Tag Archives: rock critics

Fred Mills: The Economics of Rock Criticism

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Ever wonder why reviewers do what they do when they are actually LOSING money on the deal? (First in a series, collect them all.)

By Fred Mills, Blurt Editor

Lately our writers and staffers have been doing an outstanding job with their record, concert and book reviews, and you may have noticed that some of those reviews have been posting as Features initially (prior to be archived in the respective Reviews sections). They get a bit more attention that way, and since they’re not getting paid for their reviews, it allows me to thank them for occasionally putting in the extra time and sweat to make a review a bit more special.  Plus, while it’s sometimes because the artist in question is relatively high profile and we can potentially grab a few extra eyeballs, it can also be because I just feel the artist being reviewed deserves to be spotlighted.

There’s a related wrinkle to all this. Can we agree that no one is getting rich reviewing records these days? Worse, with even the most DIY of labels moving to digital promotional platforms, eschewing hard copy promos for lo-res MP3s or, worse, horrible sounding digital streams, one could argue that we reviewers now find ourselves in the curious position of PAYING THE LABELS for the privilege of writing about their artists and clients.

Don’t believe me? Let’s do the math. Assume, as a base, that a reviewer spends 90 minutes listening to a 45-minute album twice before sitting down to write. Then assume he/she puts in another 90 minutes’ minimum to write, proof, revise and finalize a review. Could be more, could be less, depending on the record. Some reviews practically write themselves because their merits (in the case of a great rec) and deficits (for lemons) are so blindingly obvious. Plus, regarding the lemon contingent, who wants to waste an hour and a half on, I dunno, a John Mayer or (insert whatever is displaying on the Pitchfork home page at any given moment) when you could be out shooting hoops, tending the garden, or banging some hot rock critic groupie. Hey, it happens!

At any rate, now we’re up to three hours. Let’s say a reasonable hourly wage is $15. You’ve just racked up $45 worth of time and sweat equity. Except there’s no equity, because you were reviewing digital files. And if you actually want to keep the album, you’ll probably want to burn it to a CDR, print out some artwork or at least tracklisting, and insert both into a jewel case. That’s at least another buck for the disc, the printer paper, and the ink used printing it. (The writer will NOT have to purchase a jewel case, luckily, because he’s already got boxes and boxes of empties, the result of tossing the discs from the shittier titles among the hard copy promos he got. Well, that’s where the latest John Mayer promo I received went.) Not to mention, I dunno, another 10 minutes spent downloading, organizing, burning, and printing; which, at $15 per hour, or 25 cents per minute, is another $2.50 worth of work you are not getting paid for. We’re at $48.50 now.

I’m tempted to put a dollar value on the amount of time it takes to send the link to the review out in an email to the label or publicist who sent you the digital files – compounded, let us not forget, by the subsequent, inevitable, deluge of emails from same, who, following a cursory “thank you” proceeds to start badgering, er, I mean, pitching all those other artists/clients currently with projects they want to publicize. But that would be mean-spirited of me.

So let me just return to my original premise: by virtue of that $48.50 that he did NOT get paid, the writer has essentially PAID THE LABEL for letting him review the record. And there’s not even an ACTUAL RECORD to show for his trouble – just a bunch of shitty-sounding MP3s clogging up the hard drive, and a CDR copy of the album that may or may not actually play in the future, depending on what CD player is being used. (You wouldn’t believe the number of promo CDRs I get that will play on one player but not on another, especially my car player, as I often preview promos while driving to and from my day job, or while vacationing.)

$48.50: extrapolate that figure across the course of a year, during which any writer worth his or her salt will “spend” at least 50 times. Usually more.

When BLURT became a volunteer operation, I was already aware of all this, but I hadn’t quite “monetized” the notion. Once I started thinking about it, I realized that (a) only a schmuck would review a digital file unless a finished hard copy of the album is also part of the picture when it is ready at the label; (b) those labels that do make it their usual policy to send out hard copies should be acknowledged and thanked, even if the writer can’t necessarily reciprocate with a review (there might be just too damn many promos that have come in around the same time, or the writer simply can’t place a review with a media outlet – I have the deepest admiration for our writers like Lee Zimmerman, Michael Toland and Bill Kopp who somehow are able to crank out scores of reviews practically on a weekly basis; unfortunately, superhumans such as they are a dwindling race); and (c) if a label goes the extra mile and actually SENDS A VINYL COPY OF THE RECORD, you can damn well bet that I’m gonna make that a priority review if at all possible, because the cost of the hard goods and postage for gifting a reviewer with an LP is not negligible… did I mention that COLORED VINYL GETS THE SUPER-DUPER PRIORITY as well?

Anyhow, by way of a semi-digression here, and just to “circle back” (my favorite publicity rep phrase) to the topic at the start of this rant, today at BLURT we posted an extended review of “Blood & Treasure” by Pat Todd & The Rankoutsiders, issued by the Hound Gawd! Records label. Todd of course once fronted the legendary The Lazy Cowgirls. Longtime contributor Barry StVitus penned the review, and we published it in Features, along with some choice audio samples and a killer live clip of the band from this past April. Why? Because, well, Pat Fucking Todd.

Plus, as suggested a moment ago, it will get way more exposure at the top of the home page rather than semi-buried down “below the fold” in the Reviews section. Oh, and because Barry’s a damn good writer, and he puts forth the kind of effort that deserves to be recognized. As do all my writers at BLURT: thanks to every goddam one of you. What’s that saying? Oh yeah – you complete me. Uh…

In all seriousness, we rock writers do this for the fun and the love of the music, not necessarily for the acclaim (right….) or simply to get paid. Well, that and the free records. But as you may recall, those “free records” can sometimes be illusory and actually put you in the hole.

At any rate, by my way of thinking, we at BLURT might as well take that fun when we can get it, and write about the stuff we really care about, and not fret about some weird flavor-of-the-moment Pitchfork shit for 20 year old hipsters and their crappy-sounding earbuds. (Hey you kids, get off my freakin’ lawn!) There’s a lot to be said for supporting the artists who make our lives just a little less grey, and in particular, artists like Pat Todd who have been doing it for as long as I can remember. At this stage in the game, loyalty counts for a lot, you know?

Thanks for listening. Now I must go. I have to start sending out a lot of $48.50 invoices…. HERE is the link, incidentally, to that Todd review and accompanying music samples that set me off in the first place.