Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

Freebie Jeebies

So I'm sitting at my desk minding my business and in shoots this email from NAJP fellow Orla Swift of the Raleigh News & Obsever:

Hi all,

I seem to recall someone conducting what I think was an informal survey of how many papers accept review comps for performances and how many pay for their tickets. Did someone in this group research this?

If not, can you just let us know your paper's policy? In the freelance budget crunch, the proposal to cut costs by accepting critic comps always comes up. Our policy -- not sure if it's McClatchy's -- is to always pay for events where our seat would otherwise be available to someone in the general public.


And here's my response:

Dear Orla

I always take comps, and see nothing whatsoever unethical about it--by the other logic, I should pay for all my CDs too, which would make rock (and all other, TV excepted and art a little bit) criticism even more a province of the upper middle class than it already is. When I was at the Voice and couldn't get a comp, the Voice would sometimes cover it, but I would always clear it first.

I must say that as I think about the ramifications of this issue, I get more boggled. Do you pay for interview time, too? Mais non--nevair. Yet which is more valuable to an artist--an hour or a concert seat? And which creates more of a sense of felt obligation? Detaching yourself from that interviewer's debt is one of the hardest lessons of celebrity journalism (which almost all arts journalism is like it or not), and one of the many reasons my preference as a critic is not to interview except under exceptional circumstances.

I may just blog about this at ARTicles. I seem to have half a post written already.


Let me expand on this a bit. First of all, I don't really know what "seat would otherwise be available to someone in the general public" means. Does it mean clubs are excluded from the rule, even though clubs "sell out" all the time (unless the artist's mother shows up, of course)? Does it mean only in cases where there are no dedicated comps at all, which in NYC (don't know about Raleigh) are just about nonexistent? The way it usually works here is that a label and/or publicist makes a pre-sale "buy" and then distributes the seats to insiders--if not journos, retailers or nieces and nephews. I guess when venues provide seats it's different--they can sell what they don't give away till the last minute (but almost always have a few spots squirreled away just in case, you know, the artist's mother shows up). The only cases I recall at the Voice are a few benefits, the Sex Pistols in Atlanta (paid three bucks, as I recall, and didn't have to stand in line, which was the big cost), and a must-see or two where I went to a scalper last-minute.

Editors are so weird about what does and doesn't constitute corruption. I can understand rules that you can't accept meals or travel (both of which I've done my share of). But what I told Orla is true. Personal relationships are far more likely to corrupt, compromise, or at least inflect coverage than free tickets and CDs (I can think of several excellent critics who I thought had this weakness). And like it or not, most good arts interviews simulate a personal relationship. Yet newspapers and magazines have such an exalted view of their own importance to the artist that they insist journalists would just as soon just be critics attain "access" by hook or by crook--AS LONG AS THEY DON'T PAY FOR IT. While for other journalists, usually but not always worse ones, the chance to hang out with creative/famous folks is a major attraction of the job--for which they pay in expressed affection. Dumb.

Lower down on the totem pole, meanwhile, are the tyros for whom freebies and access constitute a perk far more important than their cash pittance, if any. I've also heard quite a few tales of publicists who treated established moi with kid gloves insisting on a quid pro quo with newbies at college papers and radio, and being quite explicit when the resultant copy did not meet their professional standards of obeisance.

Then there are the publicists who won't give established moi bubkes because--I suspect--they doubt they'll get anything they want in return. But that's between me and my amour propre.


By Gary Knight on November 25, 2008 9:13 AM

Hi Robert,

I was wondering what were some specific instances early in your career that made you aware of interviewer's debt (either personal experiences or ones observed), which lead you to be more selective when it came to conducting interviews.

By Yvonne on November 27, 2008 5:13 AM

Years ago I spoke to a music critic about the matter of comps. He explained that the presenter giving you a comp ticket was effectively your invitation/imprimatur to review. And that if he purchased a ticket (or if someone else purchased one for him) he was attending as a private person and not therefore entitled to report on the event in print. Along with that idea went the view that if the presenter took objection to a review that was not written "at their invitation" (i.e. on a comp) the critic/publication might be in more of a spot than otherwise.

This was, of course, long before widespread use of the internet and blogging and so on. I do wonder what this same critic would say now. You've inspired me to ask.

Articles, Nov. 21, 2008

Straight Dope Prog-ress