A few months back I received an email from Spotify with a link to a survey. I participated in the survey. For the most part the survey consisted of questions about all the different types of music services I, as an artist, pay for. For example, professional photography, engineers, mixers, producers, etc… I thought it was interesting at the time that Spotify wanted this information.
*WARNING OPINIONS BEYOND THIS POINT
This past week it was announced that Spotify purchased the music company SoundBetter. If you’ve never heard of SoundBetter this is the description pulled from their website:
“SoundBetter is the world’s leading music production marketplace, helping musicians worldwide connect and hire top music pros so they can get to great-sounding release-ready songs.
With tens of thousands of top Singers, Producers, Songwriters, Session Musicians and Mixing & Mastering Engineers, including dozens of Grammy award winners, SoundBetter has the most comprehensive database of vetted music production pros for direct hire in the world, and a member community spanning over 14,000 cities worldwide.”
Read more about SoundBetter here.
It’s apparent that Spotify has an interest in the marketplace between creators and music service providers. What’s not apparent is if this is actually going to be good for us (the creators / service providers).
Mixed reviews on soundbetter
My experience with SoundBetter comes exclusively from the service provider side. I actually signed up for the free tier of SB a couple years ago. There is a premium tier where service providers can pay $39 / month and receive added benefits. I have never received a paying gig from the free tier. I did receive a couple of inquires but they were mostly folks looking for fully produced tracks for as little as $250 which at the time wasn’t worth it to me. I also decided early on that I didn’t want to allocate much bandwidth / resources to my SoundBetter profile so no wonder my SB profile didn’t bear much fruit. I have heard from other service providers having positive stories and large profits. It does seem to be worth it to some. But there are a few important considerations.
SoundBetter is too saturated.
This is the complaint I see the most about the service. There are just too many people looking for dirt cheap “professional” work and too many service providers offering $15 beats a.k.a low-quality unprofessional work. It's a race to the bottom.
SoundBetter is a marketplace. Like any marketplace if a customer can receive the same or similar product for cheaper they will. Why would I pay $250 for a mix when I could pay $100 for a mix with this other person? Now it’s possible the $250 mix is going to be of higher quality, but maybe this $100 person is really good. Maybe the $100 person has no formal education, learned everything they know on YouTube, and is 14-years-old. Maybe that kid has no idea how to charge for their work and thinks a $100 is a lot of money. Maybe they are from a country with a weaker currency than the other provider so it actually is more money to them.
Now I’m not complaining about some 14-year-old taking a “professionals” work. If I were an artist and I could get a better product for cheaper. I would do so. I think it makes perfect sense why an artist would want to do that. This is just a reality of the world we live in. Access to learning, technology, connectivity is easier and cheaper than it’s ever been. I do professional mixing work. I understand that I am not entitled to getting the gig. I understand that there is somebody better at mixing than me out there who will do it for cheaper.
I’m not worried about it. I care but I’m not worried about it. There’s a difference. There are other ways service providers can separate themselves from the competition. For example, interpersonal skills. If I live in North America and speak English, maybe I don’t want to hire the 14-year-old Japanese kid who doesn’t speak my language even if their mix sounds awesome. Maybe I am also considering the type of experience I want to have while making my music. Also maybe the guy who is cheaper is a jerk and the more expensive guy is a classy fella who operates their business with integrity. Or maybe I just want to sit down with and actually know the person I’m going to be working with.
I think doing business within the ecosystem of SoundBetter does make it harder for professionals to demonstrate and distinguish themselves. Everything looks the same. The profiles look the same. The two main factors from the client side are does this provider have good reviews and how much does it cost. That tells you something. That doesn’t tell you everything. I also question if clients are really encouraged on the platform to discover much beyond those two points.
As a provider I actually really don’t like the interface for communication and SoundBetter's payment policy. It’s in SB’s interest to keep you on the platform. In fact, if you receive payment for a project off-line / outside of SB’s payment system you will be banned from the site (if found out). As well, what if I want to send a high value proposal to a potential client with an actual proposal software instead of a chat thread on SB? On SB, providers really don’t have much control over the client side experience of interacting with you. Also you are limited to two types of payment plans. There’s a 50 / 50, half up-front and half upon completion option (this is only available to premium providers) otherwise you’re stuck with 100% payment upon completion. That creates a difficulty for me and quite frankly it’s bad business.
The vast majority of studios / musicians / music producers go out of business because of poor cash-flow. There are too many factors outside of the service providers control dictating the completion speed of a project. What if a client for a mix hated the tracks they sent you thinking “he’ll fix it in the mix” and suddenly you’re stuck with 100 mix revisions and the project drags on for weeks or months longer than expected. In the meantime you haven’t been paid. If you run a business more money sooner = good. Here’s an example: an artist hires a mix engineer on SB. Per SB’s payment terms the artist must pre-fund the entire project to SB. Now SB has the money. Upon completion of the project SB pays out to the mix engineer. This creates positive cash-flow for SB. Hmm… I wonder why they do that? SB also takes a 5% commission from the service provider for every funded project.
But it’s also really cool that you can connect with creatives from almost anywhere in the world. I’m not anti SoundBetter. Certainly as a service provider there are restrictions I do not like. But there is also some good. More money to more music makers is something I can get behind. But the main value-add of SoundBetter is the promise of connectivity and community. Here’s a place that can connect you with the person you need to do the thing you want. That sounds convenient. Just ignore the middleman taking 5% of everything and keep connecting. For sure, I think for some folks that’s more than worth it. For me, I don’t know. I struggle with the idea. Humanity seems lost in this transaction with this service. If you’re in a place that has creative people and a creative community do you really need a site like SoundBetter. If you’re isolated and live in the middle of nowhere with no music scene then the perspective is different and SB offers way more value. But also, if you have the means (which I know not everyone does) you could choose to not live in a place devoid of a music / creative community.
Why would Spotify want to own SoundBetter? I mean really it makes a lot of sense. Spotify up until now has been profiting off the artist to fan relationship. For every completed and released song on the platform Spotify profits. Now they can profit from the artist to service provider relationship. In a world where all gigs are found on a service like SB, Spotify takes a 5% commission of every dollar an artist spends towards the music. Are we okay with this? That’s a big maybe for me at this point.
Zach Hughes is the founder of Lost Harbor Music. Zach is an independent music producer & recording engineer based out of Nashville, TN.