or When Paying For Plays Costs More Than You Think
The internet is a tidal wave of content, effectively washing through feeds and bookmarks, crashing the beachheads of our desks like so many shores. With so much user-generated content flooding our concentration, it becomes increasingly difficult for creativity to stand out - to buoy the waves (that might be enough of the oceanic analogies). This is further complicated by the fact that the game is effectively rigged. Large companies with deep pockets - and small fish with much shallower ones - are paying for your attention, innocuously and surreptitiously. From targeted advertising to celebrity endorsement, sponsorship to backhanders the ‘content’ industry is constantly engaged in edging their products, brands and artists above the fold. This is nowhere more apparent than in the entertainment industry. And the guiding principle of all this engagement is that of social proof.
It has been said that perception equals projection, in that if a thing appears to be of a certain value, we tend to respond to it according to that value. That value - unfortunately - is not always based on merit, but is a kind of measure within our disparate social groups. We commonly refer to it as ‘buzz’, and in marketing terms it is considered spun gold. Buzz is that organic, truly exceptional phenomena, that viral idea that happens a lot less often than you think. And as we vainly try to disseminate, process and stem the constant flow of web content like a digital King Canute (sea analogy again), the wonder of Buzz happens even less as corporate leviathans (again) create artificial Buzz which looks just like the real thing.
Paid ‘likes’, bought Tweets, fake queues on opening night, and tales of record companies buying chart positions… You’ve no doubt heard these grisly tales before. And this isn’t the point of this article. The realities of marketing in this digital age are well documented, and the general public are so savvy to the machinations of pop culture there’s no need to trot these out for another viewing. But I think my personal experience in attempting to artificially create Buzz, from the perspective of the ‘small fish’ serves as a cautionary tale of wilfully compromising one’s artistic integrity.
Through my business I work for most of the leading record companies in a creative capacity. Outside of this, over the years I’ve also been a sometime/off-on musician. It’s the all-too-familiar and unexceptional story of a 30-something man who was once ‘in bands’, and every now and then feels the need to dabble in unrealised ambitions bathed in a Macbook glow. And why not? Be it for creative expression or professional interest, technology has given the world an accessible platform to create and share music, and it can be a wonderfully rewarding experience.
But what happens when that fleeting hobby moves from flirting to a full-blown ill-advised romance? When you believe the world will surely become a better place if everyone heard your pithy attempts at whatever the hell IDM is? After a year of enjoyably hammering my keyboard while obsessing over vintage drum-machine samples, I noticed that my concerted effort in sharing my music had ramped up considerably. What began as artistic folly had turned into creative enterprise. I began designing proper sleeves and making distribution lists, targeting blogs and sites featuring similar genres of music. As a business owner I am used to plying my trade. A large percentage of my time is spent in what I call ‘outreach’ - a heady mix of cold-calling, social media activity, and pressing business cards into the cold hands of strangers. It’s a hard graft, but that’s sort of the point - it’s the thing that creates true value.
However, after sending my music to blog #369 I started to feel, well, exhausted. The response was fairly underwhelming, but to be honest I expected worse. I’m painfully aware of the stats. A good music blog can expect submissions in the millions in a given month, and these submissions are comprised of everyone from bedroom DJs, student bands, enthusiastic hobbyists and major international record labels.
So how does one stand out in all of this? Well, the easy answer is to ‘write better music’, or if I were to move the example away from music, to ‘generate better content’. But here’s the thing: the best content doesn’t always shine through. The good doesn’t always will out. How can it? With millions upon millions jockeying for position, trying to create the aforementioned Buzz it becomes a numbers game, with a few gems managing to shine through the gamut. It’s a hard game to win, but a game easily rigged. The 50s concept of ‘payola’ has been upgraded, gone viral and it has eyes on you.
Soundcloud has long been my preferred choice of music platform. It’s ease of use and wide global reach has made a hugely popular choice for a broad cross-section of both amateur and professional musicians. But as with all social media the propensity for a sort of compulsive engagement is huge - especially when it comes to the aural fruits of ones juicy loins. Before long I was checking play stats of my tracks twice a day. 24 plays! Unacceptable. This low play count is creating a perception of low-value, I muttered to myself. Because social proof is turning this particular wheel. If everyone round the water-cooler is talking about it, I wanted to be the conversation.
In addition to this I’m often contacted by social ‘marketeers’, kindly offering to endorse my products to a wider audience, as well as my page rankings, business profile and my general level of attractiveness for a princely sum. I know a wide cross section of businesses and individuals regularly employ these services - as well as tactics I mentioned previously - but I personally haven’t had any need for such chicanery. Until now.
I’ve had success with paid advertising within the likes of Google and Facebook, so surely this is just an extension of that methodology? Surely the world just hasn’t had the opportunity to bask in my creative genius! Yes, there’s too much dross in front of them. Because the evil, faceless corporations and cunning bedroom opportunists alike, are busy paying for play-counts and ‘likes’, therefore elevating their product to hallowed heights! They’re peaking interest and generating Buzz all over the place. Swines! If the people just saw my music in it’s correct level of awesomeness, they would shower me with platitudes and validation, and that collaboration with Daft Punk will surely be just around the corner. Surely.
Or something like that. At this point the very idea of writing to just one more blog was chipping away at my very sanity. So I did a very silly thing. A silly thing indeed. I tried to manufacture Buzz (no Pixar jokes if you please).
In hindsight I should have investigated how the service offered was going to work. In all honesty I saw it as a kind of experiment. The fee was so low - less than a pint of beer, widely accepted as the benchmark for all economic discourse in London - that I doubted it would even work. In any case, I found the service (or the service found me), offering a certain number of Soundcloud plays, by a certain date, in exchange for peanuts. I’m pretty tech-savvy, so I don’t really know how I missed the blindingly obvious. I just figured it was a service based on someone or someones who had either amassed a large following, or had a network of like-minded-endorsers. By now I had started writing the Daft Punk collaboration track so I didn’t have time to think. Once I had paid the fee - equivalent to a supermarket ham baguette - there was no turning back. My tracks would have their play counts increased, and therefore more people would listen to them. Social proof is in the pudding. For less than the price of a pudding.
At this point a thought crystallised in my head - ‘but isn’t this going to look a little weird?’ - yes my play count would be increased, but the context would be a little off. Unless you’re a shiny pop star with millions of followers that contextualises such heavy activity, wouldn’t this just look like some sort of strange, cosmic fluke? At this point - after buying the service - I figured I should ask some questions.
But just as I typed my first query, it was over. Within minutes my play count had gone from 24 plays, to almost 2,000. A track I had uploaded a hour before had suddenly and instantaneously amassed 2,000 plays. I felt dirty, and not in an R&B way.
Now the reality arrived. This feat was probably achieved with thousands of fake user accounts, and some sort of automation software. Or something to that effect. The methodology itself wasn’t important, but the sinking feeling in the pot of my stomach induced by a gag-reflex cocktail of vanity and desperation definitely was. It was only at this point I saw the action in it’s true context. ‘Juicing’ the stats wasn’t just a moral issue of integrity, but it changed the context of my track. Instead of positioning it at as something Buzz-worthy, it was positioned as something inherently flawed. It’s mere presence began to ask uncomfortable questions with inevitable answers.
Why did a track with almost two thousand plays have only 6 ‘likes’? Why I have I never heard of a track that was played 2,000 in one hour, much less the overnight sensation who penned it? Just who are these people with colourful names such as ‘User_CGJSMXssoF3920’?
In changing the context of how art is perceived, we risk changing the conversation. And the conversation is the point. Gaining a perceptual advantage might actually work - whether it’s manipulated stats or boxes of CDs gathering dust in the building that spawned them. But is this a conversation we actually want to have? This is where our subjective experience of art becomes an objective experience of marketing. In one fail swoop I positioned my creativity as something to be sold - or at least pushed - rather than discovered. Is this the same as topping up the stats of one particular hugely popular stadium rock band? Though it seems so, it isn’t. Said band paid their proverbial dues long ago before they paid for likes. But in either case neither one can truly justify the other, and both have difficulty standing alone.
Paying for plays didn’t make me look cool, it made me look foolishly ambitious. More importantly it changed the conversation from the art itself, to the appearance of the art. Maybe it would have brought my art to a wider audience, but do I actually want that audience? The conversation in that audience is not about the art, it’s more akin to emotional herding. That’s not to necessarily disparage or to debate ideas about mass-marketing or consumerism. It is merely to identify the point, the driving force in all of this. Do I wan’t to appear popular, or do I want to earn the opportunity to engage an audience?
And this is very much the sting in the tail. In the minutes following this revelation, I deleted the tracks to wipe the play counts and took a long shower with a scouring pad. But of course in doing so I had to delete the genuine plays, likes and feedback I had earned. In attempting to re-upload the tracks the cosmos sought to punish me further, and after several attempts to get them back up I had inadvertently ‘spammed’ my real followers. So in trying to manufacture interest I only succeeded in losing ‘fans’ (if, dear reader you would permit me to be so bold in referring them so).
So what’s the crux of this whole thing? Who loses, and just who is to blame? Is it myself as the idiot, or our exploitable tendencies through misconstrued value? Well the answers are us, and all of the above. An argument can be made for those trying to get a competitive edge in a time of scarcity. That no one is breaking the law - little law exists in this digital dominion - even if we are abusing the system. But with so much user-generated content driving the web it may be up to us to police ourselves, and project a new sense of morality or fair play especially where trust is involved. And this notion of trust has been the backbone and often the crutch of advertising since time immemorial. We also need to be realistic and honest about our art - whether it is actually ‘good’ enough based on our goals. Does our creativity stem from need or desire? We need to consider and project how our art will be perceived, what values we will give it, pulling back from the divide of commerce into more rewarding concerns. Artists, bands and musicians will continue to struggle to be heard above the rabble, but perhaps the rabble itself is redundant. Perhaps the business model itself is outmoded. Should we be looking at more innovative and progressive ways to share creativity, or does sharing become the act itself?
So with lessons learned, my play count of said particular track is back to where it should be - in the respectable 10s. Though I will probably to continue my forays into music production, I’m well and truly over the hard-sell. If anyone discovers my music and considers it good enough to share, then I’m muchly obliged, but I’ll be careful not to abuse that endorsement. I hope this will serve as a fateful warning to the ambitious, driven and morally ambivalent among you, and if you are one of my Soundcloud followers I apologise for reducing your support to statistics on a screen. Now I just need to send this to a few blogs.
Greg Bunbury is the owner of Bunbury Creative and makes music under the moniker Fabulous Brown. If you would like to hear what necessitated this excessively long article, visit https://soundcloud.com/fabulousbrown. The play counts, likes and comments are all genuine, as perhaps unfortunately is the music itself.
The views expressed in this piece are not intended as a reflection or inference on any of our valued clients, and by no means directed at any organisation or individuals in particular. Only the mistakes are mine.