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!

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