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Confessions of a Promo-CD Junkie: Who Will Stop the Music Industry Gravy Train? 

With so much music available at the click of a mouse, do tastemakers really need hard copies anymore? Is it worth the waste?

Wednesday, Sep 24 2008
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Some call it the gravy train, the gift that keeps on giving. To others, it’s a load of crap, and they cuss it. Every day it piles higher, this avalanche of music that arrives in tastemakers’ offices across the country, requiring both thoughtful efficiency and a cold-hearted detachment to conquer. The gravy train, it just keeps rolling along, pulling a bottomless trough of free music delivered to journalists, radio programmers, music supervisors and entertainment editors. Filled with new CDs — advances of forthcoming releases, full-art copies of fresh music, box sets from major labels, CD-Rs from budding bands looking for a break — each unrecyclable mailer is its own little plea.

Pay attention to my music, my story, me.

I matter.

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If only you would listen, you would understand.

Most of these packages arrive with a one-sheet band biography, each a narrative gem:

Michael Fitz found himself on an offshore platform, drilling for oil. He was desperate and needed money. Within the loneliness and desolation, Michael started writing songs ...

Or: Paul Geng is a singer-songwriter from Flushing, New York, and is an avid N.Y. Yankees fan. His third release, Modern Day Pygmalion ...

And: Five Four teamed up with composer and producer Jonathan Keyes to create an audio CD of 10 instrumental tracks ... inspired by the journey of Creative Director Andres Izquieta throughout Tokyo, as he developed Five Four’s fall 2008 line.

At times, these missives can be heartbreakingly lavish: The mailer will come stuffed with a CD, glossy photo, glitter, candy and folder fat with Xeroxed reviews, its sender oblivious to the volume of similar packages that arrives each day. Or the cute Miley Cyrus wannabe, whose promo-pic pose is so tarted up that you can practically see the label’s marionette strings stretched taut above her. Others are smart and efficient: a package with a CD and a single-sheet bio. These streamlined operations are sent from the professionals, who understand the avalanche, who participate and communicate inside this maelstrom.

For a music journalist, these piles accumulate quickly and come with a fundamental set of problems organized around a single reality: There is a lot of music being released in 2008, way more than even the most voracious music hound could possibly digest. The bounty therefore becomes something you have to deal with, like a farmer stuck with molding grain as winter approaches.

So then what? Do you throw it away, and let all that plastic end up in a landfill? Do you donate it to Goodwill, where some thrifty hipster will buy it for cheap? Do you give it to your friends? Do you sell it?

Often, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, the so-called “tastemakers” do just that. Of course, finding anybody in the music business to actually talk about this vast and ever-fluctuating underground economy is tough. Ask a publicist what he does with unwanted promos and there’s usually an awkward pause, as though you’d just asked after his porno collection. Few are willing to go on the record regarding their income stream for fear of being blacklisted, audited, or, Bono forbid, sued by Universal, which views every CD it sends out to tastemakers to be its property in perpetuity, long after the disc has languished in a crate somewhere. Last year Universal Music sued Pasadena-based eBay seller Troy Augusto and his Roast Beast Music Collectibles company for dealing in promo CDs. Universal claimed copyright infringement, arguing that Roast Beast had sold at least 15,000 discs that still belonged to the corporation. In fact, the label’s lawyers declared, even if Roast Beast had picked these promos out of a record-store Dumpster and put them on eBay, it would have been breaking the law; throwing away old promos is, to Universal, “unauthorized distribution.”

Ask the wholesalers and retailers who buy promos, and not only will they refuse to talk, but they will also urge you not to write the story lest you ruin their good thing. But flip through the used-CD racks at any record store and you’ll soon discover the volume of promo product unleashed on the entertainment world — and in no city is this bounty as great as in L.A. Rows and rows of CDs with the words, “For Promotional Use Only. Not for Sale.” Search “promo CD” on eBay, and pages of listings arrive. Hmm. Those CDs gotta come from somewhere.

“Everybody sells them, let’s be realistic,” says one prominent L.A. music publicist. “I’m sure employees at Universal do it. People at radio. Whenever you send out multiple copies of records, it’s going to happen. I mean, what am I supposed to do, send it back if I don’t want it and incur the postage? Or are they going to send a messenger to pick it up? It’s like the gays in the military: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. That’s how the majors look at it.”

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