(NCS writer Andy Synn penned the following thoughts….)
So this column is something of a follow-up to my piece entitled “The Negative Zone” that was published last week (here), as there were certain issues and ideas touched upon there that I felt deserved closer attention, particularly the complex, convoluted, and sometimes downright chaotic, relationship between humble Metal blogs like ours, and the Labels, PR reps, and bands that we deal with on a daily basis!
Now, I’m not sure how many of you, or indeed if any of you, stop to think much about the various issues that go into running a blog like this, or whether you simply just enjoy reading the articles now and then (which is totally fine!). But it’s not just about making sure the reviews get edited and published on time (or, at least, in a timely fashion), there’s also a hell of a lot of work involved in managing the relationships that keep the gears turning and keep that content rolling in – all the while trying to maintain at least some sense of journalistic integrity and honesty!
Still, I’m sure you’re all aware that the NCS crew generally has a very good relationship with a number of different artists and labels, and that we’re also friendly (or at least cordial) with a number of other Blogs – even if we don’t always agree with them.
Although a lot of this stems from the fact that we’re all genuinely nice and charming people (gag), much of it can be attributed to the careful work of the site’s founder and progenitor – Mr. I. S. Lander himself – in establishing a positive working relationship with the various labels and agencies that we most commonly interact with, one that’s based on simple honesty and plain speaking.
As a result the labels, the bands, the agencies, the PR reps.. they’re all aware that we won’t go out of our way to bash an album or tear into an artist… but we also won’t lavish praise on something we don’t actually believe in (although, as I said in my last piece, that doesn’t mean we won’t be critical when we feel like the occasion demands it).
By and large, this approach works for us. It’s rare that we get a band or a label having a tantrum about something we’ve written, because 99% of them know full well that if we are going to take time out of our lives to write about something, it’s going to be because we actually… you know… like it.
As a result labels will send us their promos, respond to our interview requests, and offer us the opportunity to premiere songs/videos knowing that we’ll treat them fairly and with no ulterior motive other than a legitimate interest in the music on offer.
Even better, we also get a lot of voluntary submissions directly from bands – both big and small – who are looking for an honest write-up, with whatever praise and/or criticism that entails — bands who are often fans of the site and the way we write, and who are legitimately interested in what we’re going to have to say about their music.
To my mind this speaks volumes about the site’s reputation, amongst readers, bloggers, bands, and labels. I think (I hope) we’re largely known for being a very positive group of writers, more interested in building bands up than tearing them down, and for doing so with at least a modicum of integrity.
And I also think (hope) that because it’s been established that NCS is an ad-free zone, and none of us make a penny/dime from the site, both the labels and our readers are aware that we can’t be bribed or bought or finagled into giving positive coverage to something which we don’t think deserves it.
But nothing and no-one exists in a vacuum. Like it or not, sites like this exist as part of a complex web of interactions and relationships within the Metal scene, and the reviews which sites choose to run (or not run), and the criticisms they choose to make, can have lasting repercussions on their reputation and their ability to function.
I often wonder how other sites deal with the complexities and stresses that are part and parcel of playing around in the world of Metal PR. Indeed, sometimes I think I take it for granted how much of Islander’s original work in setting up the site and establishing its ethos helps to buffer us from the pressures that “the industry” can exert.
For example, I’ve seen a number of sites waxing lyrical about the recent albums by Kataklysm and Soilwork, two of the relatively “big” names in our particular corner of the Metal world. Indeed, I’ve legitimately seen the former described as a “masterpiece” by several other online publications… which struck me as odd. Because, as much as I enjoyed the album (as I enjoy most of the band’s back-catalogue, in fact) they’ve never struck me as a “masterpiece” sort of band.
And, without trying to sound too judgemental or cynical, I think a lot of the positive coverage I’ve seen for both albums is precisely BECAUSE they’re big names, and not necessarily because of any semi-objective assessment of each album’s overall quality and merits.
There’s an unspoken accord between the labels and the media (and I speak from experience here) that writers and reviewers have to “play ball” with the labels if they want, in any sense, to be considered “legitimate”. And, at its worst, this can result in writers having to kiss up to various labels and artists regardless of their personal opinions. And while there’s no editorial mandate or interference here at NCS (something for which I am forever thankful) I’ve seen it, or been reliably informed about it, at several other publications.
After all, think of it this way: if you run a blog/site/magazine, and especially if you’re trying to build it as a business, you probably want to maintain a positive relationship with the bands and labels (particularly the labels) that you deal with. They’re the ones with the influence, after all. They have both the carrot (access to artists and new releases) and the stick (an ability to blacklist you from promo lists, etc.), and the willingness to use either one of them.
So bashing a big name release… or even simply questioning whether it’s up to the standards you might expect from a “big” band… might not exactly be “best for business”, no?
So it’s no surprise that I see a lot of these overly gushing reviews – of both big bands and small bands – coming from smaller blogs and sites. After all, when you’re still trying to establish yourself in a field as crowded as the Metal blogosphere, biting the hand that feeds you is one way to make sure that you end up going nowhere fast. And that’s a sad, but eminently observable, fact of life really.
Similarly, it’s also no surprise that a lot of the “exclusives” – song premieres, videos, etc – go to the larger sites. Not just because they tend to have the biggest reach and the widest level of exposure to offer, but because we all know that certain sites enjoy a very “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” relationship with certain labels, with all the various kick-backs and perks that may entail.
And, again, this is the reason why so many people have started to see the idea of album reviews as superfluous in the digital age – because they feel like so many reviews and reviewers are simply in the pocket of the labels, either directly or indirectly.
Still, there’s more to it than just that though. There are more insidious ways that this sort of thing can have an influence on how, and what, you write. And I can give you an example from my own experience right now.
As you may, or may not, have seen, I recently reviewed the new Soilwork album, The Ride Majestic. I enjoyed it a lot. But it definitely had a few glaring flaws that I felt I needed to draw attention to. Not because I wanted to cut the band down to size, but because I felt it was better to be honest about these things. After all, just because I’m a long-time fan of the band, doesn’t mean that it’s obligatory for me to blindly love everything they do. And I hope that, as a discerning reviewer (no, I’m not going to use the word “journalist”), you can at least understand and engage with my reasoning, even if you disagree with my assessment.
Anyway, when the review was finally published we got a “like” from the band on the NCS facebook page… but without the usual “re-post” that we so often get when a band actually likes what we’ve written. And that says to me that although the band (or whoever runs their Facebook page) appreciated the time invested in reviewing the album, they didn’t want to share something that had so many critical points to raise. After all, they want to sell and promote their new album. They’re undoubtedly proud of it and pleased with it. So why would they – particularly in the weeks prior to its release – go to any lengths to disseminate a review that wasn’t wholly positive?
And I get it. And it’s not going to stop me considering things critically and carefully in the future in the same way. But, at the same time, I do somewhat miss the “bump” we’d usually get in hits and new readers when a band shares something we’ve written. Which is ludicrous really, when you think about it. Those numbers don’t really mean anything… and yet there’s still occasionally a nagging thought that “if I cover this album, I bet it will get more attention for the site…”
Still, it’s important to acknowledge those thoughts exist, just as much as it’s important to acknowledge that they shouldn’t be listened to. After all, reviewing a certain album might get the blog more “hits” and more exposure, but I’d still rather that any growth the site may or may not experience is built on a foundation of honesty and integrity, and that we’re respected more for the quality of our writing (or at least our taste in choosing what to recommend) than for the quantity of our Facebook fans.
Now, I’ll close here (because, wow, this thing went on much longer than I’d intended) with a little story, and a re-statement of the core values of NCS as a site.
It’s not exactly common knowledge, but some time ago NCS was named (amongst a list of other sites) as being part of some sort of elaborate conspiracy to “pussify” the Metal scene, for promoting a “hipster” agenda, and for being, essentially, a shill for the Metal labels. Something which I’ve hopefully undercut quite nicely with what I’ve written above.
After all, the simple ethos of this site is that we write about what we love. No-one, not the labels, not the bands, not even Islander himself, tells us what we can or cannot write about. We just love Metal and we like to write about it, to talk about it, and (on occasion) to yell passionately at each other about it.
If you don’t like what we like, if you don’t like how we write, you’re of course free to go read any of the other thousand websites dedicated to the Metal scene. But you’re also welcome to stick around and disagree with us. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you can do it like a decent human being. Heck, if you’re persuasive enough, you might even get us to change our minds!
Still, just in case it’s not clear, I’d like to state for the record that neither myself nor any of the other writers at NCS is part of, or aware of, any sort of “anti-Metal conspiracy”. As a matter of fact, the only person we’re in any sort of conspiracy with, is Satan…
PS – If you want more (and probably better) stuff to read on the topics I’ve touched on here, there’s two particularly great pieces which make many of the same points, as well as a number of extra ones, archived over at AngryMetalGuy, which I’d completely forgotten about when I first started writing this article, but which I was reminded of very recently by AMG himself. Hopefully you’ll enjoy what you find!