Startup lets musicians pay journalists to listen. Is that such a terrible idea?

Writing in The Fader last week, Emilie Friedlander perfectly described a problem that Fluence, a company that lets musicians pay music journalists to listen to their demos, might solve.

"When you are a staff writer at a music publication in 2014, you receive emails pretty much constantly," Friedlander wrote. But while she thought Fluence might help musicians cut through the noise of labels and publicists, she worried that paying for journalists' time is giving in to "the market logic of the internet" -- "our true, undivided concentration has become so scarce a commodity we won’t even give it away for free anymore," she wrote.

And there's also the issue that their editors might freak if they learned someone had paid their reporters to check out a track. Referring to a band I played in in the 1990s, Spin Editor-in-Chief Craig Marks said, "if you're asking would Spin publish an Eggs review if Team Eggs had paid the writer in any way, shape, or form, the answer is no." (Spin wrote about Eggs once in the early '90s. No money changed hands, though the woman who wrote it later hired me as a freelance copy editor.)

Spin is, however, among the publications listed by writers on Fluence. People who said they contributed to The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Out and Los Angeles Magazine made themselves available to musicians for cost.

Helienne Lindvall, a freelancer for The Guardian, does not write music reviews. She does, however, write about the music business, and in December wrote a strong piece about radio festivals that expect artists to cover their own costs. Lindvall charged $2.17 per minute to give feedback when I first checked the site Monday, but no longer appears on Fluence following an inquiry by Poynter as to whether the Guardian had any policies about its journalists getting paid for their attention.

"In line with our editorial guidelines, Guardian News & Media journalists - including freelancers - should not take any payment, gift or other advantage which could be seen to undermine the accuracy, fairness or independence of our journalism," a Guardian spokesperson told Poynter. "If any breaches of the code occur they are dealt with on a case-by-case basis."

I wasn't able to contact Lindvall directly to hear about her experiences with the site, but I did reach Shana Naomi Krochmal, who charges $1.73 per minute for her "time and attention," as Fluence puts it. "I signed up and haven't done anything at all yet with it," Krochmal told Poynter by email. "I do occasionally cover music in my role as a contributing editor for Out magazine and originally saw it more as a possible way to get pitches - though I could have just misunderstood the start up model."

Krochmal said she has "always been okay accepting tickets/CDs in order to consider reviewing an artist or consider them for coverage but I wouldn't be comfortable accepting a payment for writing about them critically for any outlet other than a personal blog where it was fully disclosed."

Shamal Ranasinghe helped found Fluence and said that everyone listed as an expert on the site sets their own price for engagement. Journalists, he said, "represent a small percentage" of the site's experts, who also include A&R people, artist managers and Bob Moczydlowsky, Twitter's head of music. Fluence is experimenting with the percentages it takes from the money paid to experts, Ranasinghe said, and it's also considering charging for other services, like messaging, instead.

"We initially built Fluence without anyone getting paid for anything," he wrote in an email. "Our curators asked if there was a way to get compensated for their time so they can afford to give more feedback. We built a feature to let them value their time spent engaged with media. We were careful to not let curators get compensated for anything more than watching or listening to media."

Moczydlowsky doesn't charge for his feedback. Neither does Eric Danton, who writes about pop music for The Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog and also contributes to Rolling Stone, Salon and Paste. "I feel funny about charging musicians to evaluate their work," Danton told Poynter. Besides his worry that his opinion may be without any value (a malady surprisingly common among critics, in my experience), Danton said he wouldn't want to "encourage even the slightest suggestion that my opinion is somehow for sale -- especially were I to find an act there that I wanted to write about elsewhere."

Danton said he'd "yet to find memorable music" on Fluence but said, "it's entirely possible that by not charging, I've somehow pegged myself as someone not worth querying in the first place."

More than half of the media played on Fluence is for people listening gratis, Ranasinghe said (he doesn't charge for feedback on his Fluence page). Ranasinghe cofounded Fluence to combat what he calls the "tragic inefficiency" confronting people who create music. A previous Ranasinghe startup, Topspin Media, never solved the problem of helping artists find new fans, he said.

"Typically, when artists ask us how best to promote their music, their only options were 1) keep touring non-stop, 2) ask friends and followers to share, 3) exhaustively send your music to people across the web and hope they read your email, 4) pay for promoted ads on Facebook or Google, or 5) hire expensive PR or publicity companies," Ranasinghe said. "Sometimes these methods work, but generally it's a mixed bag with a lot of room for improvement."

Sean Adams founded the music publication Drowned in Sound and is an enthusiastic Fluence user. "I've found two great things so far which given how few submissions I've had (around 30) is a great hit rate," he writes in an email. Adams hasn't written about those acts but forwarded them to other writers. He's also sent some stuff he didn't like personally to to people he thought might enjoy it better, he said.

"I don't think anyone is thinking that for £5 they're going to work their way into loads of coverage and selling 20,000 albums," Adams, who gets $3.47 per minute on Fluence, said. "But there's a higher chance if someone like me is incentivised to invest time listening to hours of acts that won't earn our site many clicks/ad revenue, rather than spending my time listening to big releases and buzz acts."

Adams said the money he's earned from Fluence has "barely covered my travel to get to gigs in the past month. I don't see it as a revenue stream that will save journalism or anything like that but it doesn't seem any different than a PR buying me a pint at a gig or an act putting me on the list for a show - at least this way the band aren't being charged £1000 per month plus expenses by a PR firm who manage to get them a few blog mentions."

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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