Record labels are treating us like criminals

To
the frustration of the music press, promotional CDs for review purposes
are increasingly being replaced by label-controlled
playbacks. Allan Glen reports on a relationship that is rapidly
turning sour

IT IS 11AM on a wet Tuesday
morning and as the raindrops slip down the windows of a multi-million
pound skyscraper in the heart of London, inside a security guard ushers
four men and two women into a whitewashed room in the basement.

At one end of the room is a blank computer screen with a pair of
white headphones attached to it via a snaking cable. Two feet in front
of the computer is a metal pole with a bicycle seat bolted on to it.

The
six subjects are asked to empty all their possessions into a black bin
bag and sign a contract. The security guard points to the first man in
the line and orders him to sit on the bicycle seat and put on the
headphones. The subject in place, the guard then walks towards the
computer screen and perfunctorily flicks a switch; within seconds the
screen blinks into action and the dreary tones of Bruce Springsteen’s
latest album drown out the sound of the rain from the dejected
subject’s memory.

A scene reminiscent of an Orwellian utopian future? No, this is the brave new world of life as a music critic.

The
days when music journalists received prerelease promotion CDs to play
at their leisure in the office or at home are long gone. The record
labels, paranoid about singles and albums being copied and appearing on
the internet, are offering journalists an alternative – the playback, a
chance to hear a new album, but on their terms.

Gavin Martin, The Mirror’s music critic, says the situation between critics and record companies has become “totally absurd”.

“Instead
of treating journalists like potential clients, the record companies
are treating journalists like potential criminals,” he says. “Labels
are just not prepared to send out promo CDs anymore. In playbacks now
you often only get one chance to hear the record and you can’t even
take the lyric sheet with you. Record companies have just become
totally paranoid about piracy.”

Farcical levels

Playbacks have always been a major part in the marketing campaign of
a record label’s high-profile artist or band. But they are now becoming
the standard for every artist from Jay-Lo to Karen O. Such is the fear
of piracy that some UK record labels are prepared to forego advance
press, a situation that has developed in America.

Martin believes the situation has now reached “farcical” levels:
“Once I had to review the Beastie Boys album and the ridiculous thing
was the sound was linked to the seat in such a way that you had to sit
on it at a certain angle or you couldn’t hear it.

“I mean, this
is a dance album we’re supposed to be critically evaluating for
respected national newspapers and magazines around the country with an
audience of millions and there we were, all these intelligent,
professional journalists wriggling around on the seat trying to make
sure they could hear the bloody thing right. It’s just totally
degrading.”

Conor McNicholas, editor of NME, agrees that restricting advance copies of releases to playbacks is detrimental to all involved.

He
says: “I think it sucks. I understand where it’s coming from but it
makes the job of reviewing an album tremendously difficult, even
redundant.

What are we trying to achieve here? We’re trying to
listen to an album in the same way as any other music fan but we’re
bringing an expert critical voice and we’re doing it first, usually
before they can listen to the album for themselves.

“Forcing us
into snapshot reviewing means we can’t do our job properly and
ultimately it’s the music fan who misses out. I run informed editorial
that brings benefit to my readers, I’m not in the habit of publishing
ill-informed promotional puffpieces for record companies.”

Martin
says what has displeased music critics the most is that labels appear
to be accusing them of amorality. “I don’t know any professional music
critic who would jeopardise their career by trying to copy a CD and
then put it on the internet,” he says. “Some of the record companies
have a watermark system whereby if it appears on the internet they can
trace an advance copy back to whoever it was sent to, but that still
doesn’t seem to be enough for some of them.”

Peter Robinson, a
contributing editor at NME, freelance writer for Observer Music Monthly
and editorial director of Channel 4’s new online music content,
believes the paranoia over piracy is starting to cause tensions among
journalists.

“It’s getting to the stage where you can’t leave any
CDs lying around on your desk because if someone pinches them and then
puts it out on the internet it’s your name that bears the watermark,”
he says.

“It basically all comes down to trust, or the lack of
it, on the part of record labels. There has to come a time when a
better system is put in place.”

Communication

In response to the new regime imposed by record labels, more than
100 freelance music journalists have signed a letter addressed to the
heads of press at all the major labels. The campaign is now beginning
to receive support from national magazine editors and section editors.

Angus Batey has co-ordinated the letter via freelance web group
www.londonfreeelance.org/nbt and believes the best way forward is to
keep the lines of communication open between critics and labels.

He is keen to stress that many of the labels’ press officers are as frustrated at the situation as the critics.

He
has already met several heads of press and believes streaming music
across the internet – allowing critics to listen to a single or album
whenever they want – could be one possible answer to the problems.

“At
least this system would allow the music journalists to listen to the
tracks more than once and in an environment that would suit them,” says
Batey. “It’s just one way we are trying to negotiate with labels.

We’re
not marching into record companies and saying, “Look, I’m really
important and I demand to have this album 10 weeks in advance of its
release…

“Our letter states that we are horrified by the
thought that any journalist would jeopardise his orher career by
uploading material on to the internet.”

But not everyone is entirely happy with the idea of streaming music as a way of combating playbacks.

Merope
Mills, editor of The Guardian’s Friday Review, believes streaming would
be more acceptable than playbacks, but it also raises many other issues.

“I
would have a problem with streaming simply because it would then mean I
would have to listen to all the tracks available for review on a
computer. I would much rather be able to listen to them on the way home
from work on a CD player, like most people who buy records do.

“Overall
I think it’s a ridiculous situation to be emerging. It’s now getting to
the stage that I’m beginning to question whether or not I’ll commission
reviews for certain acts who are restricting promotion to playbacks.
That in itself means we don’t get the big names in, our readers don’t
get to read a writer’s views on an act and the label doesn’t get that
valuable publicity. I don’t really see who’s winning in all this.”

McNicholas believes the idea of streaming could be a possible compromise, but is still fraught with difficulties.

“Streaming
stuff from a secure server means the reviewer can at least choose when
they wish to listen to the album and how many times. It also means that
recordings can be listened to communally by the whole NME office.
However, I wouldn’t want any record company knowing how many times an
album or certain tracks on an album has been listened to, that’s none
of their business.

“I haven’t thought of a way of solving that one yet,” he adds.

Next generation

So as the record labels dictate who can listen to advance releases –
and where and when – and market forces ensure nine out of 10 music
magazines that launch claiming to be the next big thing in publishing
burn out within a few issues, does this mean the role of music critic,
staff or freelance, could be a dying breed?

Former Vox editor Everett True believes there will always be a
market for the next generation of music critics. “I think there will
always be thousands of people wanting to review music because, let’s
face it, it’s not really a proper job,” says True, who now publishes
his own music magazine, Plan B. “That’s why every reprobate in the
country thinks they can do it, and why the mainstream music press in
this country is so appallingly bad.”

There may always be people
willing to write reviews and perhaps this is the problem – maybe the
relationship between journalist and record labels has changed because
the record companies know there’s always another reviewer around the
corner.

As True concludes: “Record labels know they can treat any music journalist like they want because they are totally dispensable.”

Allan Glen is a freelance journalist. For more information on this subject see www.londonfreelance.org/nbt

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