In her bi-weekly column, Social Anxiety, Emilie Friedlander peeks underneath the artifacts of contemporary culture to question what it all really means.
A couple weeks ago, a music journalist friend of mine posted on Facebook that a band tried to “Venmo” her a dollar so that she would listen to their single. She responded to the would-be bribe in pretty unequivocal terms—“not if it was the last piece of recorded music on earth”—and the comments that followed ranged from amusement over the shamelessness of the ruse to laments over the insane oversaturation of the music internet. You don’t need to take Journalistic Ethics 101 to know that accepting money from potential writing subjects is probably the biggest faux-pas that a writer can make, but I was shocked when one commenter pointed out that there is “a whole platform set up to pay journalists to listen to their stuff.” It’s called Fluence, and if you look it up on Google, it’s advertised as a place that “brings creators and reviewers together to help each other.” In the parlance of the site itself, it’s a place where musicians pay a host of “influencers”—or “curators, journalists, bloggers and domain experts”—for “feedback and exposure” for their media.
I wasn’t sure what that meant, so I decided to try it out. I set up an account as a “creator,” plugged in a track from a band I play in, and was presented with a menu of different “influencers” to choose from. I picked out my guy (a music journalist advertised as a writer for a bunch of different name publications, with a little photo and Twitter handle), and noticed that he had an asking rate of $2.38 per minute, for a total of $12.67 for him to listen to the whole song. That felt a little steep, so I didn’t end up submitting my order, but I’m pretty sure that doing so gets the “influencer” in question to press play on a track and write up a little paragraph with “feedback” on the song. As dozens of Fluence success stories on the site’s blog will testify, there is also the chance that influencers will Tweet, Facebook, or write a blog post about the song you submit. Just this week, for example, an “indie music curator” named Robert Duffy supported “emerging indie artist group” CMBSTN—a quartet of Swedish alt-rockers with a penchant for slick production, emotive vocals and lipstick—by selecting it as an “emerging candy pick” on a website called Bitcandy. Truth be told, the write-up included the disclaimer that the writer had found it on Fluence, but the incentive to shell out a little cash to get people with staff jobs at blogs and thousands of Twitter followers to listen to one’s music seems obvious for the aspiring artist: if CMBSTN hadn’t posted their music to Fluence, would Robert Duffy have ever found out about CMBSTN?
As I write this piece, I am trying to ignore the notifications tickering past my peripheral vision on the upper right-hand corner of my screen. When you are a staff writer at a music publication in 2014, you receive emails pretty much constantly, 24 hours as a day. Most of them are from publicists or labels, a mix of run-of-the-mill press releases and personalized requests where you’re asked to listen to new music, interview someone, or “premiere” the new song or new video that someone has coming out. One constant source of latent guilt in my profession is that I don’t have time to listen to all the stuff that is sent to me; along with the sensation of being bombarded on all sides, there’s the perpetual feeling that I’m missing the memo about artists I might really love, because if I addressed all the emails I received, I wouldn’t have time to do much of anything else. “If I had a dollar for every email I got…” is a thought that has passed through my head on occasion, which is why, matters of journalistic integrity aside, I can see why a website like Fluence has the potential to be astronomically successful. Not just because writers can always use some extra cash, but because the language on the website speaks to a deep frustration we music journalists feel all day, every day, just by virtue of being music journalists: “Fluence is a service for influences, professional curators, experts, and others who desire to give their attention to creators but are overwhelmed with massive amounts of media being promoted to them.”
I would never feel comfortable using Fluence to make money, but I’m interested in the concept behind it, mostly because it drives home how much the independent music ecosystem has changed since I discovered I loved writing about music. The first time I ever published a concert review—probably in the fall of 2008, on a blog I used to run—I remember emailing the artist with some fact check questions and feeling a little hurt because I never heard back. That’s what most of my life consisted of for those first few years, especially since I was writing mostly about underground and experimental bands: reaching out to some obscure label in some far-out rural town in the hope that they would mail me some limited CD-R they were putting out, hitting up artists directly via Facebook and asking if they would let me post a song of theirs on my blog. Some of them responded, but very few of the people contacted seemed particularly hurried to get their music posted up on some random person’s website. Nowadays, that artist who I never heard back from has a publicist, and pretty much every aspiring band publishes their songs on “embeddable” players from bandcamp or SoundCloud, hoping they will get picked up by some “curator” and spread around the internet.
Partly because of the heaps of overnight, grassroots success stories we’ve seen in recent years (see my previous column on Yung Lean and the Sad Boys for an example of a recent one), independent music seems to have fallen prey to the very utopian belief that anybody who makes music has a chance of turning it into a public-profile, money-making career. It’s a beautiful, democratic sentiment, and one that has surely inspired legions of talented young people to throw caution to the wind and dedicate their post-college years to doing something they really love. The trouble is, when it comes to the information marketplace, the belief that everybody can become a well-known musician will never be anything more than an illusion, and the more people there are who cast their name in the hat, the higher the possibility that the world will be paying attention to someone else’s music instead of yours.
That’s why it makes me uneasy when I stop and think about the fact that rarely a minute passes where I don’t receive an email about some “ground-breaking” new artist that no one’s ever heard before: not everybody who invests in a publicist is going to get on blogs, but the independent music public relations field seems to be flourishing on the basis of that promise. Likewise, while Fluence’s unique appeal lies partly in the idea that you can bypass steep PR costs to get the gatekeepers of the internet to listen to your stuff, it still hinges on the logic that artists have to spend money to make money. Talk to any artist who has emptied out his or her savings trying and failing to promote an album, and it feels like something is deeply, systemically very wrong with the way that our little corner of the internet has evolved over the past few years. In fact, it seems like most of the people making money off the democratization of music are the people who aren’t actually making music.
Maybe that’s the way that the music industry has always operated to some extent, but I don’t think the solution to the oversaturation of the blogosphere is adding journalists onto the list of extra-musical people who are “paid” to help artists crack the blogs (note: Fluence’s professed primary function is for tastemakers to provide feedback on what is and isn’t working in a given song or video). It feels more like a bandaid than a cure, and an ethically troublesome one at that. Instead of encouraging our artists to think about their music from a career perspective from the moment they up their first track to SoundCloud, shouldn’t we be encouraging them to concentrate on the music? Shouldn’t we be goading them on to produce art for art’s sake? Besides, I think the idea of paying people to listen to your music also points to a bigger problem than the one of there being too many aspiring career musicians and not enough hours in the day for your typical music writer to give all of them an honest listen. It’s like the market logic of the internet has truly gone to our heads, and our true, undivided concentration has become so scarce a commodity we won’t even give it away for free anymore—not to other people, not for music, not even for the things we love the most. It makes me feel like the deeper we get into the post-internet age, the truer the French philosopher Simone Weil’s words become: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”