25 March 2010
I had an approach recently from a new PR service called The Men From The Press, which was offering to pay me to write short reviews of new bands. The idea was that they'd send me an MP3, I'd listen to the track and provide feedback using an online form, and then they would pay me £5.
I can see where the idea came from: it's hard for new bands to get feedback from journalists, let alone coverage. One reason is that it takes time to review music. I know bands think it's only a 3 minute song, but it takes time to download, cue up, play, think about, and then write any kind of meaningful email response. It's probably a 20 minute job to provide any useful feedback. It takes much longer to write a review good enough for publication. I'm not reviewing music for magazines at the moment, so I ask bands not to send me stuff and ignore people who send me stuff anyway.
Getting paid to review music from new bands isn't something I'd be keen to do at the moment. But I don't think there's a problem with music journalists who work independently providing feedback to bands that are just starting out. And I don't think there's a problem with them being paid for their time when they do that.
Where it gets murky is if those journalists have an association with a publication, because the scheme could be seen a bribing journalists to take an interest in one band over another. Even if it didn't consciously influence them, the fact they've been paid to even listen to one band must improve its chances of coverage. Indeed, The Men From The Press seem to be using the publication's reputation (rather than the journalist's) as the basis for their pricing and publications have come out to deny they have any relationship.
Drowned in Sound refuted any implication that payments might influence their editorial coverage, and the NME wrote a blog post saying that what bands (and readers) need is journalists driven by passion to discover new music, not someone taking a few hard-earned pounds off new bands.
Ethically, it's all a bit grey. Nearly all journalism has been touched by PR at some stage. Many successful bands employ PR teams, and pay them much more than The Men in the Press were asking. Journalists routinely get higher value freebies in CDs, promotional merchandise and gig tickets. And some new bands do need feedback from experienced music journalists who understand what gets coverage and what's likely to succeed.
When new ideas like this come up, journalists need to ask whether it creates a conflict of interest for them. In my case this idea wouldn't create any conflict, because I'm not writing for music magazines. For someone who was, it would create a conflict because they're being paid by the editor to discover and write about new music purely on its merit, and paid by the band to discover them first. You can't work both sides of the deal at the same time.
The Men From the Press has now closed down as a result of the criticism it's received. A statement on its homepage says: "The whole point of themenfromthepress.com was to provide PR in a 'brand new way' so bands, artists and small labels who simply haven't got the funds would be given a chance! Certain publications and some traditional PR companies (who I will not name) have made it impossible for us to carry on through their constant slanderous remarks and activities which have damaged our reputation to the point where we have lost all heart with the project. I tried to make a difference but sorry guys... they wont let us."