Three days ago a writer named Jordan Campbell wrote a piece on the Last Rites web site under the title “Your Carcass Is Leaking – The Surgical Steel Saga”. As the title suggests, what prompted the article was the recent leak of the highly anticipated “comeback” album by Carcass on the Nuclear Blast label — an album that isn’t due for release until mid-September. I saw references to the article, most of them complimentary, by several metal bloggers I keep up with on Facebook. It’s a lively, punchy diatribe, and I was sympathetic to parts of it, but the more I thought about it the more I disagreed with it. So I thought I’d provide a contrary point of view.
To explain why I don’t buy most of the arguments, I need to summarize them. Summarizing arguments with which you don’t agree runs the risk of failing to do them justice, so I’d encourage you to read it for yourself HERE. In a nutshell, Campbell makes these assertions:
Nuclear Blast is still living in the dark ages, ignoring the power of online media and limiting their distribution of advance album promos to print magazines such as DECIBEL. (“Essentially, they’re still mired in the old-world record label M.O., refusing to alter their business model until the roof collapses. . . . Thus, print mags get the advances, and their readers the spoils. Digital ‘zines get the album at the release date, if they’re lucky.”)
Nuclear Blast does this as a form of collusion with DECIBEL and its ilk, in which the print zines get content that will boost their advertising and in return they help promote Nuclear Blast releases. (“One filthy hand washes the other, and their iron fists lord high above the lowly ‘net serfs. We clamor for the scraps.”)
To make this business arrangement work, Nuclear Blast must prevent leaks, which is another reason why they don’t give promos to webzines. (“Along this winding road, the entire package is carefully kept out of undeserving hands, preventing the dreaded leak.”)
But the Carcass album leaked anyway — which serves Nuclear Blast right for trying to keep it locked up and out of the hands of “ruthless pirates“.
A Facebook post by Carcass’s Jeff Walker suggests that maybe the leak was planned by Nuclear Blast, as a way to justify the label’s continuing distrust of webzines and persistent refusal to share promos with them. (“Leaking the album is a perfect foil for those dastardly webzines, a calculated castration of colossal proportion. With one giant sweep of the scythe, the label has effectively sliced the legitimacy from any ‘zine that reviews the record from here on out . . . [and] they’ve made the fans feel guilty about having access to an album we’ve been waiting seventeen years to hear.”)
The article ends with these words: “So take that guilt over to the Nuclear Blast webstore and place your preorder, you freeloading fuck.”
Now, here are my reactions to all of this:
First, the author is just factually incorrect when he says that Nuclear Blast doesn’t provide advance promos of albums to webzines. How do I know this? Because we get advance promos from Nuclear Blast, and it’s obvious that other webzines get them, too. It doesn’t help your case when you begin with a premise that’s demonstrably false.
On the other hand, it’s true that Nuclear Blast and other large metal labels are selective in who gets their promos, and when they get them. Clearly, DECIBEL and other print mags with large distribution get them very early. So do web sites and blogs with high traffic. Less widely read sites like this one tend to get promos later (though there’s not always much of a wait), but still in advance of the release date. And of course many webzines and blogs don’t get promos until the eve of the release date, or they don’t get them at all. (FYI, we haven’t received a Carcass promo yet, but we’re still more than a month away from the release date).
Is this kind of “staging” of promos a dumb, outmoded idea? Before venturing an opinion about that, it might help to have some experience trying to run a big record label as a profitable business. I’m pretty sure Jordan Campbell doesn’t have any such experience, and I know I don’t. But it’s not as obvious to me as it is to him that it’s a stupid business decision.
For one thing, if you distributed promos to everyone at the same time, you’d tend to get reviews bunched together as well. It’s generally better for marketing purposes to have a plan — a plan in which new things appear week-by-week in the ramp-up to an album’s release. That’s one reason why labels (and DIY bands) also spread out their song premieres or music videos over time. It keeps the album visible over a longer period and helps build interest and anticipation. Obviously, you don’t have to do things this way, and many labels don’t. But that doesn’t make it stupid or backward.
There’s another reason why limiting distribution of promos and staging their distribution might make some sense: It tends to minimize the risk of leaks. Of course, that obviously doesn’t always work — the Carcass leak is a prime example. Is preventing leaks a dumb idea, too? Depends on where you sit. If you’re a fan who has no moral qualms about illegally downloading music, then stopping leaks is a bad idea. If you’re a label or a band who has a marketing plan and actually wants to make some money from making music, then seeing that plan get fucked up by a leak has got to suck. The fact that your efforts to prevent leaks don’t always succeed doesn’t mean you should just surrender, unless of course you don’t give a shit about making money from your chosen career.
When a record label gives a reviewer a promo, there’s a quid pro quo, sometimes unstated and sometimes explicit: You get to hear this music in advance, and in return you agree not to leak it or give it to people who the label didn’t intend to have it in advance. Now, if you as a reviewer don’t like that bargain, then don’t take the fuckin’ promo. But if you do take it, and then you violate the conditions under which you got it, you’ve just trashed the agreement you made. Your word is shit. If you never get another promo from that label or any others who find out about it, who’s really to blame?
Is it frustrating if you happen to be late in the staging process or don’t get promos at all? Fuck yes, it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating to see other web publications, especially ones you don’t think are as good as your own, come out with reviews way before you ever will. But that doesn’t make it a dumb business decision.
Does this process of limiting and staging promos involve another kind of quid pro quo — the kind that Campbell calls “collusion of the most transparent kind”, with “[o]ne filthy hand wash[ing] the other”? Is it just a carefully orchestrated mechanism for herding the mass of unwashed consumers, with both the label and the publication making money along the way? Do publications like DECIBEL or big-platform web sites twist their genuine opinions about music to suit the label’s goals so they’ll continue getting the privilege of way-in-advance promos?
I guess to know for sure you’d have to be inside DECIBEL or comparable highly trafficked web sites or know someone who is (someone who talks and tells the truth). I don’t have any personal knowledge myself. I don’t know about Jordan Campbell. But I know that I read plenty of negative and middling reviews in DECIBEL. I’m pretty sure that if I looked back through old issues of DECIBEL I would find negative reviews of Nuclear Blast releases among others.
I can’t say that I have personal experience of this kind at NCS, because our philosophy is to focus on recommending music we like and ignoring music we’re not prepared to recommend. But I can say that no label, large or small, has cut off our promos because we chose not to review releases or simply couldn’t get around to them. So while I’m not prepared to say the kind of collusion that Campbell describes never happens, I doubt that the level of caustic cynicism Campbell displays is justified.
Look, I’m not naive. I know there’s a psychological tendency to want to say positive things about releases you get in advance from metal labels, especially those very highly anticipated, high-profile releases by the bigger labels. And I’ve heard of one instance where a blog has lost access to a label’s promos after they’ve trashed some big release by the label. I’m just not prepared to tar the shit out of Nuclear Blast (which has been a mainstay of underground metal for a long fuckin’ time) and DECIBEL (which is far and away the best print publication about metal that you can find) without more evidence — and I saw no evidence at all in Campbell’s piece.
Speaking of no evidence, I’ll turn now to Jordan Campbell’s suggestion that Nuclear Blast intentionally leaked its own promo in order to justify its ongoing policy of restricting promo distribution. Hey, I get it: people love conspiracy theories, and lots of people are prone to believe that nothing is really what it seems, particularly when it comes to decisionmaking by businesses who try to shape consumer demand. But Campbell constructs his conspiracy theory on nothing more than this FB post by Carcass’s Jeff Walker:
You gotta do a lot of reading between the lines to get proof of an intentional leak out of this exasperated status. In fact, I don’t see anything in there which even remotely suggests that Nuclear Blast was behind the leak of Surgical Steel, unless “twat” is a code word for “our record label”.
It may make titillating reading to hypothesize that Nuclear Blast leaked what is probably their biggest release of the year, but seriously, it makes no sense. Nuclear Blast doesn’t need to justify their policy on promos. It’s their fucking business, they can do what they want with it, and I’m pretty sure it won’t hurt their sales one whit to keep doing exactly what they’ve been doing. Fucking up their own marketing plans and losing pre-order sales of an album as big as this one just to be able to say, “See! We told you so!”, just doesn’t make much sense to me.
I guess it depends on whether you’re the kind of person who likes to see proof before you accuse someone else of being a liar and a fraud. Once again, I don’t see any in Jordan Campbell’s article. What I see instead is a load of sour grapes.
Okay, now I’ve said my piece. Undoubtedly, someone out there will want to accuse me of being a shill for the larger metal labels. I’d suggest they read this first.
As always, your comments are welcome. Leave ’em below.