Actually, Prince has nothing to do with this. But how else were we going to get you to read a rant about ad-sales divisions?
First, an update: Idolator commenter Brasstax followed up on our post yesterday about the Boston-based magazine Amplifier, whose publisher, Joe Joyce, told a record-label employee that he wouldn’t cover their music if the label didn’t advertise in Amplifier. In an email exchange, Brasstax took Joyce to, not surprisingly, brass tacks, and you can read the back-and-forth here.
We figured this might be a good time for a quick spiel on the relationship between editorial and advertising when it comes to music publications. And so spiel we shall.
First off, if you want to find a wide audience for your publication–whether it’s a blog, a zine, or a newsstand glossy with a $15 a year operating budget–accepting ads is all but necessary. While we’d all love to live in a world in which we could escape the constant come-ons to buy more crap, the costs of putting out a print publication or a large-scale web operation usually can’t be covered by subscribers, newsstand sales, or user donations. Without ads, publications like The Onion, Punk Planet, and MMR probably wouldn’t have made it past the two-year mark. It’s possible to keep content 100-percent ad-free, of course–Mad did that for nearly fifty years. And then it almost went out of business. So if you want to harangue and hand-wring over the evils of capitalism, by all means, go ahead. And then call us when you get your first health-insurance bill.
But the cardinal rule of running ads is that they never, ever influence the editorial content. There’s a church-and-state division that’s supposed to be upheld at all times, and if it’s violated, it’s an insult to readers. In fact, if there’s even an appearance of trading ads-for-edit (or vice-versa), that publication’s credibility is pretty much shot to hell.
Of course, it still happens, as evidenced by that Amplifier email exchange–and when it does, it’s repellent. But the widespread generalization that every music magazine is bought and sold is depressing, and inaccurate: Do magazines want to keep their advertisers happy? Sure. Is there some mutual back-scratching that takes place here and there? No doubt. But it is possible to keep the two sides separate, and any publication that values its sense of ethics strives to do that as often as possible.
Which brings up one final thought: If you assume that record-label execs walk into the offices of major music publications–brandishing cigars and promising to buy three pages in exchange for a positive review–you’re off the mark. While it no doubt happens, the majority of publications are a lot more credible than you’d think. They may write stupid things and champion terrible bands, but no one’s pointing a gun to their head, telling them to do so. And if they do, it’s not going to last for long before someone calls them on it.
So that’s why yesterday’s email exchange was so repulsive: It brought to light a transaction that lots of people assume happens every day, but is actually pretty rare. There’s a lot of small-scale corruption in the music biz, but not everyone’s so easily bought for a song.