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Fred Mills: The Economics of Rock Criticism


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.


Johnny Mnemonic: Music Journalism 101 – eBay Trolls Must Die!

ebay trolls

I’ve got a bad feeling about this. Meanwhile, wanna buy a slightly used lawn jockey?


My girlfriend and I recently moved across town, and in the ensuing packing/unpacking ritual I realized I had wayyyyyy too many CDs. How many is too many, you ask? Too many to listen to in a single lifetime, that’s how many. Too many to fit onto my office shelves, that’s how many (ask me sometime about the U-haul boxes still filled with CDs).

How about too many to load onto a two-terabyte hard drive? That’s a lot of fucking discs.

I know, I know, don’t cry for me, Argentina. One could call it an embarrassment of riches, but to my girlfriend it’s just an embarrassment when the aforementioned U-haul boxes are spilling out of my office and into our den. “I’d love to have a nice large ficus in the corner of the room,” she sniffed, “but your damn boxes are in the way.”

So I did what every music journalist worth his profession does at some point in his career: I decided to eBay the stuff. And yes, before you folks in the peanut gallery get started in on me, many of the CDs are indeed promotional items that record labels sent to me in hopes of netting a review, and yes, many of them were never listened to. Did I mention I have too many CDs to listen to in a single lifetime? So do you really think I have time to write about ‘em? Let me be perfectly clear here: I didn’t solicit their arrival at my mailbox—as a writer I have always made it my policy that if I do request a specific title I plan to review it, and I always send out the links to the labels upon publication—and they are considered gifts to moi, and once they have been handed over to me I can absolutely do whatever I want. I can play ‘em, write about ‘em, land fill ‘em, sell ‘em, re-gift ‘em to a friend, even toss ‘em in the air and practice my skeet shooting.

Those stickers or stamps on some of them that say “loaned for promotion only” and “promotional – not for sale”? They’re bullshit. The labels put those notifications on there to scare you from trying to unload your promos for profit, but they are not legally binding in any way, shape or form, and this has been tested in the courts with the judges ruling in favor of the resellers, not the labels, so don’t be fooled.

Back to eBaying in a sec. Let me just interject at this point that I an eternally grateful for all the swag I’ve received over the years—when I was a contributing editor at Spin I routinely received over a hundred discs per week, sometimes more; the head reviews editor would get twice that many—and I hope I have reciprocated in some small fashion by writing about the artists on the labels who have serviced me promotionally. Back when I started out as a cub reporter in the late ‘80s I was thrilled to be getting the occasional LP or cassette, and I still get a charge opening up the daily mail to see what musical treats await me. I do not take any of this for granted, trust me, and even though I went through, roughly speaking, a two-year stretch living in England when I wasn’t doing a lot of writing, the music that continued to arrive in the post helped keep me plugged in and stay current. Upon completion of my overseas job and returning home to the States, I’ve resumed writing for such fine publications as BLURT, so a big thank-you to everyone who has been and is still sending me physical promotional materials. (That Black Keys tour attire was pretty sweet, by the way. I didn’t know anybody but me still appreciated satin baseball jackets.)

But have I mentioned that I receive way too many CDs to listen to/review in a single lifetime? The surplus is astounding. (You can read my previous “Music Journalism 101” column for my thoughts on digital promos.) At the moment there isn’t a used record store near me where I would normally be able to unloading that surplus, so my only option is eBay. A cinch, right?

Boy, was I wrong. The first thing I learned was that people who shop on eBay are bargain hunters, which didn’t really surprise me because when I have shopped on eBay I was looking for a bargain myself. The second thing I learned was that people who shop on eBay for music are extreme bargain hunters—the type who have taken that whole 99-cent CD ethos so closely to heart that they expect ALL discs to sell for under a buck. But c’mon: would you expect to get, say, the 3-CD deluxe edition reissue of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours for 99 cents? It has a list price of $25, and it typically sells for around $18 or $19 new, so getting a pristine, only-played-once promo copy from me for $12 + $2 shipping seems like a pretty fair deal, right?

Wrong. The third thing I learned was that people who shop on eBay for music and are extreme bargain hunters like to lodge complaints after they’ve won an auction and received their merchandise in order blackmail the sellers into giving ‘em a kickback. They are trolls, pure and simple—bullies and cheats who think that the customer is always right and then take that notion to extremes.

Here’s what happened with the Fleetwood Mac joint. (Seller = me, Troll = buyer, who, in the interest of diplomacy, will not be identified, although I am mulling over at least listing his eBay I.D. so other folks can avoid doing business with the jerk). Troll wins auction, posts $14 to my PayPal account; Seller ships it right out, w/complementary USPS tracking (actually, that’s more to protect me than the buyer, but it’s still standard procedure). Troll receives merchandise, promptly opens a dispute with eBay, claiming the item “didn’t match the description” in the original listing (Seller’s PayPal funds are therefore temporarily frozen): “The item was listed as brand new at the price of a brand new set. The item was open and used. I would like A partial refund before I make my decision on feedback for this item.” (Note veiled threat about leaving negative feedback. That was my first clue that this was not going to go swimmingly, or in the words of Hans Solo, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”)


Seller responds: “Hi – The CD is indeed brand new and never played, just not in plastic; it is a promotional copy. Please refer to the original description in our eBay listing, which clearly stated: ‘Item is brand new and unplayed. NOT in shrink wrap.’ However, I have no problem with a partial refund of $5.00 OR with you returning the item for a full refund if you are unhappy with your purchase, and will also be happy to refund your return postage so you don’t incur expenses. If so, please ship the CD back 1st class WITH TRACKING (that protects both of us).”

Troll responds: “I believe I should be offered more than 5 bucks back on a item that is clearly stated Brand New / Never Played, not opened because it is a promotional copy like New, like your heading should have stated. Also promotional copies are usually marked not for resale and there is a reason for that, like issues as this one. Also there is legal liability on the buyer and the seller on promotional copies because promotional copies are given out freely by the record label. All your really doing is taking off the shipping price for me. So is 5 dollars really your best offer? Because that is not even close to middle of the road with your customer.” (Note the comment about “legal liability,” another veiled threat; I have explained how THAT actually works several paragraphs earlier in this editorial.)

Troll additionally responds: “I believe that a refund of $8.50 would be fair for both of us. And then proper feed back can be given. Thank you.” (Note the leaving-feedback threat, levied a second time, and since a dollar amount is mentioned, additionally note that I am now being blackmailed by the Troll, who apparently wants to get the Fleetwood Mac set for a total of $5.50 instead of the original agreed-upon price of $14 + $2 postage.)

Seller responds: “Hi – thank you for your response. As the buyer you are clearly very unhappy with your purchase, and that is never my goal. So please return the item in the mail (make sure you ship First Class WITH Tracking in order to protect both of us). Upon receipt and inspection of the item a Full Refund will be tendered via PayPal. If you also indicate what your return postage fees are, I will additionally refund that amount as a good faith gesture so that you will have incurred zero expenses and are 100% satisfied.” (Here I quickly determined that this whole transaction sequence needs to be eliminated so I’m covering my ass by documenting that I have demonstrated my willingness to abide by eBay’s policies on refunds.)

Troll responds: “Hope you like the color red because that’s what you get when you don’t work out issues with your customer. No I will keep the Item and send you negative feedback. I will never buy from you again. Good day.” (Note that I made not one but two good faith gestures in order to “work out issues” with the Troll, and also strictly adhered to eBay’s stated policies on refunding when a customer is dissatisfied. The Troll did not accept either.)

As the Troll had decided to keep the item he had paid for, the case was duly closed by eBay and my PayPal funds were freed up. He also kept his promise to leave bright red negative feedback about the transaction: “This person sends counterfeit, replica, and unauthorized copies! (F-)” So what we have now is a blatant and deliberate misrepresentation by the Troll, who is accusing me of selling fake merchandise on eBay—like someone selling bogus Louis Vuitton designer handbags or something—when he has already acknowledged that the Fleetwood Mac was indeed a promotional copy. Clearly he aims to get me booted off eBay. Did I mention that I had a bad feeling about this all along?


I know, I know… don’t cry for me again, Argentina. Upon doing a little research, I discovered several other similar transactions gone awry at the hands of this Troll. Maybe I should “screen” all prospective buyers when I’m eBaying to minimize the risk of getting “Troll’d”, I dunno. That seems like a lot of extra work for what are essentially simple, low-dollar transactions; the most I’ve made on a single item to date has been $75 for an out-of-print (not promo) box set. But the eBay forums are full of similar stories in which Trolls, er, Buyers have bullied, blackmailed, scammed and otherwise ripped off Sellers, and the scales at eBay definitely appear to be tilted in the Buyers’ favor. So I probably have no choice.

The fourth thing I learned from all this? To paraphrase an old saying—seller beware.


Johnny Mnemonic is the pseudonym (duh) of a “highly-regarded” national writer with, he advises us, over a quarter-century’s worth experience working as a music critic, reporter, editor and television executive. 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. You can contact him via this magazine or simply by posting a comment below. His Twitter handle is @JohnnyMnemonicX

 Here are links to his last installment, as well as previously published blog originally written in 2012.

Seven Deadly Sins of PR