Eighteen months ago I wrote a piece saying how frustrating digital promos are. This week CMU confirmed I’m not alone.
The vast majority of music journalists in the UK are not ready to switch to digital-only promos, according to a new survey of music media people undertaken by CMU.
Following the announcement by Sony Music last month that they intended to phase out all physical promo CDs, so that in future DJs and journalists will only receive advance copies of their releases in a digital format, CMU surveyed 100 music journalists about the way they are ‘serviced’ by record labels and music PR companies. The first question we asked was how those journalists would prefer to receive advance copies of single and album releases.
75% of those surveyed said their still preferred to receive review and pre-release copies of music in a physical format, ie as a CD. Five main reasons were given to justify this preference.
First, many said that digital preview services that require a journalist to sit at their computer misunderstood how most reviewers go about experiencing new music before writing a review. Those journalists argued that before starting a review they’d listen to an album several times over, normally while at home, or on the move. A CD lets reviewers play albums on home stereos or in the car, or they can rip tracks to an iPod for previewing while out and about.
An UnCut journalist hard at work listening to the latest alt-country compilation.
Second, others, presumably those writing for older music consumers, argued that when they review an album they are not just reviewing a group of stand alone tracks, but the whole package that their readers may or may not wish to purchase. For them, that includes the packaging, artwork and liner notes, and the experience that you get from opening a new CD and putting it in your player for the first time. Digital-only previews do not allow such reviewers to get the “whole experience”.
Third, some of those surveyed were review editors, and a number of them said that the system they used to manage the commissioning and publishing of reviews relied on physical product, which can be placed in racks on a desk, and is therefore much easier to manage that processing a plethora of emailed links and digital files in folders on a computer desktop.
Fourth, those running more grass roots music magazines and websites pointed out that their reviewers were not paid for their work, and that a perk of the job was getting a CD in the post which, if they liked the album, they could keep. A digital copy was less attractive, especially if it was a stream, because there is not permanent “gift” to keep in that scenario.
Fifth, a number of journalists pointed out that the PC technology being used by some media – especially regional and local media – is hardly bang up to date, with some still using versions of Windows which first surfaced in the 1990s. For these people many of the digital preview systems simply don’t work.
Of course, it is probably inevitable that all record labels will move to a digital preview system eventually, the cost and time involved in pressing and mailing CDs to journalists being an obvious expense for cash strapped record companies to cut. But, while it seems that many reviewers will resist any move to digital previews, there is definitely a lot more resistance to streaming preview services than to MP3-based preview downloads. Of the 25 journalists who expressed a preference for digital promos, 18 said they preferred links to MP3s, while only seven preferred links to preview streams, ie the kind of digital previews currently being offered by Sony Music and most other labels.
In fact, while some journalists are resistant to any move from physical to digital promos, it is possible some of those hanging onto CDs are doing so because they are unimpressed with the stream-based preview platforms currently being used by record companies, certainly the majors. It is possible that an MP3-based preview platform could overcome many of the concerns raised about the move to digital promos.
But, in the short term, it seems Word magazine boss David Hepworth was probably right when he predicted that Sony will find turning all music hacks to digital promos very difficult and that “within a year, when they want reviewers to take notice of something, they’ll start sending out (physical) copies again”.