On Tuesday, July 2nd, we received an e-mail from SubmitHub inquiring about our interest in joining their platform. I figured this might happen if they’d failed to understand the site and who runs it, but considering my past interactions with its founder, I was still slightly taken aback. You can see said e-mail above.
I have not responded.
I’m responding now.
For those unaware, SubmitHub is a self-described “artist-to-curator platform” founded by Jason Grishkoff (who also runs Indie Shuffle) where artists (or labels) can pitch music to curators for coverage using a system largely revolving around premium (paid) credits. A premium credit guarantees you either 20+ seconds of play and feedback or 90+ seconds of play on a song within 48 hours or you receive your credit back. Each credit costs $1.20, with bulk package purchases incentivized via discount pricing. I’m going to attempt to cover many of the finer details, but to gain a greater understanding, there’s no better place than the source, so I highly recommend visiting their site to broaden your knowledge. As you may have gathered from the title, this is a rejection letter, and not a particularly kind one. However, what doesn’t work for us may work for you and we respect that. The goal with this writing is to air out all misgivings with the SubmitHub platform and the inclusion of Counterzine while doing my utmost to critique ideas and practices, not people. In an attempt to do so, I’ve broken this piece up into several sections, all of which concern a critique or a rebuttal of a defense. Regardless of response (or lack thereof), there will be no follow up. I feel these points are important to compile and express, but I have no intention of turning Counterzine into the anti-SubmitHub site. My take ends with this.
This site would fundamentally not work within the SubmitHub structure
Before I get into the real critiques of the site’s ethical issues, I’ll first come out with the biggest, if not most ‘shit-stirring’ reason: Counterzine would simply not work. Sure, we could join, technically, but one of two scenarios would emerge. We could join and carry on as we do now, covering our favorite artists (many of whom would not use SubmitHub to send music, many others who don’t know we exist until we write about them), at which point our acceptance rate through the “artist-to-curator platform” would be almost non-existent. We’d essentially be stealing the money of the independent artists and micro-labels (the former of which I have been, and the latter of which I run now) while continuing to maintain the site’s quality by doing whatever we wanted. This is, and it should be obvious, a huge ethical problem with no checks in place to address it. Sure, you can choose not to send to sites with low acceptance rates, but this choice is muddied when considering the desperation of independent artists and micro-labels in the current industry climate. Someone in a position of power may not ‘force’ an individual to do something, but if that person’s influence is used to get them to do something that they wouldn’t otherwise do, this is problematic. I could draw a number of unsavory parallels, but I’ll leave that be and you can work them out yourselves.
The other option is to completely abandon everything that makes Counterzine what it is to make money as a ‘SubmitHub blog’. We’d give priority to our ‘paying customers’ because to not do so defeats the entire purpose of paying. We’d stop covering incredible labels like Grimalkin Records because all of their releases are benefit releases and they can’t afford to pour money into maybes (or even certainties). If we covered them anyways, it’d be unfair to those who paid and didn’t receive coverage.
me when indie shuffle writes about mac demarco instead of someone who paid them money to listen to their music pic.twitter.com/wRsiXOPyPl
— Travis Shosa (@tsdenizen) May 29, 2019
See the issue? As soon as you add money to this equation, whether ‘optional’ or not, someone gets screwed. So to ‘even the playing field’, everyone has to pay. Temporarily ignoring the fact that some people can’t afford to pay (certainly not as much as others with more money (duh)) and that the playing field hasn’t been evened at all, our content would now be at the mercy of whoever was willing to pay us, not what we thought was best. We’d probably just share a bunch of singles that have already been written about because we’d be just one of many ‘SubmitHub blogs’. If we’re not feeling something that much but we just need to ‘write’ about someone who’s paying us, maybe we copy-paste a press release.
Either one of these scenarios strips Counterzine of the foundation it is based upon. Why do people seem to like what we’re doing so far? Because it’s fair and it’s different. Supposedly, we get it.
I would love for this site to take in money, but money is not the reason I started it. I started it because I believe there are massive blind-spots in music coverage and I want to point them out. Being beholden to the artists and labels who pay, or choosing not to be and taking their money anyways, inhibits the realization of that goal.
Not really a cold e-mail
To be fair, the e-mail featured at the top of this op-ed likely is the first “Dylan @ SubmitHub” truly wrote. However, we did receive eight e-mails prior, all of which contain a subject along the lines of “How was your experience with [insert blog here]?”.
Yes, as Under the Counter Tapes, I have submitted multiple tracks for coverage for my artists, and it wasn’t even a total bust. We aren’t really coming at this from a place of bitterness regarding our own experience, at least for the most part. We received far more rejection than acceptance, but this is par for the course. We are not unique, we have not been slighted. We, in fact, found a small handful of great sites through our experience. Various Small Flames was the first site to really give us the time of day. We found one of our new favorite artists Swim Camp when our Imp of Perverse was included on the same Bright Sparks feature and we were later lucky enough to premiere his album here.
One thing I need to make very clear is that the position most independent writers are in right now is very complicated. Nearly as dire as independent artists, if not quite. Jon and Liam are great writers who are passionate about music, they accept submissions outside of the SubmitHub structure, and they understand and admit SubmitHub’s ethical shortcomings. If they need SubmitHub at this time to keep doing what they do, I am nobody to say they can’t or shouldn’t. This goes for every other talented and/or supportive writer. What I will ask is that you stay conflicted. You deserve money. That money shouldn’t come from artists or micro-labels, but right now, this is your reality. I would like to live in a world where every strong supporter of independent music could make money. Yes, this includes Indie Shuffle. This doesn’t mean that SubmitHub as it exists right now is the ethical solution to this problem. I understand it, but I don’t have to be happy about it, I don’t have to ignore its problems because it’s “better than PR” (it’s cheaper, not better), and I don’t have to participate.
No Quality Control
Weirdest song decline from a submithub blogger ever. They listened to the whole thing yesterday, twice, then a third time they saved it for review, then they deny it, say it has no musical elements, then listen again! Think I may have baffled them a bit. Best $1.00 spent there! pic.twitter.com/Zh1EMEA7Qk
— Whettman Chelmets (@wc_helmets) January 11, 2019
Without going to Twitter yourself, I understand Hot Lunch Music‘s rejection can be difficult to read, so I’ll type it out:
“Thanks for submitting, but this song barely contains musical content and would be very difficult for us to review. Best of luck!”
Considering the date, we’ll extrapolate that Whettman Chelmets has likely submitted “She Says Dada” off of his album Giant Eyes & Infant Steps. Take a listen below:
Now you may not enjoy ambient music (which is fine, but you should not be taking money from artists, especially ambient ones, if you don’t appreciate or understand the genre), or you may love ambient music, but think this track is not good. We’d strongly disagree, but it’s an opinion. What’s not an opinion is that the track “barely contains musical content”. From my perspective, this is a false statement made based on either a lack of knowledge, care, or both. It’s not unaccompanied spoken word, it’s not raw field recordings: it’s an ambient electronic piece with melodies. I don’t believe Hot Lunch Music to be malicious. Maybe they were overworked that day, I don’t know. Whettman Chelmets harbors no ill will. However, the fact remains that Hot Lunch Music was paid to make this analysis.
SubmitHub was paid to host and promote Hot Lunch Music.
Whettman Chelmets lost $1.
Lots to unpack here @bestofsubmithub – my advice to anyone is never to include the word "Brain" in your song title, just in case a music blog thinks that means your name is Brian. #submithub pic.twitter.com/GJnMUd2k6n
— Kid Jupiter (@wearekidjupiter) February 26, 2019
Kid Jupiter submitted their song “Brain Training” and were rejected by a curator whose name is obscured here (though implied in the rejection). Here’s the quote:
“Hi Brian. Thanks for reaching out. Interesting vocal delivery you have. We checked it out a couple times over here, though just sitting on the fence with it, to pitch for Sync. Would be interesting to hear others works from you down the line. Respectfully.”
This is not so off-base for the most part, but more so just doesn’t say anything. The only comment on the music is “interesting vocal delivery”, which could mean anything. Afterwords, the curator implies that they’d like more submissions, but doesn’t provide them with any useful information on how to improve their odds of being accepted ie. why the track wasn’t a good fit. This rhetoric, whether intentional or not, can provoke the optimistic to think the next track will be the one, continuing to funnel money to a curator who likely will never share their music.
It doesn’t help things that they were called Brian.
"The track was alright but I did not like the vocals that much, albeit they were sounding on point." pic.twitter.com/3oK1PK4YKH
— bestofsubmithub (@bestofsubmithub) May 26, 2019
This type of feedback is far from uncommon. In fact, there’s a dedicated Twitter account called bestofsubmithub that chronicles several of them. It’s in pretty good spirits and SubmitHub’s founder gets in on the fun as well. Most of them would be amusing, if I didn’t know that artists and labels were paying for it.
To be fair, SubmitHub is very upfront about how poor its blogs’ rejection feedback often is. Though that doesn’t really make “The track was alright but I did not like the vocals that much, albeit they were sounding on point.” anything close to an acceptable response to someone who paid you to listen to their music, in my opinion.
It’s important to note that not all feedback is bad. Eqavox did a post entitled simply “Submithub.”, in which they describe their personal experience with the site. While they ultimately came to the conclusion that it wasn’t right for them, it’s not an attack piece and acknowledges the positives (they do exist, I agree). At the bottom, there are several examples of feedback, many of which are solid. I’ll be referring to and linking multiple articles positive, neutral, and negative and I highly encourage you read through them. I have extensive thoughts and opinions on this subject, but they again are still only one person’s perspective.
A lot of these writers ain’t writing
As I mentioned before, there are plenty of talented, dedicated writers involved with SubmitHub.
There are also many, many poor ones.
There seems to be no real floor for sharing quality, which is a disservice not only to the artists and labels who are presented with a frankly overwhelming number of outlets, but to writers who might spend more time on a better piece. In many cases, they will receive fewer submissions than those who engage in high-frequency, low-quality sharing because most independent artists and labels are operating from a place of desperation and will prioritize likely shares, even if they are sub-par. You have to get something for your money, even if its just an inclusion in a poorly curated playlist that’s far too large for people to reasonably listen to, or a copy-pasted press release that should be author attributed to the one who actually wrote it. In this way, SubmitHub can often incentivize poor or low-effort coverage over more thoughtful pieces.
SubmitHub – Not a Scam?
One of SubmitHub’s most staunch defenders is unsurprisingly one of its blogs, High Five For…, who in May wrote “SubmitHub – Not a Scam”, an in-defense piece using a five-points formula. This was written as follow-up to their 2018 article “SubmitHub Review – From a Blogger’s Perspective”, which laid out the personal benefits experienced within their first month (fair enough), as well as in response to Music Think Tank‘s “SubmitHub – A Scam” (shocker that). “SubmitHub – A Scam” is not especially thorough or balanced, but to pretend that High Five For…‘s rebuttal isn’t weak would be generous. I’m going to attempt to keep this as brief as possible, but here are five counterpoints to “SubmitHub – Not a Scam”:
“When you send a blog a music submission, you are literally asking another human being to spend some of their time / energy on YOU.” – High Five For…
“When an artist or label sends a blog a music submission, they are literally spending more time / energy on YOU than they are asking in return.” – Counterzine
Anyone who’s ever both pitched music and covered a release should understand that not only is there far more money and time invested into the creation of music than a write-up: there is, in most cases, far more stress and time invested in simply sharing said music in way that’s noticeable enough to a website. When an artist is using e-mail (or free SubmitHub credits, as we’ll get to soon) pitches, those who are serious will have to put together a pitch, assemble social media and streaming links, press photos (if you don’t have expensive, stylized hi-res shots, it’s a no-go), etc., put it all together, then personalize it for e-mail, with absolutely no guarantee of response and no guarantee of listening. This is rough as is, and SubmitHub defenders will argue that it aims to solve these problems. You don’t have to personalize (though this is a double-edged sword when attempting to build rapport) and premium (paid) credits will guarantee you a response within 48 hours or your credits back. Thing is, that’s paid, and it really just swaps one problem for another. But wait, there’s more! Premium credits don’t just give paying submissions a leg up! With SubmitHub’s revolutionary “standard” credits, they have an excuse to make the most bad faith defense of SubmitHub of all!
“You can send FREE submissions on Submithub” – High Five For…
“Standard credit SubmitHub submissions are a veiled excuse to squeeze out or pressure non-payers without taking ownership of it. Actively worse than e-mail submissions, you now have an imposed limit of 2 per 4 hours (which do not accumulate) across all curators and are pushed underneath paid submissions as they are pushed to the top. You still have no guarantee of response. You have less of one than before. If every blog moved to ‘SubmitHub only’ acceptance under the current system, pay-to-play submissions would become the standard, the independent music world would pour more money into blogs than they would see returned via streams and consumer purchases, and the entire blogosphere would collapse in on itself.” – Counterzine
Okay, so that’s a bit dramatic, if only because SubmitHub will never have every small blog under its umbrella. However, this is Jeremy’s favorite one to parrot and it’s rather disingenuous. In his article, he compares standard credits to ‘free hamburgers’ and compares premium credits to ‘$1 cheeseburgers’, which would be a cute metaphor if not for being wildly misleading. Let’s be generous and say ‘some person listening to my song for at least 20 seconds’ is a cheeseburger. That more or less checks out, disregarding the ‘credit back’ policy and the fact that there’s no real way to prove someone listened, rather than just hitting play and leaving the room before coming back to quip with a stock denial. An e-mail submission isn’t really a hamburger then: it’s more like a free raffle ticket for a cheeseburger. You can submit free tickets to as many raffles as you want, and the drawing is, for the most part, random. A standard credit submission is then also a raffle ticket, but you only get so many. Not only that, they’re shoved to the bottom of the bowl where no one will draw them and everyone gets cheeseburgers except you, starving until you pony up that cheeseburger money. High Five For… claims they listen to every submission and perhaps they do, but this doesn’t mean SubmitHub itself holds them accountable to do so.
Also, not everyone on SubmitHub even takes raffle tickets. EARMILK, for example, only accepts premium credits.
“Submithub is not Payola” – High Five For…
“SubmitHub is not payola. The definition of payola is “the practice of bribing someone to use their influence or position to promote a particular product or interest”. SubmitHub makes use of a loophole in this by having the money they receive not ensure promotion, but simply a click on the ‘play’ button: an essential precursor to potential promotion.” – Counterzine
I’ve found no evidence that SubmitHub is doing anything legally suspect. It’s not payola (even though Grishkoff himself said in a recent interview with LANDR “if you’re going to argue that $0.50 is payola well…[laughs]…it’s hard for me to counter that”), because you’re not paying for guaranteed publicity, you’re paying to be heard. Based on what legal knowledge I possess, this seems to be legal. There’s a difference between what is legal and what is ethical. Both payola and SubmitHub’s system encourage payment to curators for improved coverage odds. You can look at the raw acceptance rate differences between paid and unpaid submissions and those numbers alone show that you have better odds of being covered by a curator if you pay them, as opposed to if you don’t.
“Music taste is super subjective” – High Five For…
“Music taste IS super subjective, we don’t dispute this. In which case, claiming that “the truth is, there is just a lot more lower quality submissions in the free / Standard submission category, hence there is a much lower approval %. It’s that simple.” is intellectually dishonest.” – Counterzine
There’s not much to this one other than to point out some cognitive dissonance. In an attempt to explain why so much feedback on SubmitHub is contradictory, High Five For… states that the reason is entirely due to personal interpretation. Not accounting for feedback that is simply false, this is likely often true. Different people perceive things different ways. One blog’s ‘under-produced’ is likely to be our ‘over-produced’. However, this notion flies in the face of an earlier point made that the reason that unpaid submissions are accepted at a lower rate across the board is because they are “lower quality”. High Five For…‘s standard submissions acceptance record is admittedly better than many, yet still falls around half the rate of premium acceptance. A theoretical scenario: what if unpaid submissions weren’t worse, but better (subjectively speaking)? If curators were to accept unpaid submissions at a higher rate than premium, it would completely disincentivize paying. Premium submissions being accepted at a higher rate is inherently crucial to the business structure.
“Submithub is not some non-stop gravy train of easy money for bloggers to come cash in on” – High Five For…
“SubmitHub is not a cash cow, we don’t dispute this either. However, the amount of money is not the key here, but rather how and where from.” – Counterzine
There are currently around 750 active blogs and labels operating through SubmitHub (wow), but considering High For Five…‘s now above median notability and that they pulled approximately $450 for the month mentioned in their first article, SubmitHub is still far from a get-rich-quick program, especially if you aim for quality sharing. The issue, however, isn’t how much artists and labels are paying, but rather that they are paying at all. One good point Music Think Tank‘s write-up makes is the symbiotic nature of the relationship between creators and curators. The way the system works really isn’t all that complicated: a creator submits music, the curator shares music (if they so choose), the music is exposed to the curator’s existing base, the creator shares the curator’s piece so that the creator’s base may be exposed to the curator. This relationship is a fair one. Not perfect, but fair. The curator has potential for external monetization via ad revenue and donations, the creator has potential for revenue through streams and sales. In no way does a creator paying a curator any amount of money make this relationship more fair. There was an argument made that ads were not an adequate way to monetize blogs, and that’s why SubmitHub is needed. Which leads me to a harsh truth we all know but don’t like to talk about (this is directed to my fellow blogs):
If we can’t monetize through ads and reader donations, it’s likely because our traffic is weak. If our traffic is weak, what sales and streams are we pushing?
If we’re all brutally honest with ourselves, how many artists have you covered that you know without question made more than $1 because of your write-up? I believe to-date our record is Brundlefly, where I am confident that our review directly resulted in the sale of two cassettes that would otherwise have not been sold. $10 (plus shipping, which doesn’t count). This is an anomaly. In most cases, I’m completely unaware if my writing truly helps at all (which is an interesting concept to wrestle with when I spend so much time on it). If we took paid submissions, even receiving 50 cents each, we would be making more money than the collective of artists we covered would as a result of our pieces.
This is, simply put, a broken economy.
There are less tangible benefits to having your music written about, I grant that. EPK quotes to use to pitches to bigger outlets and that warm, cozy feeling you get when someone compliments your work and believes it’s worth spending time on. But the same can be said about the music itself. Otherwise, why would we do this? If you truly believe that your commentary on a piece of music holds more value than the music itself:
You should probably look into something else.
Things aren’t going to change anytime soon
I do not believe SubmitHub was born of ill intent, but I also don’t believe its creator has any intent of addressing and attempting to mitigate its issues. Under the Indie Shuffle twitter account, Grishkoff has set things up so as to be notified immediately as someone mentions the platform, and then, without fail, chimes in to defend it. These occasions aren’t really to address the issues and have meaningful discussions with users on how to improve its shortcomings, but rather to perform damage control. At this point, the day-to-day of SubmitHub’s operations to me seem more focused on putting out small fires as they pop up as opposed to figuring out why everything’s bursting into flames and taking steps towards fire reduction, as well as recruiting more curators to make them more money. The latest major implementation was “Hot or Not”, where artists could place their songs in a stream to be up-voted or down-voted by other artists and the most well-received tracks would be charted. The SubmitHub ‘community’ can barely be called such, and so the system was plagued by desperate artists excessively down-voting their peers in the hopes that others would be kinder and push their tracks to the top. The community came to a decision:
Music is bad.
In fairness, “Hot or Not” is still a work-in-progress and seems to be improved, but I’m not sure what it does even in its perfected form to fix SubmitHub’s self-identified issues. Back in 2017, Grishkoff wrote “SubmitHub’s Problems and Thoughts on How to Fix Them”, which based on title alone sounds like a very promising mental exercise. Unfortunately, rather than work-shopping potential fixes to address said problems, he simply lists them off, then lists off the pros, and says he’s open to feedback. Flash-forward to today and people have had plenty to say about SubmitHub, and yet every negative mentioned two years ago remains. SubmitHub has gone through changes, but none of them meaningful.
Only Grishkoff knows whether or not SubmitHub in its current form was his expectation. “At the end of the day, SubmitHub is an experiment. I created it for two reasons: 1) to learn some new coding languages; 2) to help accommodate the overwhelming amount of submissions that I was receiving at Indie Shuffle on a daily basis via email.” – Jason Grishkoff. Eight months after SubmitHub’s launch, Grishkoff did an interview with Indie Hackers where it’s mentioned that SubmitHub was generating revenue at a pace of $55K a month with approximately 225 blogs and labels involved. Since then, the blog/label count has more than tripled, and we can extrapolate that the revenue stream has likely at least done the same. In the greater economy, this isn’t crazy. In our sphere, it’s basically too big to fail.
So, what to do?
Realistically? Probably nothing. My ‘solution’ to SubmitHub would essentially be to remove all credit-based monetization and turn it into Hype Machine 2.0 utilizing its single best feature: genre-filtering submission requirements. In which case, there’s really no profit to be made (it wouldn’t have been monetized in the way it has been if they were okay with that), and it’s largely redundant.
SubmitHub is gonna do SubmitHub. You’re gonna do you. Counterzine is gonna do Counterzine. We’re gonna write about cassettes and do interviews and share cool shit because it’s fun and I take weird, likely misplaced pride in it. We can probably make money somehow. If SubmitHub thinks they can make money off of us, we’ll likely find another way. We’ve been lucky to be listicled by Hip Crave and Feedspot recently, so they aren’t the only ones who believe in what this is. If we don’t make money though, it was never the point.
Thanks for reading if you made it this far, and if we ever go back on this principle, please kick me in the balls through the internet.