An Open Letter to Critics of Music Blogs That Post Album Streams or Embedded Videos

Is a bunch of dirty linkbaiters? Well, that depends on who you talk to.

Why am I pondering this? Well – I’m responding to a recent rant made by Drowned in Sound editor Sean Adams (@seaninsound). Let me explain…

The past 10 years saw a massive rise of “MP3 blogs”. On an MP3 blog, one could listen, read, and download an MP3 of some song that was being discussed – with the goal of promoting discussion and further sharing. Some blogs and people became famous by breaking “it” bands, or being known for their excellent choices. A lot of these so-called MP3 blogs have changed and evolved as the online world (most notably, the speed and accessibility of streaming media) has changed.

The past few years has seen increasing growth from online video and audio hosting sites, such as YouTube, Vevo, and SoundCloud. These sites not only give the user the ability to share the link to the video through email or a social network, but also allow the user to embed the video or song directly into your website, be it a blog or a ‘professional’ website. MP3 blogs are on the way out, which is hugely paraphrasing what Sean Adams alludes to in this essay/rebuttal (but is not actually saying – it’s a long story).

Before moving to the UK from Canada, I hadn’t heard of Drowned in Sound or Sean Adams. But through news/link aggregation site, The Daily Swarm, I saw the above essay and was won over by his intelligent writing and opinions. Since then, I have followed him on Twitter, and enjoy the little nuggets, musings, and rants that he has as an editor of a successful music website. Although PeteHatesMusic is an atom compared to the galaxy that Drowned in Sound is, I found myself agreeing with his opinions on emails from promoters, exclusive video releases on other websites, and other such “problems” music writers and bloggers face.

Today, Sean took offense to the fact that websites and blogs were saying “Stream the new album from The xx!” and then you click the link, and it says “The album is streaming over at NPR.” Link bait, it is called, and most sites are guilty of it; some more than others. A few hours after, The xx launched a website where you could stream their album or embed it on your site (which is what PeteHatesMusic chose to do). Sean coolly noted that he just posted the link to the site on a forum on Drowned in Sound, and didn’t run a post with the album embedded or tweet about it.

Sean didn’t provide an opinion on the album, possibly because he hadn’t heard it yet or had enough time with it to form an opinion, which is fair enough. Drowned in Sound will do a proper review next week when it comes out, which they do (and do well) for new album releases. But why the hatred towards other sites doing things differently?

Another tweet from Sean said: “Can you imagine if on release day, bloggers fell over themselves to link to places where you can buy music, rather than stream for free?”

If someone in this day in age needs a link to a place where to buy music, I have some magic beans that I want to sell them. Sure, it might be convenient, but do we list iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and then ‘brick and mortar’ stores like HMV, and the independents that don’t offer online sales? Should we provide a Google Map link to all outlets in a city? People aren’t on music blogs to find out where to buy music – they want to know what music is coming out these days and what it might sound like.

Why is it so wrong to provide the album stream straight on your website, rather than provide the link to the original source? Does Sean think it’s a cheap and unfair way to get web traffic? Not all sites are heavyweights like Drowned in Sound. We’re still looking for an audience. People don’t care about our opinions yet (or possibly ever). That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t provide them, or hope to grow through recognition for our writing. We still give opinions where we can, by generally posting songs we like, with a brief write-up about who you’re listening to, and where you can get more info about them. Since we’re still looking for an audience, we need to rely on things like speed (the dreaded “first!” culture) and embeds to lure and hopefully keep readers.

Sean tweets a fair critique about sites doing this, saying “Indeed, but they v.rarely say more. Most people seem to put the pace of keeping up over having any substance/context/etc.”

How much context is enough? Is our one paragraph comment on the sound enough? Does he want a full review or essay? Album reviews take a long time to write, which is part of the reason advanced copies are often made available to reviewers. When a new album stream is available, does Sean seriously want the Internet to pause, take in the album all day, formulate thoughts, and then share it? And not even share it on our site, but provide a link to the original source?!

Why direct people away from our site? Supermarkets don’t say “we have the ability to sell you apples, but let me give you directions to the orchard.” Since the embed codes are out there for people to use, why not use it? As a reader, I don’t want to click 5 different links to sites when I could have everything all in one place. While people are listening to the stream, they could read other things on the site and possibly discover why the site they are reading is worth (or not worth) reading at all.

Regarding The xx embed discussion on Twitter, Sean noted that he likes how Belgian music blog, Disco Naivete, works. Admittedly, I was unfamiliar with the site, so out of curiosity, I checked how they covered the xx album stream. They gave no opinion/review, and they embedded the album. They did note that you could also check it out at the album’s proper website, or stream it at NPR. They also threw in one link where to buy the album. I’m guessing they do other reviews and links in a different manner that fit Sean’s model, but they definitely didn’t do it for The xx.

How did other sites handle it? Pitchfork said “Stream the whole thing below, courtesy of a nifty widget,” and embedded it below. Stereogum commented on the songs we’ve heard before, and embedded it below. Consequence of Sound said pretty much the same thing, but provided a link to NPR and didn’t embed it. The Guardian tweeted that you could stream it, but then told you to head over to NPR’s site.

There will be reviews from these sites at a later date, but does this mean the ‘big’ sites are as guilty as the ‘small’ music blogs? Has ANYONE provided a full review with the album stream? Is this what Sean expects? As a fan, do you want to wade through a review, or are you just smashing your computer to load the album as quickly as possible once the news is out? Most likely the latter, and as such, you’re looking for the site that has it up NOW. The first one out of the gate will likely be the site that people share and re-share on social media sites. Most blogs are read in the morning, and most Facebook sharing happen around 9am EST or much later at night, so why not get it out there as soon as possible? I’ve noticed if we’re near one of the first sites out of the gate with something ‘major’, our clicks and shares tend to be higher. If everyone (big sites and small) are doing it, why get left behind and become an after thought? It’s akin to posting the Dancing Star Wars Kid video now, but having an in-depth write up about it.

In his earlier essay, Sean makes an excellent point, “I can listen to a crapload of music and struggle to discern if the person posting it really loves it, or just felt they should post it because it’s the new James Blake or whatever.” He calls it FOMO – the fear of missing out. As a blogger, I can say that I’ve had moments of this fear, but one of the guidelines that we carved in our arms threw down when we started this blog is “Would we recommend this song to our friends?” I also feel I want to be able to speak somewhat intelligently about why I like the song or artist, which isn’t always the easiest thing to do. So we might miss out on posting things that are making people go batshit crazy (Jessie Ware is the latest example – we sure missed that one!) but I have no problems sleeping at night. This hasn’t changed with me posting The xx’s album stream directly onto PeteHatesMusic, before pretty much all of the North American sites – something we’re pretty proud of, and something that drastically spiked our readership today (from 2 to 4 readers!).

So why did I write this essay? Because Twitter is too short a medium to have a debate with Sean, as he was doing earlier with Twitter user @KrisDeSouza (from The Four Oh Five). This isn’t an attack on Sean, and hopefully it’s not perceived that way. We’re relatively new to the blogging scene, and if people have input into what makes for good music blogs or not, I like hearing that stuff. If we can do it, we will. We’re not paid to be a blog or music site, so we do what we can with our ‘free’ time, but we still strive to be excellent. I value Sean’s many opinions and insights into the industry, but I strongly disagree with this recent rant.

Yes, posting links to immediately redirect to other sites is link bait. Posting something for speed without any insight is also a slight waste of energy. But in the dog eat dog world of Internet relevance (which is often tied with instant access), combined with the hopes of finding an audience, I don’t see why posting a readily available stream with a short write up, is a crime or is a waste of time and energy. I think we’re providing readers with what they want – the latest stream of The xx album, right NOW – with a brief write up of initial thoughts. If the ‘big guns’ are doing even less (and doing it hours after this site), then maybe being a linkbaiter isn’t so dirty after all.

If you have any thoughts, leave them in the comments below. We’re interested in any and all opinions.

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