Sorting Out Fanfare‘s Ethics

Quite a flap is being made at various web sites over Fanfare magazine’s policy of not necessarily reviewing CDs whose labels don’t advertise in the magazine. I haven’t written for Fanfare since 1992, but from what’s being said, it sounds like the policy now is what it was then. Without wanting to cast myself as an apologist for crass commercialism, from my experience, it sounds a little overblown. You sent your records to Fanfare: editor Joel Flegler, whom I consider a wonderful if crusty old guy, would send them out to reviewers, without fail. If your label didn’t advertise in the magazine, there would be a little yellow post-it note on the record that said “optional.” Personally, I reviewed lots of optional records. Sometimes I would take a pass if I didn’t like the music, which has also been my policy at some other publications. Sometimes I’d review them all if I had the time, and I certainly tried to review all the ones I liked. So if you didn’t advertise, you might well nevertheless get reviewed, especially if it was a good disc, though you needed to buy an ad to guarantee it – and buying one didn’t guarantee a positive review. That’s a little different from “We won’t review your CD until you buy an ad,” which is the way some are making it sound. (For contrast, I probably reviewed one tenth of the CDs that were sent to me at the Village Voice, because that’s what I had room for, and buying an ad or not wasn’t going to influence anything. So you had a lot better chance of getting reviewed at Fanfare than at the Voice, and you could, if you wanted to spend the money, influence Fanfare, which you theoretically couldn’t the Voice – although, after the paper went free, it was occasionally gently mentioned to me that it would be really nice if I reviewed the organizations who advertised in it.)

Given the largely labor-of-love basis on which Fanfare was run, the paid ads seemed to do little beyond ensuring that the magazine would continue to appear. Nobody was getting rich off it, or even anywhere near well-recompensed. With so much massive corporate evil besetting the music business and everyone else from all sides, I have to regard poor little Fanfare as a rather uncharitably chosen target.

AFTERTHOUGHT: Besides, every newspaper of any size in the entire country reviews the local orchestra without fail – why? Because orchestras advertise in the newspaper. Every publication that runs reviews tends to give preference to the organizations from which it draws its income. Try getting your city’s biggest newspaper to skip the symphony, or the opera, one week, and come review your little new-music group. One reason you can’t is because editors base their decisions on not only income, but the number of people likely to hear an event or buy a recording. “Everybody else does it” may not make it right – but if the entire culture is at fault, if money has poisoned everything, if advertising revenue buys influence everywhere, why choose indigent little Fanfare to pick on? Start writing letters protesting the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, the San Francisco Examiner, the Village Voice, and then maybe we can eventually get around to publications run on love and a shoestring, like Fanfare.

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Comments

  1. says

    Yes, I agree that this is all a tempest in a teapot. I appreciated that Joel was upfront about it, when you know a lot of other publications do basically the same thing, only you’re always left wondering. While his prices are beyond the means of small labels, there are others that can afford them.
    Maybe the whole issue should be why do magazines like Fanfare *have* to have this policy in order to exist. Perhaps eveyone is getting all hot and bothered about the wrong thing, instead of focussing on the underlying problem that necessitates it.
    And really, with all of the things going on in the reality-based world, aren’t we spilling too many wasted pixels on this?

  2. David Cavlovic says

    I had my own little record label (Furiant) in the late 90’s (never made any money, though), and I am more than sure Fanfare reviewed one or two of them — and I never paid for an ad, and was not aware (my own ignorance, I’m sure) of the pay policy mentioned. Besides, who cares. That’s the way the business works. You really do have to pay for exposure. At least, in print. The Web, however, opens up vast and even unexplored ways and means of promoting “home grown”, shall we say, music. This is the future of creative music making. The days of DGG having an Avant Garde label that was TRULY avant garde, or mainstream labels issuing Jommelli or D’India on a massive scale are over, folks.

  3. says

    Well said, Kyle. In my youth I learned a huge amount from your Fanfare reviews and from those of other deeply knowledgeable Fanfare reviewers. Joel Flegler was the first person to publish my own writing, for better or worse. Oddly enough, Flegler’s strange business model tends to result in a preponderance of enthusiastic reviews for labels who do NOT advertise. When a disc labeled “optional” was below standard or without interest, I would often skip it.
    KG replies: Well, thanks, Alex. I didn’t know you were reading me back then. I love that for some people I meet, I’m still, “Oh yeah, the guy from Fanfare.”
    I’d stop short of calling Fanfare a great magazine – but what it provided was an atmosphere where the reviews ran from brilliant to idiotic, and I’m convinced that, if you work too hard to filter out the idiotic, you’ll filter out the brilliant as well. It’s a wonderful little labor of love, and I have to think that everyone’s getting their knickers in a knot only because 1) the magazine gets into every record store and looks kind of official, like it’s a subsidiary of Sony or something, and 2) Joel has a rather blunt way of expressing himself, and won’t sugar-coat his appeals for the money he needs to bring the thing out. But I’m starting to get insulted by the whole brouhaha, like those of us who wrote for it were all on the take or something. I wrote more than 600 articles for that magazine – for the free records and $2 apiece. I did it because it was fun and I was learning a lot. And now some bozos have decided I was part of a scam. Screw ‘em.

  4. says

    I wrote for Fanfare in the later ’60s when it was relatively new. I do not recall pressure to write good reviews, or even to pull punches in bad ones. Then I went on to bigger things (Ovation, NY Times Section 2) and for the past 16 years do TUROK’S CHOICE, a four-page review of new classical cds and dvds. I do not take advertising for obvious reasons, and thereby limit my profits, but as a one-man job that doesn’t matter as much. My policy regarding reviews is: anything I ask for, I eventually review. Items sent to me on spec, I listen to if I’m interested, and sometimes review. Good or bad review depends on what I hear, not the reputation or status of
    the performers. I think this is true of most critics I know, although many are shy about stating an opinion that goes against the received wisdom of the majority of reviewers. My experience is that reviewers care more about what their colleagues think of them than what their readers think of them. Paul Turok

  5. says

    This should be no big deal to those of us in the profession, but I’m glad Mangan pointed it out for the benefit of listeners, who could naturally assume that any recording reviewed was in there solely for artistic reasons.
    KG replies: You’re right. We should make a blanket announcement:
    Dear Music-Lovers:
    Nothing, not a single thing, in the entire professional music world happens solely for artistic reasons: not the Pulitzer Prizes, not reviews in Fanfare, not premieres by the Chicago Symphony, not honorary music doctorates at Harvard, not the Guggenheims, not the Nonesuch record contracts, not the Lincoln Center gigs, not the Meet the Composer orchestra residencies, nothing, zip, nada. It is all corrupted, if you want to use that word, by extramusical considerations. It’s all vastly affected by who you know, who you make look good, and how much money the people have who are trying to make money off of you. I hope you’re not too disappointed to learn this.
    It should be common sense that, if your CD is on Sony or Deutsche Grammophon, it’s going to attract more attention than if it’s on XI or Cold Blue. As Alex notes, Fanfare actually evens out the odds for the smaller labels, by leaving the decision to review in the hands of the people least impressed by label size – the critics.

  6. says

    You’re right. I think critics could make that kind of blanket announcement more often than they do.
    KG replies: If you’ll join me in advocating a disclaimer to accompany the Pulitzer Prizes (e.g., “This prize represents the most inoffensive piece submitted in a style the judges write in themselves, and is not guaranteed to be good music”), I’ll join you in advocating a disclaimer on the cover of Fanfare.

  7. says

    Hate to do this, but I have to leave you to yourself on that one. I wasn’t advocating disclaimers, just encouraging people to continue speaking up about these things.

  8. says

    Pay-for-review: It may be a cultural phenomenon; I won’t disagree with that. The practice is disgusting. Your defense of Fanfare is that it is among the lesser offenders? Your explanation makes clear how and why Fanfare cooperates in a slimy business practice. Are you absolutely sure you’re not defending this practice?
    KG replies: I am vouching that there is nothing whatever dishonest about the content of the reviews that appear in Fanfare. There is nothing else that I would read the magazine for. I regret that times have gotten so difficult that Joel has to be so aggressive for seeking funding to keep the magazine going. If the peripheral aspects of the magazine bother you that much, I suggest you not read it. I myself will continue without a qualm. I know many of the reviewers, and have full faith in them, and in Joel.

  9. Wayne Reimer says

    I don’t appreciate the condescending attitude of “how can the reader be so stupid as to think that the ads don’t pay for reviews”. In fact, it is not, in absence of any information to the contrary, particularly stupid for a reader to have imagined that the ads were placed because the entity placing the ad was simply doing advertising, pure and simple. Exactly in the same way that the roofing contractor with an ad in my local newspaper isn’t expecting a column about roofing, much less about their specific company, and I doubt the newspaper is promising special coverage in exchange for the ad.

    And too, there’s no good reason why a reader of Fanfare should be expected to have any particular understanding of the economics of the magazine or the role its ad revenues play in keeping the rag afloat. Even after all this yelling and screaming, it is still not clear that Fanfare advertisers would refuse to advertise without the guarantee of a review, especially since we’ve been told ad nauseum that the review is not guaranteed to be a good one. If they do think getting a review is the only real reason they should advertise in Fanfare, even if the review is potentially a bad one, I think they are out of touch with the readership and its buying habits.

    I suspect that the folks who have reviewed for Fanfare and have commented here may have a slightly inflated estimation of the value of a review to the advertisers. In my own buying during the many years that I subscribed to Fanfare, just seeing an ad for a recording that interested me was more important in getting me to buy the recording than was a review of it. I doubt I was unique that way. For a lot of collectors, many recordings within their range of interest are pretty much self-selling as long as the collector is alerted to their existence, and reviews are just thoroughly tangential icing on the cake.

    At any rate, if all this is so utterly ho-hum to industry insiders, I’d suggest it shouldn’t be that big of a deal for Fanfare to flag the paid-for-by-advertising reviews with a simple short notice saying that was, in fact, the case. Why not?
    KG replies: Again, as long as the reviews are honest and uncensored, I don’t see that editorial decisions about which records to review, no matter what they’re based on – and especially in this case where the decisions are made by disinterested reviewers – are any of the reader’s business, in Fanfare or any other publication. Think what you want, but I can’t imagine you’d ever find an editor who agrees with you.