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The Rockologist: Will Blog For Promos

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Whether you are a person who frequents blogs on the Internet, you own a personal blog, or you even write articles on websites like this one, you've probably heard about the FTC's intention to more closely regulate such things by now.

Established in 1914 by the Federal Trade Commission Act to promote consumer protection and combat anti-competitive practices, the Federal Trade Commission is the government agency charged with making sure all is fair in love and trade as it relates to the American consumer.

More recently however, the FTC has represented three letters striking fear into the hearts and minds of bloggers everywhere, as the agency has begun to take steps towards regulating the wild, wild west world of the blogosphere.

Specifically, as of December 2009, the FTC will begin requiring full disclosure of any payments made to bloggers in exchange for product endorsements.

Such payments would include not only monetary compensation, but also the products bloggers often receive for review purposes — which in theory could mean anything from cars, trips, and the like, to the CDs, DVDs, and books thousands of bloggers routinely write about every day at sites such as Blogcritics Magazine.

So what does this mean for people who review music CDs and such on the internet? Perhaps a brief history lesson will help put this into the proper perspective.

Promotional albums — or "promos" in the industry vernacular — have in fact been part of the way business is done by the music industry for a very long time now. In addition to the thousands of writers who receive them for review purposes, they are routinely sent out to radio programmers and DJs as well as what is left of the music retail community.

They are not only used to help determine which new releases get written about, but also what gets played on the radio, and what gets pushed in record shops through things like instore play.

They have also from time to time been used as an accepted form of currency in the record business, which has produced its own fair share of scandals over the years.

Although I wasn't actually around to witness it first hand at the time, I am old enough to remember the original payola scandals of the fifties and sixties as a student of music history.

The "pay for play" scheme was a big enough deal back then to prompt congressional investigations, and bring down several key figures, including no less than Alan Freed, the radio pioneer generally credited with coining the term rock and roll. Some of the scarier stories from this period also included rumors of organized crime types shaking down radio programmers who refused to play along.

By the time I was actually working within the record industry myself (in the eighties and nineties), the practice of payola had been supposedly cleaned up. In truth, it actually just shifted itself around a bit. This is where the idea of promos as an acceptable form of currency largely came into play.

On the surface, promo albums as a movable form of something with an actual tangible monetary value are essentially worthless because they are clearly marked as such. In the days of vinyl albums, they were marked with big white labels stating they were not for sale and were intended solely for promotional use, and the jackets also usually had some sort of hole punched in them.

These days, promo CDs go a step further through things like the practice of watermarking, and even more detailed labels stating that the recipient agrees to return the item to the sender — meaning the record label or PR firm — at any time upon request.

Still, this has not entirely stopped the underground promo trade, as any routine visit to sites like eBay will demonstrate. Back in the nineties, it was also not at all uncommon to see new releases being sold at used record shops a few days before the street date.

I have very specific memories of going to such shops when I lived and worked in the record business in L.A. back in the nineties. If you knew where to go back then, you could easily pick up something like the new Snoop Dogg release (to cite a specific memory) on the Thursday before it came out — because promo copies usually were sent out on that day. In the case of the aforementioned Snoop Dogg release, I can actually remember running into a low-level record executive I knew at the time unloading the cargo at one such shop.

What was even more common than underpaid industry types pocketing a few extra bucks by selling promos however, was the use of free-goods or "cleans."

Back in those days (before the creation of the industry reporting system Soundscan), chart positions were reported to trade publications like Billboard using an honor system. The trades would call selected music retailers and ask them to report their sales figures for the week, which in turn would help determine chart positions as they appeared in the following week's magazine.

Since chart position — in theory anyway — influences both radio airplay and record sales, the practice of sending out unmarked "clean" product to retailers to put on sale (usually at a ridiculously low price) soon became a fairly common one. The idea here was that putting these items on sale would help influence chart position and thus, boost sales and airplay.

Although the practice began with independent labels and promoters, before long most, if not all the majors, were also willing to play along. For the music retailers who reported sales figures, this was a "win-win" situation as it boosted their low profit margins, and in a few cases also provided underpaid employees a source of extra income.

In a rare case of the record industry policing itself, the practice of using "cleans" as a form of usable currency was halted (or at least, drastically curtailed) by the introduction of the Soundscan reporting system in the early nineties.

This system of scanning actual record sales was universally adopted by both the trades and music retailers, and the old school way of relying on word-of-mouth sales reporting was eliminated virtually overnight. Although some retailers probably found ways around the new way of reporting sales by actual scans, chart positions were now made largely far more accurate, and reflective of the actual marketplace. In doing so, another congressional payola investigation of the record industry was most likely averted.

The most immediate effect of all this back then, was how it changed the complexion of the record charts themselves. Country and hip-hop — both of which were always under-reported genres anyway — went overnight from being the industry's best kept secrets, to coming out of the closet as being the big-sellers they in fact had always been. In that respect, you could probably call Garth Brooks the first superstar who was essentially made by Soundscan.

So how does all of this relate to the present FTC ruling? In all honesty, outside of providing a history lesson, it probably doesn't. There is a big difference between what are traditionally called promos, and the clean copies which were once used to manipulate chart positions and sales figures.

In today's world, a CD used for promotional purposes has been rendered virtually useless in terms of it having any monetary value. The CDs are usually clearly stamped with things like "not for sale" and "must be returned upon demand" which gives them a value of exactly nil. In other words, there is no widespread "blogola" here to speak of.

The practice of watermarking on many of these items also makes them something undesirable for most music fans to want to actually add to their collections. When you factor in the fact that many music companies are now delivering their promotional music to writers and bloggers through digital means, their value as a tangible, sellable item is likewise reduced.

That a collectors market for rare, promotional material continues to exist and probably always will, is however an undeniable fact. Any routine eBay search for something like "Beatles remasters" for example proves this to be true.

Still, my best guess is that the intent of the FTC is more targeted towards those who still receive big-ticket items like cars, trips, and flat-screen high-definition TVs, than it is towards the lowly minions who blog about the CDs they receive on sites like this one. Even in this case, my understanding of the new FTC regulatory practices is that they are intended mainly to go after the big companies sending out the goods, rather than the bloggers who write about them.

Although there are exceptions, bloggers are for the most part unemployed or underpaid folks who do what they do largely for the love of doing it.

Speaking of which, if anyone out there reading this would like to employ my own services, I'm currently in the market seeking opportunities. My new sign reads "Will Blog For Money."

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    This FTC ruling will target the correct demographic of advertorial entrepreneurs, making a livin’ off shillin’ and pimpin’.

  • http://jetssciencepage.blogspot.com/ Jet Gardner

    You don’t tug on Superman’s Cape,
    You don’t spit into the wind,
    You don’t pull the mask off the ol’ Lone Ranger,
    and you don’t mess around with… the FTC?

    Good read Glen

    With all the feather’s flying around it’s a wonder any of us can read our monitors

    :)

  • Greg Barbrick

    Nice work Glen, but I think I remember someone taking a trip to the New Music Seminar on the back of some cleans. Ring any bells?

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    The fact that I saw, and yes even took advantage of some of these practices first hand at the time as a lowly music retailer, is something that I think allows me a rather unique perspective to write about it.

    By the way, did I mention that you have a big mouth?

    -Glen

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Speaking of ringing a few bells…

  • http://jetssciencepage.blogspot.com/ Jet Gardner

    Another point to consider is just who determines the value of those promotional materials.

    I’ve got a Trans Siberian Orchestra review coming up in which I’m only being provided with 5 songs of a 26 track double-CD tp base it on.

    I’ve gotten DVDs with scenes suddenly scrambled or left out completely.

    CDs with gaps in hit tracks

    Books with only partial chapters

    Items that come without the “street” materials or packaging included.

    The vast majority of the “promo” copies have come in perfect shape, put on occasion they ship us “factory 2nd’s” to review rather than throw them away expecting us not complain…

    You get what you pay for… but do you get taxed or regulated on that basis?

    Who determines the fair value?

  • Greg Barbrick

    LOL :-)

    Remember TK’s motto: “I’m no homo, but I’ll get on my knees for a promo”

  • http://jetssciencepage.blogspot.com/ Jet Gardner

    Beggin my pardon of course

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    An item such as you describe would have to be called worthless in terms of having any monetary value Jet.

    In the case of boxed sets and the like, record companies these days will most often opt for sending out samplers rather than the pricier deluxe boxes. There are also instances, where the label or PR firm will send out the CD in a slip case, minus the artwork — again rendering the item useless as a sellable commodity. Giving reviewers access to a free download is also becoming much more common.

    There are however rare exceptions. I’ve seen the promo double CD sampler of the Beatles remasters (like the one I received) for example fetching prices of about $200. on eBay. However, this is the Beatles after all…

    The bottom line is promo CDs are for the most part without monetary value, except maybe to a few collectors.

    I just don’t see the FTC going after bloggers who get promo CDs for review purposes here.

    Thanks for the comment.

    -Glen

  • http://jetssciencepage.blogspot.com/ Jet Gardner

    This could inspire whole episodes of “Antiques Road Show” in which experts determine if a promotional item is a collector’s item or useless garbage.

    Mr. Sussman’s sports section brought up an interesting memory of how football players started wearing panty hose to keep their legs warm.

    “Broadway” Joe Namath as a joke promoted a certain brand of panty hose as a juke on TV commercials and the government took that as an endorsement and said he actually had to wear the damned things or be fined for falsely endorsing a product he didn’t use.

    Other football players took up the cause and found the product actually was useful for them.

  • http://donaldgibson.blogspot.com/Gre Donald Gibson

    Did I mention that I have a small but impressive collection of Leonard Cohen promo CD singles and various other memorabilia? You probably knew that already, though…

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    You think that’s something Gibson? One of these days I’ll have to show you my Springsteen collection….

    -Glen

  • http://jetssciencepage.blogspot.com/ Jet Gardner

    Oh bpbpbpbpbp I’ve got white label radiostation 45s of Patsy Cline that were salvaged when the place went out of business and they nearly threw away because no one wanted them??????

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I used to have a record label employee living next door to me in the seventies, who would throw his extras in the garbage behind the apartment building. Garbage day was never so much fun as it was then.

    -Glen

  • http://jetssciencepage.blogspot.com/ Jet Gardner

    Mom always liked you best

  • http://jetssciencepage.blogspot.com/ Jet Gardner

    I hope Roger doesn’t read this; I’m only supposed to comment on my own articles :(

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    You just got caught, Jet, for trespassing. And the penalty is . . . Well, name your own poison.

    Hello to you.

  • http://jetssciencepage.blogspot.com/ Jet Gardner

    It all started when this shapely girl picked up a 1922-s dime off the ground after putting what she “claimed” was a tiny little scratch in the right quarterpanel of a pristine 1972 Pontiac GTO, but was actually a dent big enough to be seen from satelite photos.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Appreciate the comments guys, though I have to admit I have no idea what those last couple are about.

    -Glen

  • http://www.riddledphantasms.com R.P.M.

    And streak. Glen first.

    I worked in DC, for the govt, in the Hart Building, if you have ever been to DC or any of big govt. too many kids on the staff, we feel left out syndrome places – FBI and Dept. of Education included, you would know that DC is run by mostly kids. If you are over 30, you are either a congressman or someone who has no desire to get a real job as Cap Hill wages pay almost nothing and only Chief’s of Staff get paid (that I won’t even get into as some make the same as the Congressman – joke city since you have a whip who tells you how and why to vote everyday that Homer Simpson could do the job, just ask Cynthia McKinney and her run…a woman has had NO JOB STILL other than Congress and it showed, but I digress).

    The FTC doesn’t care this is just something some 24 year old cooked up snuck through committee and got conf. and joint conf. to sign off to stop porn peddlers and probably some other logic and NOT people getting a free download (that you can mostly get off of torrents), why don’t they step up and do something about that? Oh wait they can’t and if you don’t live in the USA this doesn’t concern you.

    Ok next.

    Like I said before blogging is a counter culture way for people to vent. The whole point is to raise a little cain now and again. If that’s not you fine, but plenty gets said on the net. Why not focus on the fact that hundreds of thousands of kids are sold as slaves for sex in the US and around the world. Check out UNICEF for more on that and less on this.

    Nobody puts Blogcritics in the corner, to quote Mel Gibson in one of his pre-I hate jews, I got a dui b/c of them rants or other stuff, “Stick your head between your own legs and kiss your own arse…” That is my take to the FTC. If you feel that isn’t enough get a group together, find people with like thinking and write them as many letters and emails as you possibly can. It IS their job to answer each and every one. If they don’t they get a pink slip and writing a response is pretty damned annoying as is using the franking machine to fake a real signature of a supposed care tax payer salary Govt. worker.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Not sure I really got the meaning of all of that R.P.M., but if you are saying this really isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things, I agree…at least I think I do.

    If I’m reading things correctly, the FTC isn’t really interested in going after bloggers who mostly write for free, but might get an occasional free CD out of the deal. Obviously, there are bigger fish to fry out there in the real world.

    As I said, I’m not sure I really get your point here, but I do thank you for making it.

    -Glen

  • http://www.earvolution.com Jeff from Earvolution

    I worked as a consumer protection attorney for a couple years at FTC HQ in DC. My concern is that I have in fact seen, in other enforcement areas, the FTC absolutely pick on little fish (with no or limited resources to respond) in order to make a headline. The FTC is often looking to deter. So they could absolutely grab some headlines “Blogger busted for payola” in order to send a broad message to the entire “market.”

    But, let’s use the music blog as an example since it is near and dear to both our hearts. We recieve CDs but in no way is there a guarantee of a review or of a favorable review. So there is no “exchange” of value for something. In that sense it’d be a real stretch for them to do go after someone receiving some CDs or even some concert tickets.

    If anyone does get a letter from the FTC about their blogging feel free to contact me – I’m still a laywer – and will help you figure out how to respond.

  • KELLIKO1

    What does it matter that bloggers be compensated for their time and words?

    It shouldn’t be the governments job to take work from anyone (imo) !!!

  • KELLIKO1

    This is my opinion:
    By law – all a blogger has to do is place a disclaimer on their comments that says (in my opinion), you cannot get in trouble for your opinion – unless this isn’t America anymore ?!!!