As you might have read two weeks ago in Michael Miner's media column, Hot Type, Reader music editor Kiki Yablon recently fielded a call from 2K Sounds, a label in Woodland Hills, California, that entered into a joint-venture agreement with Virgin Records earlier this year. The label representative, Alex Waterworth, asked Yablon if she or any of her writers would agree to send him demo tapes of local artists they thought could "make it." If any of the acts were signed to the label, he promised, the sender would receive half a percentage point on record sales--five or six cents per CD. For an honest journalist such an arrangement would be a clear conflict of interest, akin to insider trading, but when Miner followed up on the call, Waterworth told him that he'd approached papers in seven states--Illinois, Ohio, Minnesota, North Carolina, Missouri, Kansas, and Massachusetts--and that Yablon was the only editor to have said no.
That may be, but after calling 17 alternative weeklies in those states, I couldn't find many people who'd said yes either. Dave Chamberlain at New City says he told Waterworth he couldn't accept any money for leads on artists and never heard from him again. Franklin Soults at Cleveland's Free Times says he told Waterworth the offer didn't sound ethical but didn't give him a definite answer. "It seemed like I'm either a critic or I'm an A and R guy," says Soults. "I hadn't completely made up my mind, and I thought I had to talk to other people about it." Only two of the twelve editors I reached had actually sent demos to 2K Sounds, and both had drawn some sort of ethical line: Andrew Miller of Kansas City's Pitch Weekly declared that he would turn down the money, and Sara Farr at Dayton's Impact Weekly said the bands she'd recommended were personal friends, so she couldn't write about them anyway.
All the editors I interviewed seemed to grasp the concept that covering music for a newspaper and being on the payroll of Virgin Records were antithetical, which I suppose is some kind of victory, given the fact that so many publicists seem to think we're all in the same business. But the range of responses shows how confused journalists at alternative papers can become when questions of fairness and honesty collide with the issue of covering local music.
Not long after Miner interviewed Waterworth, he got a fax from Jorge Hernandez, executive general manager of the label. Hernandez, trying to defend the "A and R research program" without addressing the financial component, wrote that in his experience there were two kinds of music journalists: "those who...were excited about local music...and wanted to do whatever they could...to give young worthy artists exposure" and those who "rely solely on their own personal taste and bias to pick which artists to write about." The label's proposition presented no ethical dilemma, he argued, because "if you're trying to further the cause of local music then letting a record label know about your local music scene can only help local artists potentially reach a larger audience."
I guess that makes me one of the bad guys, because all I'm willing to do for local bands is listen to their records and check out their live shows. Some time ago I was cornered at a party by a local musician who demanded to know why the Reader didn't support local music. I pointed out that this column, normally written by Peter Margasak, is devoted almost exclusively to local music, and I might have added that the Reader is the only paper in town to list every local concert every week. But by "local music" he of course meant his band, and by "support" he meant something other than "cover." Like Hernandez, he seemed to feel local music was a cause and that the paper had a duty to promote it.
This perspective has its defenders on the inside as well. This summer I participated in a roundtable discussion on local arts coverage at the annual convention of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, and many of the editors there seemed to believe that boosting local acts was part of their charter. Writes Pitch Weekly's Miller in a recent E-mail, "Music editors for alternative weeklies have an obligation to act as catalysts for positive change in their music scenes, making suggestions for improvements in their columns, championing the best musicians at every opportunity, and criticizing what isn't working."
But once you take on the subject you cover as a cause, where do you draw the line? Even those who would never consider 2K Sounds' proposition wander into gray areas: many critics have written liner notes for records, or own record labels, or play in bands themselves. (Including me, but by telling you this, am I making a full disclosure or promoting myself?) And I would venture to say that all of us have friends who play music professionally. Chamberlain--whose Raw Material column, like this one, is devoted to local music coverage--says he's assisted local bands out of friendship, "but not in an official capacity; more along the lines of giving people ideas in terms of record labels to contact, PR firms to contact, names of other people who can help them more than I can, etc." When Brian Lindamood, the editor of Columbus Alive, gets calls from bands he doesn't know asking whom they should book as an opening act, he'll name a half dozen local bands that might be appropriate, but also tries to make clear that he isn't necessarily recommending any of them. "It's an important distinction for me for a simple reason," he told me. "I don't want word going around the music scene that I'm helping bands get gigs. The bands I cover need to know that I'm fair and honest."
Reader critics face all these issues and more, but as an institution the Reader doesn't subscribe to the booster theory. "The paper as a whole gives a certain priority to all things local," says Yablon, "but the way it supports the local music scene is simply by paying attention to it--and by respecting local acts enough to hold them to the same standards as national acts." Of the 90 Critic's Choices I've written in the past four years, nine of them touted local artists--but all nine were world-class. How did I decide they were "worthy"? I used my "personal taste and bias"--in other words, my own informed judgment, the same thing 2K Sounds has asked journalists to use in selecting demos to send in. If they really want to know which local bands we think are great, all they need to do is read the paper.