I wrote about why artists shouldn't pay for blog posts years ago, and so in my mind, the topic was settled. Hadn’t everyone just read everything I’d ever written ever, memorized every sentence, and then, in turn, made sure everyone they knew did the same? I’m pretty sure that’s how it works.
It turns out, that’s not at all how it works, and it took a recent email from an artist to remind me.
"In the past few weeks I've received emails from a few PR people advertising paid placements on not only DJBooth but pretty much every other major (and minor) outlet. Their "services" run from anywhere from $80 to $750. I understand this is necessary to keep lights on, pay people's salaries, etc. This is a business after all.
That being said, I feel that it's somewhat disingenuous from a journalistic perspective that paid-for content is posted just the same as content that is posted without any money being exchanged. From my perspective, as an artist, purchasing a placement is like buying a trophy for yourself then going on social media and bragging that someone gave you a trophy.
As artists we are supposed to be proud of being posted on these acclaimed sites. You guys validate us. The first time you posted me I was nearly jumping up and down. I was that excited. A few months later when I was going to release my EP I decided that I wanted to delve into the PR world and pay for some posts. I paid for them and quite a bit more than I would have liked to. I just wanted to be heard. What I realized is that all the people that posted the EP literally just copied and pasted the press release, right down to the glaringly obvious typo. There were no new followers, no drastic bump in plays on SoundCloud, no comments, no personal stories form writers, nothing.
When I realized that this is what happened it took all of the pride out of me. I was ashamed to tout these posts as accomplishments. I didn't even post many of them to my IG account because of that feeling. I felt duped. So much stake is put into these pillars of hip hop that fans look to these as signs of validation. When I posted a screen shot of my post on The Source people congratulated me, commented, liked; I was "buzzing". While this was cool it felt evil in a way. I felt like I was deceiving my fans, many of whom are just my actual friends. They had no idea I paid for those posts.
What I would love to know is where you (and DJBooth) stand on this. I think you'd be doing your readership a great service to let them know that their favorite newly discovered artist paid to be discovered. I find this phenomenon to be compelling and damaging—to artists, fans, and real music journalists. I realize that this can hurt people's perceptions and feelings about the industry so I understand if this is something that you'd rather not dive into publicly."
Frankly, I feel like your email just answered every question better than I can, but since you’re explicitly asking for some perspective from the blog side, let’s walk through this one step at a time.
First, DJBooth has never, and will never, accept money for a post. I’m only comfortable writing this article because I’m so absolutely confident that my integrity is intact. I’ve interacted with literally tens of thousands of artists in my career, and there’s not a single email, text, DM, or conversation in existence that even suggests I’d take money. And while it’s never happened, if I ever learned one of our editorial staff members was accepting money, they’d be immediately fired. You can get high or drunk on the job around here, and you’ll be fine as long as the writing’s still good, but pay-for-post is one of the few absolute lines we draw.
That’s not because I'm some blogging Gandhi, although I do try to live by some professional ethics and generally be a non-terrible person. More selfishly, it’s about money. As you pointed out in your email, our reputation is our most valuable asset. Readers come to DJBooth because they trust that what they’re reading is coming from a real place. Finding out that we’re posting artists because we’re being paid would break that trust, readers would stop visiting DJBooth, and if readers stopped visiting DJBooth, companies would stop advertising on DJBooth to reach those readers, and then we’d go broke.
Beyond ethics, from a pure business standpoint, it’d be beyond stupid to risk losing accounts with Reebok or Bacardi or Red Bull or any of the other companies who advertise with us in exchange for some money from a rapper. (As I’m typing these words, Playstation is running ads on the site, shout out to Playstation, the only station I play on.) The time and work involved in prying $50 here and there from individual struggle rappers sounds like a nightmare when big companies are cutting checks for far more.*
That's also why I’d frankly be shocked to find out that other higher-level sites are accepting money for posts. The risk isn't worth it. I’ve been told repeatedly though that other sites roughly equivalent to DJBooth do indeed take money, but when I ask them to name names or show me an email, they hide. Everyone hates the bullshit, but they feel like bullshit is “just the way it is,” so the bullshit remains bullshitty. Until I see some actual evidence, I can‘t speak to any other major sites taking money, so I have to leave it at saying that I’d be surprised if they did, but for smaller sites, the math changes.
So my advice to artists is to look at the ads on a site you’re considering paying for a post as a litmus test. If the ads are for companies you've never heard of, or they don't have any ads at all, that’s a sign they likely don't have many readers, which in turn means paying for a post isn’t worth it.
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Regardless of the size of the site, though, it’s just a bad idea to pay for a post. Partly because, as the letter above laid out, it gives you a false sense of your support, but also because—I’M ABOUT TO TYPE SOMETHING IMPORTANT ALERT PLEASE PAY ATTENTION—the era of blogs breaking artists through a song or mixtape/album post are over. Dead. Buried. No mas. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but someone needs to tell you the truth.
As Complex laid out well in their article, “How the New Music Cartel Redefined the Music Industry,” around 2008 or so, blogs did primarily take the place of radio DJs and A&Rs in terms of first identifying talent and breaking artists. DJBooth had its share of successes we’re proud of. It didn’t happen all the time, but there were the occasional single song posts or mixtape posts that legitimately helped launched careers. But sites like SoundCloud and Vine and others came along and replaced the blogs just like the blogs had once replaced A&Rs. In 2016 you can get signed to a major label solely because of a SoundCloud algorithm without a single blog post to your name.
There will always be some old school holdouts, just like there are people who buy vinyl. Still, the vast majority of the internet population is done scrolling through a blog and clicking play one song at a time as their primary way of listening to new music when SoundCloud and Audiomack and Spotify do the same thing better.
DJBooth has evolved with the times, to give the same experience as SoundCloud does you can play a song in one click from anywhere on the site and it will auto-launch a playlist, so by no means is a song post worthless. Some fans can and do discover artists that way, but a stream and a three-sentence write-up (if that) aren’t blowing anyone up like it did in 2009. And yet I still get artists hitting me up every day, thinking that a simple song post could truly still help launch their career like it could five years ago.
The real value blogs (aka sites) can still offer—what we can do that SoundCloud and Spotify can’t—is to write original pieces and do in-depth reporting, which is why our emphasis is now primarily in feature writing. I consider that a good thing. The pendulum is shifting away from blogs that mindlessly race to post a song and towards sites that create real content—merely posting an Anderson .Paak song no longer means much unless you’re also running profile interviews with him a year before he linked with Dr. Dre. That letter above bears that out—a simple post didn't get him anything beyond a quick hit of feel-good, empty hype.
On an important final note, it looks like from that letter that the artist wasn’t paying a blog directly, he was paying a PR company, and there’s nothing wrong with hiring a publicist to help promote your work. A publicist is more of a final piece of the puzzle than a building block, but if you’ve got the money, if you’re not skipping rent to pay the publicist, they can help and open some doors. That’s completely legitimate.
The thing to watch out for is anyone who guarantees coverage. There are publicists that I will pick up the phone for because I’ve worked with them for years, and I know they’re not going to waste my time with sub-par music. This very much is a relationship business, but there’s not a publicist or PR company on Earth who can promise a post on DJBooth, and it’s distressing to think there are people out there who do. Ultimately, our only criteria for a post is that we find the music to be noteworthy. If I find out anyone’s giving the impression that coverage can be bought from DJBooth, they’re automatically dead to me. Again, our reputation is paramount; I’ll protect it above everything.
Some publicists could have under-the-table deals with some sites to pay them directly for posts. Still, I think it’s far more likely that you'll end up paying a lot of money to someone who exaggerates the strength of their relationship with a site. He or she will send out an email blast just like you could have, some sites post the song verbatim from the email because they're still stuck in the dead blog model, that song post does nothing for you, and then the publicist turns around and takes credit for doing such a great job. Wow, what an excellent investment.
So hey, artists, don’t pay a site directly for a post ever and proceed with extreme caution before you hire a publicist or PR company who comes to you with promises of blog super-stardom and a PayPal address. Hopefully, now you don't have to learn every lesson the hard way.
* There’s exponentially more that goes into advertising financials including ad networks, CPMs, desktop vs. mobile, and much more that I won’t get into here because I don’t want to distract from the main topic, but that’s the super-super-basic version.