Thursday, April 14, 2005

Promography- how labels fight piracy and writers

To balance their piracy paranoia and yet somehow get music out to reviewers, record companies perform an inelegant balancing act. A writer has to get in an article to their editor at least a month or so before a mag issue hits the streets so that the review comes out as close to the record's release date as possible. The fear is that during that time, other than praising or damning a record, the writer might also share the copy with a few friends or others and then have the music wind up all over the Net. To stop this from happening, labels then have to take some extraordinary steps. The problem is that, as you'll see, this also means a lot of inconveniences for writers and their ability to give a record the right amount of listening time.

- Anti Bootleg Drops: While you're listening to a CD, every minute or so, a voice will come on to say "This is a promotional copy..." or "...this is intended for promotional purposes only." You hear this for the whole length of a CD so imagine what that's like for 70 minutes. When trying to listen to a record, it pretty much interrupts the flow of the music and your listening experience. Hopefully, after hearing it forty or sixty or seventy times during an album, it becomes background noise but to me, it's just really annoying. The theory is that this is going to be even more annoying to any potential music fans who have to listen to it after finding the songs online and thus forcing them to seek out the commercial release when it comes out later. Also, this isn't going to endear anyone to buy a used copy of an album with these constant interruptions. A good deterrent, yes but also harder for a reviewer to appreciate the record which can then backfire in the label's face. Thankfully, I've never had to review one of these yet and have a feeling that I wouldn't be inclined to pitch a record like this to an editor, if only because I'd go nuts hearing that announcement again and again.

- Vinyl only copies: The theory here is that since so few people have turntables nowadays (you know, those things that spun around those black vinyl discs) that this is a pretty safe bet. Also, the trouble that someone would have to take to record each of the tracks into a computer and then convert the files into MP3's seems like an awful lot of trouble to go through (still, it can be done). As an example of this, a record company sent out a friendly promo release about an upcoming record, saying that they were "limited-edition numbered white labels"(and to make matters worse that these were only going to review editors so you had to hit them up for THEIR copy). Because you can't haul your turntable around with you though, this limits where and when you can listen to the album. Though the vinyl market is much smaller than the digital one, these babies could still become collector's items though with the numbering system, you'd presume that the labels could trace 'em back to the original magazine if they found the record out there in the market somewhere. One day, there's a knock on the door and then, "Mr. Gross, we found your copy of the Esoterics album for sale in a shop in Tampa. You're under arrest..."

- Anti-ripping CD: My favorite, just because it's so goddamn ridiculous. Ordinarily, I'd be flattered to see my name written on CD label but not when it's also numbered and traceable to me- it makes me feel like I've taken a mug shot without showing up at the police station. Yes, they have the technology to add little digital labels to the songs to see who tried to put the songs on the Net but you don't have to worry about that. That's because these same CD's can't be played on your computer. They just won't work- you'll get all sorts of funky error messages when you try (again, I'm sure there's ways around this but you have to wonder if it's worth the trouble). What this means is that you'll have use your stereo (remember what that is?) or haul around a portable player with you just to listen to the CD. Just as with the anti-bootleg drop CD's, if you the reviewer actually likes the album enough to want to listen to it some more after you've written about it, you'd either have to go back and beg the record company for a regular copy or just go out and spend your money on the record. I know that most people outside of the scribe field wouldn't feel very sympathetic about that but after instructed many other people to buy a particular CD, finding that you have to then buy it too is kind of disheartening.

Here's some jolly warnings that you get from one of the protected CD's:

RESTRICTED RELEASE ! WATERMARKED DISC!
DO NOT COPY - THE MUSIC ON THIS CD HAS BEEN WATERMARKED WITH A UNIQUE IDENTIFIER THAT ALLOWS US TO IDENTIFY THE INTENDED RECIPIENT (YOU) AS THE SOURCE OF ANY UNAUTHORIZED COPIES

WARNING- By opening this seal, you are agreeing to the terms below.

IN CONSIDERATION OF RECEIVING THIS AND FUTURE PROMOTIONAL CDs, BY OPENING OR USING THIS CD, THE AUTHORIZED RECIPIENT AND HIS/HER ORGANIZATION ("YOU") AGREE AS FOLLOWS...

And so on. You get the idea. Again, do you see why so many people have trouble working up sympathy for the record companies? I'd like to suggest something a bit more honest and straight-forward like this:

LISTEN YOU F-ING GODDAMN SLIME-BALL- WE KNOW WHAT YOU'RE UP TO. YOU'RE GONNA DO SOME 50 WORD LITTLE WRITE-UP AND THEN HAND THIS PUPPY OFF TO ALL OF YOUR BUDDIES BUT THAT AIN'T GONNA HAPPEN. WE KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE, WHERE YOU GO AND EVERYTHING THAT YOU LISTEN TO. WE'RE GONNA SHUT DOWN YOUR COMPUTER FOR GOOD AND MAKE SURE THAT YOU NEVER HEAR A NOTE OF MUSIC AGAIN, EVEN IF YOU DON'T COPY THIS CD. THANK YOU AND PLEASE ENJOY THIS ALBUM.

- Password protected download sites: Granted that I haven't heard of too many of these that are being offered up for pre-releases. That's probably because the few times that this was tried, it didn't work very well- people had problems with accessing the sites and downloading the music (obviously, you'd need a high-speed connection to do this). Guess that all the technical headaches aren't worth it. Also, once you'd have access to the songs, they'd have to watermark (or stream) the music to try to stop anyone from then going ahead and sharing the songs with anyone else.

- Listening session: I can't say I'm sorry that I haven't attended any of these yet. The idea is that you show up at the label's offices or a studio and you get to sit there and listen to the record. Not exactly an ideal listening experience- you have to take notes on their time rather than listening to it at your own leisure and convenience. Want to hear it again? You need to arrange time to come back and do it then. It's not just that it takes all the fun out of the listening experience but I imagine that you'd also feel pretty constrained. Sometimes, the artists themselves will be there to promote their work while you're there to hear their record. Kind of intimidating, isn't it? If they ask you what you thought and you didn't like the record, what do you say to their face?

When I review a record, I like to listen at least five times or more so that I'm pretty familiar with it and can try to say something worthwhile and thoughtful about it. That means that I'll listen once to it as a blur, listen a few more times as background, listen more intently and then gather some notes together. Trying to do all of this well isn't easy and trying to do it in a listening session makes it much harder. The level of anti-piracy safety is pretty high (anyone want a muffled tape-recorded version?) but good luck trying to get a good review out of an experience like this.

Also, this shows off a kind of geographic prejudice. If you're a writer in New York (or probably Los Angeles or London), you'll have relatively easy access to come and listen. But what if you're a writer or publication in the Mid-west? Are you going to pay for yourself or someone else to fly out there just to hear one album? It's not too cost effective for a publication so you'll have to find a Gotham writer who will do it for you. As for the writers who work for themselves and don't live near specific media hubs, sorry but you're SOL...

Contract Agreements: Another great option, especially if you're into legal jargon. You're given a lengthy contract written in a language that only a barrister could translate, basically saying that you're not going to let anyone listen to this record and even in some cases, the CD is on loan to you and must be returned. Luckily, I've only had to do one of these- it definitely wasn't worth it. Someone else who got one of these contracts and consulted a lawyer said it had almost no basis and that their advice was to cross out any B.S. you don't agree with and send it back to them- usually, this will be fine. I haven't heard of any cases of a writer being dragged into court over this yet. You'll find these fun little contracts also attached to a listening session too.

Other Methods: Some other ideas are still in testing and not really ready for unleashing on the masses yet. Microchip implants, beaming radio waves, sheet music, cylinders, semaphore versions, karaoke, muzak versions, ad tie-ins, etc.. You get the idea.


Going through all these variations, you keep coming back to the idea of writer-as-criminal. This means that it's much more important to inconvenience a reviewer and hold them accountable for actions that they may or may not commit than to have them really HEAR an album and try to write a worthwhile review about it. So what's more cost-effective here and better for business?

Even though I couldn't give you a specific example here, my gut tells me that with this kind of situation, it's more than a little possible that this has led to some angry, lashing-out reviews that some records might not have deserved. The record companies need a better way to do this because all of these methods described above just plain suck- it's a textbook example of the fear and loathing that Doc Thompson told us about.

How thrilled if writers laid out a bunch of rules for record companies to get them to cover a certain album? Feel free to share your own requirements that you'd like for a CD sent to you- the winner will receive an extensive legal contract to sign off for a copy-protected CD which can't be played anywhere, offer only good in NY, L.A. or London.

2 Comments:

Blogger Sleeve said...

Very interesting article, Jason... I work at a radio station and mostly we see CDs that are copy-protected. Some work (Beck) and some don't (LCD Soundsystem). For our purposes, we copy them to deter theft, or to be able to replace things in case they disappear. But a little tech lesson is in order here, I think. Not counting the actual "listening time" ro record the LP on a standalone burner, I could import, track, rip, and convert an LP to MP3 in about 15 minutes. Streaming audio? There's a program for the Mac that converts streams directly into MP3 files. So the technology is perhaps a bit more advanced than you suspected, which is, I think, what is giving rise to all these strange methods of handing out promo copies.

3:06 PM  
Blogger blackmail is my life said...

To add to what Sleeve wrote, I think that it's naive for any industry to believe that it can outsmart it's workers or its consumers - the inability to assimilate innovation has long proved difficult for execs who wish only to stifle creativity; we're talking about uncommodified externalities here - and as much as that's code for collateral damage, execs don't want it to affect them and their sales.

One of the factors they leave out is how when conditions begin to affect writer comfort, the reviews will start to decline steeply. Or at least one would hope. Sometimes I need to spend a lot of time with a record before writing about it, which is why I'm happy about Stylus' "Village Voice" lateness approach, but if that weren't permitted by the industry it could touch off even more lax reviews. Their loss, I guess.

6:21 AM  

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