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Making sense of the FTC and the new "blogola."

The Rockologist: Will Blog For Promos

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."

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, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.

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