Money for nothing, and MP3s for free.
By Johnny Mnemonic
I’ve been involved in music journalism
one way or another for a good long while, but since moving to England a year or
so ago to take a job in visual and online media and haven’t been writing as much,
the deluge of free records and CDs I used to take for granted has become more like a
trickle. That’s understandable; if you’re not reviewing their product, record
labels won’t keep sending it to you. And I’m not complaining: in this life,
most rational folks don’t expect to get something for nothing.
Still, after I recently decided to get
back into doing some occasional reviewing, I must admit I was more than a little
taken aback to learn that the aforementioned records and CDs had been
transformed, seemingly overnight, into digital ones and zeroes.
I’m not talking about something like the
new Radiohead album, released last week and which at the moment only exists in
digital form. I’m talking everyday, garden-variety bands on regular-joe
independent labels who release albums in CD, vinyl LP and even (sometimes)
cassette formats in addition to MP3 and FLAC downloads for iPod folks – but who
for some reason feel that there’s no reason to service rock critics with hard
copy promotional items, despite the fact that we are giving them and their new
records free publicity, and instead can trim budget costs (CD, packaging,
postage) by simply sending out a digital stream or download.
In other words, they do expect something for nothing.
I quote a certain up-and-coming
singer-songwriter’s publicist’s response to my request for a promotional CD to
review: “I’d love to help but we don’t actually have any CDs. I’ll have the
label send you a link and a password.”
That’s a bloody load of bollocks, to
quote the British gentleman in the cubicle next to me. Here was my response to
the aforementioned publicist:
“Okay, let’s see, if I have this right. You
want me to spend my valuable time listening to your client’s latest brainstorm,
sit down and take a few hours writing up a review that amounts to free
publicity for the client, which upon publication will, in theory, result in
eventual revenue for the client in the form of record sales and concert
attendance (to say nothing of ancillary revenue streams – say, if my review
attracts the attention of the gal choosing the music for Grey’s Anatomy).
“In turn, I am to put in extra time and
effort I would NOT have done in the past, i.e. to go through the trouble of
logging on and downloading the music then organizing and burning the MP3s to
disc, not to mention downloading and/or copying and pasting tracklistings and
bio notes and printing all that out – oh, and ALSO in the process, spending my
hard-earned 9-to-5 day job dough on blank CDRs, printer paper and printer ink
in order to do all the foregoing.
“That is an AWESOME deal you are
offering, Ms. Label Publicist! Will you throw in a free ass-kicking if I agree
to the deal? Perhaps I could also have the client and his band crash in my
guest bedroom, allow them all to perform anal sex on my lovely young bride, and then in the morning fix them breakfast the next time they come through town on tour!”
Needless to say, I didn’t even bother to
check out the link when it arrived in email as promised. Instead, I just went
down the list of new titles that some of my editors had indicated they were
interested in having reviewed, and I finally found a few artists who were in
fact serious about having someone write about and assess their art – seriously.
I’m not the first person to call the
record labels on their bullshit, incidentally. Right here on the BLURT magazine
website, in a year-end essay regarding recent trends and annoyances in the
music biz, contributor Lee Zimmerman listed his pet peeve:
“The continuing offering of streams and downloads to
writers and reviewers… They may be a financially effective way of sharing new
releases, but it’s also a cumbersome waste of time for the reviewer who is
churning out reviews every day and seeking only a disc in return. Publicists
and labels, wake up! We are rarely paid for our efforts and usually doing what
we are doing in addition to the full time day job which pays the bills. In
other words, we’re doing it for the love! Not to seem ungrateful, but really –
if we can’t get a lousy disc for our efforts, where’s the motivation? And you
want us to either sit and listen on our computer or take the time to burn and
create our own CDs? What? You want us to do your job for you by firing up
our own enthusiasm? It ain’t gonna work! Wise up – if you want our support in
spreading the word about your clients, send a disc so we can listen at our
leisure without the burden of detracting from our deadlines.”
Well put, Mr. Zimmerman. Wish I’d said that.
Wait, hold on – I bloody well just did.
Johnny Mnemonic is the pseudonym of a
“highly-regarded” national writer with, he advises us, over two
decades’ experience working as a music critic, reporter and editor. We’ve never
met him face-to-face, and he further advises he will be delivering his blogs to
us via the “double blind drop-box method,” whatever that is, to
ensure his anonymity.