Pay to play version 6.0

You’re an unknown band with a new record out. You maybe got a halfway-positive review in a local zine or the alternative weekly — but even hiring that big-haired rock-chick of a publicist failed to scare up any national ink. Your pulchritude and talent is destined to go unnoticed and unheralded, until someone tips you off that for a mere $20 you can buy a review in a publication that claims 1 million readers. Would you do it? Does the pope shit in the woods? Hell, yeah, you’d do it. No different than anteing up to a club promoter the cost of all those tickets you weren’t able to move as your quota for last month’s battle of the bands, right?

One of the basic tenets of journalism is that the separation between advertising and editorial is sacred. When you read a magazine whose bills and overhead are paid for by advertising, you expect that the reviews and articles have not been unduly influenced by those businesses which have purchased ads. You expect that the people who edit it don’t go, “OK, Matador Records is taking out a half-page ad for the new Cat Power rec, so let’s make sure we get a positive Cat Power review in this issue.”

Of course, any dummy can see there are ethical gray areas. Trying to run a for-profit business while keeping your advertisers happy and your credibility intact can be a tightrope act. A responsible publication knows the line between schmoozing and selling out. (For the record, this paper does not go down on bended knee for any record label or advertiser — Ed.)

Of course, it’s now the 21st century. Everything’s for sale, from personal dignity (hello, Ozzy, Anna Nicole Smith) to Pete Townshend’s back catalog.

And, it seems, CD reviews. Shawn Stern, president of SoCal indie BYO Records, forwarded an intriguing e-mail from the heretofore obscure music Web zine that read, in part: “Hi, we received CDs for review from your office. Please be advised, we have a $20 CD-review policy for all submissions from unsigned and independent-label bands. If you’d like the CDs reviewed, please send payment.”

As Stern put it, “I’ve been running a label for 20 years and have never heard of anything as ridiculous as this.” Nor had I, so I immediately shot off an e-mail to I wanted an elaboration on their novel review policy, in particular asking if $20 got a band a positive review (that is, was the equivalent of buying an ad). In the back of my mind too was the following paradox: While $20 sounds cheap compared to, say, the cost of mailing out 100 promo CDs, aren’t struggling indies the ones least likely to be able to afford a review fee, not to mention that those grassroots artists are most in need of support from the music press?

Four separate inquiries to netted no direct replies, only form-letter responses (signed by what appeared to be an editor-bot named “Sandi”) that basically duplicated info posted on the Web site. Apparently since around late ’96, its publisher is one Johnathon Allen; the editor, Jeff Apter.

Go to the site and read the appalling reviews policy (hey, an extra $10 and you can run a photo too!) along with the Web zine’s rather defensively worded “defense” of that policy. To paraphrase, in a nutshell: Advertising revenue, good; our lack of advertising revenue, bad. We feature cool mainstream acts like Tori Amos and Korn (good); major labels don’t need our help (bad). Indies “flood us with CDs seeking to gain exposure,” which in theory could be good. Publicists charge clients for their services, which is only right, therefore definitely good. So we charge for a similar service — double plus good!

By way of further justification, the site proudly trumpets testimonials from such esteemed surname-less sources as Cathy — Arts & Entertainment Editor (“I love you guys. Keep strokin’!”), Paul — Editor, Music News (“What they [people complaining about the reviews policy] will be is wanna-bes forever.”), and Caryn (“Your responses had me laughing out loud. Once our band gets a clean EP together you can bet your shiny ass that we’ll send it and pay for the services that you run.”).

Phew. Just the same, as veteran journalist/industry gadfly Bill Glahn points out, while is clearly a rip-off in terms of what responsible journalism should represent, “At least this online rag is up-front. I actually have more of a problem with the so-called legitimate media (Rolling Stone et al.) where a CD by a major babe is given a glowing review to assure that they can get a cover photo shoot for next month’s issue. They’re not being up-front about their lack of integrity and that sucks even more.”

But how up-front is, really? Does it provide a service of any genuine value? BYO’s Stern was advised that gets over a “million readers a month,” which is certainly debatable. I hit the site about 25 times researching this article; does that make me 25 “readers”? (Tellingly, the site has a link to a soft-core porn section.) It also employs “some of the top music journalists in the industry,” which is laughable; nearly every CD review is penned by either a “Jeanne Fury” or a “Bill Ribas” — both of whom employ grammatically challenged styles that make for a fun, surreal reading experience, granted — with the latter authoring all current indie reviews. Who the fuck is Bill Ribas? Does Bill do lunch with Jann Wenner? What will a gram of blow sent to Bill along with the 20 bucks get you, review-wise? A virtual blow job?

Don’t take my opinion in all this. I polled a few indie-world correspondents.

Wire/Mojo scribe and Ecstatic Yod label operator Byron Coley (with tongue sewn firmly into cheek): “I would pay a skitillion dollars! I think their opinions must be better because they cost money!”)

Jeff Penczak, journalist, Ptolemaic Terrascope: “It’s called payola. Last time I looked, it was still illegal. [However], any idiot who agrees to pay for a review would want a ‘positive’ review. In essence, they are ‘buying’ ad space in the form of the review.”

Mason Jones, former label owner, Charnel Music: “It apparently never occurred to them that perhaps if they start out by reviewing indie releases, then just maybe the labels will reward them by advertising. [But] given their policy, I would assume that 99 percent of their reviews will be mainstream releases. They’ve created a site for a self-selecting audience interested only in music sold by companies that can pay for advertising.”

Douglas Wolk, journalist and label owner, Dark Beloved Cloud Records: “Reviews are meaningless unless writer and publication considered their subject deserving of a review in the first place. [So] has just made all its reviews even more meaningless than they already were … When [advertising and editorial] bleed into each other, it hurts the magazine’s credibility in the long run.”

Now, lest you think that all of this is to even suggest we consider a credible source of music journalism, let me be perfectly clear: The site’s worthless, the cyber-equivalent of one of those free weekly entertainment rags that perennially appear in every town in order to suck down as many local advertising dollars as possible. But on the big uncharted vacuum known as the Internet, all sites are theoretically considered equal, and that’s partly why real music-related Web zines, such as critic Michael Goldberg’s Neumu (; Goldberg was behind the respected but now-defunct rock Web zine Addicted To Noise) or the deep-archive diggers at Perfect Sound Forever (, don’t always get the respect they genuinely deserve.

And to be honest, I hesitated to write this article, as I’m not too keen on giving the mooks at free publicity. But I’m deeply troubled on three fronts. One, that tiny labels and unknown bands, desperate for any press, will buy into this bill of goods. Secondly, that any other publications, Web-based or print, may follow suit if this business model proves profitable. And finally, that if the line between “real” journalism and the advertorial practices increasingly becomes blurred, anything I write, as a member of an ethically suspect profession, will automatically have less credibility.

I did notice that prominent on the Web site are their rates for pop-up and pop-under ads. In short order I downloaded ad-blocking software to my computer and I enabled the software’s audible noises, one of which is the sound of a cash register. Hear that “ka-ching!,” you advertisers? That’s the sound of me not viewing your ads, the glorious sound of your money going to waste.

Fred Mills is a frequent contributor to Metro Times. He is also an editor at Magnet magazine. E-mail him at [email protected]
Scroll to read more Michigan Music articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.