid coverage. Even if you can afford it, if everyone knows you’re paying for good words to be written about you it simply isn’t worth it: that coverage becomes meaningless. Once your credibility amongst readers has eroded, what’s left of your audience? Other bands that have forked over scraped-together gig money and one dollar bills from the merch tip jar? While the site’s owners may’ve thought they could pull a fast one on whatever existing readership they have, the resulting negative publicity (which they surely didn’t see coming, to be fair) shot that all straight to hell, turning off both bands and casual readers alike.
Now comes the part where I’m going to defend Arctic Drones a bit:
1) They’re only asking for €15. Any band has that available. It’s not as if they’re taking poor, unsigned bands for all their pennies.
2) As previously mentioned, the site is small, and its reach is limited and focused: no one is clubbing baby seals here.
3) The fact that the site claims it’ll only be pitching paid coverage to bands its writers already enjoy does take some of the sting away.
4) The practice of charging for product reviews is common in other industries. In the book publishing world, for example, one can buy reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, although unlike with Arctic Drones they do not guarantee the reviews will be positive. Kirkus does have a policy where you can read the review first and opt to never have it run, but your fee is non-refundable.
5) The site’s owner seems realistic with regards to how this might shake out and is prepared to accept full responsibility, even if it means shuttering Arctic Drones for good. From the same explanatory Facebook post quoted above:
Getting back to the reasons behind this…. Well I guess it is rather self-explanatory, but still…
-It is both about time and costs, the former being more important.
-Above all, it was myself, not the AD crew, that brought up this. However, it was thoroughly discussed with the input of the AD team and the decision was made unanimously. Yet I’m more than ready to take any responsibility and consequences. In the future, please blame me as the EIC, not the AD team.
-Why? Because I regard time precious. Believe it or not, we’re making some real sacrifices for promoting what we listen to. Not all of us, but absolutely some of us do so. And I want our writers to get paid… not for our opinion but for our time spent amounting to a part-time job.
-It was agreed that we would keep the fees for AD coverage as low as possible, not higher than “at most” a few vinyl copies worth. Usually lower, especially for unsigned acts, solo projects, very small labels etc. That is why we decided not to have a fixed rate table, to be as fair and flexible as possible.
-We all agreed that this was a “risky” move, and that we wouldn’t know how it would be received. But here is the thing, the crux of the matter: honestly speaking, I don’t care much because running AD has become infeasible for us. When you try to run a DIY, 100% independent blog, you -perhaps inevitably- get consumed in time with the excessively demanding and ever-increasing work (I think that partly explains why many webzines similar to us start and close in a cyclical pattern).
So here was the most important idea behind: If our time and costs are covered, we keep doing it – knowing that at least some of our staff’s time is compensated for, which is GREAT. If, on the other hand, we get less submissions due to the onset of the new model, that is still GREAT, as (1) we would have a much less workload and enjoy some other hobbies of ours which we’ve been ignoring for a long while, and (2) we would have more time for our other sections (staff pick lists, news, interviews which do not fall under the paid content).
In short, things came to a point, with all technical costs, and more importantly a huge time spent for this – where this has begun affecting other aspects of our lives. We either have to end the blog activity, or switch to a model with less articles & a small compensation for our time. We decided to try the latter, and if it doesn’t work, believe it or not, we’re more than ready to take it well. We’ll be fine, have no hard feelings at all and move on with our lives.
We’re open to any criticisms. But if someone insults our integrity, please don’t expect us not to respond. The reason why we’re standing behind our decision is because we absolutely think it is fair. Mostly due to the fact that there was no regression of our stance of covering only what we like and not accepting to cover anyone just for being ready and willing to pay (Just yesterday, 5 submissions were declined, some because we didn’t feel the music, others because they wouldn’t fit in our focus of genres). Also, because fees we offer for AD coverage are nominal.
And here is one reply we’ve sent recently to a band inquiry asking if they would get a positive review: “You can expect a positive review, not because you’re paying but because we already have a policy of taking only releases that we like. This is the case since day 1. And that is why we got back to you, our writer … liked what he heard. This doesn’t, however, mean that our writers will give grandiose and pompous reviews. If there is an aspect they don’t like about the record / that can be improved, they’ll mention them in an encouraging and constructive way.”
-To avoid any misunderstanding, we’ve never asked a band to feature them on Post-rock Fb page. Never! But we also offer an option for bands that are interested in an extensive promo and exposure, and would like to reach a larger audience by means of a variety of tools, which include multiple or sponsored posts on Fb. And to the surprise of some, I’m not ashamed of it either!
—Because that offer is made to only bands whose music, we think, is great and needs to be heard by more people.
—Extensive promo means more time and effort, which takes us to the point above.
—It is all optional. There are dozens of cases where we offer that option to a band, they don’t get back at all, but we still feature them on our accounts.
All in all, be it AD or Post-rock Fb, no one is “forced” to pay. That is the point.
-We by no means argue that it is the only solution to the problems music media is faced with, and one that should be replicated. It’s distinctly a specific formulation based on our situation. On the other hand, we mind our own business, and don’t think we’ve the right to tell anyone what is wrong and what is right. Again, we don’t assume such a role or sense of authority.
-Other alternatives were thoroughly discussed and some of them were tried before and didn’t work (donate, ads, crowdfunding etc). At the end of the day, we decided that this would be the most practicable one in our case.
-As I have attempted to cover above, we neither underestimate nor overvalue our work, and we kindly suggest a similar self-perspective for bands and PR companies. While we cannot stress enough how we appreciate bands that we enjoy for their existence and music, bands should also clearly understand that,
—There are today over a thousand bands in the post-whatever scene, and there are way too many releases to check out and listen properly.
—People have limited time.
—Time & effort is precious and needs more respect, especially from those people who truly care about your music and want to help you in some way.
-So it is actually a two-way street. Without bands, we are nothing. But without listeners, bands are nothing too. So we suggest treating each other decently and respectfully.
Look: writers gotta eat. All artists deserve to be compensated for their work. This feels like a good time to remind anyone reading this article that my privilege is not lost on me: I make a stable living doing this, and it is not my intent to shame others who are trying to make a go of it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a music website and bands entering into a mutual agreement in which money and a favorable write-up are swapped. But by failing to calculate how the site’s credibility will be affected, the site’s creators have made a crucial judgement error in assessing the model’s long-term sustainability; at least they seem somewhat aware of that. And if they’re truly OK with the potential repercussions of that then so be it. But I can’t imagine it’s going to work out as they’d hoped.