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Rooked in Advance 

Let the labels burn bridges -- we'll keep burning CDs.

Yeah, we know that a music critic complaining about his job is as appealing as Fred Durst whining about the Playmates crowding his Serta. We should probably content ourselves with all those free Trans-Siberian Orchestra passes and the gratis Dio DVDs, and leave the griping to the people who work for a living. But there's a practice among major labels nowadays of restricting advance CDs to folks like us. And since that has an impact on you, too, allow us to vent for a moment:

Ever since Napster started getting major-label panties in a bunch over piracy concerns, record companies have been increasingly reticent about giving publications advance copies of new albums. Advances are important, because they allow us to get reviews done in a timely manner (i.e., the week of release), so you don't have to wait to hear from your friends whether the new Boston LP has enough cat-in-heat crooning to merit your dough.

But these preview CDs are almost a thing of the past, ever since record companies became fearful that yours truly is going to hightail it to the nearest PC upon receipt of the new Coolio platter and make it available for all. When we tried to land the new Jay-Z disc, Rocafella wouldn't even return our calls. When we inquired about the latest from Bone Thugs-N-Harmony -- a Cleveland act, for Chrissake -- we were given passes to the group's performance at the Odeon instead and told that they would probably be performing some new material.

And yet there seems to be little evidence that downloading really affects album sales. Though labels are quick to damn file sharing, few of them have speculated as to why Wilco's latest, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, debuted just outside the Billboard top 10 in April -- a much higher position than any previous Wilco album -- even though Foxtrot had been available online for almost a year. Instead, they point to the dismal sales of the new Eve disc and somehow jump to the conclusion that downloading is to blame. No, the real reason that record tanked is because it's just another crappy album in a year full of expensive duds (Wyclef Jean, Tom Petty, Cher). Why is it so difficult for record labels to accept even the slightest bit of accountability for their sales slumps? Instead, they blame fans and critics, whose word-of-mouth support is responsible for this year's handful of breakout hits (e.g., the White Stripes, the Hives).

In an editorial in the Washington City Paper a couple of weeks back, Music Editor Matt Borlik took labels to task for such practices. "Make no mistake: We are the ones whom your all-important sales depend on," he fumed. "Do not fuck with us."

The most ironic thing is that current label practices don't restrict piracy -- they actually encourage it. Most albums are available online in advance of their release. They're often leaked from the recording sessions, as the hotly anticipated new Audioslave disc was by an intern from the studio where it was tracked. So when we can't get a disc through a publicist, we're forced to go and burn a copy from the web. But even when confronted with the option of having us review either a potentially inferior-sounding bootleg or the genuine article, most publicists still won't budge.

When we burned a copy of the new Korn disc earlier this year, the band's handlers, MSO Publicity, were so irritated that they wouldn't even supply us with album cover art. This, even though the review was scheduled to run one day after the record would be in stores. The Korn disc, which received virtually no advance reviews, stiffed.

In the end, it's you who really get screwed. It's not enough that CD prices are at an all-time high ($19 for the new Foo Fighters disc?). Now labels are trying to squash any opportunity for you to hear new music on the web and limit the number of reviews you can read. Essentially, they just want you to pony up your cash and quit your bitching. We've done enough of the latter, but as we shut our mouths, we urge you to do the same with your pocketbooks. Maybe then major labels will get over themselves. After all, music fans have already begun to.

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