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The Ethics of the Freelance Writer

Donald Teplyske  |  November 3, 2013

A couple weeks ago, a writer named Michael Trenholm- within a piece written for the Roots Music Canada website- dropped the following:

I have to acknowledge complete ignorance that some music writers provide CD reviews without the actual CD. I was surprised to learn this week that some obtain the digital files and use only those files to review a new album. I have a problem with that. In many instances a lot of creative work goes on in the development of the CD art work, liner notes and inserts. Meaghan Blanchard's "She's Gonna Fly" by Halifax graphic artist Chris Smith is a wonderful example. It strikes me the writer simply becomes an extension of the publicist or promoter and a journalistic standard does not exist in that environment. If the consumer is encouraged to purchase a product and that product is a CD, then an evaluation of the entire product is required. The responsibility of the writer is to the audience or consumer, not necessarily the artist and certainly not the publicist...

I don't know Trenholm, and had never previously knowingly read his writing, but since I read the above I've looked for his writing. Within his pieces, I have found no hints of arrogance so I won't attribute that characteristic to the above statement. I'll take him at his word- he didn't know that music writers have increasingly become dependent on digital files for reviews. I'm surprised, but take him at his word.

I wish I could hold myself to the standard Trenholm has set for himself. However, I lost that fight a couple years ago, and haven't even tried to push back since the Great Address Change of 2012.

I started writing 'professionally' (that is, getting paid) in 2000. At that time, I wrote reviews about roots music albums (compact discs, to be specific) I was buying. After a few pieces were published in my newspaper column, I started soliciting review copies from the labels, and as my presence became established (I used to call myself the 76th most influential roots music writer in Canada. Now, with the proliferation of digital media, I'd guess 1076th) I was- for a few years- receiving three to five if not more CDs in the mail weekly.

I built relationships with publicists and media contacts at the 'major' roots and bluegrass labels- Red House, Rounder, Rebel, Acoustic Disc, Borealis, Sugar Hill, Northern Blues, Pinecastle, Dualtone, and the like- as well as with many smaller labels and even more independent artists. I would send out tear sheets to acknowledge that I was indeed reviewing what was being sent to me, and through my ongoing writing relationship with the now defunct "Bluegrass Now," made even more contacts. I worked hard to place pieces- I donated reviews to bluegrass society newsletters, to various folk magazines and roots music websites. When material was published digitally, I would send links of my writing to those attached to the project.

As a freelancer, I needed to continually forge relationships with those who could provide me with music to write about. As such, the 'journalistic' lines Trenholm references were always blurred. Heck, I well remember the day a particular bluegrass label publicist 'cut me off' because she didn't agree with my written opinion. To suggest that reviewing a digital file is somehow worse than reviewing a physical album only works in the most abstract of terms: how about questioning the ethics of an entire industry built upon 'promo' copies?

At some point- around the time "Bluegrass Now" folded- the idea of 'professional' writing started to change. Many outlets either stopped paying for writing, or made the business decision that 'online' publishing was only viable by soliciting reviews sans payment. Not complaining, as I have appreciated ongoing and pleasant relationships with various websites operating under this model. About that same time, records labels, facing their own new economic realities, apparently started to reduce the number of writers they serviced with review copies. This was as true for bluegrass labels as it was for 'Americana' and roots imprints.

Those previously established relationships became even more vital as publicists and label reps had fewer copies to send out, smaller budgets in which to work. Whenever a label changed staff or farmed out their publicity to independent contractors- and that seemed to be happening weekly- I experienced increased difficulty in receiving review copies, in re-establishing any type of mutually beneficial rapport. I had to work harder just to maintain a minimum level of servicing. Five albums a week dwindled to two, to one, to a few per month. No matter how much writing I did, it became harder to have a diverse spectrum of albums available to review.

Which takes me back to Tremholm's comments and the proliferation of digital download links being sent to reviewers. By the time 2010 rolled around, labels and artists were obviously (and understandably) looking to take advantage of the economic benefits of sending email links. When asked if I prefer a physical copy of an album or a link for review, I always request the hard copy. Like Tremholm, I strongly believe that when reviewing a CD I should be reviewing the whole package- the artwork, the booklet. There is no end to the advantages of reviewing the physical set- appreciating the care placed in the writing of the liner notes, the choice of font for the musician credits- all of it matters.

Tremholm shouldn't forget that more people are buying music via download than they are going to the local bricks 'n mortar store for a stack of discs. Therefore, when writing about music received as a digital file, often I am reviewing exactly what the consumer will be considering to purchase.

Unfortunately, if I relied upon albums I was sent through the mail, lately I would have maybe one or two to choose from monthly. Moving from my long-established address caused me to fall off the radar for even more labels, publicists, and artists. Mail was forwarded for a year, but I know many packages went astray, and subsequently I didn't review material that was sent my way. Whether those packages fell into different hands, or were simply returned to whomever sent them, I can't know. I do know that I have received fewer packages in the last year than I would have received in any month of 2004. Just as well, as I haven't had the same kind of time (or energy) to write to 2010 levels.

Over the last year, a couple labels and a few publicists have kept sending albums my way and I very much appreciate their continued support of my efforts to provide an opinion on the roots albums that are released. I rely upon two or three publicists who have kept me hooked up with CDs and additional digital links, giving me an opportunity to review material that I otherwise would not have the chance to write about. As well, Lonesome Road Review and Country Standard Time also send me albums when I have time to write.

I obviously can't be as choosy as Tremholm can be. While I don't like digital links nearly as much as the hard copy of an album, they are for me and I'm guessing most freelance music writers a necessary tool for writing about roots music in 2013. To suggest that we are simply an extension of the label or the publicist because we use digital downloads to write reviews appears to me to be utter nonsense.

One of my guiding principles since the beginning was to inform readers of the recordings I feel they should experience. My hope, through writing about roots music- bluegrass, folk, real country, blues, and the like- was to connect insightful artists making great music with the listeners who would appreciate their art.

To an extent, Trenholm and I are part of the machine- publicizing the art of musicians. But, I am not their tool:I am not an artist's representative advancing their music for a percentage or a fee.

Since I don't work for a large media outlet, I do rely upon artists, their representatives and their labels cooperation to supply me with a semi-steady diet of music, be it that which arrives in the mail or via invisible waves of magic. Therefore I have that much more of an incentive to be fair in my analysis. Within the world we are currently existing- one where independent labels operate on knife thin margins, and artists have to think hard about whether they can afford to send some music writer in Canada a CD- tossing the equivalent of a four to seven dollar bill into a padded envelope, and then paying an additional three or four bucks in postage- digital downloads make sense, both for the label and artists- and their publicist- and for the writer.

I might not like it, and Trenholm may not like it, but that is our current roots music reality.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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