When it comes down to it, judging the quality of music or performance has always been a subjective process. Judging its potential appeal was a bit more rational: traditionally, people voted with their feet (by going to shows or gigs) or with their money (buying singles and albums, the extent of which was reflected in tightly policed charts). Association with a successful established artist, or endorsement by a respected critic or curator, could help, and this came to include record labels and their gatekeepers – the A&Rs on whose gut instincts often rested fortunes and careers.
The formula for organic success in dance music in 2014 really isn’t a complicated one. Regardless of genre, intent, or audience, the easiest way to win is to hire someone who has an ear. There are marvelous curators behind Mad Decent, Dim Mak, DMZ, Fool’s Gold, Mau5trap, OWSLA, Terrorhythm, Buygore, Main Course and a great quantity of other labels of various size and stature that knowledgeable fans trust. Labels are still the gatekeepers, and their mass digital proliferation means that people with musical backgrounds and an understanding of our history build brands that fans can believe in, and have consistently exhibited their ability to reshape popular culture in a positive way.
Sadly, some of the players in today’s mainstream market don’t quite understand this simple principle. The rewards on offer in today’s super-charged EDM world can be staggering: six-figure sums for a single DJ gig at a Vegas superclub selling half a million dollars’-worth of drinks a night is the top of the pyramid, but at all levels there is more money sloshing around than ever. Money breeds opportunism, and opportunism doesn’t have time to carefully hone its instincts and experience over years. Opportunism craves a sure thing. Opportunism needs numbers. The fact that a lot of people are investing in dance music right now without knowing much about it is a key factor in the current, counterintuitive situation whereby DJs are booked for the success of their tunes and productions rather than their ability to actually move a crowded dancefloor. If you didn’t know much about dance music then who would you book: the DJ with the big social media numbers and music plays, or the other guy? Combine this with the fact that much of the digital media (in fact, much of the internet) is still grappling with how to monetise their product in a way that is true to the principles they were founded on, and the opportunities for abuse are legion.
WE’RE NUMBER ONE
One thing that can give a new artist instant kudos is a No 1. In dance music, success in the Beatport charts has become a shorthand for popularity and even credibility. And understandably, with so many different genres of dance music in 2014, the classifications Beatport gives a record can be key to its chart position. According to former CEO Matthew Adell’s AMA on Reddit: “Genre assignments come first from the labels. We have a very talented group of folks who work hard every day to correct where we see errors or confusion. This is a tough one. I assure you that one person’s progressive house is another person’s something else, depending on where they are in the world and their age.”
But the labels understand the charting system, and in many cases the result is artists and labels gaming the system – a drawback of those who submit the content having the ability to classify it. It’s easier to have a Top 10 hit if you label your record as a hip hop than a deep house release, as the charts are less competitive. Any label that’s done a bit of market research can sway results in their favour. But the issue is deeper than a flawed system. It’s that the system holds no real relevance.
Charts are becoming more confusing, too, and are becoming harder and harder to evaluate. Countless online outlets offer their own charts, but unlike Beatport’s, often those charts are simply based on what gets traction on their platforms – or are a device to shift more units. The latter has been standard practice for years in other industries – do you really think that the ‘Weekly Top 10’ DVD rack in your local supermarket bears any relationship at all to how many copies of each movie have been sold?
Spotting the extent to which a few Beatport No 1s can score a DJ/producer highly paid gigs (where the real money is), there are also now companies who offer to guarantee a high chart placement. An artist by the name of Miss Tara was accused of using one of those companies a few months back to push her single ‘Runaway’ into Beatport’s Top 10, and was called out publicly for fake social media numbers to boot. Beatport recently addressed attempts to sway the system, saying: “When we spot a boosted record or track, we remove it from the store, and we’ll continue to do so. Our next step is to permanently ban the offending artists and labels. And we’re not bluffing. If you’re artificially boosting your sales to fake the demand needed to score a favourable chart position, you’re robbing someone else, someone more deserving, of that same spot. You’re doing more than cheating. You’re stealing. You’re lying. You’re taking false credit for something you didn’t earn, and you’re hurting someone else by doing so.”
Beatport say that they monitor their charts daily “looking for anomalies”, and that they are improving technology to help identify labels that are cheating the system. In a world where wheels are quietly greased, it’s impressive to see Beatport acknowledging that there is an issue and taking a stand, but appealing to labels and artists to be more moral is unlikely to be as effective as tightening up the technology.
DJ Magazine’s ‘Top 100’ list is another chart that is paraded around as a relevant depiction of quality, but it’s really nothing more than a political game reliant on relationships and revenue. The same DJs land on the list in consecutive years, those DJs automatically get booked because of a list that’s nothing more than an EDM popularity contest, and rumours constantly surface about the integrity of the poll. Why is the opinion of people who vote on DJ Magazine’s Facebook page any more relevant than sites that have more traffic, and staff who understand our culture? How many of those Facebook ‘people’ are actually real, rather than spambots purchased by the thousand? Of course, the poll is a victim of its own high profile – when there are huge rewards on offer from lazy or uninformed promoters who are happy to book DJs because of their poll position, the process will almost inevitably become corrupt – at one end or the other.
Sometimes it seems that all you need is a budget to succeed, and those with the deepest pockets have exhibited continued ability to sway the market. Back in December of 2012 Google weeded out artificially inflated YouTube views, and two billion fake plays were clipped from record company sites. Universal Music Group lost one billion of its seven billion views, and Sony lost 850 million views. The idea of payola has evolved, and buying position is nothing new to the music industry now it has adjusted to the new online reality. The days of the organic ‘YouTube dance music hit’ may be numbered as the old predators lumber back up to the watering hole.
I recently wrote an article on abnormal activity on the SoundCloud page of a young DJ/producer named Cole Plante. Something seemed off with his comments, and I decided to poke around. Thirty minutes of digging showed that 97 fake accounts had liked, commented on, and reposted the same string of records, including Cole Plante’s. I made my claim quite publicly, but the song was never removed.
I decided to see how easy purchasing results truly was. A quick internet search led me to a site called ‘BuySoundCloud.com’ that promised 1,000 plays in one day. I chose a weird cinematic tune I produced that was sitting at 383 plays in 30 days, and paid $10. Google ads also suggested a site called ‘Fiverr’, on which someone offered 3,000 SoundCloud plays and 1,000 downloads for $5. Delivery was promised within 48 hours. I picked a different tune from my account that had 650 plays on it, and paid that fee as well. I received a follow-up email immediately from BuySoundCloud.com offering ‘services’ that would boost my exposure on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. In four days, the record ‘serviced’ by BuySoundCloud jumped from 383 plays to 1,500, and the record pushed by Fiverr jumped over 3,500 plays. Both services delivered the fake plays, and did so at an affordable price.
Given my results, I could have five tracks with 80,000 plays from a mere $1,000 budget, and look incredibly appealing to promoters – though none of these plays came from humans. It might be more believable if I could pair these numbers with a few favourable blog posts and if the songs were actually good, but the fact of the matter is that often today’s market isn’t built to understand quality. It’s built to digest numbers.
A deeper look at SoundCloud shows many anomalies, and with its business model currently in flux and a constantly evolving relationship with major labels it remains to be seen how things will turn out. Slack regulation of fake plays doesn’t make SoundCloud any less of a fantastic tool and a dance music wonder of the age, but it massively undermines the integrity of using SoundCloud plays as an indicator of quality or popularity – except in the broadest terms.
TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS
So if the numbers can’t be trusted, what can? And what do successful promoters and agents depend upon to steer them right?
Cody Chapman is an agent at AM Only, one of the leading booking agencies in dance music, representing a team of amazing artists who tour consistently. I asked how much influence the numbers have on his decisions: “The things I look for in signing a potential client are one: the quality of their original productions, two: a strong team around them, three: well-considered release plans, four: credible co-signs from other artists, five: a captivating live performance and image, and six: that certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ that you feel within the first 30 seconds of finding the artist,” he says.
“Of course likes and plays matter, but they don’t make or break an act, and are never the determining factor,” he continues. “If they have all the other pieces in place then I’m confident that likes and plays will come naturally. Their value is based solely on what individuals perceive it to be. Online numbers can be a key influencer in how promoters determine an artist’s billing on a line-up: sometimes promoters go so far as to value Facebook likes over hard ticket numbers in a market, but to me that’s crazy. Nothing speaks louder then moving hard tickets and selling records. The best promoters know that to be true, just like the best agents and managers know to look around the likes and plays to see an act’s real potential. People are buying likes to get attention and to create a facade of interest – and that works in the short term, but can only go so far. Career artists work tirelessly to build a foundation that nobody can deny, one that can’t be faked, and one that doesn’t rely on a number.”
I also spoke to Laura Bo Sherman, booker of BASSment Saturdays at New York’s legendary Webster Hall, and a marketing and artist relations guru, to find out how she operated. “There are a lot of things that come into play when we book talent,” she told us. “It’s also not just one person making these decisions. All of our parties have dedicated teams that spend hours talking and researching. They’re discussing artists, dates, listening to music, and checking stats. Checking stats isn’t just seeing how many likes an artist has on Facebook or Twitter. Don’t get me wrong, those are factored in to some extent – but I care more about the tunes being released, and the interaction and reaction around the industry. I follow tons of artists via my own socials. I keep in touch with most of the artists I have worked with. If I see them talking about ‘DJ Whocares’ online or hear them talking about ‘DJ Whoknows’ when we’re out then I usually want to know what’s up. Talent knows talent.
“It’s more important to me or us that the interactions online with fans are genuine. Who cares if an artist has 150K likes on Facebook – what was the last thing they posted? What were the comments? Does anyone care what they are posting? I think you can fake or buy anything now.”
To Laura, social media is clearly hugely important, but the emphasis is on the ‘social’ part – as a tool of interaction rather than a place to get figures for a spreadsheet. It’s a far more effective use of the resource, but takes more work, insight and effort. Laura is quick to emphasise, though, that there are no guarantees in the business.
“I’ve seen promoters get burned everywhere, but no-one gets anywhere by always playing it safe,” she says. “This business is based on risks. What happens when you pass on something because their stats were low and then they blow up to be the next big thing? Once upon a time, the internet was not a thing. Facebook was not a thing. SoundCloud was not a thing. That really wasn’t that long ago. How did those promoters know what the hell they were booking? It all starts with the artist.”
So why does any of this matter, really? It matters because too many DJs and promoters are getting promoted for their talents in spoofing social media rather than their skill, and the result is flat dancefloors and neglected genuine talent. It matters because for a culture to thrive, it needs to be nurtured by people with its long-term interests at heart. It matters because even in the digital age, we need to recognise that music and dancing aren’t always something that can be reduced to numbers on a page.
Mixmag could have had any one of their writers cover this story, but decided to reach out to someone from another blog in an effort to get an outside perspective on the subject. I accepted the commission because I realise that some of my ‘competitors’ are my allies, and that platforms such as Mixmag’s are empowering legitimate voices to push our culture in the right direction – without having to send an invoice to independent artists in order to do so. Great people are doing an excellent job of covering our culture, and collaboration and celebration of those who truly understand and care about dance music is crucial to our survival.
Michael Abernathy aka Nappy is a guest columnist, follow him on Twitter here
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