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Adventures In Music, Audio and Places

Payola, Shmayola - Should I pay for this blog placement?! 

Hey-yo everyone! In this blog post, let’s talk about promotion. Specifically paying for placements a.k.a good ol’ payola. 

I see a lot of predatory behaviour from “Marketers”. The good news is that not all of them are predatory and some could be helpful. But you have to be able to tell the difference between giving away your hard-earned money for nothing and paying for legitimate publications.  

 

So let’s start with blogs. 

I break the blogs into 3 types: 

1) Big Established blogs where you can pay for an article 

2) Small blogs w/ passion but perhaps no marketing behind them 

3) Big/Small scam blogs 

 

Big Established Blogs 

I’m not going to talk about those a lot - for several reasons: 1) Most of them publish artists they like/based on label cooperation. I.e chances are you need to have contacts in the industry to get onto one of those. 2) If they offer pay-for-review service, from my conversations with artists who used it - it’s very hit or miss. You might get a few interested people in your stuff - you might not.

If you know it's a big established website there is 1 reason to pay them for a review or article: To put that recognition into your EPK. Paying 50$ once will probably not bankrupt you, and will look more impressive if/when some label or promoter decides to check your stuff out. 

 

Small blogs 

These are the blogs with small/modest reader base - maybe they don’t promote enough, maybe they just started out - however, what differentiates them from the third category, is that more often than not they will write a legit review, and they will at least try to push your stuff to the best of their ability.  

So we tried Musosoup this summer - this gave us access to a few of those blogs. 

Let’s look at a medium-sized example: https://www.theothersidereviews.com. We ended up not using their services, but they will serve as a good example of how to determine if a blog is “legit”. (Not affiliated with this blog - but do visit them for the purpose of the example)

 

How do we know they are legit? First of all, a professional-looking website. They have multiple music categories being maintained, with obviously more than 1 person (Or a very dedicated one!) working on them. They have their social media available - and social media can say a lot about an account. They don’t have a super active engagement - however, they also don’t have 10s of thousands of followers, something we will see later. Bottom line, it “looks” organic. 

On the side of the website we see their Spotify playlist - and if we click on it, we’ll see that they have a Spotify account w/ multiple playlists all with cover art designed in a similar, professional style.  

Even though they have little to few followers, the playlists are updated at least once a week. Growing your own playlists is hard! 

 

They also pass the Google test - which is my favourite test.  

Let’s put “www.theothersidereviews.com” (With quotations!) into google search. Now, ideally what you would love to see is references to the blog from other sources. We find their social media, but also a Groover profile (Which is similar to Submithub, so that adds a bit of legitimacy). We can find a few artists referencing them on their websites/EPK - which is decent. Overall this is not a lot - but much better than what we are going to see in the next chapter. 

 

To reiterate, this kind of blog will probably not grow your audience too much - but there are still reasons to pay them. Mainly:  

1) Fake it till you make it - having lots of reviews on various blogs can add legitimacy to any label/promoter who is considering picking you up - make sure you back it up with listeners though!  

2) Adding it to your EPK for other purposes - if you participate in various musical contests, or if let’s say you are touring in a local area - then having a mention in a local blog can pique the interest of potential listeners - you just have to do your due diligence and make sure there are readers.  

3) Making yourself feel better - for a lot of artists this is a big one - as having lots of mentions can make you feel like you are making it out there - but if that’s what you truly want, keep in mind that with those kinds of publications its a bit of wasted money - since they won’t actually bring you any meaningful listenership. 

 

And now for the exciting stuff! Let’s look at something that is obviously just an attempt to grab the money out of your wallet - I’ll base most of my examples on one of the “super totally legit” blogs I found, but I’ll sprinkle in other examples, when applicable. ( I found this blog 2 years ago, back then it was even sketchier - they seem to have improved since then). 

What are the signs of total-money-ripoff? 

First of all the website - if your website looks like this: 

It’s just post after post with colourful pictures - there is no differentiation. Do you really expect listeners to pay attention to you, or not get overwhelmed? Your post is going to be lost as soon as the next batch is up - notice how the last 5 posts have been posted 17 to 18 hours ago - I don’t know about you, but if I’m paying money I’d rather not get dumped along with 5 artists in the same time slot. And while you can sort by genres, this is a big downgrade from the nice and clean website we saw above.

Now, this particular blog seems to have improved since the last time I looked at it - copy and pasting the reviews (Which you should do) into google reveals that they are original content and not copypasta - which is good news. If you find the same review on more than 1 site, then they are just publishing what the artist wrote for them - yikes! 

However, even if this particular blog is actually legit now, we can see its less than legit history through another lens... 

Social media. Let’s look at their Instagram page: 

Wowzers, 30.1 K Followers. That’s pretty big! However, hovering over posts we can see they get 200-400 likes/listens per post. Which is not super terrible, but its <1% of user engagement on IG - which is not that good.  

So let’s look at the history of their followers gain using SocialBlade: 

Yikes! In 2018 they gained 1.7k followers in a week - and then lost 200 the next one. Spikes like those in social media followers, while you have low engagement, is a big red flag. Buying followers (even just for the show!) shows a simple lack of marketing skills and no understanding of how to run a legitimate business. (Notice 0.25% engagement - try inputting your favourite IG handle (Which is @tangerinebeams of course!) - I guarantee it won't be that low)

Finally, let’s google this blog up: 

And this is a big yikes for me too - we have 4 pages of results - 3 of them filled with self-references to the blog. Only on the last page can you find a few artists referencing the website. Seeing pages upon pages of the blog itself being the result is a big red flag - it indicates that there was some tricky SEO done to push the website up in the search results - but I guarantee you that very few legitimate blogs will have this issue (Due to you know… not only them referencing themselves, as we saw above.) (Try this with something big - like Twitter.com - notice how only one search is Twitter.com itself - and the rest is app stores and whats not!)

This particular blog might not be a  “scam” anymore- but I suspect that it did start as one.  

 

How do we determine a legitimate blog from a money sucker one? 

Legitimate blogs: 


1) Legitimate blogs will tell you in advance if they will charge you  

2) Legitimate blogs will have a professional website, that is clean, has its social media and/or Spotify or Youtube channel that is easily found. 

3) Legitimate blogs will have a clear visual design. Not only on the website but any auxiliary resources relating to the blog: Youtube/Instagram/Spotify 

4) Legitimate blogs will have active social media - make sure to use tools like SocialBlade, or alternatives to check the engagement and any huge spikes in the followers: Bought followers will NOT care about your music 

5) Google “Blogname.com” (With quotes!) and see if the blog is the only (or practically the only) thing being found. If you see many links that just link to different pages of the blog - it's a HUGE red flag. You can do this with any other legitimate business. Try it - notice how the results past first or second one will lead you to mentions about the business - not a repeat of the business page. This is the biggest red flag for me, if I see this there’s 80% certainty that I can group you in a payola/scam category. 

6) Copy and paste their reviews into google (Make sure to use quotes again!). If you find the same review on other websites, close the tab and forget about them - if a blog can’t be bothered to write original material they are not worth your time or money. 

7) For bonus points, see if that blog is on Submithub, Groover or PlaylistPush - these sites try their best to filter out fake blogs - it’s not a 100% guarantee, but with a combination of the factors from above should give you a good idea. 

I know this looks complicated - but trust me. Once you learn how to identify a few of those blogs, it will take a minute or so to identify less-than-legitimate blogs right away. Sometimes even at a glance. 

Payola Spotify/Apple/Whatever playlists: 

1) Legit Payola Playlists 

THERE ARE NO LEGIT PAYOLA PLAYLISTS. They violate the terms of the streaming services. STOP PAYING MONEY TO GET PLACED ON PLAYLISTS. And I’m not talking about “Review” services like Submithub - I’m talking about the ones that promise 100% to place your song on a playlist network - those vultures exist because musicians pay them money. Stop doing that. 

However, even within this less-than-honourable subset, there is an even worse one: Fake playlists filled with bots. Good news is that it’s usually easy to identify those: 

1) Look for small artists on them - if they have few to zero listens, that means that 100k follower playlist isn’t legit 

2) Look at the account that created the playlist. If that account has a huge amount of followers that means they’ve been engaging in one of those follow-to-submit practices. Which means most of those followers are artists that are trying to submit their music there. They won’t be interested in your music - or the playlist. In fact, most of them will forget about 20 playlists they subbed to in order to submit their music right away. 

3) Needless to say, avoid those services that do follow-to-submit. Most of the playlists there will have the problem outlined in number 2. 

4) Playlist that accept submissions, or charge you money - but don’t update. That’s just bizarre! 

Overall: Please don’t pay money for guaranteed placement in a playlist, no matter how legit it is. Submission websites like Submithub and Playlist push are OK - I’ll write about them later on, but if someone promises you 100% anything - followers/results/whatever - grab your money and run. 

Youtube/Other places: 

This is already getting too long - so to be short, the same rules apply for these channels.  

Just keep in mind, that conversion of people from Youtube, TikTok and other services isn’t great - even if they listen to your music it’s highly unlikely that they will become fans on other services. And if you see a Youtube channel with 2k followers charging 5 bucks for a placement - honestly tell them to sod off.  

I can talk about this topic on and on - but I feel this is a good place to stop. If you liked this blog post or have any questions, hit us up at @tangerine_beams on Twitter, or in the comments below. Also, subscribe to our email list! We have lots of informative and fun stuff planned - you don’t want to miss it =)

Mastering For Streaming Services And The Tale Of -14 LUFS 

Hello folks (and folkerinos),  

Thanks for reading this guide! It will help you to decide how to master your tracks for streaming platforms in 2020. There is a lot of information going around regarding that so I decided to combine the most important findings into this short guide. 

 

First of all, why does mastering for streaming matter at all? Modern streaming services now have something that is called volume normalization - an effort to make all the songs played roughly the same volume so the listener doesn’t have to fiddle with the volume knob every time they switch a track. 

 

What is volume normalization exactly? It is a set of algorithms to decide how much your song will be turned down (or up). Most of them work roughly the same - apply a psychoacoustic filter (More on that later), scan the music file in small increments, and find the average/peak volume.  

After that all the service has to do is to increase/decrease the volume - and viola, every track sounds as loud as the next one! Except if you ever used those services, you know that’s not exactly true. There are still variations of volumes? Who is to blame, and what can we do to avoid sounding quieter than our competition? 

 

You’ve got to understand what those algos do. They either turn the volume down or use a limiter to turn the volume up. Or allow stuff to clip (Hi Pandora). 

Unfortunately, for various reasons, there isn’t a single answer. 

The first reason is that different streaming services use different algorithms to normalize volume. Individual targets are in the table below. Let’s look at them! 

 

 

At this point, you‘re hopefully getting a bit confused and uneasy. So what is going on, what is the optimal level?! 

 

Here’s the thing I’m trying to convey: Don’t chase those targets! They are all over the place, WILL change over time (Just like what Spotify did in 2017), and they use different algos to calculate the “true” loudness. 

And they are not even on by default sometimes! Such is the case with Apple and Spotify when integrated with third-party devices. Users have a choice to turn it off on the majority of the services. So that means there will be situations when your tracks will sound incredibly quiet compared to the competition - definitely not good! 

 

Some other reasons why not to master to -14 (15,16, whatever) LUFS: 

  • Being overcompressed is a sound in and of itself - In many genres of music, such as Pop, Metal, EDM overcompression is a sound that’s been around for at least 20 years now. Listeners are used to it. Your super dynamic master might be “louder” than mainstream stuff - but it might also be alienating to some listeners. Not to mention, good luck getting that ripping sound of guitars in your industrial metal at -14 LUFs. Mick Gordon’s dynamic range on Doom Soundtrack is 6, just for example. 
  • Algos like Replaygain use the 95% loudest peak to determine how loud a track is. This is the reason why a lot of classical music sounds quieter on Spotify - because they have one or two big crescendos throughout the track, with the rest being relatively quiet. It judges the volume by those crescendos - meaning the rest of the track gets downturned more severely. So if you have music with a lot of dynamic parts you might do a more even compression/expansion to avoid having chunks of your music being too quiet. 
  • Some music mastered to -14 LUFS will still be quieter than mainstream overcompressed stuff. This has to do with a million factors I can’t cover here, but a lot of it is psychoacoustical effects which no algorithm can fully cover. 
  • Undershooting the target loudness will result in either your tracks being limited by the service or not increased in volume at all. Definitely not something that you want. 
  • Services like Bandcamp do not have volume normalization. Your CD/Vinyl release will have different goals in regards to target loudness. So you’ll need multiple ISRC codes, as well as multiple masters - if you release a lot of music it can quickly become confusing and overwhelming managing all of that. Extra points if you are enough of a Mad Lad to create different masters for different streaming services. 

 

 

All those facts have only 1 important conclusion to you as a creator:  

Master your music to the level where it sounds good. Doing heavy metal or EDM? Smash that loudness. You WILL be competing against other people doing the same. Doing classical? Yea chill out on the limiter/compression. Use the modern references and your ears to determine where you need to be - not some arbitrary goal posts. 

Also, here is a question of more philosophical variety: If volume normalization makes more dynamic tracks sound louder in comparison, does it actually do its job? Or is the volume measuring we have now is flawed? Feel free to discuss on Twitter, @tangerine_beams or in the comment section below!

In the next blog post I'll go over payola - the types, is it worth spending money on and how to identify people who just want to take your money.