Prince Would Very Much Like You To Read This Super-Hot Post About Music-Publication Ethics

Jan 18th, 2007 // 6 Comments

lovesexy.jpgActually, 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.

  1. brasstax

    Aw, if I’d know you were going to do this, I’d have dressed up for the occasion!

  2. sncreducer

    Well put. The worst part of my one-year tenure as a small-town pop music critic was dealing with industry people – not because they would overtly try to pressure me into writing what they wanted, but rather because their pressure was more subtle and understated, and thus a little harder to detect and resist.

    That said, I do recall one instance where, after I had written a particularly harsh review of a certain Canadian pop singer’s concert (You Oughta Know who she is), the manager of the venue where she played, the county’s largest, strolled into the newsroom, forced a meeting with the executive editor, and demanded my ouster. Fortunately, my boss had the balls to tell him that I would write whatever reviews I damn well pleased and to get the hell out of his office.

  3. rchick

    ah, teasing with the naked-Prince taunt… that’s like when the gym instructor says we only have 10 more sit-ups (i.e. 10 more until I get to my post-workout sweet bliss of cigs and beer) only to be like, “Ok, 10 more!” when the countdown hits one. It always gives me a barely controllable urge to punch them in the face. Idolator, don’t do that again.

  4. Dancomono

    As an music ad-sales rep for a Chicago weekly, I can’t count how many times the venue or club owners would casually slip in a request for a write-up or article about their business. Some simply said “it would be nice”, others went so far as to demand how close together in the magazine the ad and article would run. These people were all completely rejected, FYI. So this corruption runs on both sides. I’m proud to say that my old employer has lost several advertisers based on articles or reviews written by editorial – they were all fair, justified reviews, but disrepectful disagreement abounded (naturally). Thankfully they can afford to do this – The few straight music publications in Chicago tell a much harsher tale through their advertisements. Word to the wise, friends: “glut” doesn’t even begin to describe the problem facing professional music reviewing right now.

  5. johndavidson

    The editorial/advertising “divide” is a running argument since the advent of display advertising. It’s not surprising that Joe took the stance he did, especially given that there are so many advertisers who demand coverage for advertising dollars. Not to mention the number of advertisers who routinely stiff tiny publications like Amplifier on billing. It was dumb of Joe to fire off with the obvious, but I’m pretty sure he’s got quid pro quo dirt on his hard drive for any number of other advertisers.

    And since we’re playing ethics cops, it would be nice to see music writers coming a little more clean on the bands they cover. There’s no need to point fingers–you people know who you are–but thorough disclosure can solve lots of problems.

  6. Davey G.

    One of my proudest moments as a journalist was when back in the days of Hit List, I opened a can of worms by giving a Six Going on Seven record (touted by Some Records as the Reign in Blood of emo) a terrible review (Reign in Blood and End on End are two of my all-time favorite records — this record was the antithesis of either) and dude from Some (not Walter Schreifels, the guy who was in Judge) pulled their ads and had the gall to demand a refund of all previous ad money spent.

    Ironically, the only ad money they’d spent with us was for Hot Water Music’s No Division — a record I gave a great review to and still really enjoy, although I don’t listen to much post-hardcore anymore.

    Admittedly, I repeatedly dumped on that Six Going On Seven record in subsequent reviews in the issue; it was rather excessive, but I felt lied to by the label, and let’s face it — Reign in Blood‘s name should never be taken in vain.

    Needless to say, Some didn’t get a refund.

    Interestingly enough though, as dirty as the music business is, the pay-to-play factor is really cranked up in the autojournalism business. In that respect, Gawker’s Chinese Wall is much, much stronger than just about any other car pub I’ve seen, and certainly stronger than any other I’ve worked for. As a writer, that’s very refreshing and liberating. Part of it, I think is that much of our advertising — despite being sponsored by Audi at launch — doesn’t come from auto manufacturers. If they want to advertise, they can and have. If they don’t? Fine. The ad people will sell to other companies who want the demographic.

    In essence, I think it’s in the best interests of publications to sell ads to companies that want to reach their target audience, but aren’t the basic lifeblood. That way, if for example, Joe Schmuck at Throbbing Rock Records gets mad that you didn’t like the Dingle Peninsula’s And My Backpack Floated on the Ocean and pulls his ads, you’re less likely to exist on a half-cup of ramen a day and as such, be less likely to be tempted to trade ads for edit.

    Just a couple of cents from a guy who’s seen it from inside that particular trench.

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