If you knew that the music you found on a website was there because someone paid for it, would you still trust that site's curatorial chops? In the world of native advertising, to what extent is paid placement acceptable in the music industry? New information surrounding EDM.com's editorial practices raises these questions, and more.
A leaked email from EDM.com's management reveals the that popular dance music blog provides a marketing service where artists can pay for editorial coverage and social media promotion for their work. The email obtained by THUMP was sent in late July 2015 to a prominent North American DJ by EDM.com's Sales & Marketing Director Dayna Young, who lays out several options for how the DJ can get his music video on EDM.com's website and social channels.
Young offers the DJ several options: an EDM.com article about his video, which also would be pushed on the site's Facebook and Twitter accounts, would cost $1,000. Sharing that article on EDM.com's Instagram and Vine would cost $350. Finally, posting the track on EDM.com's "Slingshot" program—a recurring playlist published on their homepage and promoted through their social channels—would cost $600.
When we reached out to EDM.com's CEO Ethan Baer over email, he noted that Slingshot is "a very public service, and the pricing has been advertised and promoted publicly." (Whether the language and presentation of each week's Slingshot playlist makes it clear that it is sponsored content is debatable.)
Baer also noted that if the track is hosted on one of EDM.com's own accounts, it is free. The pricing options detailed by Young's email, Baer said, are for artists who want plays to be reflected on their own SoundCloud, YouTube, or other platforms. Those artists can pay EDM.com to create a marketing campaign that includes everything from editorial articles and Snapchat takeovers to Twitter AMAs and preview videos on Facebook.
Baer also stressed that the editorial team only writes about articles that they feel will engage with EDM.com's audience. "We always ask: is this content that resonates with our audience? If not, we don't do it," he said.
Because this paid-for content, per Baer, "still has to be approved" by EDM.com's editorial team, artists are paying the company "to support a project that we believe in. They're paying for support, and we're creating a means of support."
So why does the very idea of artists paying for coverage still feel so slimy? A top-tier website may bring in a few thousand dollars a month in advertising revenue, much of which will be quickly eaten up by site maintenance, paying staff, and other costs. Websites like EDM.com or their competitors, such as Earmilk, Hilly Dilly, or Indie Shuffle, arguably need other avenues with which to turn a profit.
Yet, in the world of native advertising, paid content is typically marked as such. EDM.com doesn't indicate whether posts or social shares are part of a larger marketing campaign paid for by an artist, making difficult to discern what is and isn't sponsored content on EDM.com.
This is not the first time that EDM.com has been called out for blurring the line between business and editorial practices. In July 2014, Complex/Do Androids Dance writer Michael Abernathy (AKA Nappy) questioned whether Slingshot was an example of payola, defined as "secret payment in return for the promotion of a product or service."
Programs like Slingshot, Abernathy suggested, have "caused a flood of incredibly average records with massive play numbers without coverage from credible news outlets. Artists can take those numbers and get booked by promoters that only know how to digest numbers, regardless of quality." Per the article, EDM.com responded by sending an email to its list of clients calling Abernathy a "disgruntled employee," and described Slingshot as an "entirely optional" promotional campaign.
In the end, when we ask Baer whether his team is engaging in pay-to-play by accepting money from artists to create content—even if it's content that they think is "cool"—he respond, "I guess you could put it like that."
"The ethics come down to not deceiving your audience," he continued. "Unless the content is something that resonates with our audience, we don't do it. Our goal is to create a system where artists can engage with an audience that really cares—for an affordable price."
Michelle Lhooq is the Features Editor at THUMP. Follow her on Twitter.
Ziad Ramley is a multi-media journalist (and former THUMP editor) currently based in Doha. Follow him on Twitter.