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According to GalleyCat, the Federal Trade Commission will fine independent bloggers up to $11,000 if they fail to disclose that they’ve received a product for free. This means book reviewers who get books for free, music reviewers who get music for free, stroller reviewers who get strollers for free, have to say as much in their reviews or risk massive, disproportionate penalties.
The FTC has argued that this standard doesn’t apply to traditional journalism outlets because “the newspaper receives the book and it allows the reviewer to review it, it’s still the property of the newspaper.”
It’s an innocuous but offensive requirement, but I’m more interested in the FTC’s imagined relationship between publishers and record labels and journalists and newspapers.
For one thing, the free CDs, books, and movies that come to the Washington City Paper come to individual journalists, not the paper, and if we like these cultural artifacts enough to review them, we often take them home with us and keep them, though we never ever say this in our reviews because no one gives a shit. In over a year here, I’ve never seen someone ask permission to take something home (though I have witnessed email fights over who gets to take what when supplies are limited).
Ergo, the boogeyman of unreported paid advertising is already happening. Music writers, for instance, do it for a living. The New York Times doesn’t let writers keep promos, but the Washington Post does. The great Robert Christgau even sold the stuff he doesn’t like (according to my colleagues, this is still quite common and completely ethical).
And with regards to the future of music writing, where physical review copies are going the way of the podunk paper and its foreign bureau, things are about to get murkier. Will it still count as compensation if a label sends you a stream which you can access for a set amount of time for free, but which expires after two months? What if they send you files you can keep forever and ever—does the FTC have a system for tracking any of this? Does it have a system for measuring value? Is it going to raid WCP’s offices now that I’ve admitted we get to keep all our promo shit?
The FTC’s theory about how reviewing works sounds like imagined order at best, misguided favoritism at worst, and I hope to bring it up at the Future of Music Coalition‘s Policy Summit tomorrow, where I’ll be a panelist on “Critical Condition: The Future of Music Journalism,” along with Maura Johnston of Idolator, Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune and NPR, WaPo‘s David Malitz, Tom Moon at NPR, Scott Plagenhoef of Pitchfork, Casey Rae-Hunter of the Future of Music Coalition (and frequent WCP contributor), and a few other superstars.
If you haven’t heard about the summit, you should go to this website now. I meant to post on this sooner, as the FMC’s panels are absolutely amazing. You can watch a live stream of the proceedings at the same link.