By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
I appreciate the argument that I’m hurting a band or a label’s bottom line by making money off something they sent me for free, though ultimately I disagree and think that selling and trading promos is better for bands than shredding them. At least my way, a potential fan might find a new favorite band at a discount rate.
I often consider the ethics of my decision, and have drawn some lines around my selling. Normally I use any money I receive to buy more music, and in this way I feel that I’m funding an arts grant writ small. Each dollar gained from swapping out mediocre music goes into a pool that I disperse to worthy musical geniuses. (These days, South American and African reissues, and black metal.) Also, I have a few hard-and-fast rules. First, I never sell a promo sent to me by an L.A. band. I don’t sell promos sent to me by small, interesting L.A.-based labels. There is also a list of artists and record labels with which I’m so philosophically attuned, that it would feel like a betrayal to sell one of their CDs. And I never sell a CD before its official release date, because I think leaking music on to the Web is lame, and does way more damage than selling a measly promo.
Everything else is fair game.
“I have a box under my desk, and it’s filled up every two weeks,” says one editor of a prominent national music magazine. “I really do try to listen to most of what comes in. And then I’ll keep the things that I really like.” The discs then go to a communal table for the staff. “The things that don’t get taken off the free table, I sell.”
At that particular magazine, says the editor, a promo buyer goes the extra mile. “Sur-prisingly, there’s a guy who comes in and buys from everybody in the office. But I think that’s pretty standard for a lot of publications — and specifically music publications. I know some places I’ve worked where the editor in chief could be morally opposed to it, in which case you have to do it more on the down-low. Some places, the editor knows that it’s happening and he kind of winks at it, and it’s okay. And some places the editor sells his own CDs.”
That was the case at a rival glossy, too, where, without leaving his office, one editor swapped music for cash. The editor, as well, had another buyer who made house calls and apparently still operates in New York. A door-to-door buyer cruises Los Angeles, too, but he declined to be interviewed for this story.
Like everywhere else in the music industry, the promo market fluctuates, and in the past decade the price for CDs has been dropping. For much of the 1990s, I bought new and used music for a Midwest record store (shout-out to Vintage Vinyl in St. Louis, up 11 percent from this time last year), and promos would arrive daily. Usually they’d come from one of the half-dozen entertainment reporters at the St. Louis Post Dispatch, or a freelancer, or a buyer from another record store. We’d pay $2 to $6, and about 15 percent more if you wanted store credit. When I sold my own stuff, it wasn’t unusual for me to make a quick once-over of my music room, gather two handfuls of major-label detritus and end up with a credit slip for $150. (Much of my current LP collection consists of transforming plastic into vinyl.)
But as sales of new CDs have plummeted, record stores have been forced to rely on used CDs to make up the difference, and the result is cheaper rates. Where new product might provide a 20 percent markup, used CDs are often marked up 200 or 300 percent. Stores make up for a loss of new-CD dollars by giving out much less for used copies. Those same two handfuls will only net me a $60 credit slip now. One magazine editor confirms that prices have tumbled in the past three years.
“Absolutely,” he says. “I used to work for a different publication — a much smaller publication — years ago, and you know those plastic mail bins? For a couple of those, I think I’d get $500. And it’s nothing close to that now.”
So as the prices drop and starving writers scramble to make up for lost “wages,” the question remains: What is the point of promotional CDs other than to serve as a visual reminder to a tastemaker? Do we really need them anymore? Is it worth the waste the mailings generate? And for music critics, does earning a spot on the gravy train even ensure that she will be more plugged in to the vast array of music available in 2008?