Submit Hub: Who Really Benefits?
Chances are if you’re an independent artist you’ll have at least heard of SubmitHub if you haven’t already used the platform itself. If the latter is true, you may have been living under a rock, where I’ve also been quivering in fear for the last few years. In a world where independent artists are expected to be their own marketing, campaign and brand manager, videographer, photographer, studio engineer and muse, the very imminent and monumental prospect of doing all of this for my next release fills me with such anxiety that hiding under a metaphorical rock (in case you’re of the literal persuasion) often seems the less daunting option. Then along comes SubmitHub with its minimal, lavender coloured branding to ensure calm and stress-free PR to all us frazzled indies pulling out our hair over poorly-built-do-it-yourself desk spaces. SubmitHub sings a relieving, lo-fi lullaby, and in true romantic fashion, I decided to follow the lilt of its loot all the way; not to the bank, but at least to some kind of hype for my new music.
The basis of SubmitHub’s platform is to help artists get their music to the ears of who they call curators. This can but is not limited to bloggers, playlists, radio and labels et al. With next to no strife or stress, you can utilise their tools for a fraction of the cost of what a PR company would ask for, and with no absolute guarantee of coverage. After having a conversation with one of these companies before Christmas and realising I could be a grand out of pocket for a months worth of playlist submissions and online coverage (then being contacted again by the same person a month later as if they’d only just heard of me with the same email), I felt SubmitHub might be the right avenue for me and other independents. With that in mind, I went for it. How does it work? I asked myself. SubmitHub operates on a credit-based system, using either standard or premium credits, with each curator requiring between one to three. The basis of the premium credits is to ensure the curator you submit to listens for at least twenty seconds of your song, and if they don’t like it, they need to tell you why. When I first read that, my eyebrows went so far into my forehead they were tickling the back of my neck. I assumed there and then that standard credits (of which I had two free) were a waste of my time, otherwise they wouldn’t give you an option to pay more. On further research, the success rate of a standard submission is about 5% in comparison to the premium credit which has an approval rating of 12%. Paying for premium only ensured that a curator listened to the first twenty seconds though, which really isn’t a lot, but it ensures they respond, which means they have to listen. Or at least, pretend to. I was starting to get that tickle at the top of my spine that had nothing to do with my eyebrows. True, it felt a little like rolling the dice, but I had nothing to lose, and that, it seems, is the premise of their entire operation. If I was successful, the curator would tell me when and how they’d share my new musical baby. In the interest of fairness, and with as much caution against sounding too cynical, it’s clear the chances of success is obviously higher if you submit to as many curators as possible, so the more you spend, the higher your approval, but there are reports of people who’ve had success on submitting to less curators but ones that are more relevant. So it’s worth doing your research and being clear about who you are as an artist, and what kind of blogs you want to target. SubmitHub says on its homepage that “even the most-successful artists face their fair share of rejection,” which seems, in hindsight, to be a fair warning of the experience I was about to embark on with my new budget PR, lavender branded friend. So be warned, friend. The last piece of advice I received from SubmitHub before promptly signing up, was that their services were best used by “individuals who have realistic expectations about what success in the music industry looks like " . Well, if you’re asking about my expectations, you’ve got it dead right, sister. Their logic dictates the lower your expectations, the more you get from their platform. If their advice was anything to go by I was going to really enjoy myself. With this in the back of my mind, I paid for my credits. The pricing is as follows: 5 for 10$, 10 for $10, 30 for $27 or 100 for $80. In contrast to the thousands I was being asked for from PR companies, this was pennies. I started with ten, and decided to see how I went. I then had to choose whether I cared about feedback or not. On some light research I discovered it’s far better to care about your feedback than not. In order for our curators to get paid, they have to listen to your track for the designated time allotted to your selection and give feedback accordingly. Your options are; ‘quite important’, ‘not that important’, or ‘I don’t care, listen to 90 seconds instead.’ The problem with the last option is that a curator could go put the kettle on while they play ninety seconds of your song just to get paid, whereas if you care about feedback (as varying as it can be, more on that later), it means they have give you some semblance of a review, and that’s harder to fake if you haven’t been listening, but I’m certain some do try regardless. So that done, it's a tally-hoe all the way to the curator page.
There are literally thousands of curators on SubmitHub, all of varying reputation, nationalities and tastes, so the chances that you’ll find someone suited to your jive is high. You can also filter the selections with a handy sidebar. The flipside to this is there are a lot of curators with varying degrees of skill and ability, and they all get to share what they think of your music, so again, have low expectations and be pleasantly surprised. The three main curator categories on SubmitHub are Curators (bloggers, spotify playlists, youtube profiles etc.), Influencers and Labels. You can choose who you want to target most based on the kind of artist you are, the genre you inhabit, or how fast and loose you are with shameless self-promotion (or self-flagellation as the cynical half of my Gemini personality likes to call it). I found the influencers tab to be willy-inducing so I avoided it like the plague at first, but since speaking to a friend in marketing I discovered the most organic way to reach new fans is actually through influencers on Instagram and, yes, TikTok. They do this by featuring your song in the background of their stories or TikTok videos, and it directly links to the streaming platforms and voila! new fans. That’s if, of course, the influencer you targeted for their 40k followers likes your music. But if they do, then that’s quite a leap for your engagement and fanbase, which is what we need right now where the usual goldmine of new fans through touring is barely a blip on a fairly bleak horizon.
With that, I forged my way through the platform and submitted to some blogs and playlisters first, shelving the influencer tab for the time being and ignoring the label tab- this was out of personal choice as I’m not putting my hopes into getting signed, but that being said I spoke to someone on Twitter who had managed to get an indie deal with a label from SubmitHub, so it’s always worth a punt- completely.
I submitted to seventeen in total. Out of those, I managed to get four approvals, but I also received feedback from each curator I submitted to and in general everyone seemed to enjoy my track. It was simply either not right for their platform or not to their tastes. A little inconsistency I found at first was blogs I had targeted for their genre didn’t approve based on, yep, my genre, but I’m willing to play devil's advocate and say I had maybe not targeted accurately enough. However another big stinker in all this is you as the artist also get the chance to review their review, so if they’re nice to you, you can bet your boosted instagram post you’re boosting their curator profile higher up the ranks too.
This feels icky, especially when the feedback can be, at times, confusing and vague. SubmitHub prefaces this on their homepage:
“Sometimes the feedback you receive when your song is declined will be useful. Other times it might not make sense. It's important to keep in mind that most curators are doing this as a hobby, and sometimes it's hard to find the perfect words for why they don't like a song. At the end of the day, music is about personal experiences, and what works for you won't work for everyone.”
Austel, an artist I met on Twitter (@austelmusic), shared her experiences with me. She felt the feedback was by and large contradictory: ‘'the melody I don't feel it memorable, but I like the vocals and the writing style.’ This resonated with me, as I’d received feedback that stated my next single ‘Fountain of Youth is a nice pop song YVA, but just a bit too good and lacks a clear power,’ which had me scratching my head and pondering the meaning of my art a bit too much before figuring perhaps this particular curator didn’t have a clue. My feedback experiences weren’t all negative though. A couple of the reviews were enlightened and articulate, and they clearly knew what they were talking about to give me more than a single line of dialogue about my music. Those nuggets of gold are worth shoehorning your music in front of dozens of curators, if you can find them amidst the silt and stones.
It is a little irksome however to be receiving such critique from a blog that, upon verifying, only pulls in half a dozen likes per post on Instagram, or has a website so saturated with content you’re overwhelmed with choice, or no website at all. It’s quite clear which blogs are making money from being curators rather than championing music they’re really passionate about. For some it seems the very least they have to do (give you twenty seconds of their time only to opt out with a generic response) earns them half a dollar. One blog I looked at received 51,827 submissions and approved 1.1% which is roughly 518 (for those that needed that spelling out) approvals. Regardless of how many they actually featured, it’s a hell of a lot of submissions, and the act of being a curator alone means at 0.50 cents a listen, they’ve pulled in a canny total of $25,913.50. Side note: I’d really like someone to correct me on this. Really. Don’t let it be true.
On some further light reading, there are some accusations that SubmitHub and the like are simply payola with a clever legal team, and they platform even go so far as to address this in their FAQ’s for potential curators:
‘"Payola, in the music industry, is the illegal practice of payment or other inducement by record companies for the broadcast of recordings on commercial radio in which the song is presented as being part of the normal day's broadcast." With SubmitHub, submitters have an option to use "premium" credits to encourage tastemakers (such as yourself) to respond. If you listen to the song and respond, you'll earn $0.50. Simply put: SubmitHub in no way guarantees that record companies will have their music broadcasted. It is simply a guarantee that the recipient has given the song due consideration -- in fact, more than 90% of submissions on SubmitHub are "declined" for coverage even though they've used premium credits. The data clearly shows that the small monetary component does not influence likelihood of being broadcast; it simply ensures consideration.’
So that’s that then.
Except it means that the curators are earning a tonne-load just for listening to our tracks, and we receive very little in return.
It would be remiss of me to avoid mentioning the importance of blogs in a rising independent artists career, and how this particular corner of the music industry has lost some weight since the tens began when blogs were of a more honest (and less saturated) sort of repute. It seems to me, less and less people go to blogs for the next new thing. Thank you Spotify. Nowadays, any coverage we can find is more about building hype than actually bringing people to shows or increasing album sales; the reality is people don’t click through to the feature you posted in your Instagram stories, they just see you were featured on something and assume you’re notable and worth listening to. Hype doesn’t lie! Most can’t be bothered to click the link in the bio to read the article about your inspirations because, ugh, I have to open another app (I have verified this with a lot of people I know). Social media made us lazy and streaming made music convenient. Anything less than the standard we’ve created simply won’t do and at the end of the day, all this hype is only to drive more traffic back to the very platforms that don’t pay us what we’re owed. Again, thank you Spotify.
I can’t help but think that, even though SubmitHub takes away the stress of contacting blogs in their thousands individually, it benefits the curators more than it does us. So , knowing what we know, is Submithub just taking us for mugs/pies/kippers? One quick google on whether blogs are as important as they once were comes up with an article detailing the many ways to make money from your music blog. Well, I think. There you have it.
That’s not to say all blogs are the same, though. In their defence a lot of hardcore bloggers are passionate and I owe much of my early career to their support so it’s not the blogs I have a problem with, necessarily. I can’t help feeling perhaps the rise in music listenership thanks to, yep, you guessed it, Spotify (get out of my face already, man), is leading to more and more people trying to benefit from that system of convenience. A cursory glance at a lot of blogs coming up on SubmitHub requesting the most credits don’t even have a website, just a fairly active IG, a lowly engaged Twitter, a lot of subscribers on YouTube or variations on that theme. One user I found touts 20K subscribers on YouTube for their compilations of dance music. I made sure to double check, but ne’er a credit to be seen for all the songs featured. Do all of their listeners then go and check out each individual artist behind those compiled tracks, or do they just listen passively as they cook dinner, workout or get ready in the morning? I’d like to know if they’re monetizing their videos of other people’s content. Think what you will. Someone is making a lot of money, and it certainly isn’t the artist.
At this point I started to wonder if the SubmitHub was benefitting the curators more than it was benefitting me. After all, they only had to listen for a minimum of twenty seconds and give some vague semblance of feedback to justify their ranking on the website. I spoke to @adamjohngardner from Sounds Good Blog on Twitter, who wrote a piece about SubmitHub in December where he discussed further the implication of it being payola in disguise. In its purest essence, the artist is paying for a service. In his article, he discusses reports of curators justifying the pay-to-listen/play platforms by saying the credits go towards maintaining their websites, domains, administrative costs and the like. Adam goes on to say, “…blogs need to find money to pay for things such as Spark, Photoshop, and Lightroom subscriptions and so on…[but] ultimately you need to decide whether the artist should foot the bill for this.” Should we, as striving professional artists whose expenses far outweigh the profit, financially support what is likely to be someone’s ever increasingly viable hobby? The proof is in the overly saturated pudding: the most hyped curators on SubmitHub are coming out on top with what I see as astronomical figures. The reality is artists are more underpaid than ever before.
A band by the name of The Authoritarian I mentioned previously who got signed to an indie label had something interesting to say regarding this: ‘...any experience with SubmitHub pales in comparison to the wholesale theft of the music industry by corporations. Over-sexualised sales engine selling garbage.’
It’s a seemingly strong statement that goes some way to justify the use of SubmitHub, but it rang a bit weak for me. Was he saying that SubmitHub, unlike its rich white daddy Spotify, was the lesser of two evils? Is this at all helpful, when what the curators do is simply direct traffic to your Spotify profile, or your Instagram account, so people from all over the world who don’t/can’t already pay for your music can’t/won’t come to shows? What’s the likelihood of being able to tour in Bengaluru or Tel Aviv as an independent artist? Because that’s the reality of being an independent streaming artist nowadays: I could have fans in Antarctica, but they’re not coming to my gig in Brixton. The wonderful global exchange of music also saturates the viability of it unless you’re on a major and backed by all major radio outlets, but that’s another opinion piece for another time.
Whether or not SubmitHub is the lesser of two evils or whether it is simply a handy tool for independents? The result is the same.
So knowing this, why did I continue to use it?
After my first batch of submissions, I went in for more. I don’t know why. All I do know is that it was easy, like peanut butter on a banana. Somewhat tasty, nourishing for a moment. Quick and convenient. Charlotte Carpenter, my good friend who runs the indie-artist-led label Babywoman, agreed with me when I said it felt a lot like a slot machine. “They’ve pioneered a platform that takes all the workload away from being an independent artist in an industry that requires us to do everything. But at its core, we’re gambling every time you press submit.”
Personally, I kept buying credits because it felt like monopoly money, so what she said must be true. I began willy-nilly applying to blogs with wild(ish) abandon. It had me thinking back to a Guardian article I read about the addictive nature of online platforms. It’s no secret social media monoliths have long employed psychological tools in their programming to keep us engaged on their platforms, like the pull down to refresh tool which was famously derived from slot machines. SubmitHub’s website is insanely easy to navigate; buying credits feels much the same as buying a few more chips at the blackjack table, or throwing a couple of pennies in that slot machine. Pull down, see what you get. Press submit, see who bites. What’s a few more quid, eh? It feels a little like buying new items at the blacksmith on Assassin’s Creed before realising you’ve run out of money and that mercenary two levels up is about to beat you down and you are wilfully unprepared for the fight. Without falling too deeply into the hole of that very abstract analogy, the point is that it’s relatively easy to forget how much you’re spending $80. On the other hand, it’s a damn sight better than being offered $1000 fee from a PR company that can’t even remember they’d already had a meeting with you.
Other platforms such as Musosoup offer a similar service as SubmitHub, but the main difference is you only have to submit once. Each submission is quality checked before being sent to curators, so you can feel assured your stuff stands a better chance of being heard by the appropriate blogs and playlisters, whose inboxes aren’t cluttered up with paid-for-submissions that they have to respond to within 48 hours otherwise the guillotine comes down. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
The price point at Musosoup may be a touch higher at £20, but that is one submission per release, and you only pay if your stuff gets approved. No paying to listen, no vague, indifferent feedback, and the money goes straight to the curators who offer coverage meaning all round everyone’s being treated a bit more fairly. Your campaign also lasts up to sixty days, so you really are getting the best exposure possible. In this way Musosoup feels a much more honest and sincere enterprise, one I don’t mind spending my money on. Although, it should be said I’ve received varying coverage from my single release in 2020; one or two blogs copy and pasting directly from my press release (infuriatingly lazy), and one amazing review that really made it all worth it. If there’s a lesson there, make sure your press release is the tits, because not everyone will write as passionately as you can about your own music.
While not as connected and impressive as SubmitHub, Musosoup’s website is modest and simple, suggesting to me they care more about the service than trying to make money out of us. It feels, objectively speaking, like Musosoup exists to serve both artist and curator, which is a reassuring and comforting thought. After all, all we sometimes want as artists is a little hug to tell us we’re not completely wasting our time and energy on a completely fruitless endeavour, right? Right?! Both platforms are even as far as legality is concerned. But as Travis Shosha at Counterzine explained in his own piece on SubmitHub said:
“There’s a difference between what is legal and what is ethical. Both payola and SubmitHub’s system encourage payment to curators for improved coverage odds. You can look at the raw acceptance rate differences between paid and unpaid submissions and those numbers alone show that you have better odds of being covered by a curator if you pay them, as opposed to if you don’t.”
So is there really a difference between the two? In my view, probably not. But one, at least, feels more fair and a little less manipulative. Algorithmically speaking.
To sum this bad lad up: while it may not be perfect, you’re better off giving SubmitHub (and Musosoup, while I’m on) a little of your time than not. Their loophole against payola accusations is that you’re paying to be listened to, not featured -which would be the definition of payola, and there are reports of curators offering further services after approving your song, so be wary- so you can rest easy at night knowing you’re not technically helping a global company do the dirty on artists.
But my overall takeaway from all of this? We don’t really have a choice. Use it, don’t use it, you’ll get no judgement from me. SubmitHub are a seven figure company now and curators are earning thousands, with or without your custom. I’ve long stopped thinking the music industry is the bright and shiny thing I thought when I was younger. Much of my twenties was discovering that it (and life in general) is more often than not populated by shysters who would take advantage of us at every turn, and the frightening truth is it’s been that way for decades. Perhaps my decade in the music industry has turned me cynical, an artistic nihilist if you will. At the end of the day though, someone is always riding on the back of your creativity and laughing all the way to the bank while you try to scratch up what pennies scatter across the pavement. That truth is harder to ignore. Like our lass Joni Mitchell sings so poignantly, ‘all romantics meet the same fate someday. Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafe.’
I feel attacked.
Really though, the romantic in me hopes for the ideal world where streaming is fairer and there are more platforms existing to support struggling artists than those run by people who’d bleed us dry. But in the meantime, do what you can with the money you have. Artists aren’t going anywhere (I hope), and neither are the businessmen who earn more in a year than we might in our whole lives off the back of our creativity. SubmitHub is a decent way of getting coverage for the thing you worked so hard on, but my opinion is that Musosoup is far better. But throw what you have at the wall and see what sticks. Try both. Do it all. Make your decision and know that whatever you do you do for your music, and do your research. Make sure that you’re fully in the know before throwing money at any platform. I got what I could from both because I did my reading. Whatever decision you make as an independent artist, be informed. There is a wealth of information out there for us, and if you ask, you’ll get an answer. You’re not alone.
Until then, it’s rough out there, and nobody is going to make it easy for us, but here’s hoping it’s only a phase.
Amy Holford (YVA)
YVA's brand new single 'Missing Me' is out now we are subtly forcing you to listen to it, if not buy it from her Bandcamp.