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The New Payola 

Bold and innovative ways to fund a magazine

Wednesday, Dec 11 2002
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For the right price, you can have your own fart noises reviewed In the past, music magazines have made a concerted attempt to keep editorial and sales departments apart, so that one would not unduly influence the other. But bucks are harder to come by in today's financial climate, and editorial backbones are weakening. Take the weekly CMJ New Music Report -- "CMJ" is short for "College Music Journal" -- which has never had the greatest of reputations. It's a trade magazine first and foremost, so it presents universally glowing reviews, cheery label puff pieces, and charts, charts, charts. The reason the rag is considered to be the bible of college music is more due to its lack of competitors than to any marked quality; its one rival, Gavin, discontinued its college radio section in the late '90s.

In the past, CMJ was at least useful for its reviews of criminally overlooked artists and college radio staples (a July 1993 issue, for instance, trumpeted the sweet indie-pop of the Cannanes beside that of Björk) and covering music news that had gone unnoticed by the mainstream press (cellist Tom Cora's obit ran ahead of Linda McCartney's in an April 1998 issue). More recently, the mag seems to have repositioned itself as a mainstream-radio journal, offering scintillating cover articles about the goateed men behind the music industry and an enlarged "retail" section that lets readers know just how well Kenny G's latest album is doing.

Lately, rumors have been circulating that CMJ's copy is for sale. SpinArt Records' radio guy Jeff Price writes via e-mail, "In early August 2002, David Ross -- VP Sales at CMJ -- did clearly state to me that CMJ has a new 'opportunity' where a label can buy an ad and in return get an artist profile on the band." Jay Miller, Matador Records' college radio man, says he was told by a sales agent that only artists with advertising could appear on the cover of the magazine. When I sent an e-mail to David Ross requesting a response, I received a flat denial from CMJ Publisher Robert Haber, who wrote, "The only pre-requisite for editorial coverage -- cover, profiles, reviews, whatever -- is superior music and/or bold, innvotive [sic] actions in the music or media businesses."

Payola practices are nothing new to music publishing, says Seana Baruth, college radio editor for Gavin from 1995 to 1996. "If a label placed an ad for a band [at Gavin], it was understood that the band would receive a review," she says. Baruth is quick to point out, however, that only one out of every four reviews was paid for, and that it was up to her editorial discretion to fill the other three.

Locally, Bay Area Buzz magazine Publisher/Senior Editor Kathleen Richards recently ran into trouble over an exchange with Popsmear Records' Scott Llamas. When asked via e-mail if she'd checked out Deflator Mouse's Better, Stronger, Truer, Weaker album, Richards responded, "Right now we've got a lot of demand and not enough pages to fulfill this demand. Would you be interested in buying an ad in exchange for the review?" Llamas forwarded the missive to labels, press people, and Web list-serves, claiming that Bay Area Buzz's reviews were available for a price. In response, Richards says her words were misinterpreted and that she meant to say "in lieu of" instead of "in exchange for." Richards' heart seems to be in the right place -- Buzz covers tons of local acts that deserve coverage, even if the writing is less than impressive -- but her semantic changes smell of backpedaling. While she insists "We're not saying, 'Buy an ad, and we'll do a review,'" she then states, "Buying an ad is promotion, too."

Perhaps everything would be clearer if all magazines and Web sites acted like NYRock.com, an online music zine with a purported million viewers that openly demands $20 for each of its indie band reviews ($30 gets you a photo as well). Of course, this practice makes the site's blurbs obsolete, as few people want to read reviews that were hacked out because they had to be. At least the site is being honest -- in a crass, commercial, we've-got-these-miserable-artists-over-a-barrel kind of way. Besides, isn't the world a better place when, for a mere $20, you can have your shitty CD reviewed alongside the new Foo Fighters disc?

About The Author

Dan Strachota

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