The new Music Review era

One of the many mailing lists I’m subbed to and still enjoy reading occasionally is a ‘music reviewers’ list, on which a bunch of different music reviewers from the US and UK, who write for web sites and print mags both big and small, hash out different issues around music, reviews and more.

One recent discussion asked reviewers for pet peeves about reviewing music that comes from major labels today, who are very concerned with early-release leaks. One of the British reviewers shared some of his thoughts on the list about a few pet peeves, and added a few juicy stories to boot and better ways to re-establish the trust that once might have been. I’ve not used his name in order to present some stories here with retribution. I hope you enjoy this long (for Waved Rumor) post. Dig in on the comments if the mood strikes you.

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“Worst one: the track listing is printed on the promo CD, but not on the
press release or slip cover, and it’s not yet in the CDDB so there’s no
track info coming up when you put it in to iTunes, so in order to know
what the tracks are when you’re listening to it (on whatever system)
you have to write out the track listing yourself.

“Second: not being given a release date in the press release. If I don’t
know when it’s out, I can’t pitch to review it, and I get too much
stuff to keep on top of listening to it all anyway, so this means I
will likely never get round to hearing it. I appreciate that release
dates change but they should at least give a provisional date.

“I have taken to emailing my PR contacts with a round-up of where I’m
currently working and updating contact info each January, and this year
I’m seriously thinking of saying that if people do either of the above
then I won’t listen to their promos.

“The other main bugbear we have in the UK – dunno if it happens as much
in the US, and would be interested to hear – is the alarmingly large
number of albums that are now not being sent out to reviewers in time
for deadlines due to piracy fears. It used to be a handful of big names
but now even some debut albums are only available to review if the
reviewer will go in to the record label offices to listen to it. On
most occasions this listening is at least done in a reasonable manner –
they leave you alone with the record, bring you a cup of tea, and you
can listen to tracks as many times as you like, rewind to catch lyrics,
make notes on your laptop, etc. – but sometimes journalists have had to
go in to (no, really) a glass-walled room, leaving their bags outside,
listen to the record under the eyes of watching security guards, and
only make notes on company-supplied paper with a company-supplied
pencil. It has stopped short of people being made to remove all clothes
and wear one of those forensic investigation paper zip-up numbers but
it’s been close.

“This problem I guess is compounded because the UK media will usually
only review new albums in the issue current at the day of release,
whereas I gather that many US titles will review them a little after
they’re out if they deem them to be interesting to their readers. So
maybe it’s not such a problem over there.

“Top 3 most ridiculous listening experiences I have been in and from
which I have actually been expected to review an album:

“1) album being played over a small PA system in a bar at lunchtime,
small room full of journalists and record company people eating,
drinking, smoking and talking. (I opted not to attend and didn’t review
the record, costing me money and depriving the artist of a review in a
national daily newspaper.)

“2) sitting in the lobby of a central London hotel listening to the
album on headphones: it was being played on the laptop belonging to a
visiting representative from the US label, and I was making notes on my
own laptop, much to the bemusement of the constant parade of hotel
guests wandering by. The album was 70 minutes long and I was told I
could have “as long as I needed” to listen to it thoroughly (I was
writing a 500-word review for a major music title). After about 55
minutes I was told I had only 5 more minutes as things had changed and
the record company person had to leave in a hurry, and needed to lock
their laptop in their room. Had to skip through the final five songs in
five minutes. This was a big act.

“3) A press officer told me that the album his bosses said he wasn’t
allowed to play to me for security reasons was already leaked on the
internet, and said that if I wanted to review it in time for my
deadlines I should download it from Limewire (remember, we are made to
jump through these hoops because the labels are worried about
bootlegging of advance music on the internet, and that we journalists
in the UK are prime suspects: most times, records are leaked before any
of us have even been allowed to hear them, let alone received copies we
could upload). We are talking here about an artist who was, at this
time, certainly one of the ten biggest acts in the world.

“I have no problem at all with record companies seeking to protect
their copyrights – as a freelance journalist, I depend on being able to
protect my own, and have had to work hard to do so from rights-grabbing
publishers on numerous occasions. But the reliance on in-office
playbacks sells everyone short: writers, who get less time with the
music to make considered judgments; magazines, who may run less
strident or confident reviews as a result; readers, who are denied the
opportunity to read the most considered pieces; and ultimately artists,
whose work is given less than an appropriate level of consideration.

Without exception, every member of label staff I have spoken to about
this issue agrees entirely with this analysis, but decisions taken at
higher levels prevent them from exercising their judgment as to whether
a person they have worked with without problem represents a bootleg
risk. As a result, labels who need to maximise profits are choosing to
promote their records by tying their staff’s hands behind their backs.
There has to be a more sensible middle ground.”

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