Monday, November 28, 2011

The integrity of Fanfare

Lately, Norman Lebrecht flung a cat among the pigeons with an article titled "How to buy a record review", in which he offered an exposé of unethical goings-on at Fanfare:
When Fanfare receives a copy of your CD, it asks you to take an advert ‘at special rates’. The bigger the ad, the larger the coverage. No ad, no guaranteed review. Simple as that.
This is accompanied by a copy of the letter that Fanfare editor Joel Flegler sends to the artists or labels. You can read some of the responses from Fanfare readers and contributors, as well as some labels and artists, and some outraged voices, below Lebrecht's article and also on the Classical Music Guide Forums.
Seeing as the Nereffid's Guide Awards, and my CD buying habits, depend on Fanfare and all other review sources having some integrity, am I shocked/disturbed/etc? Not really. You don't have to be an investigative journalist of Lebrecht's calibre (ahem) to notice that Fanfare's features section tends to have lots of adverts for the CDs whose artists are interviewed. I'd always assumed there was some sort of relationship between the interviews/reviews and the ads but didn't know exactly what it was. And of course the artists or labels tended to be toward the obscure or lesser-known end of the scale - it's not like they were chatting to a Gergiev or Domingo every issue - so, again, I figured the editorial decisions weren't based on how much of a draw the interviewees would be to readers. But, yes, I had noticed that the reviews accompanying the interviews were generally very positive. The ethical problem basically hinges on this sentence from Flegler's letter:
If you decide to accept the proposal, I won’t proceed with any aspect of it unless I find a critic who’s receptive to your CD.
To those opposed to the practice, this constitutes clear evidence that Fanfare is selling good reviews. But nobody seems prepared to go that step further and accuse its reviewers of being crooks, presumably because nobody actually believes that they are. My own thoughts on the whole affair are that it's an unfortunate practice but one that's probably necessary for the magazine's survival. As I said, the fact that the interviewees are also the advertisers is blindingly obvious, seeing as both are coralled in the same part of the magazine, which can be safely ignored if you wish (I for one rarely read the interviews). It might be appropriate if a brief editorial note made it clear what was going on. There's no indication that anything in the main reviews section is "for sale".
And now for the bit where we use science to address ethical dilemmas. Sam Harris would be so proud! Seeing as I keep records of all the reviews, I can tell you exactly how morally dubious Advertgate is. Every review I read gets a score from 1 to 5, where 5 is "outstanding" (the equivalent of a Gramophone Editor's Choice or a Classics Today 10/10) and 1 is garbage; 4.5 is "very good"; 4 is "good"; 3.5 is "good but..."; 3 is "OK, bad points roughly balanced with good"; 2 is "poor but...". Obviously these are based on my subjective assessment, but I try to be consistent in my interpretations.
Overall, if you discount "Hall of Fame" articles, Fanfare gives a CD an average score of 3.95 (that's based on the last 6 issues). But the average for "paid for" feature reviews is 4.18, while the average for reviews in the main section is 3.92. So there's a significant difference all right. In those 6 issues there were 312 reviews in the features section (in many cases, the same disc was reviewed by 2 or more people), while there were 2,388 reviews in the main section. Interestingly, I've marked 3 apparently paid-for reviews that gave a score of 1, meaning the reviewer regarded the album as rubbish, plus 2 that gave a 2; in these cases, there was either another, more positive, review or a positive review of another disc by the same artist. So not every reviewer is receptive. But, as you might expect, the reviews are largely positive: about 50% have a score of 4; 35% have 4.5; and 7% get a 5, meaning a rave. The comparative figures for the main reviews section are, respectively, 44%, 27%, and 3%. I wasn't actually expecting that last one to be so small compared with the "paid-for" figure: it shows a clear benefit of going with a "receptive" reviewer, as such reviewers seem far more likely to be wildly enthusiastic about a release. But Jerry Dubins, one of Fanfare's most distinctive voices, sheds more light on this in a response to Lebrecht and moves things further out of the ethical grey area:
The review is written first, and if it happens to be an especially glowing one, only then is the artitst offered the opportunity to advertise and be interviewed. If the artist accepts, great; then the magazine makes some money, and the artitst gets extra exposure in the form of an interview to go along with the already positive review. If the artist declines…and this is the notion it’s really important for readers to be dsabused of…the glowing review, which was already written, still gets published.
I can also compare Fanfare's average review scores with other sources that don't use star ratings or marks out of 5 or 10. Its 3.95 compares with 3.85 for American Record Guide and 4.1 for International Record Review; unfortunately I don't have Gramophone figures yet. So you might say that, on average, an album will be slightly more favourably received in IRR than in Fanfare. But of course IRR reviews far fewer discs than Fanfare - about 1,500 in the past year - so there has to be rather more editorial winnowing-out. An editor deciding that a disc isn't worth reviewing is a whole other kettle of ethical fish, and Divine Art's Stephen Sutton had this to say as part of his response to Lebrecht:
Without checking and from the top of my head I reckon that around 75% of our releases (averaging 40 a year) are reviewed in Fanfare, and only about 5% in BBC Music and Gramophone; we are lucky to get one review a year in BBC Music – and our advertising budget for all three is about the same
So I'm not worried that the Nereffid's Guide Awards are being corrupted by Joel Flegler's attempts to keep his magazine going. If anything, we can be thankful that Fanfare is bringing attention to new releases and artists that might otherwise be ignored. And of course albums that are otherwise ignored won't be making an appearance in the final shortlist anyway!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Montserrat Figueras

Montserrat Figueras has died aged 69 years. She and husband Jordi Savall have enriched the world of early music for a long time.
The music below is the Portuguese song "Senhora del Mundo", recorded as part of their album Francisco Javier: Route to the Orient, one of my favourite albums of recent years.

Added, Nov 24:
Blimey. Site traffic increased 16-fold because of this post. Hello new visitor!

A redesign of Gramophone

Back in May 2010 I posted these words:
The thing about Gramophone is, if it didn't exist, would it be necessary to invent it? Reputation aside, the answer has to be no, largely because of the existence of BBC Music Magazine, upon whose general style Gramophone has been gradually converging in recent years.
And now: a "new look" Gramophone! Obviously I am the only person in the world to have had the above thoughts, so you can thank me for single-handedly prompting the magazine's changes. All that bothers me is it took them more than a year to do exactly as I told them.
Actually it hasn't changed hugely, but Gramophone does seem to have refocused itself. Gone is the news section, which was increasingly indistinguishable from its equivalent in BBC Music Magazine, and the letters have been shoved to the back out of the way. Gone too are the columnists, which were at best a hit-and-miss business. And hurrah, "The Trial" has been adjourned; it always seemed an odd idea, that a magazine trading on its reputation for excellent reviewers would run a monthly feature highlighting the possibility that any one of them could be monstrously wrong. Unfortunately the invariably dull "My Music" remains (though hopefully it will never return to last issue's nadir, in which Beethoven fan Jon Voight moaned about how the civil rights movement was a cover for thugs and commies). The artist-related news/bumf in the front section remains, but it will be interesting to see how the features section progresses: this time, we get a decently long article on Naive's Vivaldi Edition and a reasonably substantial one on Jordi Savall. No "composers and their dogs" nonsense here.
Then come the reviews, which we are told "can run to greater length if needed", although they often seem rather too short, especially for those of us who plough through Fanfare every couple of months. And we are also informed that the "esteemed panel of reviewers are even more central", which appears to mean nothing other than the fact that the header of each review section is accompanied by some staggeringly unflattering images of a pair of reviewers. It's like the sketch artist's just come back from the trial of a paedophile ring.
Next comes "The Specialist's Guide To...", which is a good excuse to highlight some niche areas (this month, rare French operas; next month, pianist Paul Jacobs). Finally comes The Gramophone Collection, which is still the same as ever. Oh, no, not finally, there's the Musical Journeys thing and the hi-fi section. No "Tune surfing": a nation weeps.
So, is it an improvement? Yes, it's an improvement, if only in terms of Gramophone no longer being BBC Music Magazine's pompous uncle. It does feel rather different from that magazine again, and I appreciate the direction James Inverne seems to be trying to take. We'll wait and see how future issues go.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Almost the return of Nereffid's Guide

My contributions to now number two, both of them filed under "Classical highlights". The first provides short quotes excerpted from the reviews of the best-received discs in the September/October 2011 issue of Fanfare, while the second does the same for American Record Guide. I intend to do this for all future issues, and for Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine, and International Record Review.
So, the venue and the format may have changed, but I seem to be back where I started five years ago, when I first created an eMusic List highlighting what was in the latest issue of Gramophone. Some good things sprang from that initial attempt - not least of them the Nereffid's Guide Awards, soon to make its fifth appearance - so who knows what might emerge from musicisgood?
It's ironic, too, that this harking back to the olden days comes when it does: I fell out of love with eMusic when the site drew down the ire of its customers over adding Sony products; and at the moment there's yet more rage, this time as the company rolls out a completely new design that it seems to have forgotten to beta-test, or perhaps even alpha-test. This is all to "enhance your music discovery", apparently, although it seems to have involved removing pretty much all the tools that people used to find music and replacing them with adverts for editorial content. In the past I would say "ah well, at least the downloads are cheap" but at the moment I'm afraid to download anything because chances are it won't work but I could still be charged. At the moment eMusic seems to be nothing but a good-looking corpse, and even the "good-looking" bit is arguable.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

8tracks mix: Awards 2010, part VII

November? Seriously? Ah well, here it is at last - the two Living Composer categories. Refresh your memory of the awards here. Now sit tight and wait for the 2011 awards!

Monday, November 14, 2011

The EMI takeover by Universal

So, what does it mean for classical music that Universal now owns EMI's catalogue? Well, the first thing is that the regulators may get involved, given the market share that Universal could have in some countries - it would be close to 40 percent worldwide, and much higher in certain places. But let's say Universal gets to keep the full classical catalogue it's acquired. There's two aspects here - reissues and new recordings. At present, Universal seems happy to keep Decca and DG as separate units, so perhaps the same will hold true for EMI and Virgin and there won't be much impact on artist signings or releases. The reissues situation may be rather different though, both good and bad. Efforts such as DG's recent Mahler edition show the value of pooling catalogues, but on the other hand, how many recordings of identical repertoire will Universal want to keep in circulation? And now the recent copyright extension comes into play, because nothing's going to out of copyright for another twenty years, and Universal is sitting on 40 percent of it all. (Wow! It's almost as if European lawmakers didn't properly think of the consequences of their actions!)
So there's a massive opportunity here for consumers to get royally shafted. My guess is that there probably won't be much change overall and we'll continue to experience the exasparating mix of great bargain box sets and completely unavailable recordings. But oh, the potential for something wonderful is so great. If it were up to me, I'd just go completely bananas on downloads and put every damn thing online. Get World Heritage status for it, even.

Incidentally, a quick look at my own collection indicates that, combined, Universal and EMI account for 25 percent of the total. Sony and Warner together make up another 8 percent. This is, I imagine, rather low for a typical classical collection and reflects how my purchasing has been shaped by cheap downloads from independent labels on eMusic.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Introducing Stephen J. Nereffid

So, is now up and running, and the honour of writing the first post (after the original "welcome" notice) falls to one Stephen J. Nereffid.
Who? Well there was some discussion about what names we would be writing under. After all, we tend to know each other by our emusers or emusic nicknames, but these aren't necessarily appropriate for a blog that wants to be taken seriously. So we seem to have settled on real names or name-like pseudonyms. I thought about using my real name but by now the name Nereffid is so wedded to that part of my life that I couldn't part with it. Things like the Nereffid's Guide Awards would no longer make sense (and yes, I'll be writing about them on musicisgood as well as here next year). So Nereffid needed a first name, or maybe a pair of initials. Somehow the name "Stephen J. Nereffid" appeared in my brain early on in the thought process and refused to leave. I have no idea where it came from. Maybe it was a subconscious homage to Stephen J. Cannell. Maybe now I will have to finish every blog post by casting a sheet of paper into the air.