Reviews

I’m not at all aware of the breakdown of readership on this blog. WordPress offers some analytical tools, which tell me how many people logged on here in a given day and which posts they read. My point is that I don’t know how many of you are in bands, how many of you are journalists, how many of you are neither of the aforementioned. You’re all welcome, and please feel free to comment and engage – thinking of a topic for each day’s post is actually more difficult than writing the post itself, so any comments you make are likely to become the subject of the following day’s blog. The reason I bring this up is because the feedback I get in my inbox suggests that at least a few of you are in bands, and are looking for a way of breaking into the public consciousness with your music. I know this, because I get sent quite a bit of music to listen to, either with the hopes that BlancoMusic might record it, or that I will review it on this site. The fact that acts approach BlancoMusic with a view to having us ‘sign’ them is encouraging. Not so much in terms of our label, but as an indicator that musicians still consider a label as something worth having a relationship with. There are bands and acts out there doing perfectly well without label interaction, but they are a minority. If nothing else, a label is a conglomeration of additional experience and expertise that bands can gain from. It just depends on what kind of deal you make with them whether that conglomeration is to your advantage or not. Anyway, the point of today’s blatherings is not the validity of the record label as a concept. I’ve done enough of that recently, and time and the market will show us the final answer. What I’m interested in today is reviews, because the subject is a hot one in medialand right now. On Monday a press release advised the music-making public that, for a small fee an organisation called ‘The Men from The Press’ would ensure your record getting heard by certain reviewers in the UK press world. The company appears to be almost completely bogus, judging by the reactions of the reviewers named on the TMFTP website. In fact, the reaction of the reviewers was uniformly outraged, as indeed it should be from people whose sustained journalistic integrity forms a large proportion of their attractiveness to editors and readers. The moment a reader finds out that material is being reviewed not because it is worthy of review, but because the review is being paid for, is the moment at which the reader will go elsewhere for opinion. I think. Perhaps the critic’s writing style would hold an audience for a while, if not the content. Hard to say.

Here’s the thing though, getting a review from the right critic is a massively attractive event for a band or their label. An organisation that claims to be able to do make this happen (TMFTP only claim that they’ll get your music heard, but even that is a prize) is just so damned attractive to musicians that all sensible reserve goes out the window when the offer is made. If someone sends an email to your inbox claiming to have in their possession some funds belonging to you from the Nigerian national lottery, and that they’ll forward them to your bank account if you’ll just send them the IBAN details, you’d be skeptical. An organisation claiming to get your album reviewed by The Guardian though, poor fools that new musicians are, we’ll give it credence. The problem is that there aren’t any legitimate businesses out there whom you can pay to win the Nigerian lottery for you, but there are plenty of publicists, perfectly legitimate ones, who make similar (if slightly more pithily-worded) claims with regard to reviews. Unfortunately for your band, they tend to be quite picky about who they will take on to their roster. Yes, it’s another series of emails and cd mailouts your band has to organise and pay for, to impress yet another set of middlemen that stand between you and your public. It’s hard for a band not to get jaded about it all, to jump hopefully at the likes of TMFTP and their service (which makes more tangible claims and appears to be cheaper than a publicist’s services). Frankly, the erosion of a reviewer’s credibility is of little immediate concern to an act desperate to garner a little publicity for their music. Compound that with the fact that any of us who have been in this business for a while have already had it made clear to us by certain press sources that, for the small investment of a half-page advertisement, we would get a favourable review. Others, in the blog world, can quote a series of rates and services including Twitter mentions (3 per month, at one rate, more than that gets a discount). The shock and outrage amongst journalists at the suggestion that their opinions could be bought is gratifying. I’m much, much happier knowing that they can’t be, but in a business where similar claims are made by legitimate and less legitimate businesses on a daily basis, it’s not surprising that the ‘service’ would bypass the natural skepticism of musicians and labels. We are quite used to having our hopes and dreams exploited for the gain of others. There is, for example, a synch agency (those people who get your music played on adverts for tampons etc) I could mention, who offered to place our music in their database for a mere £4.50 per track. What they would actually do with those tracks subsequently is anyone’s guess, but it’s a good example of the snake-oil salesmen who stalk MySpace and Reverbnation. So, anyway. Bands, here follows part of a response I got from Michael Hann, commissioning editor at The Guardian about how they allocate reviews. It’s not all discouraging – for those without publicists, the advice is to get your music to a critic who you think will like it, and hope it excites them:

Hi BlancoMusic …
I commission the album reviews for Film&Music.


In the average week we might have 30 albums logged for release: these are the albums that have been sent in by publicists and labels. In addition to that list, I look at the HMV upcoming releases list for the relevant week – so even if we have not been sent an album, it does not guarantee it will not get reviewed. However, the chances are that an album that comes directly from band or musician is likely to miss a review: bands tend to get publicists very early nowadays, and if they have got round to recording an album without having employed one, the likelihood is that a lot of people have already looked at that band and found them wanting. They are unlikely to be of interest to a mass market newspaper (equally, you’d be surprised to see a vanity-published book reviewed on the books pages).


From the longlist, I narrow it down to seven or eight albums that I decide to commission reviews of.
And here’s how …
1/ In any given week there will be a handful of albums that simply have to be reviewed. These are the big name releases that are a) likely to be hits because of pre-release buzz or b) likely to be hits because the artists’ previous releases have been hits. Other albums that “have to be reviewed” are the ones that are achingly hip, or from artists one would expect to see reviewed in the Guardian – the likes of Bonnie “Prince” Billy, for example. So it’s not just about commerce.


2/ That only leaves a couple of other slots once the blindingly obvious have been taken care of. For those slots I try to commission to ensure we have a range of music in the reviews: so I look for a dance album, or a hip-hop album (these are often difficult to review because, increasingly, US parent labels refuse to send out music before release, for fear of piracy, or because release dates chop and change with little notice), or a metal album. I will also commission reviews of albums that either I or one or more of the writers feels particularly enthusiastic about: that’s the public service slot, if you like.


3/ I try to match the album to a reviewer who, though not partisan, has an interest in and knowledge of the genre.

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