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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The end of the promo copy

Something happened yesterday that could have great significance in what used to be called the record business. The boss of Sony Music in the UK announced that henceforth his company would no longer be sending out review copies of their upcoming product. Instead they would be making this music available digitally. This is significant not just because it will prevent hacks and radio producers making a little extra coin by selling their promotional copies. The bottom dropped out of that market long ago. This time it matters because it's part of a process which is going to see the end of "reviews sections" in magazines as we have known them.

When the first music monthlies were launched back in the mid-80s it was believed that big, alphabetically arranged review sections were a good idea because readers appreciated their apparently comprehensive nature, they attracted accompanying advertising and you could afford to run them at a reasonable cost because freelances liked the idea of getting hold of records before anybody else could.

None of these is any longer the case. Now that we have You Tube, Spotify and multi-channel radio and TV, any reader who reckons they can't get to sample something new isn't trying. Most records - and, ironically, there are more records than ever before - aren't supported by any form of print advertising so that imperative has gone. Now hacks won't even be able to get their hands on physical copies of records.

This will further change the way people talk about those records. Traditionally reviewers weren't just trying to communicate the pleasure of listening to something. They were also communicating the joy of possessing something. You can't do that if you're moored to your computer, listening to an incoming stream.

I know all the arguments about the decline of physical product but this move shows that record companies don't understand what goes on in the head of a hack who gets scores of new records every day, most of them by people he's never heard of. In a tiny minority of cases he just looks at the cover or the name, thinks "that looks interesting" and puts it on the office CD player. If it's any good somebody else in the office will say "what are we listening to?" and a short conversation will ensue. This conversation is the very first tiny step in getting known. It's a social event in the physical world in response to a physical object.

I'm sure there are lots of good reasons for Sony making this move. Should send a shiver through the Jiffy Bag business for a start. I also predict that within a year when they want reviewers to take notice of something they'll start sending out copies again.