Jason Grishkoff is the founder and coder-in-chief for SubmitHub, a musical promotion platform based in South Africa. What began as an extension of the work Jason was doing with his renowned blog Indie Shuffle, came to life as an intermediary platform between independent musicians, songwriters, producers, and their publicists, as a way of easily making contact with, and presenting pitches to, publications like his. This vibrant and dynamic musical ecosystem now counts heavyweights like Nettwerk Music Group and Republic Records among the list of clients, along with many thousands of international artists, creators, curators, and influencers. We sat down for a Zoom chat between Jason and CHILLFILTR's own Krister Axel.
The Origin Story
What's up, Jason? Yes, I can hear you. Can you hear me? ... Well, it's nice to finally meet you in person. I feel like I've known you for years now, so it's a nice feeling. That's been a while. Yeah. As in person as we can be. Exactly. Across the world. Where are you right now? I'm in upstate New York, just a little south of Ottawa. And you're over in South Africa.
I just personally have a few things that I'm curious about that I'm sure you can answer because I've been paying attention to this for years, as you probably remember. I mean, I got started with you guys in 2018, which wasn't too long after you got started. I feel like you got started in 2016. Is that about right?
You could say it was October, November of 2015. So basically 2016. Now seven years.
Well, congratulations on your long term success here.
I mean, seven years, that is a long time, right? Long time. The longest job I've had, anyway.
And you came from sort of a Google background, is that right?
Yeah, but I wasn't coding at Google, so I was figuring out how much to pay their executives, which is kind of a weird thing. And then I was running Indie Shuffle on the side. So the Google job in many ways enabled Indie Shuffle to grow, and I was able to reinvest any ad revenue straight back into the company without having to worry about my own income. So in many ways, that time at Google, it was just three years, but it enabled me to actually go down this path and explore the music thing and give it a shot. If I had stuck to Indie Shuffle, it wouldn't have worked out.
But that's one thing that I really love about what you're doing is there's really ... a broad sort of sense for the future. And I feel like you're always trying to expand and create a better product. I know that you've gone from two employees to now three or four, or even five altogether. Was it you and Dylan starting out?
It was just me, and then I brought on Dylan probably in March of 2016, probably five or six months in, and his mandate at the time was to help me sign up new blogs. Okay, that was the initial, like, this is going to be your job. Up until that point, I'd actually been spending a ton of time doing that myself, and I sent out over a thousand emails and maybe got 5% response rate, which was indicative of the problem that existed and what I was trying to tackle. Dylan came on and then today we've got Jami and Carey, who help a lot with the day to day customer support of the platform. So they also do all of the reviews of people who apply to join SubmitHub. So I think off the top of my head, we get 30 to 50 applications per day from curators wanting to join, and I think we have a good 80% rejection rate. So there is a bar. I think some people don't realize that to get on SubmitHub, you actually have to pass certain thresholds, and we're primarily looking for people who have a history of passion for music.
So that's kind of easy to prove if you're a blogger.
But it gets a lot more difficult with the playlists that apply because a lot of playlists just crop out of the blue. Boom. We got 1000 followers. And so then we really have to do our due diligence, try to figure out how did you grow that? Is it going to be sustainable now that you've hit the 1000, are you going to keep investing in it? Or was that just your threshold?
And so, yeah, they're vital parts of this. And then Henko has been with SubmitHubs since 2016 as the CFO, and head of HR and head of Legal, and all the important stuff that makes the business survive.
And that would take time away from you. Okay, well, great. So one quick thing that Jessica mentioned that maybe we can just kind of get out of the way really quick is this: she mentioned something about a Marketplace model. She sent me a link to what you have now, which is a "Choose from Me" functionality, which I think is really cool. I think that will probably help a lot of other people sort of get into — I think there's a bit of a hump getting sort of used to SubmitHub and what the process looks like — and I'm sure that will help with that. How does the Marketplace model tie into that, or extend that: what can you tell me about it?
Okay, so this is the inside scoop. You are the first person to ask me anything about this.
And it's not a fully developed product, but the best way I can describe it is that I think we've hit a stage of SubmitHub where the community is ready for Fiverr on SubmitHub. I'm not sure if you're familiar with Fiverr, but it's just really cheap tasks that you're doing. Help me with my album artwork or lyrics or some mixing, and it goes through all these industries. I've used it once or twice for little bits of code that I wanted people to help me write. And so the sort of impetus for this was that we have had 'submit to labels' on SubmitHub since 2017 or so. And it's a bit of a mess. It's not as clear cut as the curator side. So, on the curator side, you are submitting to someone with hopes of being shared and there's a very definitive deliverable at the end of it. You either got rejected or you got your blog post or you got put on a playlist, whatever. But there's a real easy path to follow along there.
And with labels, it's a lot more about, hey, we're going to help you connect with these guys, and after that, good luck. We've tried to vet them, but also we're not sure, because we're not signed to them. And to be honest, we're not reading through, like, every single one of their contracts and all their history. We've decided to sunset the label side. And one thing that we want to do is fold some of the useful stuff that those labels do genuinely offer artists into this marketplace service. Because I think what you find is that a lot of independent labels today are shifting from that more traditional model of: we're going to invest in you as a business and here's the lump sum of money upfront, and then later on we'll work out the fee structure. You find a lot more independent labels have actual packages for promotion that they're selling today. So if we can list that, that was sort of the one [idea] — okay, that could work. But this marketplace idea really does solve many different things with one approach.
So a second one is album reviews. When I launched SubmitHub seven years ago, one of the first questions to come up was, hey, this is cool, but how do I submit an album? And I said, oh, yeah, of course, albums. I'm going to code that really soon. And it just kept coming up year after year. People going like, when are albums coming up; EPs? And it's this double-edged sword where on one hand, the popularity of that release format is still diminishing, which I knew was happening, and yet people still ask. So I think that a marketplace is another good opportunity to offer a service like that for some of the more sort of journalism-inclined curators to flex their muscles.
So it's very similar to Musosoup. I'm not sure if you're familiar with too much about them...
I have heard the name for sure.
I will summarize it — to Chris, who's the founder of that, if I'm messing this up, sorry, but we don't see completely eye to eye on it — the idea with Musosoup is that you pay £20 as a processing fee for their team to vet your song, review it, and then what happens is, if you get through, which I imagine 90% of songs do, they sort of list you on the homepage of all these bloggers who can then come along and make an offer. So they'll say, hey, loved your song. For £30, our editorial team will write an interview about you or whatever. So it's payola; now, Chris says it's not payola because they deserve money for their work, therefore it's not payola. And I say, well, if they don't get paid, do they still provide the same coverage? And the answer is no. That, in my mind, still establishes, it's payola...
But certain people don't get through, which is why maybe it isn't, right?
I don't know. But if you say, I'm not comfortable paying for that £30 for the article, apparently they have to offer you something conciliatory. Like a Tweet or; here's my five-follower playlist that my mom listens to.
So I say that because as much as I think that's payola, one of the things this marketplace is going to offer is that sort of that journalism aspect. But where I intend to differentiate it is that I think it's important for the journalists themselves to disclose that they have received money for writing that article. Right? And I think there are subtle ways of doing that off the top of my head: this article was published as part of the band's promotional campaign for the new album. That's your intro. It kind of says that anyway. It's like a vague way of saying I got paid, but without saying I got paid.
No More Premieres
That fits with something like Instagram, where they're trying to do more of that disclosure before, at the top of the post, for example.
Yeah. So I think that's going to be a cool way to leverage the marketplace to provide a service. And I do actually plan... again, breaking news, haven't even discussed this with my team: but I'm planning to get rid of Premieres on SubmitHub. And I don't know if you're familiar with Premieres. They are a relic of the past that some people still use. But the idea was that when blogs were big stuff, you could try and entice them to actually cover your song by offering them the opportunity to be the first to release this song. And that just doesn't work today. Prereleases back then were easy. Hey, we're going to give you the song 24 hours before it's released. You're going to announce it, we're going to drive traffic to you and you're going to drive tons of traffic to us. And that's not really the way it works as much today. It's more of an attack from as many angles as we can — line up all the coverage for release day; cool, it's in stores now. The distributor has set this date and it's going up.
So what I plan to do is fold over a little bit of that Premiere stuff into the marketplace as well. It's essentially the same as the album reviews, but this is an opportunity to pay a reputable blog... Let's put it differently: this is an opportunity to pay someone who can write well, to actually do a detailed review of your song on launch. And that is always handy to share, and I think that'll work. There's a slight risk that you'll have blogs who will go: screw the submission process now, this is the way I'm going to go. But I'm going to handle that when we get there.
And then the marketplace will also just offer things like album artwork, mixing, EPK. So for a lot of artists, you can pay a publicist $50 to put your thing together. And generally the concept that I will maintain is, this is for micro tasks. I don't want someone selling a $3,000 mixing package because we're going to be the broker here. We're the escrow. We stand in the middle. And so, this is kind of the way the influencer site works as well, but you're putting $20 on the table for them to do something, but we're holding it until it's done.
That's why we don't want to go for the $3,000 ones because I can only imagine the mess involved in having to... the artist gets pissed off and they do a reversal on their credit card. And I don't know if you know anything about that, but basically a business is screwed. If it was fraud: that's it. You don't get to prove it. That's like $3,000 down. So we'll stick it to small marketplace is going to be about micro tasks.
That makes sense. Okay, well, one extension question from that is so, for instance, something like graphic art, is that going to be extended through some of the existing curators and creators that are already part of the ecosystem? Or are you going to be reaching out to a new class of creators that are basically geared towards graphic design in order to meet some of that need?
I think it is going to be broader and agnostic of your background for many of these. So my thinking is that there will be some predefined sort of areas that you would go for with album reviews and whatnot, but initially will be sort of a free form. What is the service you offer and if you can list it out and explain it, and we like that, and we think it's valuable to artists, then you can list it. So if you are a blogger who's very keen on writing these in-depth reviews, you would then be able to put that package on your profile as something you offer. There's a link to it. People can go over and click on it.
But let's say that you're an artist, so you don't have that same profile. That's fine. You can still apply to offer a service on the marketplace and be listed. So it will be agnostic, but you wouldn't have a random artist getting that EP or album review option. But on the mixing and that type of side, you're definitely going to have quite a few. So it's going to be a heavily vetted marketplace, in terms of who we let on. We do want to make sure that there are valuable services being offered. Will it work? I don't know, but I think I'm hitting a point where most of SubmitHub is coded. And the actual product, after seven years, is fairly well thought through and generally works. So it's time to try something new.
Wow, that's exciting. That's really fun. And I think that's a really smart step in the right direction. And if you can differentiate yourself from Fiverr in that way of just, more vetting, and higher quality, and perhaps quality over quantity, I think with your existing userbase, you've got a pretty busy website as it is. I think you've got a lot to work with. So that's exciting.
I hope so. It's a good funnel. We have other business ideas in mind, too. We might jump into the distribution game, but let's get the marketplace first.
That's awesome. Okay. All right. The next question is really just more of a personal one for me. As the head writer for CHILLFILTR®, I do run into issues sometimes where as part of the submission process, as part of the campaign, a user or an artist will say, or their representative more often will say, yes, we can share. We're happy to share this track, whether or not you monetize it or not. Some go either way, but they kind of leave that open, and then sometimes even they will sign the release, but then actually getting a copy of the track from them becomes an issue. And then a lot of times they just disappear. So I know that that's a little too sort of in the details to really be something that your team would concern themselves with, and I can handle this sort of back and forth with that. But the question that I had, is there any way to sort of flesh out this process of flagging those user accounts, just on a personal level, as someone maybe you don't want to work with again? I know you can block someone completely via their email address, but that seems a little harsh. To me, I wondered if there's any way to just add a flag that then pops up on a subsequent submission, because a lot of times it's a different artist, right. It's the same representative that's now got a different artist that they're working with, but they'll probably pull that same switcheroo. So anyway, that was my feature request.
Okay, I got two solutions there. Number one, I like what you suggested there with the flag. And a good spot I'm seeing for it is on each submission you receive, it tells you who sent it to you as well as their history with you. And I don't know if you noticed, but like three or four days ago, I tweaked that layout just a little bit to make it more prominent. Okay. I think an extra bullet there might be useful for how many pending copyrights you have, that are unsigned. It doesn't solve the problem you have with those who have signed and haven't provided the materials. But at least you could see three unsigned copyrights, what's going on.
I did take a step earlier this year to help a little bit that they cannot choose the "I can give copyright permission" option if they've got more than ten unsigned copyrights. Which might seem like a high bar, but actually for the publicist, we had someone 300, 400, 500, and I shut them down. I was like, look, either you bulk decline all of these, or you can't go through to the next step. We cleaned it up a little bit.
The other option coming to my head is something I have been putting a lot of work into lately. These waveforms, I don't know if you've noticed them in the player down below. There's a lot going on behind the scenes for that, one of which is getting a WAV or MP3 file that is of high enough quality to extract a waveform from. So what it means is that in almost all cases now, I have a copy, but I would assume that the MP3 you want is of a higher quality, right?
Typically, yes. Personally, I like anything above 256kbps.
Okay, all right. So it rules out any song with SoundCloud as the primary source, because with SoundCloud, I get to use their API, I get to save some money on bandwidth costs. I don't have to rely on that. And they get the advantage of tracking their players through SoundCloud. The majority of submissions these days are actually probably leading with Spotify as their main source. And that was after a little jiggle. I used to recommend SoundCloud as the primary one, and then I've done. I'm over SoundCloud.
I had a lot of issues with links aging badly, or embeds for SoundCloud aging... that months later it just disappears or it won't play, turns to private. It just becomes a real sort of policing issue in terms of making sure that your historical post still actually can play the song. So I just turned it off.
Yeah, I think so. In many cases, I do have a higher quality file. What I could do is if someone specifies that they can provide copyright permission, but they have not yet provided a high quality stream of the song... I can give them that prompt to upload it then. In fact, I could set it up so that they cannot even choose that option until they have uploaded a high quality version. So maybe that's what I will do.
If it was up to me, that would be a fantastic sort of help in that process because it really is a relatively common thing.
I just put it on my list.
Because I'm not judging people. Maybe people change their minds, maybe they don't know what they're getting into or what they're offering...
But they're representing the artists and they don't necessarily, there are so many reasons... and it's hard to solve completely. But I think you've sparked two thoughts there.
Wonderful. Well, thank you. That's fantastic. Okay. And now the next question I had is a little bit fuzzy and a little bit general, but maybe we can just go over it super quick, which is just the idea: as a blogger, what I do has this long term value, right? And a big part of what I enjoy about the space that I've created is that you come back to 2018 and 2019 when I got started, and those posts are still out there, they're still searchable, they're still showing up. They're still, one hopes, adding value to that artist's experience. And I know that the secret sauce to your sort of rating algorithm is secret...
Which one is it?
Rating, not value. What is it called?
The engagement score.
No, reach. The Reach?
Yes. I've recoined it as engagement score.
Oh, okay. There it is. And I guess you probably already do factor in that sort of sense of long term value versus these kinds of shares that come from people, let's say on Instagram, where it's just within a few days, I feel like it's forgotten and it's gone and in some cases you can't even see it.
Yeah, Stories in particular. So it's ephemeral. 24 hours and that's gone.
Exactly. My question is, you do take that into account, one imagines, right? In terms of how that value generates over time. Can you talk about that a little bit at all?
Yes. At the root of this is the really Good Bloggers program. I believe you're part of that. The idea was in 2017, when I rolled it out, we had noticed that a growing number of blogs had realized that they didn't have to put the effort of blogging songs into it and they could just approve stuff and retweet it, or put it in a playlist or whatever. And this was particularly a sore point for those who were eagerly pursuing HypeMachine placements. So they would send to music blogs who are listed on HypeMachine, and then they wouldn't get any blog post from their approvals. And that disappointed people. And it also kind of rubbed us the wrong way. It's like, come on, we signed you up as a blog. We didn't sign you up for your playlist — what are you doing sharing to it?
And so the Really Good Bloggers Program was created, and the idea behind it is that to be a member, at least 85% of your content needs to be — I don't want to call it long form, but it has to have content behind each blog post, and it needs to sort of be dedicated to the song. So it's not a playlist with 20 songs in it and a little intro text at the top. Each song has to be accompanied by text. So that was the gist of the Really Good Bloggers Program. And if you are a member of that, you're going to get a lot more submissions than any other non members. You also get a pretty significant boost to your Engagement Score because of that longevity of the article and the importance of building your SEO and your presence and whatnot. So, yeah, what you'll see is that sometimes I even wonder if blogs are ranked too high. But they are ranked really high. Right. I mean, the whole point of the Engagement Store is to try and find an apples to oranges comparison.
I had to make that work. So that's really the idea behind it. And if you are a blog who's not part of RGB, your Engagement scores, it's never going to get past it, like 3 or 4. It's just not going to happen. What will eventually happen is if you are sharing elsewhere, we'll reach out and say, time for conversion. We don't want to give people the wrong idea.
Well, that's the idea too, is that it's unique, that it's unique to that blog post. It's original content that is not shared.
Yeah. Copy paste is a big no no. We've encountered issues with plagiarism before, so that's something that's really difficult to find. Right.
Well, you just change a few words, right?
Yeah. Well, some of the more recent cases have been word-for-word copy paste, and it was discovered by the blogger who was being copied. I'm not sure how, but they reported it to us and it was blatant, but only on one article, so it was just a very lazy copy paste. Anyway, it happens, but the idea is it's original content, it's got that long term visibility in Google and it doesn't disappear. So I agree with you. I think in many ways it holds a lot more value than some of the other more temporary shares that you can get.
Yeah, great. Well, that certainly answers my question. So, I mean, if that RGB membership and that sort of consistent quality really does impact the Engagement Score, then there's really nothing else that we can ask for.
The only other thing you can do to help yourself as a blog is a HypeMachine badge. Right. That boosts you as well.
Yeah, certainly. Well, don't get me started on them. I personally applied years ago and they said no and that was it. You don't get a second...
That's it. Yeah. There are a one trick pony. We let people reapply after 30 days if they want, but yeah, HypeMachine as long as they've been around, that's their policy is like, once off, and that's it, you're screwed. Weird. I feel like they should get over themselves a bit now.
I thought so. I do think that at one point they really had just this fantastic reputation, and I think they're losing a little bit of that priority.
Gone. Long gone. It's long gone.
About the Process
Wonderful. I guess the next question was going to be, okay, we've got ten more minutes, which is perfect. Cool. And let me see here. I guess I sort of covered this early on, which is just like how it is that you've grown and adapted over time. We've certainly heard some interesting stuff about maybe the lessons you've learned about the things that you've expanded into and are now sort of contracting or pushing in a different direction, notably the involvement that you've had with record labels and how difficult that can be to manage. That makes a lot of sense. What else can you tell me about how you've adapted to the marketplace or, any sort of interesting anecdotal stuff about how you've made changes?
Yeah. So I think for an artist, submitting music on SubmitHub is a very sensitive experience, and exposing yourself to that can be difficult. And when someone says something to you, you sometimes take it a bit too seriously initially. And the same can be applied my direction. So launching SubmitHub, what I didn't realize was how many people are going to be giving me feedback about how the platform could be improved, or ways that things could be done better. And so conversations like this, even, have been the driving force behind the evolution of the platform over all these years.
For example, adding Spotify as an option to submit to, which I think we did in about 2017, again, came about because everyone was asking me, like, where's the Spotify? How do I send a Spotify? So again, much of it has been just about opening myself up to that feedback, still paying attention to all of it, and also providing avenues for people to share their ideas. So the chat rooms that we have on SubmitHub are an invaluable source for me to connect with the users and let them know what's going on, as well as for me to solicit feedback and bug reports and opportunities to improve the platform. So almost everything that you can see over the last seven years has come about in many ways because either someone came to me and specifically requested it, or I got really stunned and I was like, whoa... So it's one of those two, a healthy balance of both. And that's just been my process all along.
So I still publish this wishlist. You can probably go see if you go to Submit.com stories, you'll see 2022's wishlist, which I might actually be able to do. I've made good progress. And so I have these little projects going, but a lot of my day to day are just tweaking things and improving and rolling out new features. So tomorrow I'll be rolling out a new feature called Teams, which is specifically for publicists and labels who are managing different accounts. So usually what will happen if you're running a PR firm, you're the manager, and you've got three or four employees and they're also sharing all these songs. So it's nice to have one centralized account where you can see what all of them are up to, distribute your credit so that all your card payments just come through your account rather than everyone else's, that type of stuff.
And that is a prime example. I had lunch with a PR firm called Nettwerk in LA, a couple of months ago and that was their request. Yeah, we've got 18 people using the website and I have no idea who's doing what and when. Can you just give me a dashboard? So here I am, three months later, going to do it.
Well, that's great. And I'm sure that's a wonderful storyline to think that the more you engage with this platform, and the more you use it in your everyday work, that it can adapt to you; and that you are accessible as the head of the organization.
Yeah, and it moves quickly as well. I mean, that three month one is a bad example, but usually I'm pretty quick to integrate feedback, and if someone finds a bug or sees a really obvious opportunity for improvement, you'll probably see that come up on the website within 24 hours. I don't have to do a review process or planning process, or anything. I code, and that's it. And that's one of the beautiful parts of being an independent developer, is that you just don't have any slowdowns.
I can speak from personal experience just over the years as I've needed things or had questions, I feel like you and your coworkers have been absolutely very available via chat, and very quick to respond, and I think that's just the mark of a fantastic product. On the flip side, I see the lack of that in a lot of other places, so it's really nice to have that sense of accessibility. So thank you. Thank you for that.
Yeah, the speed is clutch, and that is one thing I did take from Google and also one of the reasons I quit. But there was this expectation working in HR, you were on a service team, and if someone asked something of you, the quicker you could get it done, the better it looked and the better reflected and the quicker you got promoted up the corporate pipeline. So we've carried a lot of that over to SubmitHub, where I think we have a sub 1 hour response time on our support tickets. And generally you're going to get a response even on weekends, even though we say we don't. But I'm usually around.
Well, that's fantastic. Okay, well, I think that's about all I had, unless you have any other questions for me. I think we're in good shape here.
No, I'm good. I think we touched on a lot, right?
I think so, too. I really appreciate that accessibility and then talking about some things that are still new and fresh, as it were. I guess the last question is just going to be, just for my sake and for all of the other users that are really happy with your product; you guys are doing great, and there's no changes coming in terms of management or sales or anything like that? You guys are going to be looking good for the next couple of years?
Yeah. Look, one of my hesitations with engaging outside parties and creating partnerships is that it would then generate responsibilities. And I don't want to have that. One of the beauties of running this, and one of the things I'm privileged to enjoy, is that I wake up every morning and decide what I want to work on. And I've tried to give my team a lot of that same freedom as well. Sometimes they get lost, Dylan in particular: what am I doing? It's like it's cool, man. You're in your early 30s, just trying to figure out life, find your path. Yeah, so he's got a cool project he's working on now, but yeah, it's a passion project.
It's a lifestyle job, and I think we all enjoy that too much as a team to sell out. To sell out, now you've got meetings and structure and rules, and I don't want to do that. So for now, everything is staying groovy, and I like doing it too much.
Good. Well, that's exactly what I wanted to hear, so thank you so much. Thanks for coming. I really appreciate it.
Cool. Yeah. Happy to be here.
Well, thank you so much, Jason. Have a great rest of your day or evening, and I'm sure I'll be running with you in the chat sometime soon.
Cheers, nice to meet you.