I took some time to breeze through some hefty reading about the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) policy on disclosures that is going to affect blogs. For some time now, hard-money compensation (direct payment) has had to be disclosed, but now the FTC has mandated compulsory disclosure of soft-money compensation (any gift, such as free products, that have value). This goes into effect on 21 December 2009, but starting from this date forward, we as a blog will disclose any compensation (that is a hint to send me some free CDs). I know there are many bloggers who are probably quaking in their boots about this, but I actually like this law for many reasons, but I do have some issues. Ultimately, it is about fairness and transparency for blog readers, but I think that hand-in-hand with this we must also consider what is fairness for artists, especially nascent artists who are only starting out.
I think it is important to know what strings come with reviews and endorsement, because ultimately what happens behind close doors, with a handshake and a wink, can affect what is projected forward. For example, I like to know where my politicians are getting contributions from, because it will in many ways determine how they are going to vote in office. This also holds true for reviews and endorsements – I like to know if there is a blatant or tacit compensatory agreement between the words on the page by a writer and another party; is the writer being honest or writing words on a page/screen because s/he is being compensated for it? The only shame is the fact that it only applies to media outlets, as I think these disclosures should be universal. It is not only infomercials, blogs, and magazines that may be guilty of writing “skewed” reviews or giving false endorsements. The reality is that I want to know what angle or obligation reviewers I read have when they give me information.
“Hey, schmuck,” you are thinking, “all of your reviews are always positive, so what is your angle or obligation?” My answer: I only review what I like. I do not have an endless well of capital, resources or time (as I have to work to pay the rent), nor do the people I write with, and as I have no desire to spend my resources on music that frankly will make me hate myself in the morning (that’s why I have radio), I tend to only write about what I like – as does everyone else on this blog, not that we all like the same things. It would be easy to write about all the shite I hate, but what would be the point? Reality, in any artistic genre, some people are going to like it and others are going to hate it. I rather give you the reasons why to like something than bitch and moan about why my stomach is being turned. I started this blog, which has grown with Mirage, Bloodybones, VoodooDolly, Hyaena, and the incredible Juju, as a means of sharing what I thought was good, great, exceptional, and worth giving time to, that may not be getting the credit it deserves. In simple words, “singing the unsung heroes.” So really, there is no angel other than if you walk into any of our homes, before having the cops called on you, you will probably hear the music we write about playing in the background.
But what are my issues with this new policy? Well, it opens up a can of worms that may not be being considered. For instance, bloggers will be fined if they do not disclose, but how about the companies and other agents who are doing the compensation? Are their corporate interests going to be protected, while the people who put the word out on their products are going to be raked over the coals? Then how about those really tacit situations, like when you download a song from a band’s website that they are giving away, like Muse did with “The United States of Eurasia.” Is that compensatory if it is reviewed? The band did “give” it to you, or must there be a verbal/written agreement between parties? How about if a band hits you up on MySpace as a friend, and you like what they have put out there, and you decide to write about it of your own free will, then they send you a thank you gift because they are grateful that you took the time to rave about them? Even if this is what they hoped for, does this need disclosure, as there was no agreement, but as a result of your free will writing, you received a gift of value? And how about websites that are not called “blogs,” like Wikis, are they compelled to disclose? And if there is a public forum, how can that be monitored? Can’t third parties leave endorsements there disguised as comments? The language is not exact enough for my liking, but I have always felt that full disclosure is a good policy.
But this idea of fairness to the reader has to move one step further and really consider fairness to the product, in this case, musical artists. I have a preference to embed videos, as oppose of giving a link to the video. Why? Because obviously that band wants their music video circulated. But many artists and labels disenable this feature, which I completely respect. But then I go and read other blogs or sites, and I still see their videos posted there – why? Any six-year old can rip videos from YouTube, and even if it were done in Flash, this is not an assurance of it being safe from getting ripped and used elsewhere. But if the object, logically, is to have your music commented about, your videos seen, and an artist gaining a fan base, you would want to allow this feature. Nevertheless, I respect any band that does not have the features enabled and will provide a link to the official provider (band, label, etc…) for my readers. (We always give the link to official YouTube, Vimeo, and MySpace pages that videos are embedded from.) Ultimately, I believe it is the decision of an artist how their music is marketed, distributed, and consumed. (Though I do believe that small clips, not whole songs, may be valid if provided for critical review. Then again, cameras are allowed into shows, often time with no restrictions or regulations, how can the music industry be surprised that there are full-length songs and shows streaming over YouTube? If the camera was permitted into the show, is it not fair use?) Though history continues to challenge antediluvian ideas, from the eight-track to the broadband revolution, musicians should be the ones making the decisions. It is their work. That is why I only allow links from official providers and recently deleted a YouTube link from the comments (sorry Kiko) because it was not official. Using official provider links and official video embeds and disclosing information, and not allowing downloading links, is something that I support, but you can see the headaches that the broadband revolution is causing.
We can blame unofficial downloads, we can blame skewed reviews and smear campaigns, we can blame the economic downturn of the global financial system for the lackluster profits and growth in the music industry, but we will only be scapegoating. The fact is that bad music, talentless entertainers, producer invented fads, and poor infrastructures for the exposure of new music are really to blame. It is not that people do not like bands like The Twilight Sad, they just might never have heard of them, because our media outlets play bias games when it comes to music, just like the news (just compare the love fest versus the hate fest on MSNBC and FOX News). If you are on a major label, you will get exposure; if you are not, you need to start hitting up friends on MySpace. And just like the news is skewed by the political and ideological beliefs of the network or individual journalist, radio and traditional music outlets are skewed. You do not get the real news, what happened, with no spin, just as you do not get all the music that is freshly released out there. (One New York radio station that plays the “hits” will not play hip-hop, and another dance station will only play music with vocals for the most part.) So in this flawed infrastructure for exposing audiences to music, who is going to be really effected by this disclosure policy in terms of music? Young artists, who may now find that bloggers are not going to be willing to endorse them even if they like them out of fear or misunderstanding about disclosure. Which brings me to the ironic difference between nascent and established bands. Nascent bands, who need royalty profits in order to pay rent, are willing to give their music away in order to get exposure, while establish bands who make hundreds of thousands on tour do not need the royalties to survive but do not give away music as a general policy. But if the infrastructure existed to get the music out there, would these younger bands have to be depending on small blogs like this one to get some exposure? Ummm…. No. So even in trying to be official and ethical towards nascent artists, disclosure policies are going to make many legitimate bloggers think twice.
Ultimately, in terms of advertising and the music industry, this disclosure policy is something I support, but I have to admit that it is a bit amusing. Why? Think of it in terms of some current trends by both a veteran and nascent band. Nine Inch Nails and the Joy Formidable have it all right and the rest the industry is lagging behind them. Giving away their music is not a free ride, but allows fans to choose how they want to “invest” in them. Whether by turning around and buying a hard copy of the music (how I love to unwrap the plastic of a CD case and popping the CD right into the player in the car while driving back home) or buying concert tickets and merchandise, fans are still making investments in bands. And the intelligence of consumers should never be under estimated. Consumers, especially in this broadband world where a hundred reviews are at your fingertips with just one click, are smarter than given credit. Really, I do not think for an instance that when someone is watching a commercial with a famous actress endorsing an at-home kit to dye your hair really believes that she doesn’t pay major money at a salon for her highlights! Is a disclosure really needed? I think quite often we know when there is paid endorsements or reviews. Times are changing, and though disclosure is something I support, there is a bit of irony to it when thinking about music, because the reality is that it is not the 1980s anymore, and perhaps what the music industry has to do is grow with the times and allow artists to make more decisions about the future of the music industry. The paradigm has shifted – money is made on tour, not record sales. No longer does the tour support the album, the album supports the tour. Worrying about “disclosure” is not going to help the industry recoup lost revenues from record sales or help the government make advertisements and endorsements more honest; actually, it is more likely they will lose revenues as more writers may choose not to review an album and more readers are likely to not take any review that has a disclosure serious, even when done in good faith.
I promise, that as a policy of this blog, if we receive something to review, we will only review it if it is something we like. We will not review anything that we do not like, would not listen to, or revolts us to the point of wanting a lobotomy. I assure you, as a matter of policy, any music or product we receive that we will use for a review will be disclosed before the review, in the opening line, posted in red print, so you know there was an “exchange.” But, we would not be reviewing it unless we liked it to begin with, but if you are not convinced, you may feel free to skip the review. Furthermore, we will continue to use only official links from official providers and enforce a no bullshit zone on these pages.
For everyone who has supported us so far, thank you!
I would also like to thank the contributors/collaborators of SlowdiveMusic Blog for taking the time out of their busy schedules to write along side me and help me behind the scenes when they can. You guys may not keep me sane, but you are surely a lot of fun to spend time with.
And a special thank you to Charlie Vazquez for getting me in touch with Steven Severin, personally a great moment for me to be able to interview one the greatest musical icons of all time whom I have been a fan and admirer of for 24 years.