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.


  1. We are now in the era of digital downloads, streaming and cheap digital recording technology, so now any clown (myself included) can create "masterpieces" in our bedrooms and use the internet to flood the media in a deluge of (largely unwanted) musical ones and zeroes.

    And yet reviewers atill insist on a physical product. I don't think it's anything to do with the tactile nature of "interesting" packaging, as any clown (myself included) can pay to have a professional design and packaging done. And it can't be because people actually like to have their living/working spaces clogged up with CDs. Because they don't...

    As far as I can see, the physical product is seen as evidence of artistic commitment - that an artist is more "worthy" of consideration if they've gone to the hassle of packaging their material in an expensive and elaborate manner. They are now "serious" artists because they have spent good money on their project which will have to be recouped, thus tying the artists into a loner-term commitment to their art.

    I wonder do reviewers make a judgement call, for example, on whether an album is presented as a CD-R rather than a professional duplication?

    Food for thought...



  2. The most interesting thing you touched on, for me, was "you can't do that if you're moored to your computer".

    The increased power of the desktop PC, MP3s (and especially as the capacity of MP3 players has expanded) has meant that listening to music has become a much more solitary activity for me.

    I listen to music through headphones when I'm on the move.

    I always used to do that with a cassette Walkman but when I got home I'd stop listening to the album in my pocket, select another from the shelf and put a record on the stereo (inflicting it on whoever else was in the house).

    Am I alone in this? Or is music increasingly becoming something you listen to on your own, thru headphones?

  3. The solitary nature of the listening is significant, and may even impact upon reviewers. Although that old habit of carrying a vinyl album around because it said something about you and your taste has gone forever, something of it survived in the cachet of possessing a pre-release copy of a new album, and letting others know about it. Rather like reading a proof copy of a forthcoming novel on the tube. Listening to a review copy of an album in anonymous isolation on an iPod will change the very nature of reviewing.

  4. Good article on a tricky subject, you may be interested in a think tank that MusicTank are holding next week (March 10th) in London on this very issue.

    Titled 'Number 1' With A Bullet: Is Pre-Release Killing Our Business? The session will look at whether the music industry's (and for this purpose that includes the music press and broadcast) current policy of extensive pre-release campaigns and sending out 100s of promos every day is causing more harm than good

    Event Info

    INTRO: The UK release process is one of the most front-loaded in the world, with pre-release promotion starting up to three months ahead of release. The problem is that, with everything riding on building pre-awareness, we’ve produced a system that creates demand for a product that is by definition not legally available – which doesn’t work when it takes just one promo CD to be uploaded to a p2p network for a release to spread around the world.

    Industry bodies including ERA and the MMF are calling for abolition of pre-release windows in their entirety. With speakers including the BBC's Head of Music for Radio 1 George Ergatoudis, this event will see leading lights from across the business attempt to build a consensus on the way forward.

    Keynote: (tbc)

    George Ergatoudis -Head of Music, BBC Radio 1
    Emily Mackay - Reviews Editor, NME
    Martin Talbot - MD, The Official Charts Company
    Joe Taylor - Consultant & Artist Manager
    Peter Thompson - MD, PIAS UK

    (retailer tbc)

    Chairman: Keith Harris - Keith Harris Music Ltd / MusicTank Chairman / Director of Performer Affairs, PPL

  5. I've just written a piece on something I could only listen to via a stream. While I appreciated not having to wait for a physical copy from a convenience p/o/v, I'd have enjoyed being able to listen to it in more than one place even more.

    David seems to be suggesting that this is one more nail in the coffin of The Event Record, and if so, I'd agree. As a teenage record-buyer, I remember having a full house after school for about a week, because I got a copy of Wish You Were Here before anyone else. I don't know whether that kind of thing can be applied to writers, but I'm sure there must be a corresponding thrill in knowing you're amongst the first people to hear a particular eagerly-awaited release.

    On the subject of packaging, hip-hop indie Rhymesayers has just released The Stimulus Package by Freeway & Jake One, which comes in a mock wallet, complete with fake wear-and-tear, lyrics and credits printed on fake banknotes and a 'credit card' which entitles you to free mp3 downloads of the album and its instrumental version. In the current climate, it's an extraordinarily lavish and imaginative way to sell your product. Better still, it's a terrific album, every bit as worthy of comment as the manner in which it's presented. Try conveying any of that from a stream, though.

    One more point - what's the betting that Sony, or one of its competitors, quickly buys up Soundcloud (assuming it doesn't have a stake already)? More and more people seem to be using it as a streaming/preview site, rather than for the purpose of disseminating buck-shee downloads. Given that the majors have already bought into Spotify, it would make sense for them to get a chunk of this site as well.

  6. Anonymous10:50 am

    I love this phrase — "a social event in the physical world in response to a physical object". They should put that in the dictionary, under "listening to music."


  7. Music isn't solitary for me.

    I rigged up a pair of £50 speakers and an old laptop in the kitchen and Spotify does the rest.

    There's music whilst we cook, whilst we eat, whilst we chat, any conversation can prompt a quick type it into Spotify and see what we get.

    The last party we held - the kitchen turned into an impromptu disco with guests choosing songs of their youth, "have they got this? bloody hell they have!"

    Anyway. When the product is free I don't need reviews, I need recommendations.

  8. This has been the way at 'bigger' record companies for a while. Radio requested the end of the pro, especially the pro single.

    It's also a matter of security, digital delivery allows tracking of all parts - although our system at least allows you the freedom to chose where you listen; tethered or not.

    As someone paid to design pro's as well as commercial records, I lament the passing of the often more creatively packaged pro.

  9. One of the worst things about working in an environment where you have to listen to music as part of your job is this rise in computer listening.

    As many as four people listening to mp3's through shitty pc speakers or the same people all listening through headphones, occasionally looking up to mouth "huh?"

    As it's my job at the moment to send out these CD's i have to say, i wouldn't mind saving the cash involved in getting my product out there, but for the manufacturers this is another mighty and potentially fatal blow...

  10. Jiffy Bags will be fine - that is what ebay is for.

  11. reincheque: Some people do like their space clogged up with CDs and records and the physical product isn't just a sign of artistic commitment it also, as David says, generates commitment from the listener too.

    I said this on my blog a while ago, but what's going to happen to memories and nostalgia when our music and books are just digital code stored on machines?

  12. I'll miss promo CDs. I've got boxes of them under my desk, in the car boot, in my back bedroom and inevitably in the loft.
    So far, I've resisted accepting the record companies invitations to download stuff. I love opening the post and putting on something for the first time. It's like Christmas every day, even if some days the gifts could have come from a well meaning deaf elderly relative.
    Today's treat was Lilac Wine by Jeff Beck & Imelda May. Must have played it a dozen times.

  13. From an artist's perspective, the more cost effective the method is of getting one's "art" out to the "people", the better. At the end of the day, it's the music that should matter most and not the format in which it's presented.

    Now, if I could get reviewers to work off streams instead of physical product, I'd be a happy bunny.



  14. I'm worried about Music & Video (or as us over 30s call it Record & Tape) Exchange going bust without their steady stream of review copies.

    But yeah, what everyone else said. An emailed link gets lost in the giant email ocean while a CD has the chance to flirt with me on my desk for a few days until I give it a spin.

    Some physical objects can't be replaced. Despite all the screens and keypads I own, I still need to scribble on paper from time to time. Likewise, no matter how much digital ether I consume, I still need an object with music on for such times when a download won't do.

  15. I like what someone else said... "It should all be about the music..."

    I have ran a popular metal music reviewing website for almost 10 years with a team of 20 writers and digital promos are a gift from the heavens to us. If you say you love having boxes and boxes with thousands of cardboard sleeved promo-discs wasting space in your closet, then you're lying!

    We spend a lot of money "processing" physical promos from mailbox all the way to published review. Digital promos eliminate a few steps and get the music into our reviewers' ears faster which results in faster publication time.

    Instead of journalists putting up hissy fits over this, try and embrace it! It's not going away. Record labels aren't the bad guy. In this economy, they are trying to save money while protecting their artists' music. You need review content for your magazines and websites... so, try and work together on this. Do it for the music!

  16. I look upon this as a win-win situation. I don't annoy people by sending them stuff that they're only going to throw away - they don't annoy me by insisting that I send them stuff that they're only going to throw away...;-)



  17. My last post says "Google" wrote it.

    That's incorrect.

    My name is Matt Brown

  18. Interesting conversation. I for one believe that music is part of the real world. So to have physical or visual evidence of that always makes me feel better connected.

    Spotify is great, but for me works best when it's trading off a memory. Of when music really did exist in your hand, in the form of the sleeve.

    It has been said before, but Rock & Roll invariably starts with the haircut.

    As for reviewers losing their 'privileges', I have some sympathy to that.

    I worked at Melody Maker as Art Editor back in 1982. And it was with some sense of wonder that I watched the then reviews editor Steve Sutherland, involved in an exchange with a bloke called the 'Guvnor', or somesuch.

    This chap turned up in the offices, removed an enormous mountain of vinyl from under Steve's desk and bunged him his not inconsiderable wedge.

    With which Steve went off and bought a car.

  19. I was sent a digital review copy the other day. Or, to be more truthful, I asked for a physical review CD and was emailed back an automated response with a link to the PR's website and some log-in details.

    I managed to find a bio on the band in question but no music. In the I gave up and found it was already available on iTunes - a double CD for £5, much easier.

  20. very similar situation to Mark, the other day i was supposed to be reviewing a big indie/dance album released on a major label.

    couldn't get a cd promo for love or money, finally they gave me access to their digital promo site.

    it was an absolute embarrasment, looked like something from 1996, and just didn't work, i had to jump through a series of hoops to access the file and then every time it just died on me.

    tried on different machines, then got my editor to try in his office, no joy. emailed the pr who just ignored me.

    finally got through to someone else in the company who was able to drop a copy off at our office and i then had to go across town to pick it up.

    it wasn't even a super advance copy, the album was out the next day.

    the thing is i get sent tonnes of digital promos every day, and whilst i prefer and take more notice of CDs I have no real problem with them if they work well but my experiences with the majors has always been dissapointing.

    actually dissapointing makes it sound like i was expecting any better from them.

  21. Anonymous2:01 pm

    Incredible because I still can't believe it's the end of the promp copy, I feel so bad, for that reason I'm gonna take my generic viagra to feel better.