How to Avoid Pissing Off Music Bloggers (And Several Other Handy Tips for Artists)
Published in Blog, Culture Bully. Tags: Media.
This week Culture Bully is celebrating its sixth anniversary and in looking back on the years it quickly becomes evident that even during such a short amount of time the online musical landscape has changed immensely. While the blogosphere on the whole has made many complex advances over the years, music blogs in particular have seen a wild shift in both credibility and popularity. With that in mind there have also been noticeable changes in how bloggers, labels and the artists themselves all interact, and how each of these relationships have impacted larger trends across the board. With that in mind it seemed more appropriate to mark the occasion with something that would be of larger benefit than simply a self-absorbed self-congratulatory blog post (though don’t get me wrong, I did that also); more specifically, something that could potentially offer some insight into the music blog process for artists (or labels, or anyone, really). The following isn’t a State of the Music Blogosphere address, nor is it an arbitrary step-by-step “how to” for artists guiding them toward getting their music out there. But rather, it is a series of tips which come as the result of conversations with a few dozen bloggers, industry figures and artists, all of which stand to enforce not only why it’s important that artists keep music blogs in mind when promoting their music, but what they can do to avoid being one of the many who fail to make it out of the inbox.
Why Music Blogs?
Music blogs aren’t likely to change the world any time soon, but they have significantly helped shift the face of how music is promoted online. In 2006 the term “Blog Band” began to buzz when acts the likes of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Cold War Kids began finding wider audiences, due in part to growing support from music blogs. Rolling Stone went as far as printing a piece titled “First Hype, Then Kill” which tracked such bands’ success relative to their support from blogs. The idea was more of a farce than anything, and it eventually peaked with a well-received (and rather hilarious) video that Human Giant released with Tapes ‘n Tapes parodying the influence of music bloggers. (“Step one: You get the bloggers on board.”) “When Stereogum launched almost 10 years ago, labels treated Web and print publications very differently,” explained the site’s founder Scott Lapatine via email. “Blogs had extremely limited access because the Web was viewed as untrustworthy and unprofessional. Which was sort of true! That stopped being the case after a few years. Now there’s a constant dialogue.” Stephanie Trick, former Director of Online Marketing at Mute Records, echoed that same sentiment, “Expectations of bloggers changed quite a bit since I started working in music in 2005. I think they were seen as more supplementary to a traditional publicity campaign.”
While music blogs hardly had the ability to single-handedly make or break careers, their early effectiveness became partially due to a tendency of featuring “unknown” acts or groups that would typically be overlooked by mainstream media. In a 2007 article, Wired’s Eliot Van Buskirk noted that “Taken on the whole, MP3 blogs offer more breadth, depth and music than a magazine or radio station ever could.” “They seem to be leading the way with breaking new bands,” agreed Tapes ‘n Tapes’ manager Keri Wiese, cheekily adding, “so most of their attention is paid to the buzziest of the buzz bands.” Additionally, while not only offering a promotional outlet for artists who might typically go largely unnoticed, there was an ongoing perception that bloggers were unprofessional college kids, hacks, or nerds typing away late into the night while living in their parents’ basement (at various points of my life I have been all of those things) rather than being legitimate journalists (something I have yet to be). On the surface this might seem like a burn, but in many ways it gave bloggers a fresh introduction to a market that had otherwise become tired of old, jaded curmudgeons. “A lot of them are really respectful music lovers who like sharing their love of music with others,” noted Trick, a statement which still goes to represent the majority of music bloggers.
This isn’t to say that music blogs haven’t moved beyond this simple generalization though as there are plenty of bloggers, those both well respected and completely unknown, which make some sort of income from their blogs (this being one such blog). But of the 17 music bloggers I surveyed for this article only one person claimed that making money from their site was a driving factor in them blogging. When considering that three hours is the average amount of time that each blogger spends working on their site every day, that number should seem absurdly low. Having met dozens of music bloggers in person and hundreds online I can confirm that it’s no secret that the common interest which is shared by all is a passion for music; it just so happens that many of these particular fans have channeled their passions into a now largely reputable medium.
What You’re Up Against
While it stands to reason that music bloggers would also conveniently be fans, that point alone does little to help artists actually be heard however: you still have to put yourself out there somehow. While reaching bloggers via Facebook and Twitter is becoming increasingly popular, the most utilized method for reaching music bloggers has been through email. But simply shooting a clear and concise message off to someone hardly offers any guarantees, a fact which isn’t lost on Wiese. “Back in the day, I imagine bloggers interacted with a few people a day and got a handful of emails. I cannot even imagine how deluged they are with emails now.”
From the bloggers I spoke with, the average number of PR/label/band emails which they receive on a daily basis is just under 100 (93). This probably isn’t an encouraging figure for artists attempting to reach out to bloggers, but unfortunately the picture only grows darker from there. “The most difficult part with music bloggers is probably getting them to pay attention,” suggested Wiese, a sentiment which was echoed by both Trick and George Corona, co-founder of Terrorbird Media. “Definitely,” he confirmed when asked if the most difficult part of working with music bloggers is getting a response. The survey results only served to further emphasize this point. Of those 93 emails music bloggers receive on a daily basis, less than half are opened (45%) and of those emails even fewer (20%) are responded to. So if on any given day you were to drop 93 emails on the music blogosphere, you’re only likely to hear back from about eight bloggers. And depending on who you talk to, even that figure seems like it might be a stretch.
Further, Corona suggested that depending on the focus and popularity of the blog you’re contacting, your chances of being heard may become even slimmer. Despite many bloggers still priding themselves on devoting their sites to artists who float well below the mainstream’s radar, Corona added, “The reality is that a lot of outlets are reluctant to cover if the artist doesn’t have an endorsement already from another outlet.” But that isn’t the end of the story on emails.
“Following up is extremely important,” he continued. “Sometimes nothing will happen with an outlet until the fifth email.” Repetition is a method which artists have to be careful with however. “A big chunk of people are not going to get back to you at all,” continued Wiese. “That does not mean you should send a bazillion emails asking if you’ve listened, and it also doesn’t mean that they haven’t listened. You can ruin it by badgering someone.” A statement which Corona seconds, “[With] random, haphazard follow up [it] is really difficult to get good results.” But despite such stacked odds, someone has to be getting through, you might be saying to yourself. Is there something that can be done so that your email doesn’t simply blend in with the dozens and dozes just like it which hit a blogger’s inbox on a daily basis? Absolutely.
The Medium is the Message
“Breaking through to any kind of next level requires both hard work and a massive amount of LUCK,” confirmed Wiese. But in the case of reaching out to music bloggers, luck can be somewhat less a factor than simply catering to an individual’s preference is. For instance, when Culture Bully started six years ago, the ultimate prize that a music blogger could receive was an mp3 in an email, approved and fully cleared to post. As mentioned in the introduction though, a lot has changed since 2005. The bloggers surveyed were evenly divided in terms of their preference of how to receive music: a third prefer an MP3 hotlink to a streaming link, a third prefer the opposite and a third are split between each option. Many were strong in noting that they don’t like receiving songs as email attachments however, a trend which Wiese strongly confirmed, “Do not send large attachments EVER.” Appealing to this preference isn’t a sure-bet, but it won’t hurt. Despite the balanced acceptance of each method, MP3s and streams, the overwhelming majority of support has shifted away from what was once the primary method of sharing music.
In a January post titled “An open letter to independent artists to delete their myspace pages,” Aaron of Tsururadio made his plea for musicians to move on from the social media hub. Though the main argument is made quite clear in the title, a number of valid complaints are also provided throughout the article as to why MySpace has become such a nuisance. One point of his stands out above the rest however: “Is myspace the first impression you want to give a potential new fan?” The same question would seem to hold true for a blogger: so aside from its increasingly slow loading time and decreasingly functional assets (all of which made that much more evident after the site’s most recent redesign), how does MySpace compare to other methods of sharing music in 2011? Not well at all. When surveyed the bloggers were offered a list of resources which help artists deliver their music to listeners and two stood out miles above the rest: Soundcloud and Bandcamp. As Franky of Listen Before You Buyrelates, “I’d rather click a link and listen to a song than click a link and wait for the song to download, then find the song on my desktop, and then open it in my media player.” Furthermore both of these services are about as easy for artists to use as they are for listeners (both offer simple tutorials to help get you on your way: Soundcloud + Bandcamp). Music bloggers also confirmed that MP3 hotlinks were still favored, as they ranked third, when compared to Facebook (fourth place), Reverb Nation (fifth place) and MySpace (sixth place).
With the process of uploading music and sending mass emails being so simple and inexpensive, many artists are still of the belief that they’re giving themselves a leg up on competition by making the extra effort and sending a physical package with a hard copy of their music. This theory would seem confirmed by Tim of The Blue Walrus, “Emails cost nothing to send so people send them regardless of whether they fit my tastes, whereas CDs/vinyl/tapes/etc. all cost money to produce and post — people will only tend to send them if they actually think I’ll like it.” Surprising as the news might be however, the overwhelming majority of bloggers surveyed confirmed that they don’t actually pay any more attention to physical copies than they do digital. In explaining his stance, Peter of TwentyFourBitoffered an intriguing alternative, “My advice to bands considering what to send over would be: Send a stream or video of your absolute favorite track, regardless of when it was recorded/released. If the song is something that they could die happy knowing they had put to tape, I not only would be open to hearing it, but would love to. I’ve been recording music for 14 years, so I’m familiar with the struggle of creating a gem you’re thrilled with before struggling to find some friendly ears to share the jams.”
On a personal note, one of the most unfortunate experiences in terms of being a music blogger has been the realization of how much money artists waste by blindly following this method of promotion. As an artist, when you combine the cost of a CD, a jewel case, printed inserts, release documentation and a bubble mailer (not to mention the time it takes to assemble everything) you’re making a serious investment in the hope that someone will actually listen to what you’re sending them, let alone enjoy it enough to promote it. Peter continued, “If they sent a nice piece of vinyl, I’d listen, but I’d prefer bands not waste such an amazing product on promos unless I’ve already raved about them.” As if it weren’t hard enough to make money as a musician, there are countless artists who still follow this very path of outreach. Bloggers might not seem like the most caring or responsive people in the world but I can almost promise you that no one wants you to waste your money by sending them music they don’t want to hear. So now that you’re saving your hard-earned dollars by not sending CDs and vinyl out, it’s time to touch on one of the easiest ways you can avoid being overlooked by music bloggers altogether: simply don’t send anything.
The Carinal Sin
In a recent discussion with Anthony Volodkin, founder of the world’s most popular music blog aggregator: The Hype Machine, he explained that the site now indexes around 800 music blogs. Additionally, Brandon Griffiths, founder of Elbo.ws (another tremendously popular music blog aggregator) revealed that his site presently monitors around 4000 music blogs. Technorati, “the leading blog search engine and directory,” tracks well over 100 million blogs (*English speaking blogs*), but only lists some 7000 as music-specific sites. Clearly the organizational system there isn’t perfect and doesn’t include all 100 million blogs, but how many of those do you honestly think might actually be music blogs: 10,000? 20,000? 100,000? More? The point with all of this is that there are more music blogs out there than anyone would ever have time to sort through. As a music fan, focusing on the big picture as a whole could be overwhelming but once you dive in — following blogroll links and shoutouts, taking advantage of the connectivity between like-minded bloggers — it doesn’t end up being all that difficult to find some music blogs which fit your interests. You’d think that the process which artists might go through when searching for blogs that would vibe with their music would seemingly be just as simple, but if you ask a music blogger, you’re likely to get a very different response.
The lightning rod of the survey was quickly identified when bloggers were asked whether or not they feel that those sending emails should know what kind of music WOULD NOT be of interest to them. “I wouldn’t have over 26,000 unread messages if folks could target the proper blogs more efficiently,” replied Sean of Buzzgrinder. This opinion isn’t simply shared by bloggers however. “For a new band, you can’t just generically pitch everyone,” explained Corona. “You have to really target who you think might be into something — so you have to read their blog, and at the very least have a basic idea of what they’re about and what they’re into.” Trick noted that through her five years in the industry she focused on “maybe up to 100 blogs per campaign.” Wiese further reinforced this idea, adding, “I think if bands take the time to do some research and seek out their audience, they will have more success. Take those small successes and build on that.” However, the most interesting piece of advice on the topic came from John Dragonetti, one half of the indie pop duo the Submarines.
Independently releasing their debut album not too long after Culture Bully got going, the band was swiftly picked up by Nettwerk. Yet despite the continued label support (they just released their third full-length LP), a number of high profile advertisement spots for the likes of Apple, and a variety of film and television features, the band still emphasizes adding a personal touch to their process. “We’ve simply tried to connect with blogs that we’re fans of. Just connecting with a few folks can help set the right tone for the band. Even if your label is sending out en masse, the band should do stuff on their own.” He continued by defining the importance of relying on your own sense of hustle even if you’re surrounded by a team working to help you. “We’ve had a great relationship with our label but you don’t always want to be defined through the filter of a record company. Label folks come and go as much as bands do, so it’s good to connect independently.” There is another side to this argument however, and just because a few bloggers (about 90% of those surveyed, actually) think that musicians (and labels/PR folk) need to do a better job of focusing their campaigns doesn’t mean that they speak for everyone.
“Why not send to as many people as possible?” Replied Lee of Knox Road. “I don’t see much harm in it, as long as the emails are either bcc’d or personal (which will indeed, and for good reason, get more blog love).” Added Franky in response to the original question, “No, mainly because between myself and my writers we have a broad taste in music and will literally post anything if it’s ‘good’.” That doesn’t take away from the general sense of care that many overlook when focusing on music blogs that might actually be interested in their music. While it might not affect the artist in terms of shooting off emails — last time I checked it costs the same to send an email to one person as it does to 1000 people — such minimal attention to detail would likely save artists from wasting money on unnecessary mail-outs, and it would definitely leave a little more room to breathe in bloggers’ inboxes. Why should that matter to you as an artist? Because it’s just about as likely that music bloggers will become overwhelmed by volume and blindly purge 100 emails as they are to becoming fully engaged with 10 well-placed messages. If you want bloggers to take time and become interested by what it is you’re presenting them with, make certain that you’re prepared to spend just as much time to figure out who your music is best suited for. All of this isn’t to merely say “don’t send anything” and move on, but it’s 2011 and unfortunately that means that simply recording your music and hoping for the best isn’t going to cut it.
So, Now What?!
Relating his own personal experiences on his blog, Nashville-based artist Quiet Entertainer recently wrote, “Do you hate the media and the press? Do you think that they are purposefully ignoring you and all others with talent? Do you think the entire world is against you and your music? This is your first obstacle; maybe your biggest.” It’s easier to believe that no one cares about what you’re doing than it is to care enough yourself to put a solid effort into attempting to focus your music at bloggers who are likely to enjoy it. Regardless though, if that’s how you feel right now, don’t worry, it’s natural and you’re not alone in experiencing such insecurities. “There are honestly some bad critics out there with quite a bit of power,” added Wiese during our conversation. “It can be as simple [as] relating to the music and other topics on the site — or as ambiguous as the vibe you get when you walk into an unfamiliar coffee shop,” noted Dragonetti when explaining his process of searching for bloggers to reach out to. “You kind of get a sense right away if it feels right to you or if it feels ‘off’. There are also plenty of blogs that I love — and still send our stuff to — that probably couldn’t care less about the music we make.”
It’s a hard market to break into but it’s not impossible. And perhaps you’re doing everything right and are still falling through the cracks; that’s life, it happens to all of us. The flipside is that if you’re doing something right, regardless of all the hurdles there are to overcome, chances are better now than they’ve ever been that your music is going to be heard. “Bands are much savvier about digital strategy than people realize,” concluded Lapatine. And I personally feel that to be true, myself. I guess it’s really no different than any relationship: If you want an honest effort from the other party, you’re going to have to do some work yourself. If you want someone to blog about your band but can’t be bothered past the point of spamming a collection of mailing lists, you’re wasting everyone’s time including your own. Whatever you do though, don’t give up. That next email you send or blog you read might lead to you finding your biggest supporter. It’s always worth a shot, but unless you’re sensible with your expectations and are willing to be at least a little bit honest with yourself along the way, you’re not likely to make it past a single blogger’s delete button.
Notes: All numerical figures have been rounded up. While the volume of music bloggers surveyed isn’t enough to make any serious claims, those who contributed to this include a wide range of both males and females from around the world who have been blogging from anywhere from one to ten years. By my estimate, that’s a pretty solid sample group. With the exception of Stereogum‘s Scott Lapatine, bloggers’ last names were omitted as some simply prefer to leave it that way — by all means, if you’re curious, feel free to ask them though: Aaron (Tsururadio), David (SF Critic), Franky (Listen Before You Buy), Greg (Captains Dead), Jessica (New Music Collaborative), Joe (Each Note Secure), Jon Jon (Sound Verite’), Lee (Knox Road), Lydia (Sunset in the Rearview), Matthew (Song, by Toad), Niall (Nialler9), Peter (TwentyFourBit), Sandy (Slowcoustic), Sean (Buzzgrinder), Tiana (Ride The Tempo), Tim (The Blue Walrus) & Will (We All Want Someone To Shout For).
[This post was first published by Culture Bully.]