Music Features

Joe Blogs #6: On Linkbaiting

The internet has been a part of everyday life for practically a whole generation, yet providers of news, features and columns are no closer to finding a fool-proof, failsafe and reliable model of generating money online. National newspapers make their entire output available online for free, yet wonder why circulation figures and revenue are falling. As the early 21st Century boom in music piracy has shown us, people, especially when protected by relative anonymity, are unwilling to pay for that which they can obtain for free. If, as the newspapers and magazines are, you’re actively leading your potential customers to the free content, you’re practically signing your own death warrant.

The publishing industry has long held on to the hope that the knight in shining armour will be advertising. If you can generate enough traffic to your website, you can charge companies and services decent rates to place their adverts with you. Art versus commerce debates are as old as time itself, but this does raise the point that journalistic integrity is likely to suffer if the main target for the writer in question is to generate hits rather than quality work.

Which brings us rather neatly onto – you can see where this is going, can’t you? – The Daily Mail. The Daily Mail is unlike its UK newspaper rivals in that its website isn’t a direct extension of its print brand. Sure, there are all the articles about house prices and immigration you can find on your doormat each morning, but it dedicates a significant proportion of its online space to articles focusing on celebrities, either championing or denigrating some fictional “new look” (i.e. said celebrity left the house wearing an outfit and had their picture taken).

People like looking at pictures of famous people and hence the readership of Mail Online grew. But there’s also the more sinister side: the suggestive pieces about under-age girls, the bizarre rants of the columnists, and the articles that seem created entirely to enrage left-wingers. “Have you seen what they’ve done this time?!” froths Twitter, spamming people’s timelines with links to Mail articles that they can’t believe have been written, so they can be read and incredulously forwarded, creating an ever-expanding outrage spiral. Meanwhile, The Mail are monitoring their traffic stats, showing them to their advertisers, and laughing all the way to the bank. As of last year, Mail Online is the world’s most popular news site, ahead of both BBC News and The New York Times.

It’s not just The Daily Mail that engages in such practices though. The never-ending quest to continually churn out readable (or, at least, look-at-able) content has affected other news outlets too. It’s now not an uncommon sight to see an opinion piece espousing an unpopular or extreme view, only to see a follow-up reaction column to the original article in the very same publication. Thanks to the outrage generated by the first piece, the newspapers hope we won’t notice their sudden Jekyll and Hyde disorder.

Though it may be on a much smaller scale in most cases, music websites and music journalism are subject to the same pressures. There are differences in that several sites are run as a labour of love and don’t seek to generate income (like this one) but even those publications have, like the rest of them, the aim of growing their readership.

In music, particular with indie-focussed sites like No Ripcord, we don’t have the option of a torrent of celebrity pictures to generate hits to quite the same extent. It’s unlikely we’d see a spike in traffic if we sourced a picture of a tubby Win Butler, turned it into a quick article and headlined it, “ARCADE FLUBBER!” No, our equivalent of pictures of the Kardashians in tight bikinis is the controversial album review.

Many people use aggregating websites to garner opinions on new releases and on a site like Metacritic, there can often be reviews from over thirty publications vying for your attention. If, out of all those reviews, one gives a score significantly different to the others, it’s going to catch your attention. Giving an average album top marks is risky, and you really have to have the ability to back that up. Much easier is to completely trash a record that everyone else thinks is ok, and rather than use your critical faculties to justify a poor score, simply fill the page with ranting, cheap shots and ever more desperate metaphors.

Of course, if one review has a different opinion to thirty others, that doesn’t mean it’s inherently wrong. The world would be a dull and unrewarding place if we all thought the same. But there’s been a prevalence of album slating that seems to be conducted solely to create outrage and to be shared on social networks. ‘Average album is average’ attracts no-one who wasn’t already emotionally invested. ‘Album is the aural equivalent of Hitler teaming up with Mugabe’ is going to pique the interest of even the most apathetic web user.

If you follow the assumption that the primary function of a website is to get as many people as possible to visit it, then linkbaiting works. It’s the reason you see the review of Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die that’s little more than a list of the most common words used in the album attached to a score of 1/10. It’s why there’s a review online of the new Beady Eye record which makes no attempt to actually critique the music and simply attacks anyone who might dare to enjoy it. You might notice there are no links to these reviews and the websites who have published them aren’t named. It’s easy enough to find them if you want to and they’ve had enough attention as it is, most of it negative. However, in this world, there really is no such thing as bad publicity.

But then, as a writer, I exaggerate things, I employ attention-grabbing tactics and, particularly in opinion pieces, my writing persona is often a slightly more extreme version of myself – does this make me a hypocrite? There’s a fine line between trying to make writing entertaining and the journalistic equivalent of poking a full hive with a stick. If you were to go through everything I’ve written for No Ripcord (and, seriously, if you do, more fool you), you’d be more than likely to find one or more examples of that boundary being crossed; nobody’s perfect. But these examples would never be explicit, deliberate goading, even having penned 0/10 reviews for this site in the past.

This ethos is where No Ripcord truly comes into its own. We’re a small operation and we go for quality over quantity. Our size and lack of resources mean we’re not in a position to publish multiple PR-driven puff pieces a day, or to run a news section, but even if we could, we still wouldn’t. Instead we’d continue to focus on good writing, and hopefully provide a few more articles of genuine quality, rather than a ton of ephemera that feels like it was dashed off in ten minutes.

This is an attitude that’s evolved over time and, behind the scenes, No Ripcord writers are often discussing our distaste with articles that troll their readers, recycling of old ideas and ‘churnalism’. So, if you ever read a review on this site which is little more than a thinly-veiled attack on the artist in question with no good reason and no critical insight, you can certainly set us straight. Just don’t direct us to a bunch of pictures of a Z-list celebrity at a film premiere.