Pay to play is bad enough, but paying to get reviewed? | WBEZ
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Jim DeRogatis

Pay to play is bad enough, but paying to get reviewed?

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“Pay to play”—bands being forced to sell a certain number of tickets or cover the deficit with cash to perform at a “prestigious” club—long has been a reviled practice in the music industry, second only to the age-old scam of payola, or record companies shelling out to have a song played on the radio.

From time to time, music magazines also have been accused of giving more favorable coverage to bands or labels that advertise; hello, Rolling Stone! But shortly before the holidays, a practice putting a new spin on purchasing favorable notices got a lot of attention courtesy of Zachary Houle, an Ottawa-based contributor to the otherwise much-respected arts, music, and culture Web site PopMatters.

Zachary Houle

I first became aware of the story via a piece in The Stranger, which portrayed Houle as pimping himself out via IndieGogo to “help new bands by reviewing them… for a reasonable fee.” The Canadian critic does not elaborate on his prices, but here’s a sampling of what he does say:

“If you’re still struggling to get heard and get the stars aligned for you, I can help you… I can listen to your demos and tell you what’s great and the thing about your music or act that will twig the interest of the media… I will also tell you—quite honestly — what stinks and needs fixing… I can go to your shows and critique the live experience for you. I also used to do the odd Fashion article for the Ottawa Citizen. I’m no Joan Rivers (RIP), but I can say a few things about your image and how you’re projecting yourself… I can write a press release… I make no guarantees in terms of getting deals with publicists or labels, but I can point you in the direction of publicists who deal in various genres of music and might be receptive to your work. I realize this is information you can look up yourself for free, but that’s time. Or you can come to me with your music for a hopefully reasonable fee, and I can recommend people based on your style and genre—and this is information I have, more or less, at my fingertips… I also can do liner notes.”

One imagines that Houle might also carry your gear, walk your dog, and clean your apartment, also for “a reasonable fee,” though he doesn’t specify there. Now, even in lower-cost-of-living Ottawa, a writer’s got to eat, and Houle does make it clear that he has standards. While he’ll write your press release and give you a list of suggested recipients, he won’t distribute it, “because I’m sort of in the journalism profession.” And he issues a disclaimer, which we know is serious because of the repetition and the selective use of all caps:

“If you agree to use my services I WILL NOT, I repeat, WILL NOT review your album or EP for PopMatters.com. I have to maintain my journalistic integrity... WARNING: If you agree to hire me to listen to your music for honest feedback, that feedback is yours and yours alone. If I find my feedback as a quote in the press anywhere, I will get mad. You won’t like me when I’m angry. [Smiley-face emoticon] Seriously, you have to agree to protect my reputation.”

Um, Zach, even in these times of journalistic lapses galore, I do believe your reputation now is toast. But I might just be old-fashioned that way.

A fair amount of online snickering followed The Stranger’s piece, and while I’m still waiting for Houle to be exposed as a mere prankster, I’ve yet to see that happen. Meanwhile, I have learned of another scam run by the ironically named Web site theequalground.com that is even more blatant, if only because it sets some fixed prices for the reviews it’s peddling.

“theequalground.com is a collaboration of music enthusiasts who to want to share their thoughts about the music that is being released in our world,” is how the site describes its mission. “We give honest opinions and guided descriptions to enable our readers to determine what they may want to listen to next as well as providing the artists with an insight as to what a seasoned music geek really thinks about their music.”

How does that play out? Submit your D.I.Y. album to theequalground.com, and you’ll receive the following email in response, which recaps the policies spelled out on the site itself.

“Hi: You submitted an album to our website www.theequalground.com. The staff took a vote this morning and we decided to move forward with a review. If you are unfamiliar with our website, we only review submissions that we thought were at least favorable (details in our “about” section). Along with that, our reviews are honest, guided descriptions for our readers as well as insightful,professional critiques for the artists. Your review will either have a favorable, good or great rating, meaning a 3.0 or above. (We think it’s a little more fun to keep the detailed rating a secret till your published date). In order to maximize the exposure to our audience we give the artist a couple of different options.

“Option 1 (Free) With this option your album will be included in our “weekly roundup” section. This section is published once a week (on Friday) and is a list of the albums we enjoyed Here is an example of what it would look like.

“Option 2 ($25) With this option your album is featured as one of our daily reviews. One of our trusted writers who is a seasoned music geek within your genre will elaborate on the rating we have given. We talk about the genre of music, the tracks we felt were highlights, as well as any constructive criticism that will benefit the artist. This includes its own distinct URL, cover art, two links of your choice  (Bandcamp, Website, ReverbNation, Facebook, record label, etc.) and a professionally written review (3 to 4 paragraphs, sometimes more). Here is an example of what it would look like.

“Option 3 ($35) This option includes everything from Option 2 and also includes a song or songs (your album) of your choice to be embedded from iTunes, Amazon, Soundcloud, or Bandcamp.  If you want people to actually hear your music from our site while reading your review we can do that, too. The song or songs have to be uploaded to iTunes, Amazon, Soundcloud, or Bandcamp. We will embed it right on our page. Here is an example of what it would look like.

“Option 4 ($40) This option includes everything from Options 2 and 3. It also includes a  video upload. The video must be on Youtube and be a music video or live performance. Here is an example of what it would look like.

“Process: No matter what option you chose we will need to hear back from you to confirm your review. (You will need to reply to this e-mail telling us what option you selected in the body of the e-mail.) If you chose Option 1 all you need to do is reply to this e-mail and put Option 1 in the body. Within a couple of days we will send you a follow-up e-mail confirming what day your review will be published. If you chose Options 2, 3, or 4, we will send you an invoice through Paypal for the option you selected in your e-mail (let us know if you want us to send the invoice to a different e-mail). Once the invoice is paid we will send you one last e-mail confirming the date that it will be published. For Option 2, 3, or 4, we will also need you to include the proper links for Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Youtube video, your mp3, etc. This review will be up on our website forever with its own specific URL. Feel free to put it on your website, use it in your press kit or send to fans.

“Cheers—The team at theequalground.com”

To be certain, ethical standards in the world of music journalism and criticism always have been, er, more relaxed than in the “real-news” racket (though arguably not in sports). Back in the day, my rock-crit hero Lester Bangs openly bragged in print of selling promo records to pay the rent and eagerly partaking of the free food, booze, and luxury accomodations during record-company junkets. Yet even at his flat-broke most down-and-desperate, I don’t believe Bangs would have taken money to “help new bands by reviewing them.”

Saint Lester

As for my reaction, even as someone who once lost an $85,000-a-year job as deputy music editor at Rolling Stone for objecting when Jann Wenner spiked a negative review I’d written, I can’t top the verdict my old pal Jim Testa had when the veteran fanzine/blog editor, musician, and indie-rock super fan brought theequalground.com to my attention:

Sometimes I just want to kill myself. Or the rest of society.

Follow me on Twitter @JimDeRogatis, join me on Facebook, and podcast Sound Opinions.

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