DIY Music Promotion: Connecting Artists, Creators, Curators & Influencers
#HowWeListen Live: In Conversation with Jason Grishkoff took place on Tuesday, January 31st, live from Cape Town, South Africa.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
In part one, Marc takes a ride in the way-back machine. He speaks with Jason about what it was like for artists and bloggers back in the 90s. Looking at how things have changed for both parties, plus how this all led to his founding SubmitHub. They also touch on what remains key for artists – knowing what you want and knowing who you are.
Marc Brown: Hello Jason and welcome to #HowWeListen Live: In Conversation. Let’s start with, where are you calling in from? And can you tell us what you do?
Jason Grishkoff: In Cape Town, South Africa!
Marc: Nice, ok, now what is exactly that you do?
Jason: I run two websites in the music space. The first is a music blog called Indie Shuffle which I started in 2007. The second is a site called SubmitHub which I started in 2015. These days I spend most of my time running the business and doing customer support. I’m also the only coder & technical guy.
Marc: I was on Indie Shuffle today, it looked really cool! How did you start Indie Shuffle and what were you doing before then?
Jason: If you can rewind that far – Spotify, YouTube Music, Soundcloud – none of that existed! I stumbled onto these torrenting sites and started downloading a bunch of music. What was really cool about these private torrenting sites was that you had to get an invite. They had charts where they listed the top music of that week. Their lists of new releases were really great for finding out about new indie acts. I started discovering music like crazy.
Around the same time, I moved to Washington D.C. for work and moved away from my friends. To fight that feeling of loneliness, I embraced this new music discovery. I began a weekly email digest where I’d send out a summary of the albums I’d discovered to all my friends. Pretty quickly, someone came back and asked if I could put the reviews up on a website. I started fiddling around on WordPress and it suddenly became a site where I would link to my blog that had embedded mp3s.
At first, it was only my friends checking it out but then it grew to actual traffic from the Internet. I started looking around then to see if anyone else did that type of thing. I found a forum called Elbows. They kept track of all of the music blogs on the Internet and who was popular and that sort of thing. They also had a forum on the site where I found a lot of like-minded people. I started learning so much about how people were growing their sites. It became a bit of an obsession for me – it started as just a love for music. Then it grew and suddenly I was a web developer who was putting ads on my site and sharing music. Before I knew it, I was averaging about 100,000 visits a month on my website.
Marc: For context – back then, how was music being discovered?
Jason: There was the torrent thing, and then there were also mp3 blogs. Indie Shuffle actually started like that.
Marc: Before that, people were reading reviews and then thinking about whether they wanted to buy it right? So this was the transfer over to actually being able to read about an artist and listen to the track.
Jason: Yeah. Prior to this music discovery was through radio, word of mouth or live performances. You also had people who would make mix tapes. Music bloggers were sort of that same type of person. They liked to spread the word about music and I found myself in a similar camp. Interestingly, the blogs kept growing. The next thing we knew we had the labels threatening us because we were putting music out for free. So there was a lot of content policing in the early days of blogging. This is where SoundCloud came to the rescue – they offered us bloggers a safe way to host all of that music for free. It also gave artists a safe and centralized way to distribute that music for free.
Marc: So you’re getting all of these takedown notices, but at the same time people from the same company are sending you emails asking you to take a look at their artist. Is that right?
Jason: Yes! At first, it was really cool to get those types of emails. I didn’t know that was a thing back then. It ended up spawning an entire business of publicists and they were trying to make connections. That is actually one of the reasons that SubmitHub exists!
Marc: Tell me more about SubmitHub!
Jason: Back in the day, you’d pay someone to give you a list of a thousand music blogs to submit your music to. You would send everyone the same email so it wasn’t really targeted. It was pretty disjointed and had no standardized format. So, by the time 2013 rolled around, Indie Shuffle was getting about 300 submissions per day and the majority of them were untargeted. So I set up a submissions email and then automatically deleted the emails I got. It was overwhelming and sucking the joy out of my music discovery.
Marc: You deleted them all? You didn’t look at them?
Jason: Yeah! And I wasn’t alone.
Marc: Ha! A moment of silence for the PR people.
Jason: I will say though – the good PR people were far more effective at their jobs and would contact me directly. If you were an artist in 2013 or so, the only way you really could get your music pitched was by hiring a publicist. The downside was that because of the volume of submissions, music bloggers stopped discovering new music and were only really listening to songs by artists they already knew. The advantage was that the artists who were covered a few years before could be amplified much easier. So it was harder for the smaller new artists, but those middle artists could actually make a living and become big. Things have changed a lot since then and a lot of those artists are now struggling to recapture that era.
Marc: I remember, that era was the last time that everybody was actually focused on fewer artists. So when you started SubmitHub everything started to change and suddenly anyone could release music and promote themselves but it was also impossible to get noticed.
Jason: Yeah, it was a perfect storm. A shift to all the music streaming platforms competing for market share. Anyone could access music from anywhere without having to put in too much effort. On SubmitHub, people started paying attention to the music they were being sent and everyone went off in their own direction covering different stuff. The blogging era was the last time that that existed. People are still searching for something similar. A few years ago people were raving about how TikTok would do that and help people discover new artists but I don’t actually think that’s the case. I think it has only just added more noise to the space.
Marc: So what is SubmitHub and what was your goal there from the Indie Shuffle perspective? Easier submissions?
Jason: I often found that I was looking through things online to find content to post about and I was coming up empty-handed. I wasn’t discovering music in the same way. There was also a shift in the Internet. Print magazines had shifted their advertising model to blogging, and you’d pay based on circulation. We had a lot of viewers, so we were making quite a lot of money per month. I was able to pay my staff to continue writing and pay my developers to improve the site.
In 2015, a lot of people realized that just because someone was seeing the ad it did not mean it was actually converting. So Facebook and Google came along and that was when people started paying for clicks/conversions. This change in how advertising worked meant that blogs started to lose their revenue stream. Traffic was also dipping because of changes with Spotify and YouTube. This meant that we were all getting bombarded by emails about new music, but we weren’t making any money. SubmitHub came from the idea that I needed to solve my own problem of getting 300 emails a day. It also was about survival since music blogging wasn’t a way people could earn a living anymore.
Marc: Crazy, so it was really easy to make money, then everyone started doing it and then it was really hard to make money. Just like with Facebook early on – it was easy to get reach and then it became really difficult. So what was your thinking behind SubmitHub?
Jason: The first thing I had to solve was the inconsistency of how people would submit music. I began by creating a standardized form where the entries would synthesize into a feed so that the entries I was getting were consistent.
In terms of monetizing it – I didn’t think too much about it at first. A lot of the features were actually born from the feedback I received from users. I created a thumbs-up or thumbs-down button that would automatically send submissions an email with the answer. The question that arose from that was “why” were they getting a thumbs up or down? So I thought about beginning to ask for a small amount of money in exchange for feedback on their music.
The idea of SubmitHub’s premium credits was born within a month of the site’s existence. Using a premium credit means you get a minimum listening time, feedback within 48 hours, and at least 10 words of written feedback. This provided blogs with a new revenue stream and also helped artists contact blogs without having to hire a publicist. Of course, a lot of publicists were mad that I was undercutting them.
Marc: A big transition that coincided with SubmitHub launching – the democratization that digital brought to music. When you look at the ‘90s, there were tons of roadblocks to releasing music. Nowadays, DIY has become way more accessible to people. So technically you were undercutting them, but before this people didn’t really have access anyway. So after this big transition, streamlining everything, one big problem still remains: what strategy gets someone noticed? Could you speak to artists needing to know who they are and where they’re going?
Jason: Absolutely. Artists/musicians have to think about that early on and also on which platforms they want to interact with their fans. For example, if you’re a folk artist or singer-songwriter, your number one goal might be to perform live. But if you make lo-fi beats in your bedroom, odds are you never want to play live and will make your money in streaming revenue.
If you can, it’s important to focus your expectations on the right place from the get-go. You also have to understand that sometimes you won’t make money. It’s an extremely competitive space. As an artist, it is also important to think about what other rewards are important to you when it comes to your music. If you can identify where you want your listeners to be, how you want to interact with them and how they want to perceive you… that informs what kind of marketing you want to do and if digital marketing will even be a part of your roadmap.
Marc: Do you think that’s easier or harder in today’s landscape?
Jason: I think prior to the digital age, you’d have to hand out CDs or get involved in the local live scene and play anywhere you could.
Marc: It sounds almost prehistoric! The community used to be something physical but now it’s something that happens online.
Jason: What I’ve found in South Africa is that almost all of the successful bands here were basically knocking off the sounds of bands overseas because the biggest bands weren’t coming here on tour. I think the landscape has changed a lot. In some ways, it’s more difficult to get noticed but at the same time, it’s never been easier to find your space.
Want to carry on reading? Head to Part II here!