It’s a slow, lazy Sunday at Elbo.ws. Just 14 new posts from the site’s 2,497 aggregated music blogs. Buried somewhere in those posts are 11 new MP3 music files, bringing the total number of free, downloadable songs on their radar to 378,196 (Elbo.ws doesn’t host the files; it simply points you to the blogs that do). By iTunes’ $0.99-per-song standard, that’s $374,414 worth of music available, for free, to anyone with an Internet connection.
Copyright infringement? Sure. But an awful lot of those freebie files come directly from the infringees themselves.
This is no Napster. Music blogs are the new Rolling Stone; the new top-40 radio; the new MTV; on crack (or more likely microbrews and potweed). In about the time it takes the Chili Peppers to put out a new record, this audioblogosphere has become the undisputed industry think tank.
A counterculture of laptop-toting aural misanthropes has successfully (if not accidentally) managed to turn the music industry on its head. Suddenly indie is not so “indie,” and the counterculture—like it or not—is not so “counter.” Ironically, the citizen journalism cult built on P2P file sharing and hipster snarkiness is driving the music business, not draining it.
“The pleasure, from the side of the people who aren’t in love with the record industry, is the scramble factor,” said music critic and regular New York Times and Los Angeles Times contributor Josh Kun. “Now it’s the labels that are trying to keep up with bloggers.”
That’s because as soon as one of those free audio seeds becomes a trend, it can spread like a struck match in Malibu. Right now The Music Slut is posting an iBook-tracked MP3 that could propel a Toledo basement band to multi-platinum stardom this time next year. All it takes is the right buzz in the right places.
Such is the tale of so-called “blog bands” like The Arctic Monkeys and Tapes N’ Tapes. And though the blogosphere’s indie-rock tastes have been accused, accurately so, of being somewhat homogenous (good luck finding a popular jazz blog) its impact on the business is undeniable. In fact, the very growth of indie rock music itself in recent years speaks volumes to that end.
But where there is money, there are ethical lapses. And one would expect the lines of communication between record labels and these trendsetting scribes to be muddled with them. Indeed, some form of payola, said Kun, be it monetary or moral, has traditionally been cost of entry in music criticism. The prevalence of so-called “sponsored posts” is hotly discussed in blogger arenas, but so long as there is money to be made off music, that payola dynamic is not going anywhere.
For the Spin staff critic, becoming entangled in that corruption carries career-mangling consequences. For the dorm-room blogger posting reviews from his futon, perhaps not so much; and you can be sure the publicists are keen to that. With the latter rapidly climbing to the top of the PR monkey’s contact list, just how susceptible is this new breed of taste influencers to record-label charm? What are the suits doing to influence the influencers? Is there some sort of ethical filter at play? Mark Willett, co-founding editor of Music (For Robots), an audioblog forefather, said self-regulation has thus far maintained a reasonably pure playing field.
“People expect blogs to be something done independently,” added Oliver Wang, founding editor of this writer’s fave, Soul Sides. “If it was revealed that certain blogs were getting kickbacks from record labels or whatever, I think the reputation of those blogs would take a hit; at least in the short run.”
Willett and Wang built devout followings the old-fashioned way: on democratic tastes, solid writing and a commitment to consistency and frequency. Reputation and reliability keep their blogs atop the charts at Elbo.ws, Hype Machine and TasteStalkr. But a brand-new blog may find itself up there with them on any given day.
It’s as easy as picking an artist in high reader demand (a sidebar on Hype Machine tells you the day’s hottest searches) and whipping up an MP3 post, maybe even a sentence or two of commentary. Presto. Here come the hits. And with advertisers increasingly resting their heads on music blogs—and the ease with which bloggers can now lure them—it has become a common tactic; and frankly not a totally inexcusable one. So to the chagrin of the purist—and the delight of the publicist—the arena is not completely immune to outside influences, after all. Just what influences might those be?
“I get all kinds of fun shit in the mail,” said Willett. “Free cell phones, MP3 players, etc. I even got a free laptop for Christmas last night from Vista.”
A certain level of traffic may be necessary to attract advertising dollars, but even the youngest of music blogs will face the PR onslaught almost immediately. It begins in the form of press releases, promotional CDs and, more commonly, MP3 email attachments. Then come the concert guest lists and, though Willett’s case is rare, gifts. (For the record, he says he “never, ever, ever” lets money or gifts sway his opinion.)
On the receiving end, the reactions vary. Some bloggers take the time to read and listen to everything that comes their way. Some just listen to the music and discard all accompanying literature. Still others stick to their pride and laud only their own first-hand discoveries. But whatever their sifting methods, the writers are adamant that publicist venom does not soak the opinions put forth on music blogs.
“One thing that has been clear to anyone reading my site from day one is that I only write about bands and music I like or am curious about,” said Kyle Gustafson of Information Leafblower. “I don’t post random videos and MP3 from random bands under the guise that I like and endorse them. Anything that is straight-up promo that I post on my site is labeled as linkage.”
Adds Matt Gross of The Music Slut, “I could be offered the world, but if I don’t like the band, I simply will not post about them. I feel very strongly about that. I never post about an artist I’m not into musically, unless it’s for a cheap jab or to incite my readers. But that’s very rare.”
But bloggers are human, and the labels are well aware their opinions are not completely impenetrable. In the early goings of his blog, Bag of Songs, Tom Szwech concedes it was at times difficult not to post about a band for no other reason than that they sent him a free CD.
“It felt like turning down free candy, but I had to back off a bit. I felt I was losing some integrity,” he said. “Now I only ask them to send a CD if I feel I want to post about it. It’s a fine line to walk; the allure of reposting the press releases for free stuff is pretty powerful.”
And Zeke from Indie Surfer Blog admits to at times planting one foot on either side of that line. But he claims to do it for the readers; not to appease publicists.
“Often I receive the emails direct from the musicians asking to be featured on the page, so I post about them even if I don’t like their music,” he concedes. “I’m also trying to feature different music genres, so I often post some music I’m not really into, but I think some readers may like it.”
So the publicist’s job is not totally thankless. After all, whatever they’re pushing is bound to resonate with someone, and you never know whose ear they may catch. Hence the mass-MP3-e-mail approach.
The savvy poacher will spend some time actually reading the blogs, perhaps taking note of a site’s musical leanings before firing off a plea for coverage. John Funari, online publicist for roots-rockers Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, favors the more personal approach.
“From the beginning I was always vehemently opposed to sending to mass email lists with generic press releases. It can definitely save a lot of time, but I don’t personally think it is a recipe for any kind of success,” he said. “To me, the whole idea of ‘blog marketing’ is a souped-up version of spreading info by word-of-mouth. It depends greatly on personal communication.”
That should ring familiar to any music blogger, big or small. They will also tell you that it’s predominantly small record labels—and label-seeking bands, even—flooding their inboxes with promo materials. And why not? Blog placement is gentle on small budgets and enormously cost-effective if your band blows up. But if you think the major labels are above the fray, think again.
Blogging the bigs
The New York Times Magazine reports industry giant Columbia Records—now under the co-watch of legendary sound caresser Rick Rubin—recently instilled a “word-of-mouth” department: a collection of 20-somethings charged solely with spreading buzz on the Web and through “old-fashioned human interaction.”
But let’s face it: it’s 100-percent Web. Let’s call it blog-jacking. Pragmatic and benign on paper; a spring-loaded backlash in practice.
Just ask Warner Music. In 2004 they leaked an MP3 from comments-section praise was traced back to Warner’s own blog beagles. Readers were of course quick to cry “hijack,” leaving the label (as well as the unsuspecting blog and band) humiliated.
Out of ethical lapses come natural safeguards, and the arena has grown up a bit in the last couple years. Bloggers agree that the Warner hiccup could not repeat itself today. Whatever Columbia’s new foot soldiers have in mind, they had better be a whole lot smarter about it.
“The readers are f–ing sharp. You can’t pull the wool over their eyes,” said Gustafson. “They call you on every typo and broken link, so they’re going to be on top of that, too.”
Even so, there’s no denying that the majors are trolling in some capacity, and sketchy plugs will inevitably slip through the cracks. But the labels know it doesn’t take much to ignite the irreversible buzz storm. If breaking their next cash cow comes at the expense of a retroactive slap on the wrist in a comments section, Columbia is just fine with that.
Incidentally, says Wang of Soul Sides, so are the readers.
“Not to be cynical, but in the long run, I don’t know how many people would really care,” he said. “In the end, it’s about the content, not necessarily the ethics of the content provider.”
But unwritten (and written) ethical codes in the audioblogosphere have and will continue to develop organically. Bloggers recognize what their role has become, and they take it very seriously. They prefer to act as professionals—even if it is just a hobby—and are in turn discovering what it means to be treated like one in the music industry.
“If music critics think they’re not involved in the business, they’re kidding themselves,” said Kun. “The challenge of the music critic is to be aware of how they’re being used within the industry, and to somehow be conscious of that and write within it and write against it. If you’re worth your salt.”
It’s music criticism 2.0, and as Shane from The Torture Garden writes, it’s incumbent on the bloggers themselves to define it:
“I think we need to decide what MP3 blogs should be, and try to model our own accordingly. At its best it can almost be art; a connection to the endless enjoyment of music, inspiring writing [review] and a focus for the intensity of shared feeling. At its worst it’s nothing more than mere content. We should be careful of that, because content is easily fitted into the designs of those who would exploit the good intentions of writers and their readers to make money. Art rarely is.”