Jason Grishkoff: Everyday He’s Shufflin’
Trying to stand out in a virtual sea of 50,000 some-odd music websites is a test that, more often than not, ends in miserable failure; and with sites like Spin Magazine, Pitchfork and Stereo Gum hogging up most of the hipster cred, effectively selling yourself as a reliable source for what’s cool in new music aint what it used to be.
But South African-native Jason Grishkoff, in just over two years, has turned what started out as a hobby of mass e-mailing his musical discoveries and input to friends into IndieShuffle.com, one of the top twenty most popular music sites on the web. By taking the brain children of some of the other big names sites and brilliantly combining them into a new deal all his own, Grishkoff and his crew of writers successfully sustain an ever-growing audience of indie music enthusiasts.
“I reckon within the world there are two types of people,” said Grishkoff in his South African accent, “those who like to listen to music and those who tell other people what to listen to. I’d say all music bloggers fall into that category of people who excitedly share the music they find with their friends. And that’s kind of how it started for me.”
Once he was up to about a hundred cc’s for his e-mails, he determined it’d be easy enough to transition at least that many followers to a more solid collective to house his musical unearthing.
“Eventually I decided it would be better if I could save that for posterity,” said Grishkoff, “I decided since I was generating all the information it was probably a good idea to record it somewhere. So I started a website.”
In July of 2009, after months of carefully planning and nurturing the prototype, Indie Shuffle was officially born. Within just a few months and basically by word of mouth, not only did he successfully transit his e-mail friends to the site, he also gained a substantial following from all across the country.
“I kicked it off and didn’t have many grand expectations for it, but it started to grow nicely,” he said.
The San Francisco-based website now generates an average of a million visitors a month. The most unique seller for this website—the playlist (hence the word shuffle). Each article posted comes with a play button so you can hear the music you’re reading about. Then, an entire playlist of similar artists begins at the top of the page. The concept was not totally original, but Grishkoff took feedback from his early followers into consideration and eventually developed the playlist to be what it is now: a quite unique feature for music blogs.
“The idea came because a lot of people would use the website and they would say ‘it’s really great, but I don’t like two things: one, when I click on a new page my mp3 stops. Two, when it’s over nothing else plays.” Those were the problems I was presented with,” he said,” I did a little bit of research and two websites had separately solved these problems. Pandora had created a playlist, and TheHypeMachine.com enabled you to browse while you play. So I kind of took those elements and weighed heavily on Hype Machine’s design and created a bottom bar that enabled you to keep listening to the music as you browse.”
The Hype Machine doesn’t make you custom-designed playlists based off of your musical interests, though. Indie Shuffle is the first of its kind to create a Pandora-style scenario. Grishkoff has capitalized on this concept to the point that he’s making enough money now to pay seven staff writers to help him keep up the site.
“I consider myself pretty business driven,” says Grishkoff, also working full time in Executive Compensation at Google, “It was always a goal and I never thought I’d be able to make more than a couple hundred bucks a month off of it. But I hit that after the first year.”
Grishkoff attributes most of his success gaining traffic to the website’s blog role. In time, IndieShuffle was able to gain attention by means of aggregators. For the music bizz, a big one is The Hype Machine. They scan thousands of blogs for new MP3’s uploaded by individuals, then host them and then link it back to the blog it came from. Putting Hype on their blog role in itself wasn’t enough to make them notice, but the music Indie Shuffle had to offer was. After they had begun using them as a source fairly regularly, eventually Hype began hosting them on their top 20 popular lists with two or three tracks attributed to them; a mutually beneficial partnering.
“Essentially we were able to gain some of The Hype Machine’s traffic,” said Grishkoff, “Legitimately! And it was probably mutually beneficial because if we’re posting tracks that do well, people come to The Hype Machine to find those tracks.”
Gaining an audience is one thing, but figuring out effective ways to monetize off that is another trip up for most sites. Grishkoff did his research on how to gain advertisers though, and he receives all of his compensation from them. Indie Shuffle is now a part of a vertical ad network with Spin Magazine’s website. He shared a bit about how this works:
“Unlike Google, which has a cost for click basis, any anyone can sign up for the network. Spin Mag, for example, they’re well established and have been hosting advertisers for decades now. They have a direct sales team. They went online and found 10 music sites that were pretty big and they added to them to a vertical ad network. So this way when they have an advertiser they say well hey, we have 10 music blogs that can post it, they all target people that are interested in music so you can advertize through us and we’ll put it on all those websites.”
So essentially, Spin runs ads on Indie Shuffle’s website and then they split the profit. Spin takes a fee for making the sale, but they get a portion for publishing it. This is also known as Daisy Chain advertising.
“When spin doesn’t have any ads to show, show ads from USA today,” he says, “When USA doesn’t have any ads, someone else. That’s kind of how we run it.”
Indie Shuffle has a number of ads around the page also sometimes hosts site takeovers by one advertiser. While it might be somewhat distracting to the readers, it’s a great strategy for funding. All of the advertisers they host pay by impressions rather than by clicks, so Grishkoff makes money regardless of if the people actually pay attention to the ads or not.
“From what I know and have seen of Jason, he’s a very intelligent, dedicated and driven person, along with having a great business-savvy side,” said Christiana Bartolini, a staff writer from IndieShuffle, “That’s the perfect recipe for a successful anything! The site has only been growing and expanding throughout the years so he must be doing something right. Jason is always trying to make improvements and take suggestions from the readers and just stay on top of the game and I definitely think it’s paying off for him and the site.”
Consistency is another essential element that IndieShuffle continues to deliver for their followers. Throughout the two years the site has been running, they’ve never missed a day of posting. Now they’re up to at least five new posts a day. This is accomplished with the help of the staff writers and contributors. The site now has 20 active contributors, and in its lifetime has had about 65. Hanna Simon, who works for Wikipedia and is also one of IndieShuffle’s paid staffers, does all of the editing. This also helps maintain consistent writing style.
“I think the fact that Indie Shuffle likes to keep things casual and personable really helps gain dedicated viewers, too,” said Bartolini, “When I first joined the staff, I remember being specifically told that there’s no need for the use of extended vocabulary with big, uncommon words. I think the site maintains a down-to-earth vibe that way.”
While obviously this holds true for the website’s followers, not everyone is in agreement about this portion of Indie Shuffle’s journalistic approach. Nathan Andreoli, an audio systems engineer, a member of a band called Eww Yaboo, and an avid reader of music journalism, believes that certain aspects of the writing leaves room for improvement.
“I think indieshuffle.com has a great layout. The music player is convenient and makes it easy to quickly browse tracks that are being featured. The only thing I find sometimes unbecoming is the writing,” said Andreoli, “By no means is it awful, but there is an obvious difference from other sites in quality control and editing. Most of the reviews on the site I have read can be indulgently written and sometimes all too personal. People read reviews to understand context and also learn something about the artists back story, as well as gain a sense of where the music is coming from. Most music lovers embrace a well rounded, well versed description, and sometimes the reviews on indie shuffle seem all too personal and not at all a complete summary. That aside, the layout makes for a great overview of new tracks, even if some further digging may be necessary to get the big picture.”
So while the writing may have a different and less journalistic angle that not everyone loves, clever engineering of the website definitely helps keep Indie Shuffle in the top lists of its kind. Since every article begins with, “Sounds Like,” where they note similar artists, people can simply use this and the tracks they post to discover new music and come to their own conclusions about what’s cool about it without reading through every review.
There are obviously many reasons for the site’s success and why it’s had little trouble attracting followers from the start.
“We see peaks and then it will flatten and spikes to and even higher level and then drops. And those drops can actually get pretty depressing,” said Grishkoff, “It’ll be like ‘whoa shit what happened? Was that it? Did I hit my panicle? Is it done? But it’s moved along pretty easily from the get go. We never really had any considerable hick ups.”
Grishkoff says he’s basically dedicated every moment of his days to the website since it launched. His advice on how to achieve online success:
“Don’t go into to make money. Don’t go into to get fame. You should go into because it’s something you love doing it. Because to see any type of success you have to do it every single day for a long time with no success. Ultimately it will work or it won’t. If it doesn’t work it’s probably because you’ve decided to move onto something else. For the first 6 months to a year I wouldn’t expect to get any results out of it, except for the fact that you’re being constructive. It’s kind of like being an artist. And it’s much better than sitting around watching TV. I wasn’t planning on making any money out of it or building up traffic it was just something to productively take up my time. That’s the way I looked at it. It’s been a steady, consistent, enjoyable hobby where I’ve been able to grow it, develop it, learn a lot of skills and meet people because of it. It’s been an awesome experience and I’m trying to make sure that it continues to be.”