You’re an unknown hip-hop artist trying to get your name out there. You don’t have any connections at traditional media. You don’t have a large fanbase yet. You lack a primo number of Twitter followers. But you want to get your music in ears, right now. What do you do?
For some artists, the answer is: Pay someone to blog about you.
In a music-media environment where blogs are now leading tastemakers, getting on the right ones can seem like the most direct path to Internet fame—and it’s a path that some D.C.-area hip-hop artists are choosing to take.
Cody Bennett is an artist manager who works with a lesser-known local rapper named Joe Kush. He says he deals with multiple blogs that accept money in exchange for favorable coverage.
“Normally the way it works is you set up a promotion agreement with a mainstream music blogger,” Bennett writes in an email. “The agreement would include blog coverage, all social-media promotion, show promoter contacts, and outlets to shows hosted by that blogger or promotion company.” He says he currently has an agreement—he declines to say on the record how much it costs—for a year of promotion, which pays an outlet to post “basic promo” at least twice a week, among other things.
Both Bennett and Marc Anthony Robinson, who manages Richmond rapper J. Slim, say the practice is standard now. “Who’s not charging? You’ve got to pay to play,” says Robinson. “That’s just the way it is.”
But pay-to-play is not the way it is in many corners of the music blogosphere. Accepting money for coverage or masking paid content as editorial is considered unethical in journalism. Indie-music bloggers have traditionally shunned it, too, even though they are under no obligation to follow the same code of ethics as professional journalists.
Last year, WPGC’s DJ Heat wrote a blog post about the trend toward paid blogging. She called it phony, accusing fee-based bloggers of offering “fake support” to D.C.-area artists.
What part of the game is this? Are artists really paying this amount of money from local music blogs that brag about how they “support” local artists? I even had to ask myself if I am doing something wrong. Here I am posting music for FREE. … All the while, these new age cats are pocketing money in return for “SUPPORT.” They got the game all messed up. Genuine support does not come with a price.
But for some artists eager to make a name for themselves, paid support might seem like a perfectly legitimate option.
The Cost of Exposure
How much does paid support from a blogger cost? I was able to obtain a rate sheet distributed by patisdope.com, a local website that offers blog posts and other promotion for a fee. Around the spring of 2013, patisdope.com was asking artists for $100 per blog post along with 10 tweets from his Twitter account. He charged double for twice the blog posts and tweets. For an interview and promo package with a camera crew, the cost was $600.
Pat Is Dope’s business manager, Shanika Hopson, says the blogger—real name Patrick Blanchard—started out just blogging for fun, but as he became more “in demand,” he decided to turn the site into a business. (He’s also updated his rates since 2013, she says.) These days, Pat Is Dope has a sizable online following: He has 211,000 Twitter followers and multiple Instagram accounts, the three most popular of which boast more than 138,000 followers combined (not accounting for those people who may follow multiple Pat Is Dope accounts). His YouTube stats vary dramatically, but some of his high-profile interviews have netted tens of thousands of views. Fledgling artists might see those numbers and salivate.
But why not just sell ads? That’s what “real bloggers” do, DJ Heat says, and it’s how she makes money on her site, DC Mumbo Sauce. If blog owners pull in the kind of traffic they think could attract paid blog posts, Heat says, they could collect ad revenue instead and keep their editorial free of pay-to-play. “Be smart about it and get a real check, and sign up for Google ads,” Heat says. “That’s what all the major blogs do.”
Hip-hop writer Sidney Thomas says the debate over pay blogging comes down to the new school versus the old school. Newer bloggers like Pat Is Dope “have grown up in the social media era and they have capitalized on the access it has provided,” Thomas writes in an email. He says he understands why DJ Heat disagrees with business models like Blanchard’s, but he points to Pat Is Dope’s Twitter following. “If a blogger is making money, and they are also providing exposure…for the artists, I don’t think it’s a problem.”
It’s tough to independently verify how much exposure patisdope.com offers. Hopson and Blanchard did not respond to my request for traffic statistics, and web-analytics services like Alexa, Compete, and Quantcast don’t offer helpful data for the site.
Beyond patisdope.com, there’s the fee-based DMVlife.com. That site is not a blog—it’s more of a local scene directory that also offers various marketing services, including an option to buy social-media followers. According to rates listed on the website, DMVlife.com charges $100 for artist interviews and a range of prices for track features, and it has an online radio station that accepts money for plays. DMVlife.com was founded by Rich “Calmplex” Martinez, a rapper himself, who prefers the title “CEO.” (Martinez did not return requests for comment.)
DJ Heat suspects that DC Mumbo Sauce is one of a shrinking number of local hip-hop websites that do not charge artists for coverage. “Integrity is important to me,” she says. “There’s no way I could do that.”
“A Stepchild of Payola”
Radio payola hasn’t been in the news much lately, and some younger artists might not even know what it is. When I bring it up to J. Slim manager Robinson, he asks, “Is that like Paypal?”
But payola—which describes a few different pay-to-play tactics, but usually refers to the practice of record labels slipping cash to radio DJs in exchange for spins—is still on the mind of producer (and blog owner) Judah, who calls paid blogging a “stepchild of payola.” He brings up World Star Hip-Hop, a controversial but hugely popular source of smut, violent videos, and some music that is openly pay-to-play. (The site’s founder, Lee “Q” O’Denat, once bragged about charging a woman $500 to remove a naked video of her that cropped up on the website.) Businesses like World Star may encourage other hip-hop bloggers to start their own pay sites.
Pay blogging could also be compared to pay-to-play opening slots, which ask artists to cough up money for minutes of stage time on a bigger act’s concert. It’s a practice that longtime D.C. rapper Head-Roc criticized in a Washington City Paper essay I edited in 2013, calling it a form of sharecropping.
Judah says that some unknown musicians may simply believe that paying for showcases, tweets and blog posts is their best, or only, option. “It’s standard, and they’re OK with it,” he says. “When you’re trying to find an easy way in and you don’t really have any type of business skill, or understanding of how it should be, and you don’t have any type of business acumen… You’re gonna pay for people to fake-support you.”
DJ Heat says local hip-hop artists may be especially vulnerable to pay-to-play deals because they tend to think their options are limited in D.C., which isn’t known for producing many hip-hop stars. The recent successes of locals like Fat Trel and Wale still seem like exceptions rather than the rule.
Thomas says he understands why Judah and DJ Heat side against pay blogging, and he says his own thoughts on pay-to-play have evolved. “I remember I was surprised when an independent radio host I respected told me she charged artists for interviews,” he writes. “But with ad revenue not always an viable option (like it is for mainstream radio), that was the only way she could stay on the air.”
If both struggling artists and gatekeepers see pay-to-play as their best option, what does that mean for hip-hop coverage and the people who consume it? The potential seems grim.
“People turn to blogs to discover something that may be new, and they see the blogger as a co-sign—like ‘Oh, such-and-such posted this on their site? … This artist must be worth checking out,'” she says. “But if you’re just taking money from everybody, you just turn yourself into a landfill. There’s no quality control at all, it’s just all about the dollar.”
Photo by Flickr user Bryce Spivey cropped and used under a Creative Commons license.