May 24, 2005



I was going to say this in some assy, overheated way, but I dropped that idea. (Re-reading it, I see that I do get a bit assy. Well.) Many of the people involved in the procedure I am about to rail against are only acting at the retarded behest of retards who pay them; the different players are working with differing levels of agency. This is not to say that anyone in this story is innocent; that this is a lemming-like movement, where the many are unwittingly reinforcing one bad idea by simply not dissenting, is no excuse. What will you say when they come for your friend, etc?

So I represent nobody but myself when I say this: I will not write about any piece of music unless I have unlimited access to a portable version of it, renderered in either the CD, MP3 or vinyl format. I have broken this private rule a few times, when I cared especially for the artist, and I think those were stupid, weak lapses. No more.

Artists spend a lot of time making albums, and in most cases, critics get advances copies of these albums months or weeks before they become commercially available. This lead time gives critics time to think and write and file their pieces for publication. It's a system that, give or take some postal delinquency, works, because it helps a critic to mimic the experience most consumers have with popular music: listening to it repeatedly, wherever and whenever, figuring it out and filtering it through other music and the shit in one's life, over time. Advances are good, and every critic who gets them should be thankful that publicists and labels send them out.

But there are some albums, including almost all hip-hop releases, that don't go through this advance process. In these cases, even though the artist in question has usually spent months working on the album, the label of issue will demand that music critics—most of whom get paid poorly and have to write lots of reviews at once—sit in a room with other critics and listen to the album, once or at most twice, usually at a time not of the critic's choosing (and not at a volume of their choosing either). The fear driving this arrangement is that critics in possesion of advance CDs will light the bonfire of MP3 bootlegging. "Give these bastards the goods and the music will be all over Kazaa and Acquisition in minutes!" Driven by this faulty logic, labels create a situation which does not resemble ANYBODY'S experience of listening to recordings and forces the people constructing the historical record to accept this situation in order to do their jobs.

No cigar. 50 Cent was all over the P2P networks for weeks before The Massacre dropped and he's already done five million. Coldplay will move their four million with or without P2P. Why? Because people want the record. The marginal loss of sales to downloading—already disproven by one study—would not even kick in for in-demand artists, because the fans and curious tourists will want the CD no matter what's on the web (sometimes because the web is simply not their thing [see: age curve]). With another kind of album—those that nobody wants or knows they want yet—the "harm" of downloading is equally irrelevant, though for a different reason: any barriers to a less-desired album's dissemination only further dissolves an already shallow bond between the artist and their potential audience. Listening session for Frou Frou? Fuck that, says the editor. (I happen to love Frou Frou/I. Heap, but I don't know a single editor who would go to the wall for them/her.)

And do you know who leaks records? Artists, usually, and engineers and young publicists and all kinds of people who will be in the supply chain no matter what happens with critics. Blaming critics and accusing them of disloyal file-trading and pinning the decline in sales on their overworked asses is like blaming the declining economy on auto workers who are being paid to make cars nobody wants. And, the day after release, the music will be all over the internet anyway. The critic's potential threat disappears at that moment. Again, 50 Cent: still barrelled ahead, as did Norah and Three Doors Down and Conor Oberst.

This "listening session" nonsense hurts everybody—readers, critics and artists. Don't do it. Tell Memphis Bleek and Coldplay and everyone to shove their listening sessions and send out proper advances. If every publication did it, the labels would drop the practice in a week. The critic simply wants to think hard and do justice to the music and the reader.

So just say no. The Oxford Collapse will happily send you an advance today. And that album is worth writing about.

Posted by Sasha at May 24, 2005 01:42 PM | TrackBack