Christopher Nosnibor’s Guide to Being a Music Reviewer – Part Seven: Negative Equity for Working? No Thanks!

I’ve written previously on the economics of the music industry and some of my experiences working as a music reviewer. And yes, I do mean working: just because I enjoy it, doesn’t mean there isn’t a considerable amount of time and effort involved. There are deadlines and word counts and chaser emails from editors and PR people. And there are standards to maintain.

I recall the Musicians’ Union campaigning against venues with ‘pay to play’ policies back in the 90s, and this practice does now appear to be rather less prevalent. There’s also currently a substantial movement campaigning on behalf of workers – writers and artists in particular – with a view to prevent exploitation, and to stop people being pushed into working for free. While zero-hours contracts – and I’d like to think it goes without saying I’m fundamentally opposed to them – have been a hot topic of late, the vast swathes of people working for free, ‘for the exposure’ or to ‘build their portfolio’ as they’re so often told, have been largely overlooked.

I write music reviews. It’s not my day-job, because writing music reviews at the level I operate doesn’t pay. I’m ok with that. I used to spend a lot of money buying albums and going to watch bands play. Now I don’t. But I am still very active in supporting, and, effectively promoting music. I spend long hours typing up reviews. I’ve spent a decade straight doing this now. I’ve seen some incredible shows, conducted some hero-worship interviews and heard more amazing albums than I could have ever imagined. But churning out up to 1,000 words a night and working past midnight seven nights a week on top of a challenging day-job and parenting means it is very much for the love rather than the money. But I view it rather like bartering: I receive an album or entry to show in exchange for writing which may further the artist’s career. I feel no guilt over this, especially if an artist has hired a PR company: their job is to attract media coverage by sending representatives of said media copies of the album or inviting them to shows in the hope that they’ll provide coverage which is positive. A positive review is, ultimately, marketing and promotion. If a PR fails to attract significant media attention, then they’ve arguably failed in their job. But they still get paid. It’s not necessarily their fault if the press don’t bite. But of course, if they do, then the PR has done a good job, justified the expense, and probably helped shift some units.

So why would an artist or label undermine this? I recently experienced an unusual and frustrating situation, where a local (sort of) band I like launched their new album, at a venue I like, promoted by a national PR I’ve been in contact with for quite some time. The gig came to me via the editor of a site, and it was he who arranged it with the PR. On arrival at the venue, I was informed that I was on the list, but that it was a ‘cheap rates’ list, rather than an actual guest list.

I accept that things sometimes go wrong, that communication chains break from time to time: the guest list doesn’t get passed to the guy on the door, or your name hasn’t been added to it, or you’re not marked as having a +1. It can be embarrassing. But there’s no point making life hard for the guy on the door: he’s just doing his job (even if often they’re not interested in being shown the email confirming that you’re on the list with a +1, because, well, you could be anyone and besides, there’s a queue of people with actual tickets to deal with).

Music reviewers are often accused of freeloading, of being liggers – an accusation I’ve faced myself. But as a writer, I’m not getting something for nothing: my side of the deal is to actually produce copy in exchange for my free pass. Do other journalists face the same criticism? Can you imagine a news journalist being told ‘you like news, you should write news articles for free’? Or, to offer a slightly different perspective, imagine a producer pitching to Jamie Oliver, ‘well, you enjoy cooking, so why should I pay you for your time to do it on TV? It’s just a hobby, right?’

Let’s look at this in terms of the broader picture. People usually work for an hourly rate, or otherwise on a by-job basis. The minimum wage in England is £7.50 for over 25s. I’m way over 25. So, if I arrive at a gig having been informed by a PR firm hired by a band or label that I’m on the guest list for a show, with a +1, I should be able to reasonably expect that I will be allowed entry to the event as a non-paying guest, with the expectation that I will provide coverage and therefore media exposure for said artist. Because, after all, my review is work.

If it’s only a £6 gig, and it lasts 4 hours and takes me 2 hours to write my review, then I’m working for well below minimum wage. But I accept that, it’s the nature of an industry in which there is no money once you’re below the top 5%. But to arrive at a show to be told that no, I’m on the ‘discount ticket’ list and that I have to pay £4 to get in… well, that’s different. It may sound petty to piss and moan about paying £4 to get into a £6 gig up the road from your house, but it’s not actually about £4. It’s about the fact I’m expected to pay to provide a band or event with exposure.

You wouldn’t hire a web developer and ask them to pay to build you a website, would you? Or tell your builder that you’re going to charge him to build an extension? How many would walk into a restaurant and tell the chef he’s got to pay you to cook a meal? So why would it be different for a music reviewer?

I accept the depressing reality that we live in a culture where everyone wants something for nothing, thanks in no small part to free music streaming sites, YouTube, and crappy internships. But as of now, I’m done paying to work.

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