For a Fistfull of Credits

SubmitHub

Tobisonics talks the Good, The Bad & The Ugly of SubmitHub with its creator, Jason.

In a short number of years pay for submission has become the norm across the independent music scene, thanks in no small part to the success of SubmitHub, and while opinions among independent artists run the full gambit from glowing praise to utter disdain, with live music struggling to find its footing in a post-Covid-19 world, artists in search of potential fans are more reliant than ever on blogs, playlists, influencers, and radio stations, 1,541 of which (at the time of writing this article) now handle their submissions via SubmitHub.

When I brought up the subject of writing this article, Jason from SubmitHub kindly offered to be interviewed, and was, to his credit, unfazed when I explained I was interested in writing an article about the good, the bad and the ugly of SubmitHub and leaving it up to artists to make up their own minds.

SUBMITHUB IN 2021

Originally created to help manage the flow of submissions from independent artists to blogs, SubmitHub has rapidly expanded to host playlist, radio, YouTuber & Influencer.  Did you feel it was a necessary step to reflect the changing nature of the modern independent music scene?

Absolutely, yep.  And to be clear: it’s not just independents. Major labels use SubmitHub heavily.

I’ve been blogging for 12 years now, and one thing has become readily apparent: the landscape is constantly changing. When I started blogging we were all hosting MP3s. Then SoundCloud entered the game and changed everything for the better.  Music blogs – as surfaced by Hype Machine – became kingmakers, serving as one of the best A&R tools in the industry. Then Spotify arrived and rattled everything.

At the same time, people stopped blogging (not just in the music industry, but everywhere).  New forms of sharing and discovery emerged, each competing with each other for a slice of the pie. To date, I don’t think any one “network” or “platform” has stepped up to replace what music blogging was from 2005-2015.  SubmitHub’s varied offering of curators reflects that fragmentation.

SubmitHub provides an impressively comprehensive array of data to help artists assess the quality and reach of the various curators featured on your website.  How do you go about collecting that data, and how much of a challenge has it been to source data on such a wide range of different types of curator?

Some of it is easy and some of it is hard.  Broadly speaking, I try to keep track of 1) each curator’s behaviour *on* SubmitHub; and 2) their engagement *outside* SubmitHub (we’ve decided to ditch “followers” as a measure of someone’s influence).

One of the toughest pieces of data to source has been the “average listeners” number we associate with each Spotify playlist shown on the website.  Spotify is notoriously guarded about this information, and pretty much the only people who get any insight are artists themselves when they get added to each playlist.  For a few years now we’ve been asking submitters who have been shared via SubmitHub to upload their insights so that we can get a better idea of what they actually received in terms of listeners. Pretty sure we’re the only website publicly surfacing these numbers 🙂

There is no shortage of blog, playlist, influencer, etc on the independent music scene, what there is, though, is a lack of coherent structure, thus leaving artists bemused and overwhelmed, as they try to make sense of the seemingly endless to-do list of potential targets to promote their new releases.  Has SubmitHub grown to a point that it now, de-facto, provides that structure?

Maybe?  I haven’t really ever thought about it like that!  I suppose you could approach SubmitHub as a “music directory” — so in that sense, yes, we’re making it easier to sort through.

We definitely don’t have “everyone” under our umbrella though.  Spend five minutes on Twitter and you’ll quickly come across a very-impassioned group of bloggers who think that SubmitHub is the worst thing to ever be created.  And that’s totally fine — I’m not forcing them to use it.

PAYING FOR FEEDBACK

It could be argued that critical listening can take two forms: constructive listening where evaluation is made upon the basis of how closely the final result matches that which was intended, and dismissive listening where evaluation is made upon the basis of finding fault.  Would it be unfair to suggest that a credit-based submission system inevitably inclines listeners to adopt a more dismissive stance?

Yes, I’d say that’s unfair – in part because it’s a generalisation. There are 1,500+ curators, labels and influencers on SubmitHub, each with unique people behind them.  Some give constructive feedback; others don’t.

I created SubmitHub back in 2015 to help my blog (Indie Shuffle) deal with the overwhelming amount of submissions we were receiving (300+ emails per day).  To be completely frank, I didn’t set out with the intention of developing a system where artists could get constructive feedback (or where curators could simply dismiss everything).  I simply wanted a system that a) incentivised curators to spend time listening to submissions and b) gave artists confidence that their song had been given a proper chance.  The feedback was originally intended to demonstrate that the song wasn’t listened to on mute, and has blossomed into something much more than that today.

Back to the subject of what the “average curator’s” intentions are…  I’d say that the majority of curators on SubmitHub are first-and-foremost looking for songs they feel their audience will be receptive to.  If their audience likes the songs that are selected they’ll keep on coming back. So, it’s in the curator’s interest to choose the best of the best.

While generalisations are bad, I don’t think many curators go into it thinking “Okay let’s see how much I can dismiss!”  Rather, they open up their submission feed and go “Woah, that’s a lot of music to choose from.”  They’re spoiled for choice and can be as picky as they want.

Simply uploading music to the web is not enough of a reason to expect to be paid.  People must first be listening.  The same can be said of curators, simply curating a blog, playlist, social feed, etc is not enough of a reason to expect to be paid either.  There must first be an audience.  Why should curators, etc be paid to listen to submissions? Isn’t that simply part of the job they have taken on for themselves?

I think it’s important to clarify that the “job” you speak of is, in 99% of cases, not a “job”, but rather a hobby.  With the exception of YouTube channels and a handful of bloggers, there’s virtually no money to be made from curating.

The reason SubmitHub exists is because the “supply/demand” balance is completely off-kilter.  I’ve heard Spotify say that 40,000+ songs are uploaded to their platform daily.  There’s an absolutely mind-boggling amount of new music being shared daily, and once any curator makes their contact details public it’s not long until they find themselves drowning in unsolicited pitches from artists who are hoping for coverage.

I think the question of whether curators “should” be paid or not is a bit of a moot point – and there will no doubt be endless debate there.  Ultimately I do agree that in many ways it sucks to be an artist in 2020.  Every corner you turn you find someone looking to take money you don’t even have.  On the flip side, it’s never been easier to actually make a connection and ensure that your song *is* listened to.

The reality is that without systems like SubmitHub, you end up with curators who receive hundreds of submissions per day and simply ignore all of them because it’s impossible to keep up. I was guilty of that when running Indie Shuffle.  Time is money, and it turns out that all it takes is a small amount of compensation (~$1) for curators to respond to 90% of their submissions.

One of the unique selling points of SubmitHub is the option to receive feedback from curators.  Music is highly subjective.  Given that all any of us can ever really do, is express our own personal taste, how useful (and by extension valuable) is the feedback of curators?

For some people it’s useful, and for others it’s annoying.  The people on both sides are real people, and with that comes a whole lot of variety.

Some curators give great feedback; others give terrible feedback.  Some artists find useful takeaways in the feedback they receive; other artists can’t handle criticism at all.  On any given day I hear people say “I wish the feedback was more constructive” and others say “I wish they’d just say ‘thanks but no thanks’”.  Can’t win either way 😃

Gambling chips falling

CURATORS WHO GAME THE SYSTEM

Opinions across the independent music scene are split when it comes to SubmitHub. And while many dissenting voices can be attributed to sour grapes, on the part of disappointed artists, one theme of criticism stood out to me; many curators who make use of SubmitHub for submission in good faith, are deeply frustrated by curators who take advantage of the credit system as a way to earn, rather than manage submissions.

With the “Really Good Blogger” category and rating system for curator feedback, this problem is clearly something you’re working to address.  Could you take a moment to explain how these evaluations are calculated and how Artists can use them to ensure SubmitHub works for them in the way in which it was intended?

As alluded to earlier, everyone’s intentions and background are different.  I don’t think there are many sour apples, but you’re right to point out that where there are, we try to deter folks from submitting to them.

One of the most-obvious ways to tell a “bad apple” is by looking at where and how often they’re sharing.  If they’re simply on SubmitHub to milk it for money, that generally means they tend to never approve anything.  And we show that front-and-center so that artists know they should probably skip said outlet.

As mentioned earlier, SubmitHub can be looked at as a bit of a directory (that we work hard to keep clean).  The decision about who to send to is yours to make — we work hard to give you as much information as possible before doing so.

Is there a risk that curators who game the system will damage the public perception of SubmitHub to such an extent that legitimate curators will stop using it?

And if so, how worried are you about this and would you consider taking a more punitive approach against curators who transgress?

I really don’t think there are that many curators trying to “game” the system for money, so no, I’m not that concerned.  We’ve got five full-time staff on our team now, and a lot of our time is spent reviewing curator profiles to make sure they’re delivering value to the artists who submit to them.

We’re not perfect, and I’m sure there are some bad apples, but overall I have a more-positive outlook than the question seems to paint.  For example, roughly 3,000 songs are being shared every day – that’s quite a chunk!

BOGUS PLAYLISTS

Spotify’s stream/playlist-based system, coupled with the ease of setting up free accounts, has given rise to a slew of sites over pay for stream/placement and playlists supported by fake accounts, churning out thousands upon thousands of bogus streams.

What steps does SubmitHub take to ensure playlists featured on your site are genuine?

Are curators who engage in faking playlist streams banned from SubmitHub, and do you report fake playlists and the curators responsible to Spotify?

This is a huge issue for artists!  We’ve been front-and-centre on it for ~3 years now (ever since we started signing up Spotify playlisters), and we’re pretty darn good at spotting a good playlister vs. a bad playlister.  I think we have about ~100 playlisters apply to join SubmitHub in any given week, and I’d say 5% – 10% of those make it through.

We absolutely do ban people who we find misbehaving — be it purchasing followers / plays (which we’re tracking closely), or the selling of placement (which we’re also constantly checking for both on and off SubmitHub).  It’s rare, but it happens.  There are definitely folks out there who try really hard to hide what they’re doing.  They tend to give away clues pretty readily, though.  In general, I feel pretty confident with our ability to weed out the good from the bad.

PROMOTING NEW MUSIC

In addition to its established role of a submission site, SubmitHub has also expanded into areas of music promotion with the “Hot or Not” function, “Popular” (tracks), and the regular sharing of trending playlists.  This, on the face of it, puts SubmitHub in direct competition with Hype Machine.  What was the thinking behind introducing these initiatives?

Hot or Not was something I threw together in a few furious days of coding for fun.  I can’t even remember what I was thinking haha.  The popular charts were indeed a nod toward Hype Machine, though I don’t think anything will ever replace what Hypem was back in its heyday.

Is there a risk that the “Hot or Not” function descends into nothing more than a popularity contest? One that is easily manipulated by artists with stronger social media followings than musical ability.  How happy are you with the success of the function so far?

It’s been nearly two years since I launched it and that hasn’t happened yet.  I don’t think social media followings can have a big impact, and the charts change quickly so gaming it would have limited impact.  I think there about 10,000 votes per day going through Hot or Not right now, so I’d say I’m pretty happy with the way it’s worked out.  Still lots of things I’d like to improve though 🙂

ADVICE FOR ARTISTS

Much of the criticism of SubmitHub comes from artists who have had negative experiences of the site.

I can’t blame them. The entire premise of the site centres around the question: “Do you like my song enough to share it?”  85% of the time the answer is “no,” and “no” is never easy to take, regardless of context.

Given your experience with Indie Shuffle & SubmitHub, are there bare minimum standards that artists need to aim for in terms of production, social media presence, press kits, etc to give themselves a fighting chance of successful submissions?

Social media presence and press kits all take a back seat to the song.  It needs to be better than 90% of all the other songs going through that day.  By and large, curators aren’t there to “give you a chance” — they’re there to find the best music they can for their audience.  If your song isn’t tip-top it’s not going to stand much chance.

And how can artists use the SubmitHub search function to narrow down potential curators and, in doing so, better their chance of success?

The most-important factor to look at is the “genre match” score that gets generated for each playlister.  There are a bunch of additional tips you can uncover in this video I did earlier in the year.

POSSIBLE IMPROVEMENTS

The curator search function continues to be developed and refined.  Might it be helpful to artists just starting out/struggling to establish themselves, if they could narrow-down their search to curators open to featuring genuinely unheard of artists?

I think almost all of the curators on SubmitHub *are* receptive to unheard of artists.  As mentioned earlier, primary emphasis is placed on the song itself (I don’t show social media numbers, etc unless the curator goes digging).  While generalizations are bad when talking about 1,500+ curators, I’d say that the majority don’t care about whether an artist is new or already-established.

Given that SubmitHub was created to help curators manage their submissions, would it be an idea to offer curators the option of donating money earned from submissions to a charity of their choice?

We’ve had quite a few do that actually!  They get to cash out their earnings on their own accord, so once they’ve got the money it’s up to them re: what they do.  I know of one blog that used all their money to start a mental health website; another donated everything to tree planting.  I haven’t actually thought about a systematic way to implement a donation method like that.  Thinking about it now, I’m not even sure how that’d be done, but could be a fun project when my time frees up.

COMPETING SITES / SERVICES

There are a growing number of pay for submission sites springing up across the Independent Music scene.  How closely do you pay attention to these sites?  

Close enough 😉

A number of competing pay for submission sites package their submission services alongside sync placement pitching and assorted managerial services.  In contrast, SubmitHub has, thus far, stayed true to its artist/curator origins.  Is this a conscious decision to maintain brand integrity, or are you looking at developing additional services in the future?

Sync pitching is a difficult one because in 99% of cases it’s just a “pitch” — the final deliverable (being placed on a show or ad) is very unlikely.  We’ve explored the option a few times but I always end up concluding that it’s not the right fit for this model.  So, we’ve put it into the “Record Labels” category instead — the same goes for management stuff.  There are ~300 labels using SubmitHub to receive demos, and generally speaking I think of them more as the “find a manager” part of SubmitHub.

Some pay for submission sites are opting for a monthly fee-based payment system. What are your thoughts on this business model and are there any plans to adopt a similar model with SubmitHub?

I’m not sure how it would work, honestly.  Sounds kinda complex.  Are those sites actually paying the curators?  How do they determine who gets what?  What happens if an artist signs up for a monthly subscription and then forgets about it for 6 months?  Where does that money go?  For now I think the “pay for what you want” model works pretty effectively.

THE FUTURE & FINAL THOUGHTS

The independent music scene remains in a state of flux.  How do you see the future of SubmitHub in the coming years?

Oh gosh, I don’t know!  Five years ago I wouldn’t have anticipated it to be where we are now, so chances of me making an accurate prediction are unlikely.  The market is definitely oversaturated with artists competing against each other, and my take is that it’ll never be possible for all of them to realise the success they’re hoping for.  The average consumer just doesn’t have the capacity to go through 100+ new songs a day; they prefer to be spoon fed the best-of-the-best (as evidenced by Spotify’s huge success with playlists).

Do you have any final words of advice for independent artists trying to make their mark?  

Two things:

  1. Throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks.  SubmitHub isn’t the only tool in the toolshed — it’s just one of them.  It works for some and doesn’t work for others.  There are a million ways to promote your music these days, and I’d strongly advise exploring as many avenues as possible.  You never know where you’ll find your next fan.
  2. On the subject of fans… Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 true fans is really applicable to music.  Rather than spreading yourself far and wide, focus instead on building proper relationships with your listeners (including curators).

PRIDE AND SUBMISSION

There’s no doubting Jason’s genuine enthusiasm and pride in what he has created, and he does, indeed, have every reason to be proud; SubmitHub has changed the nature of music submissions, and with that, the relationship between artist and curator, from the grassroots scene right up to the dizzying heights of major label releases. The SubmitHub website continues to develop and improve at a rate that provides ample evidence of the commitment Jason and his team have to providing artist and curator a first-rate service.  And given that imitation is the highest form of flattery, the ever-growing plethora of competing pay-for-submission sites/services can be considered high praise indeed for Jason and his creation.

IN ABSENCE OF THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT

In creating SubmitHub, Jason has removed doubt from the process of submitting music to curators.  Artists need no longer worry if their music is being heard; instead they must deal with the harsh reality of music submission, without the benefit of the doubt.  This, in essence, is what artists are paying for when they use SubmitHub; the certainty that their music was heard and, if not successful, the certainty of knowing their music simply did not appeal to the tastes of the curator.

GET FEEDBACK

While providing a necessary demonstration that their music has been heard, curator feedback remains a major source of frustration for many artists; not least because, as Jason has already mentioned, the quality of feedback varies greatly from one curator to another.

On balance, it might be best if curators stuck to explaining what their audience was looking for, rather than attempting to critique the track itself (and, thereby, second guessing work already completed and out in the market).

In turn, artists must come to realise that curators can only offer their own personal opinion; and that, seeking out, or complaining about a lack of, consensus is folly; and instead see the value of the feedback, is that it helps artists understand what curators are looking for when evaluating submissions.    

IN SEARCH OF SUBMISSION

The SubmitHub search engine provides an intuitive interface for artists to target their submissions quickly and easily.  The ever-expanding number of features gives artists an array of useful data to help refine their selection process; particularly useful is the option for artists to see if they have submitted to a curator before, and instantly access any past feedback. 

It can be argued that the SubmitHub search engine is over-reliant on genre for categorising an artist’s music; and that allowing artists to label their music by theme and/or similar artist, would be a useful addition for both artist and curator (particularly in the case of playlist curators whose playlists are often theme-based; and Artists whose music does not easily fit into one or two genres).

BUILT BY BLOGGERS FOR BLOGGERS

At its heart, SubmitHub is a platform for bloggers.  It provides a one-stop shop for curators to manage their submissions; where artists are encouraged to make their bios, socials, and other additional information readily available without curators having to seek it out.  And it does so, while rewarding curators for their time.

With major labels, independent labels, and PR companies all vying alongside grassroot artists for the attention of curators, SubmitHub has created a wealth of musical submissions; a wealth that affords curators the luxury of indulging the most selective of submission practices, and, in turn, leaves the vast majority of independent [unsigned] artists falling poorly short of such lofty standards.

THE JURY IS STILL OUT

Whether SubmitHub benefits independent artists remains a matter for debate.  On one hand, an awful lot of the heavy lifting of finding and researching curators has already been done for artists; this is particularly true in regard to playlists, where Jason and his team actively work to root out bogus playlist, so artists don’t have to.  

On the other hand, the success rate for artists using SubmitHub is extremely low and does come at a price.  Speaking from my own experience, I have achieved a far higher level of success contacting curators directly than via SubmitHub; though, in fairness, achieving that success has been far more labor intensive and time consuming.  

I cannot in good conscience wholeheartedly endorse SubmitHub as a promotional option for independent artists, but nor can I just write it off as a waste of time and money; instead the best advice I can offer independent artists, is to consider the points raised in this article and decide whether it is worth trying for yourself to see if it results in success for your music.

And it is in that final regard, I wish you all the very best of luck.

Tobi

Tobi works as a Mastering Engineer (via Tobisonic Mastering), mastering a wide range of genre. Tobi also remixes and has recently released his debut solo production, All These Things under the handle Tobisonics. Find him on Twitter @masteredbytobi Read More.

10 Comments

  1. neo_101_

    Great read and well put together!!!!

  2. Fantastic work Tobi and respect to Jason for agreeing to face such a degree of scrutiny. There are a lot of lessons in here for artists and all those orbiting around them in the independent music sector. The one that often gets lost is that, in any era, the best way to stand out from the crowd is by writing and recording outstandingly original and well-executed music. As for SubmitHub, it is inevitable that it will attract criticism especially from those who are disgruntled because it didn’t give thenm what they hoped for (realistic or not). But, in such an over-crowded market where you could submit an email, an EPK and a track every 10 seconds and there would still be more radio shows, more playlists, more blogs etc, I think it is helpful to be able to place your music with a facility that does some of the sorting for you. As someone who probably has to listen to 300+ new tracks every week myself, I can both see the appeal in inventing a system to delegat some of that listening and the gap between the expectations of each individual band or artist compared to how they actually measure up against 299 others each week.

  3. Thanks for the extensive article Tobi! A great read and good advice for any artist trying to be heard or covered. I’ve used Submit Hub occasionally a few years back and I’m sure the best of the best do get through.
    It’s tough waters out there with so many competing for airtime, when really, music isn’t a competition. It’s a matter of taste. Of finding the audience for what you do.
    There’s lots of trial and error in the business of music!

  4. Brilliant read Tobi, lots of good points well worth considering. I first used Submithub back in 2016 and am only just beginning to release music consistently again – the platform has clearly changed and improved a lot since then and I may have to poke my head around the door and see how it’s looking these days!

  5. Mark Toal

    Brilliant interview and well balanced analysis Tobi. Proper kudos to Jason for being so frank and honest in response to such probing questions.

  6. Thank you all for the kind comments and taking the time to read! I’m very pleased so many Artists have found it useful!

  7. Great piece. I’ve had some successful submissions with Submithub in the past for a different project and also some spirited email exchanges with Jason haha. Whilst we might not have been in firm agreement on everything I have to give him credit for being really accessible and willing to respond to queries so quickly given how busy he must be.

    I found myself drifting away from.Submithub because I realised I get more satisfaction experiencing direct interactions via email or on Twitter for example. I feel like these types of services effectively create a barrier between myself and the curator, leaving me a bit cold. It’s all very mechanical.

    It does have definite advantages though and it was of benefit to me at times – it’s up to people to decide what works best for them. Perhaps now I’ve built up a wider supportive network of contacts it might be time to give the platform another whirl. If nobody bites I’ve less riding on it emotionally, if someone does then it’s a welcome bonus. Trying different approaches and not getting stuck on one is definitely the way forward.

  8. Sue

    Great article Tobi, I think this is going to be really helpful for those trying to navigate the world of playlists. And great respect and credit to Jason.

    It made me think back to how it all began and a fab piece of research by Emilia Barna on music platforms and curatorship. What we see today has grown out of what was originally a much smaller number of curators, mostly DJ’s, with a strong desire to help lesser known artists and these are the people at the heart of todays respectable curation services. What they do should not be underestimated. It is about using their knowledge and experience to find good tracks for their audience amongst the vast number of releases and packaging them in an appropriate way. They understand the art of curation. It is really sad that, as happens with many good things, their practice has been tainted by scoundrels, scammers and thieves.

  9. Thanks for the wonderful article! I’ve used SubmitHub hub over the years and great to hear the perspective from the founder – and your assessment of the service.

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