12
Jul
09

A Monkey Wrench in The Hype Machine: Music Marketing and Integrity

integrity

I’m writing this post as a response to a couple of Hype Machine posts (read them here and here) about music marketing, hype and integrity, especially in the online world. I come at this issue from a few different angles: as an MP3 blogger, as someone who took advertising and marketing at college, and as someone who took communication theory (largely criticizing marketing) at a grad school level. It’s always been a hairy business between artists and financial concerns. Do you starve for your art? Do you “sell out”? Can you manage to maintain integrity when selling your art, period? What exactly is integrity?

Integrity can mean different things to different people. The Oxford dictionary defines it as:

noun 1. the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles
2. the state of being whole and undivided

Integrity for an artist could mean that he/she manages to produce the kind of art he/she wants to regardless of what others think – in a way, adhering to an indie artist set of morals and keeping their work whole despite outside interests or concerns. Integrity for an advertising agency or PR firm often means “perceived integrity,” how surfaces can be maintained to convince the public the brand is trustworthy and credible. In the advertising world, celebrity endorsement or highly expensive advertising spots can equal credibility, and thus, integrity. I think that when The Hype Machine decided to expose the artists seemingly “hyping” their own music by creating false accounts, they were using integrity as a synonym for honesty and were applying that indie artist sense of morality that carries certain assumptions about what is moral in music marketing. These assumptions include the belief that a musician should be able to influence enough individuals to gain popularity, especially through the kind of popularity system The Hype Machine has set in place. If an artist manipulates the charts by pretending more individuals like them than there really are, it seems like “cheating.” No more cheating than in the popular music charts, mind. To think The Hype Machine, MP3 blogs, and social networking sites are subversive, grassroots, word-of-mouth and outside the trappings of the “old” mainstream music industry, is a nice idealistic thought, but also rather naive.

MP3 bloggers themselves have all sorts of aims, not all of them so altruistic. Public blogging is an act of attention-seeking, of validation, of confirmation. Otherwise we would all just set our blogs to private or write things down in a notebook. Or better yet, keep it in our heads. Yes, many of us genuinely want to promote the music we love or promote music that isn’t largely known, but we also look to promote ourselves. Without being able to get at least a small audience, there isn’t much point for the time investment in the blog, nor for the bands being promoted. We are hybrids of PR/journalist/DJ/diarist/fan, and that puts us in a liminal place that can favour one or more of these roles over the others. A large chunk of the most popular MP3 blogs are maintained by more than one blogger and more often than not feature advertisements, already taking away from the more personal, individual feel of a blog; in fact, I would consider many of those sites to be music e-zines. In order to increase and maintain high blog traffic, a blog generally has to post every day, if possible, several times a day – even if the posts aren’t very in-depth. The amount and frequency of free MP3s provided also greatly affect traffic – the majority of readers are likely to come for the music without actually reading the posts. Lastly, the more MP3s from already “popular” artists that are posted, the higher the traffic. These concerns and tactics surrounding blog traffic can tempt bloggers to make decisions with the PR part of their brains rather than posting strictly about the music they love. That’s fine; it’s just something to take into account when discussing the holier-than-thou independent music scene and its off-shoot promotional channels.

Some of the accused artists on The Hype Machine posts or those who work with/for them responded and refuted the claims made by the aggregator, including MJ Digital who represents one of the named artists. A post written over there begs the question, “what is the difference between hype & promotion, when is it marketing or manipulation and where is the balance?”. This question is difficult to answer. In order to generate “hype,” already a term that’s loaded with artificial implications, and to market effectively, an advertiser needs to gain attention even if it isn’t gained “honestly.” Advertising people are always looking for ways to reach an increasingly fragmented market which is drowning in advertising noise; it’s an appreciably difficult job with many practical concerns, and can lead to some not-so-honest practices. Or some downright obnoxious ones. It would be great if a band could gain popularity based completely on the quality of their art, but as one can see by a track record of excellent indie bands that fell apart in obscurity, that isn’t often the case. Music, like all other art, is a subjective luxury item that needs to persuade people even more fervently than other, more pragmatic straightforward items.

I’m friends with a few truly independent, unsigned bands and can tell you stories of frustration and despair about lack of visibility, promotion and success. Everyone is trying to sort out how to “make it” as a musical artist in an industry that has become a free-for-all. Many entrepreneur types have decided to form their own digital PR/marketing/consultation businesses to aid musicians and/or small labels in their pursuit of fame and success – I get contacted by a few of them on a regular basis. I frankly think they’re pretty useless and opportunist, generating far more cynicism and suspicion than messages straight from artists themselves. A perfect example of this kind of “new media advice” can be found at Hit Singularity. The problem with this kind of advice and marketing strategy is the fact every unknown band is trying to do this.

Speaking from my position as an MP3 blogger and music fan, I don’t see the point in saturating every social networking and/or profile site. If you have one decent MySpace profile with enough samples of your music, attention to aesthetic detail and personality, that should be more than sufficient, and better yet, efficient. Add a decent band website with purchasing capabilities to that, and you should have more than enough outlets. I, unlike the author of the Hit Singularity post, have actually found several fantastic bands in the last few years through MySpace. I don’t have the time to check in on every other site, especially if it repeats the information I’ve already found. I, personally, am influenced by bands that clearly display some vision and some thought in their art; bands that have bothered to put work into their entire package. It doesn’t need to be a flashy package, but if it’s creative enough, I’ll pay attention. For an example of a brilliant website idea see IAMX’s enigmatic, labyrinthine site. A band also has to work hard and be persistent to make headway – they should be playing as many gigs as they can even if few people come, they should be meticulously researching the people who might be able to “break” them to the public, including bloggers (I get more than a few emails from bands who obviously didn’t concern themselves with actually looking into my musical interests), they should be producing more music than they need just to keep top-of-mind. It’s easy to forget a brilliant band if they only put out a handful of tracks every couple of years. The many gigs you play should be memorable – including visually, because how many of us have gone to shows where we weren’t familiar with the band’s work and also couldn’t make out much meaning through bad acoustics? And I do agree with the Hit Singularity post in the advice that you should be offering a whole album or EP for free to your well-researched targets. It can be difficult writing anything substantial about a single sample MP3; in some cases, I put sample tracks like this in a weekly mix, and in most cases, I end up ignoring them. Most of all, follow my good friend Lisa’s advice regarding all of life’s activities: walk with purpose and no one will question you. You have to believe in your art and write and perform like you mean it; it’s imperative that you know who you are and what you want people to believe, and give people something to believe in. If you don’t want the trappings of a major label or a manager, you have to be prepared to do these things. If you’re looking to score a major label deal or manager, you have to be prepared to do these things. If you’re making music only for the sake of making music, regardless of whether you have an audience or not, you needn’t bother.

We also have to step back and put this into perspective; we who regularly consult MP3 blogs and their aggregators are not exactly in the majority as far as the general population and even as far as music fans go. As much as we bloggers would like to think we have some massive sway as tastemakers, we are largely preaching to the converted in an online bubble. Sometimes the bubble leaks into the music press and a band like Vampire Weekend graces the cover of SPIN before releasing an album. However, I have to say that having studied MP3 blogs and their aggregators for my MA thesis, I almost never saw unsigned, completely unknown bands coming up as the most popular on The Hype Machine, or elsewhere. Hype or its sister term buzz is difficult to track or to reason out with any logic; if the right people notice you at the right time, your band can gain buzz. You can also lose it just as capriciously. There’s an interesting case study on how Rural Alberta Advantage became a buzz band over at Hit Singularity. As with plenty of artists throughout history, their story is a combination of talent, persistent hard work, timing and sheer luck. This is also the story of many a successful band throughout the past fifty years.

Manipulating Hype Machine charts might be a bit desperate and dodgy, but in the world of snobbish indiedom, is there any less integrity in licensing your music for an advert? Where is that line between creative marketing strategies and loss of indie credibility? Why bother with fickle indie credibility at all? Some of indie’s superstars, like Morrissey, knew how to manipulate their own publicity by providing the right soundbites and strategic interview answers, and by developing a persona that media and fans could easily latch onto. There are far too many gimmicks in the world of marketing, PR and advertising (having worked on advertising campaigns, press kits and media releases before, I’ve come in contact with all sorts), and a large amount of us can see through people who are trying too hard without a clear vision behind the gimmick. And there are plenty of ham-fisted PR/marketing people who think they’re being “transparent” and tailoring their mass marketing to me personally, but who, instead, end up alienating me (including PR people, who after being politely ignored with their musical offerings, try to promote the same music to me as a submission to a fan-based project like my Day of 200 Songs). At the end of the day, some artists are born with both talent and presence, some are celebrated while still producing their art, some are not. Will we remember many of these artists that manipulated The Hype Machine charts in a week, not to mention a year? Likely not.

Music Business – The Sound

Sell-Out – Chicks on Speed

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2 Responses to “A Monkey Wrench in The Hype Machine: Music Marketing and Integrity”


  1. 1 jc
    July 26, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    Wow.

    Hope you feel better after getting that off your chest.

    Not a lot in there that I disagree with. I’ve never denied that while part of my desire to get ‘The Vinyl Villain’ up and running was to post long-forgotten and hard-to-find mp3s, there was another part which was connected to the ego.

    Thanks again for such a brilliant bit of writing.


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Burning all the old folks, the witches and the liars.

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Prince charming

Ridicule is nothing to be scared of

Don't you ever, don't you ever

Stop being dandy, showing me you're handsome


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