Tom Hull reads my mind…sort of

I’ve been trying to mentally sort though issues dealing with modern musical distribution to fringe markets for several years now. And more recently the cost issues involved with promoting new CDs. Tom Hull comments on both issues in his recent Jazz prospecting post.

Jazz Prospecting (CG #14, Part 13) – Tom Hull

It would be so much easier to create and market music with niche audiences (call it art music or creative music or weird crap or whatever else you please) if we could dispense with the burdensome expense of manufacturing physical product. Downloads are cheap and easy to make, which may be why many critics don’t take them seriously.

Tom Hull:

Ayler Records has gone almost totally to download products — evidently complete with a do-it-yourself kit for their elegant artwork. I like the label a lot, but have trouble seeing what they’re doing as real.

I imagine that the same holds true for short run CDRs, and one off hand made packaging. The establishment has trouble accepting it as real. The packaging means so much to the initial perception that we never get to the music, which may be excellent…or not.

Since I did a few reviews on this blog, I have been getting promo copies of CDs from various sources. I often wonder about the expense of this, and I now understand why so many writers listen to so little of what is sent to them. It can be overwhelming, and some of it is real crap. Some of it is also really good, and I know there is a great CD laying on my desk somewhere, and I’ll never hear it because for whatever reason, it didn’t get my attention at the right time.

Hull speaks to some of these issues as he explains his “advance” flag:

One more note: I’ve decided to flag as “[advance]” every record I have to review in some condition significantly different from the form a paying customer would expect. Some of these really meant just to give writers a head start on deadlines, and sometimes in due course I do get finished copies — Blue Note, in particular, is very good about this. (Thirsty Ear used to be, but hasn’t been lately.) Others are specially manufactured promo editions — Cryptogramophone and Palmetto do slick but thin sleeves with no doc; Clean Feed has a weird wallet-like thing. Some send discs with no packaging (Smalls has started doing this). Sometimes I get a CDR and maybe a thermal print of the cover art, nothing more than a homemade bootleg. There are good economic reasons for all this corner-cutting, but I still find them annoying and dispiriting — enough so that I’ve broken down and griped about them every now and then. Hopefully the flag will save some of that while still keeping everyone honest. The whole system is intrinsically flawed: critics should be able to review real products, but can’t afford to; labels can’t afford to indulge every would-be critic, and don’t want to, resulting in a system that is by turns unreasonably skinflintish and unreasonably generous.

Read this line again, he nails it:

The whole system is intrinsically flawed: critics should be able to review real products, but can’t afford to; labels can’t afford to indulge every would-be critic, and don’t want to, resulting in a system that is by turns unreasonably skinflintish and unreasonably generous.

I don’t know the answers either, but it would be great if we could make adventurous music that could get a serious listen from those that wield the ink, without having to drop more money than the CD is likely to make on manufacturing a cool package.

BTW, Hull revisited Farragut later in that column. It still gets B+, and a pretty honest review.

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2 thoughts on “Tom Hull reads my mind…sort of

  1. This is a sensitive issue for all concerned. For 8 years Cryptogramophone dutifully sent full Digipaks to writers to show off our beautiful packages. However, 500 digipaks (which is about how many we used to send to radio and press) is about 1/4 of our average sales on a title these days, and most of these ended up on Amazon and the used bins before a title was even released. Since Amazon is now our biggest customer, we’re just shooting ourselves in the foot by giving away so many finished Digipaks. By now writers should know that we are committed to beautiful (and expensive) packaging as well as great music. They should also know that we will always send a finished copy to a writer if they ask for it. We understand the writer’s perspective on this issue, and we hope they understand ours. We will never deny a legitimate reviewer access to our Digipaks if they ask for it. It’s kind of like sex. We’ll even give it up on a first date if they ask nicely!

  2. That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about reviewer resale as a reason to send promo packaged versions. It makes a lot of sense.

    I just received copies of the Trio M and Alan Pasqua discs (both of which are quite good from what I have listened to so far), and I thought the reviewer sleeve was pretty cool. It took me a moment (just a moment) to discern that it wasn’t the final packaging.

    There is part of me that wants critics to have nothing more than the music and titles and musicians’ names. It makes the music speak for itself. Liner notes are cool, but listening before reading is always a good idea.

    The way I see it they are called music reviews not music package reviews. I’d love to see the day when mainstream music (or even jazz) press will give the music on a handmade CDR the same musical consideration that they give highly and expensively packaged and publicized releases. I will know that I can download (legally) the homemade stuff, and that when I buy a Crypto release that I will get well thought out and very cool packaging.

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