The sound barrier

When record companies insist that critics gather together to hear a new album, it's restrictive and insulting, says Andy Gill
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The Independent Culture

Picture the scene: a dozen middle-aged men sitting at a boardroom table, poring over lyric sheets and making notes like schoolboys in an exam, trying as casually as possible to hide their work from their neighbours, while Bruce Springsteen's depressing new album drones glumly from two huge speakers suspended from the ceiling. Does it get any sadder than this?

Picture the scene: a dozen middle-aged men sitting at a boardroom table, poring over lyric sheets and making notes like schoolboys in an exam, trying as casually as possible to hide their work from their neighbours, while Bruce Springsteen's depressing new album drones glumly from two huge speakers suspended from the ceiling. Does it get any sadder than this?

This is the prospect faced with increasing frequency by music critics these days, as the "in-house playback" becomes the music industry's preferred mode of dealing with reviewers. It wasn't always thus: until recently, only a label's very biggest acts would be the subject of playbacks, and there would be some attempt to make an occasion of it, as if you were celebrating something. Now, even middling acts are accorded this treatment. Even so, Springsteen's latest album, The Rising, was freely available to critics in the customary promo CD form. Conversely, Eminem's Encore was sent out as a promo, while its predecessor, The Eminem Show, required a playback in a London hotel suite. So why has the situation changed?

The playback is the record industry's belated and somewhat ham-fisted attempt to deal with the growing problem of downloading, as more and more artists find their albums available on internet file-sharing sites even before they're in the shops. Unwilling to face the awful prospect that the source of the pirated album might be someone associated with the artist, the studio, the artist's management, the artist's publicist or one of their own employees, the record companies have opted to crack down on journalists, the last possible link in the chain and, frankly, the least likely. I don't know of any writer who's been so stupid as to jeopardise their career in this way, and while publicists might mutter about hacks illegally uploading promo albums, no names are ever mentioned. Yet an entire profession is being treated as potential criminals, without a shred of evidence against them. This may be legal, but it's damned insulting. But then, what should we expect from an industry that treats its own customers as potential criminals, and isn't above persecuting children for file-sharing?

It's not as if there aren't already measures in place to prevent promo piracy. In recent years, most of the pre-release CDRs sent out to reviewers have been treated with an inaudible digital "watermark", allowing any illegal online copies to be traced back to the recipient; some companies reinforce this by actually printing the journalist's name on the disc. Which is perfectly acceptable - more so, certainly, than the practice of interrupting the music itself with a recorded copyright message, which seems popular with some American labels of an "urban" persuasion. At least one gets to hear the music in question alone, under one's own preferred conditions, several times, rather than once in the sterile surroundings of a corporate office. And quite apart from the inconvenience of spending the best part of a day travelling across London just to hear an album, it's infuriating not to be able to check some detail of music or lyric while writing a review - a situation which ultimately works to the advantage of neither writer nor artist.

It could have been worse, though. One company has apparently installed a new purpose-built playback room, a marvel of modern design fitted out with individual listening cubicles, like a language laboratory, and policed by a security guard who watches like a hawk to ensure you're not recording the precious product on your mobile phone. Which, as you can imagine, is exactly my preferred mode of listening, there being few better ways to appreciate music's subtle beauty.

To add insult to injury, listeners at the Springsteen playback were also required to sign a confidentiality agreement affirming that we wouldn't print reviews before a specified date, "nor shall you give any intimation, inference or other suggestion to any third party that might lead them to discover, disclose or speculate on any matter relating to the confidential information" - God forbid that we should surprise our readers with the shock news that there is a new Bruce Springsteen album coming out in a few days and it's, well, just as dismal as the last one. Still, the cat's out of the bag now, eh?

To be fair, this seems to be primarily an American reaction to the piracy situation, designed to be applied in a market where print media wield considerably less influence than in Europe. In private, UK PRs will sympathise - it's not making their job any easier - but say they can't do anything about it, as it's been decreed by their American bosses. Which still doesn't explain the system's anomalies. If, say, U2 managed to send out review copies of their last album, why did Gwen Stefani, whose product is distributed by the same company, find it impossible to do likewise? Probably because Stefani's "people" wanted to reinforce their charge's cachet by making her album seem more select - perhaps reasoning that a reviewer who has gone to such trouble to hear the record is less likely to pan it, which would simply be confirmation that their inconvenience had been a complete waste of time.

Sadly, it's a practice that seems to be spreading. Only the other day I was invited to a playback of an album by an artist whom I had previously written appreciatively about in both reviews and interviews, yet I was still not considered "safe" enough to be furnished with a copy of their new CD. Which simply made me feel like a fool for being so positive about an act that clearly had such contempt for me. I didn't bother attending, and unless I'm sent the album, I won't be reviewing it. It's the only language they understand.

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