Do it yerself. For my interview, let’s.
Q: How did you become a reviewer?
A: I’m home-made. Having lived in the US when I started out, I had read all the usual suspects in the American hifi press. Reading a lot, one naturally gets influenced or patterned by how various writers approach the task. Osmosis is unavoidable. I never tried to emulate anyone in particular but writers I enjoyed for different reasons were Corey Greenberg, Art Dudley and the early Harry Pearson.
Q: Do you have any formal qualifications to being a reviewer?
A: None whatsoever. If I have any qualifications at all, they’re informal and incidental. By training I was a classical clarinetist. As a German who didn’t emigrate until his early 20s, English is my second language. At school one doesn’t really learn conversational living English. It’s just some basic vocabulary and stuffy grammar to ace the tests; and the occasionally volunteered answer to a teacher’s question when one feels lucky. My chance to get conversational was India. Everyone’s accent there was just as funny as mine. I wasn’t about impressing anyone or feeling self-conscious but getting a reliable cabbie to take me from Bombay to Poona without being ripped off; and then finding the Ashram and a place to stay. When you’re 18, six weeks of total immersion can do wonders for whatever rudimentary school English might percolate in your system.
Q: So no qualifications as a writer then?
A: None. My only formal education was as a musician. Everything I did afterwards was boot-strapped and self-taught.
Q: How did you arrive from the conservatory in Germany to launching 6moons in Taos, New Mexico?
A: By a circuitous route. The experience in India derailed me from the conservatory track. The relocation of Osho’s commune from India to Oregon moved me there. When that experiment in the high desert ended, I moved to Los Angeles to take care of the more worldly business I’d neglected. You can’t really live as a sadhu in the West. Getting my material bearings entailed various unskilled labor. After the usual construction and sales jobs, I discovered Pilates in Beverly Hills to become an instructor. Then I took a 2-week massage course in Harbin Hot Springs and worked as a masseur for a chiropractor and later as outcall masseur. I also bought a Pilates reformer and had private clients.
Moving to the Northern Bay Area got me involved in first hifi retail, then hifi sales & marketing for Mesa Boogie, Meadowlark Audio and finally Soliloquy Loudspeaker Company. Reading audio reviews began in the Santa Rosa hifi shop. Working for these three audio manufacturers included dealer visits across the US, many CES exhibits and procuring reviews from Stereophile and web-based publications like SoundStage (I know exactly what it’s like to be on that side of the fence).
I subsequently began to contribute music and hardware reviews to the early Positive Feedback, SoundStage and EnjoyTheMusic. At Soliloquy I’d taken on website maintenance to learn the very basics of Adobe GoLive. Adding up these various stops, 6moons would seem quite predestined in hindsight. I simply can’t take credit for knowing any of it. I only followed my life’s path as it manifested itself. If anyone had it all mapped out, it certainly wasn’t me. I did though have trust that it was and still is mapped out.
Q: Is it a dream job then compared to other things you’ve done?
A: For me it is. I get to work out of our home and live in beautiful places. I’m master of my own time. Having an idea, I can turn it into a decision or an editorial and implement, write and publish it nearly instantaneously. All that appeals to me. Just as vital is not being in conflict. If you work for someone else, a certain amount of conflict and compromise is inevitable. If you’re self-employed, those shackles are off (as is job security). Absence of conflict leads to enthusiasm. Enthusiasm leads to giving it your all. Giving all of yourself to the job leads to getting reasonably good at what you do. That’s because you’re honestly motivated to improve yourself. You mean to see how far you can go since nobody is holding you back but yourself. All of that tends to lead to a certain amount of success. After all, success thrives on enthusiasm and self-improvement. It’s contagious and self-revealing.
Q: So no shadow sides?
A: It wouldn’t be life without shadows. The main thing is to enjoy what you do; and stop doing it if you no longer do. That has to be managed.
Q: Your site has grown a lot over the years. Do you consider yourself part of the establishment now?
A: That would be for others to answer. I have little sense for how I’m perceived unless people tell me. I’m aware of course that just as I looked at my peers when I started, others who started much later might now look at me in a similar fashion. That would be the natural way of things.
Q: Do you think of yourself as an expert?
A: Not really. I’m very aware of how much I don’t know. In that sense I’d expect more of a true expert. Given my background of trained musician, hifi retail, hifi sales & marketing and now reviewer for more than 12 years, I have a reasonably well-rounded grasp on the industry I’m writing about. The endlessly revolving door of equipment loaners makes for intense exposure and all of that creates experience. In terms of formal training however, that’s not exactly the same as an expert.
Q: You’ve gotten into syndicating various magazines and writers. Tell us about that.
A: I enjoy networking. Being home-based, I liken myself to a spider that weaves a vast net. You’re in the center of it building away. What really happens at the outer fringes you don’t know nor is it your concern. You simply focus on building a solid net, grow its reach and maintain it to the best of your ability. Naturally I have sufficient feedback and other signs to believe that a good number of people benefit from this in various enjoyable or useful ways. As a serial expat (Germany to the US, US to Cyprus, Cyprus to the French part of Switzerland) with many smaller moves in-between, I don’t feel attached to any particular culture or place. My musical tastes too are quite polyglot. All that and my quasi Buddhist world view have me feel like a citizen of the world. Hence I deliberately created a job that would reflect and exploit that. Combine that global view with networking and presto, syndication is a natural outcome.
Q: How do you pick your syndication partners?
A: Fairaudio.de came about because co-founder Jörg Dames visited us in Cyprus whilst on vacation. They were about to launch. I enjoyed his perspective and personality. I suggested that English translations of their German reviews would accelerate their growth. He and Ralph thought it a worthwhile notion. HighFidelity.pl came about later. Wojciech Pacuła had observed the German connection and asked whether I could do the same for him. I bowed out after a few years when he decided to syndicate with three other publications. John Darko is a younger fresher voice I really enjoy and want to be associated with. Joël Chevassus started reviewing for us and subsequently launched the French Audio-Magazine.com. That collaboration was a natural. The same is true for Edgar Kramer in Australia who now sits in the Editor’s chair for their domestic hifi print magazine. Having had a lot of help from contributors who joined me over the years, I enjoy being in a position where I can help others now. That too is the natural way of thing. With success comes an obligation to give back.
Q: Are you looking for more partners?
A: I’m always open. The idea is to be a win/win. The main issue is language. I’m only fluent in German and English. Someone else would have to do the translations. I can polish those if the meaning is clear. I can’t do them from scratch. Given that, such a party could prefer to publish their own translations on their own site. Our main contribution could be our larger reach if they’re newer and serve a narrower language-based market. We’d drive traffic back to them to accelerate their growth. If it is quality work, I’m interested.
Q: Part of your job as publisher is to edit your contributors. How heavy-handed does that get?
A:It’s very subtle. I merely edit for language and grammar and factual errors. I never edit for meaning. I wasn’t there. I don’t know what it sounded like. If I didn’t trust my writers to call it as they heard it, I shouldn’t have them on my roster in the first place. But I will stress that a publisher’s job does include editing to make his writers look their very best. I have a real issue with reviews whose copy is riddled with language errors and factual mistakes.
Q: In a recent editorial on 6moons, you called the existing ad-based publishing model badly broken. Care to elaborate?
A: I pretty much said it all here and in subsequent replies to readers in our letters/feedback section. The basic premise is very simple. Regardless of the actual percentages which differ from magazine to magazine, in this model ad sponsors fund the operations so their competitors can get free reviews. For 6moons that percentage is about 30:70. 30% of manufacturers support us, 70% do not. Since I do this for a living, ‘something for nothing’ not only is a very strange business model, it’s imbalanced and unfair to those who cough up.
My preference would be for an ad-free publication where I and my writers are paid a fee for our time just as any other service profession would bill. A 1000 word review with 5 photos would have one fee, a 5000 review with 25 photos and a designer interview another. A senior contributor would get more than a rookie and so forth. It would level the playing field and eliminate the current freeloaders.
Obviously paying for time can’t pay for opinion. Judges, arbitrators, referees and inspectors are all paid to render independent judgment. Why can’t reviewers? I find it ludicrous that in the current model, a manufacturer can’t ask, “how much will it cost to get a full-featured review?” Such a question is properly respectful of a professional’s time and how all service professions operate. Yet we must answer with, “we can’t charge you for our time and expertise directly so please speak to our ad department”. What if a manufacturer doesn’t want an ad? “Sorry, no can do. We can’t bill you directly. Buy a short-term ad so we can afford to write you a free review.”
There’s an old proverb. You get what you pay for. This doesn’t invalidate hobbyist reviewers who do it for free. Their payment is constant access to exciting equipment often beyond their means; and the occasional option to acquire it at dealer cost if they’ve earned that privilege. For those who’ve decided to turn reviewing into a full-time job however, remuneration is an obvious must unless they’re a trust-fund baby or otherwise subsidized. For our kind, my opinion is that the ad-driven publishing model is badly broken and ought to be replaced by a fee-based model. It would be far more honest all around.
Q: Wouldn’t it cross obvious lines?
A: If your opinion is for sale, it doesn’t matter whether you’re paid by ad revenue or directly. You’re crooked no matter what. If it isn’t for sale, it doesn’t matter either. What does cross the line is expecting professional time, professional expertise and professional results for free. I think that is one solid reason why so much of the reviewing sector feels so amateurish. In the end you do get what you pay for.
Q: But obviously most reviewers aren’t formally trained.
A: Quite so. A building inspector carries a license, is beholden to oversight and regulatory compliance. Reviewers are self-made. What higher regulatory authority do they answer to? Only to their own sense of fair play. In theory this includes the publisher but in practice most weren’t there. They only see the outcome in the submitted word doc. They didn’t observe the process which led to it. A reviewer’s credibility and associated perceived professionalism is built solely on their body of work over time. It’s out there in the open for everyone to see. Do it long enough, be consistent and fair, have your publication present you in a visually attractive professional manner and eventually you are ‘made’. And I argue that’s when reviewers should be treated accordingly. That their gestation period happens in public as quasi training on the job is simply a peculiarity of our sector.
Q: What’s your take on objective vs. subjective reviews?
A: If the purpose of hifi gear is an emotional experience, one can’t apply scientific measurements to determine whether it delivers or not. An emotional experience is intensely subjective and beyond the scope of science as we know it. We still can’t dissect a human cadaver and end up with a molecule for love and passion. We can’t look at a square-wave, waterfall or impulse response plot or a graph of frequency response vs. phase and determine emotional satisfaction. If the purpose of hifi gear is far more prosaic and merely about converting what’s been recorded into sound, objective measurements ought to determine how much distortion and alteration this process involves. But as particularly the measurements of Stereophile have shown for many years, there’s often very little correlation between reviewer opinion and accompanying measurements.
My take on it is pragmatic. Reviewing is subjective so the reviewer better communicate her biases clearly. Reviewing must be useful. That means consistency. I call it the objective part. Apply the same yardstick for each and every review; or communicate clearly when your yardstick has changed. If everything is treated the same, the result is consistent subjectivity. That’s the best we can hope for.
Q: Do you have any personal beef with the present state of reviewing affairs?
A: I can really only speak to on-line publications since I haven’t read a print issue in years. Here I’d point at blurred lines between blogs, forums and formal publications; and the related question about what makes for a legitimate independent review. One can find top-class reviews in so-called blogs and writers with more tech savvy in forums than magazines. Blurred lines aren’t bad per se. They just make it harder to know whom to trust. Blogs can include shills who are paid to act as owners and talk up gear or trash competitors. Forums are filled with opinions not based on any first-hand experience whatsoever. Magazine writers make mistakes, moonlight as manufacturer’s PR personnel or consultants. With overabundance comes broad variety. The onus is on the reader to tell them apart. Opinions are a dime a dozen. Credible educated opinion is a different matter.
I have personal issues when magazines don’t declare industry affiliations of their contributors; disguise press releases as reviews; copy a maker’s web verbiage verbatim; don’t correct factual mistakes; are superficial in their reporting; don’t conduct comparisons; don’t ask questions; allow even high-profile reviewers to work exclusively with loaners rather than get financially invested in their tools; don’t take their own photos; don’t show the reviewer’s room; publish technically competent but boring-to-read reviews; talk down to their readers preferably in the royal ‘we’; and things of that nature. I also dislike having copy or photos lifted from my magazine and republished elsewhere without credit or permission.
Q: How does personal criticism affect you?
A: It’s part of a critic’s job description. If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. If you want breakfast in bed, sleep in the kitchen. My only issue is with critic’s critics who don’t have the courtesy to bring issues to my personal attention but expect me to canvas forums to find out about them. I’m busy running 6moons. I must operate under the assumption that if someone has a serious beef, he or she will do me the courtesy of direct confrontation by personal email. I’m easy to find and respond promptly. Otherwise I don’t really pay attention unless outright slander is involved. That does warrant intervention. Thankfully here readers point me at the occasional incident. But I must say that hasn’t happened in a long while. Because we’ve been consistent and up for sufficiently long, we seem to be a known quantity now. People either like us or they don’t. But we’re the same either way. That’s hardly newsworthy. And since I don’t have the time to engage forum chatter, I’m not feeding it. That tends to minimise exposure.
Q: Do you have any advice for someone contemplating getting into this act?
A: If it’s about self-publishing which is what I know a little about, yes. In no particular sequence, here are a few pointers:
- Turning a hobby into a job can destroy the hobby. Be mindful of that risk.
- Success requires wearing all hats unless you can afford a separate ad, billing, graphics and editing department.
- Professional writing is done on a daily basis. One doesn’t wait for the muse. The muse relies on you showing up at the keyboard and buggering on no matter what. Over time that difference diminishes to nothing. Writing becomes what you do. What you write about is incidental.
- Listening to be critical about the playback is different from listening to music for pleasure. Don’t unlearn the latter because doing the former becomes the job.
- Don’t try to please everyone. You can’t.
- Trust the intelligence of your audience.
- It’s a hobby, not brain surgery or higher philosophy.
- It’s supposed to be a fun read, not a dry test score or master’s thesis.
- Content wins. Quality validates itself.
- Manufacturers entrust you with their wares. Be respectful. They’ve got mouths to feed.
- Readers trust your opinion. Respect their trust. How to balance the two is part of the job.
- Be consistent, fair and cognisant of your own ignorance.
Q: What are some of the mistakes you’ve made along the way?
A: I’ve made what big corporate would call managerial errors. This led certain contributors to leave. I wasn’t taught how to manage people and had to learn by trial and error. I’ve also made errors of judgment which led to firing contributors. As far as my writing is concerned, my tendency is for complexity and density. I have to remind myself that it’s supposed to be informative but also fun and easy. Being clever when it doesn’t serve the narrative isn’t clever. Acting as my own editor, I don’t have the benefit of a pro looking over my shoulder. That’s a limiting factor.
Q: Any final words or thoughts?
A: A daily 5-minute dose of CNN is enough to remind me of how fortunate I am. There are millions of displaced people living in temporary refugee camps today; wars; homeless people; natural calamities; plagues like the recent Ebola outbreak. Life on this planet can be very brutal and raw. Listening to music much less worrying about which equipment to do it on is an amazing privilege. It’s good to keep that in perspective and act accordingly.