It’s dinner in the officer’s mess of the Russell Crowe movie Master and Commander. Capt’n Jack Aubrey asks his trusted doctor friend Stephen Maturin: “Do you see those two weevils, doctor?”
“Which would you choose?”
“Neither. There is not a scrap of difference between them. They are the same species of Curculio.“
“If you had to choose. If you were forced to make a choice. If there was no other response…”
“Well then, if you are going to push me…I would choose the right hand weevil. It has – significant advantage in both length and breadth.”
The captain thumps his fist on the table. “There, I have you! You’re completely dished! Do you not know that in the service, one must always choose the lesser of two weevils?” Hilarity ensues amongst the officers.
With our mood properly set, let’s look at the necessary evil called advertising. It’s intrinsic to the going model of web/print publishing for hifi reviews. Going into this subject, we can agree. Nobody really likes ads. Readers would much prefer a magazine without them. So would manufacturers, actually. Disconnected from any sense of undue influence, such reviews would pull harder. They’d appear more independent, unbiased and objective.
What’s more, reviews are free but double as adverts. Unless they’re complete stinkers which sink a product’s chances to ever sell again, reviews are effective advertising. Even if you don’t read them to merely glance over their headlines and photos, you’ve been reliably informed that said products exist. That might be more than you knew before. Talk about effective advertising. If the review is informative, it might include more data than the maker’s own website reveals. That’s another bonus. If the review is complimentary to boot? It’ll mean lots more to most readers now than if the maker had taken out an advert to himself proclaim “we’re the best”. It’s always better if someone else delivers praise of any sort.
And reviews are free. Adverts are not. It explains why even manufacturers would prefer magazines without ads. Then why don’t we have them? Because they’d put the onus of covering a magazine’s operational expenses fully on the readers. Today’s print magazines tend to sell for a mere token fee. It barely covers the cost of print, paper and distribution. It’s just high enough to convince magazine stores to carry them and make a small profit. The burden on the reader is as low as possible. The ads do all the heavy commercial lifting. They’re necessary because readers in general are far too cheap to pay the rates which magazines would have to charge if they accepted no ads.
And not to belabor the obvious but, magazines with just ads and no reviews wouldn’t sell at all. Even if they were free, readers wouldn’t read them. From this evidence one must conclude that reviews are good and ads bad. Or rather, that ads are the necessary evil which makes the reviews everyone wants possible.
In a recent forum discussion on this subject, a manufacturer proposed a radical viewpoint. In its most condensed form, it said “we exist, hence we profit the press”. What he meant to say was that by their mere existence as active members in the hifi manufacturing sector, makers furnish the press with news and review opportunities. Without them the press would have nothing to talk about. Hence they’d have no basis upon which to sell their adverts. Hiding behind that rationale, a maker needn’t ever participate in the necessary evil of adverts to consider himself de facto profitable to our magazines and benefit from their reviews.
If all manufacturers took that position, the system obviously wouldn’t work. In reality, magazines choose a ratio between reviews of ad sponsors and non-sponsors which works for them. In theory, all reviews are free. In practice, ad sponsors create a magazine’s revenue stream which enables reviews to be written and published. In a very concrete fashion, ad sponsors pay for reviews. They’re not really free. They’re subsidised by the advertisers.
Here opinions diverge on what constitutes abuse of the system. A newcomer getting a review without paying into the ad machine seems nothing but fair. He’s just starting out. She needs all the help she can get. If that maker continues to benefit from the review system—either via the same magazine or by making the rounds—but never reciprocates in hard cash, it’s merely a matter of time until any reasonable person would call him a freeloader. Any system of mutual benefit relies on bi-directional support to stay operational.
This particular system self-balances itself between ad-sponsored and non-sponsored reviews for obvious reasons. Ad-sponsored reviews alone not only limit variety and coverage breadth, they look bought. To fight this perception, magazines need a mix. If a magazine wishes to increase its non-sponsor review ratio, it has two obvious options. A/ increase the number of its advertisers to create the necessary headroom; B/ increase its ad pricing. Option ‘A’ has very practical limits. Those are dictated by a magazine’s layout and page count. More content pages increase ad placement opportunities but also increase production costs. Option ‘B’ eventually eliminates the participation of smaller manufacturers. The costlier ad pricing gets, the fewer the firms which can afford it. Now a magazine becomes unduly beholden to a smaller number of fat-cat supporters who each contribute a significant slice of the operation’s annual income. Reviews of their products are now accompanied by heightened suspicions of undue influence. That’s something neither the magazines nor the manufacturers like.
If a magazine accepts more advertisers, it naturally follows that more of them will want reviews. And why shouldn’t they? If a certain percentage of competitors pay nothing to participate in the review process, those who directly underwrite the magazine’s bottom line also want their slot. That mechanism undermines the original tactic of publishing more reviews by non-sponsors.
A magazine could opt for making its ads as affordable as possible. Since its operational expense remains unchanged, this requires a higher number of advertisers. Unless that magazine can create sufficient content, it won’t be able to physically accommodate the growing real-estate demand for adverts; and it too runs afoul of the side effect that now more makers who take out ads will also want reviews.
The upshot of this strange system is an ongoing see-saw between content and ads; having ads cover operational expenses; and having their mere existence avoid impropriety. Here we remember that mere perception of impropriety—undue influence, collusion, corruption—is every bit as damaging to a magazine’s or writer’s reputation as are any actual faux pas. For all practical intents and purposes, there is no difference. Belief that someone is a liar and a thief has him treated accordingly regardless of whether he is or isn’t. Especially in reviewing, perception is everything.
To get from theory to practice, let’s run some actual figures to illustrate reality for a small online start-up magazine. Say it began as a full-time single owner/operator venture. As with all self-employment, 40-hour work weeks especially at the onset aren’t realistic. 60 hours are more like what’s really required to get going. Let’s say our man needed to clear €4’000 before taxes each month to meet all of his normal financial obligations (rent, food, car, electricity, phone, health/car insurance) and work-related extras like trade-show attendance, the acquisition of hifi gear to serve as a growing inventory of comparator kit and the maintenance or replacement of basic work tools like computers, modems, cameras, special software, hosting, new music and such.
Let’s say our entrepreneur can publish six full-length reviews a month to produce them at the level of quality and comprehensiveness he has set for himself. To augment that content, he additionally commits to 10 expanded news-related items which will exceed standard press-release blurbs; and assorted show coverage and related Editorials.
Let’s propose that our man aimed for 10 ad sponsors a month to keep support to €400 per. If those sponsors only committed to a month each, he’d need 48 different supporters over his first year. Each time he couldn’t fill a vacated slot, he’d not make his monthly nut. He’d clearly be less stressed if those advertisers each signed up for a full year. Except now each sponsor would contribute €4’800 for their annual campaign. Don’t you think our man would have to feel rather beholden to each given that they contribute more than 10% of his annual needs? If just one dropped out, he’d lose a whole month of wages.
No matter how hard he works at remaining unbiased, independent and unaffected – perception will surely sing a different song. That’s for a full-time job which pays our man €16.50 an hour; and comes without any health insurance, vacation or retirement benefits. Whenever he takes a vacation, site updates stop. Even if his purse could afford to, he can’t afford to be gone too long. For that, he’ll need the eventual co-contributors, partners or employees. Whilst he can update content remotely, it’s not much of a vacation if he really works half the time on a poolside laptop, is it?
If our man didn’t take the risk of full-time self-employment because it felt too chancy and the upside too vague; and if he opted to keep a regular day job to cover his expenses – the amount of time he now can allocate to his reviewing venture is obviously limited to moonlighting and weekends. In fact you’d question just when he can do any serious and proper listening at all. Sooner or later our man would need contributors to augment his own content unless he were content to operate closer to a blog than a magazine.
Let’s return to our necessary evil. Our industry consists of four members – makers; their sales agents (importers, distributors, dealers); the press; and the reader/buyer. The first three all share similar economic needs. If a manufacturer doesn’t sell, he closes shop. If dealers don’t sell, they do too. If the press don’t sell issues and ads, they vanish. The only one aloof from all of it is the reader/buyer. His economics remain entirely unaffected by whether he reads reviews or not; or buys a hifi or not. In fact, his economics are rather better off if he didn’t buy any hifi; ever.
From that it is clear how the three serve and pursue the one. But it’s also true that neither the makers nor their sales agents absolutely need the press. They very much like reviews and often rely on ads for visibility and brand building. Yet crowd funding, direct sales, e-newsletters and owner reviews in manufacturer forums can circumvent much if perhaps not all of the functions the press has traditionally provided. The flip side isn’t true one bit. Without manufacturers, the hifi press wouldn’t exist, period. Of our four, the press is by far the neediest and most reliant on cooperation and support. Put different, the press needs the makers more than they need it.
In any case, this situation remains one of interconnectedness and mutual needs and benefits. To create the reviews everyone wants (including the reader aka potential buyer who doesn’t need them but very much enjoys them), the content providers must be paid unless they operate as pure hobbyists. In the prevailing ad-based publishing model, reviews must be free. Their worth or value relies on the perception that they aren’t tied to commercial considerations. Ads are the economical engine which makes reviews possible. Nobody seems to really like them very much even if ad sponsors do freely use them for brand building. But in the end, manufacturers like reviews even better.
Enter the Chinese wall which most of the ad-based model is based on. To ascertain the independence of reviewer opinion, the engine which pays for it can’t be connected. This disconnect is the separation of Church and State aka admin and Editorial. The way it works is simplicity itself. Paid writers either get a per-review fee or a monthly salary. In either case they submit review copy to Editorial which edits it for grammar, language and tech facts and publishes it. What they review may be assigned, self-picked or a mix thereof. Most reviewers are as disconnected from admin as standard employees of a large firm are from upper management. They only get hauled into a management meeting if productivity or performance decline; if there’s a pay cut; or if they’re about to get fired. Otherwise they merely do their work and someone else handles all the administrative duties.
For our single owner/operator of course, there may not be any Chinese wall at all. Admin and Editorial could be one and the same guy. The majority or all of the content could be written by the same person who issues invoices and collects payment. But this isn’t an insurmountable hurdle. It simply requires extra diligence to toe the line. Regardless, perception begins to apply real pressure on even the ‘disconnected’ system because Editorial most certainly sees its own ads. Whilst Editorial really may not talk to its own ad department as the Chinese wall insists; writers and readers alike see who the biggest most regular sponsors are. Whilst neither may know the actual advert rates, everyone knows that a front/back or inside cover is costliest; that full-page ads cost more than half or quarter page equivalents; and that ads tucked into the classified section or lesser pages are cheapest. Web-based banners are no different.
That’s all the fodder the conspiracy theorists need.
“Look, Absolute Audio had Bangers Sound on their rear cover for 12 issues in a row. And they’ve run three 5-stars review for them this year. Clearly they’re all very cozy in bed together.”
“You’re right, Chum. And Tiny Hifi whom we adore has never gotten a single review by these guys. And guess what – they’ve never advertised either.”
Case closed. Or is it?
It’s easy to see how such perception works. It’s in fact hard to blame and dismiss outright. But how do Chum and Chiseler believe this dirty business gets done? Does Johnny Keystroke, with his next assignment, get an email from his Editor to stipulate a 5-stars outcome? Does Johnny fear sufficiently for his review fee that he himself identifies Awesome Hifi as a key contributor whom he better make unreasonably happy to keep his job? Does Johnny play it cool as a cucumber by handing in a 3-stars review which now magically gets upgraded to a 5-stars version by Editorial’s secretive rewrite department on the 17th floor?
Or is it all more subtle than that?
“I bet you Bob Big Shot visited Tin Ear shortly after he received his loaner. I bet you that Big Shot just made a few disparaging remarks about the sound of that loaner in Tin Ear’s system. That took care of the assignment’s outcome as intended. Any notion Tin Ear entertained of waxing poetic was nipped in the bud.”
“Naw, you’ve got it all wrong, Chiseler. The only stuff they ever give to Tin Ear is the stuff they don’t care about. They need some unpredictable reviews here and there to mix it up and look good. That’s Tin Ear’s job. He may know it or he may delude himself but all the serious stuff goes straight to the senior salaried writers. And their ilk doesn’t need to be told, man. They know which side their bread is buttered on.”
Proof isn’t required. Perception can build seemingly solid things out of thin air.
Then there’s the bad review. Or rather, the shortage thereof.
“If these guys really were as honest as they claim, where the heck are their bad reviews? Everything is always good. That just can’t be, Chum.”
“You’re right, Chiseler. The only bad review I can remember goes a few years back. And that was on some no-name Chinese brand. They simply used them as a sacrificial lamb to prove they’re impartial. Then they did a real hatchet job on it to end in bloody slaughter. It all stinks, Chum. But let’s go back to Absolute Audio and see what else we can grouse about. We love the smell of Napalm in the morning, don’t we?” Cut scene.
Now we’re back with Master and Commander. Jack Aubrey confirms with a fidgety Maturin that, “well, Stephen… the bird’s flightless?” Which the good doctor confirms for the rare species he’s spotted on the Galapagos Islands. “So it’s not going anywhere.”
Quite so. Maturin’s bird didn’t go anywhere. Neither is this line of argument. It’s persistent. It waddles in place. It’s what every reviewer struggles against as that unavoidable byproduct of the lesser weevil which becomes the necessary evil of ad-sponsored reviews. If readers of our imaginary magazine were willing to take out an annual subscription and cover our man’s €48’000/yr expense, it’d only take 50’000 subscribers to each pay a measly euro. Surely that would be child’s play?
The only English-speaking reader-sponsored hifi mag I’m aware of is Hifi Critic whose circulation is said to be 500. The reader subscription model is a popular argument for the anti-ad brigade. Given all the case evidence to the contrary, it’s simply a mightily rare bird without wings. The vast majority of specialty publications believe that they couldn’t and wouldn’t survive on just reader support especially as long as there are plenty of competitors around who charge their readers nothing.
Where the ad-based model particularly online backfires is when readers refuse to do their part. To make this very imperfect system work requires mutual cooperation. The lesser weevil needs feeding and with more than Capt’n Aubrey’s stale bread. To keep enjoying the benefits of free online magazines (whether they read them for all their reviews, for just those of a single writer, for just their photos or even for just their news page), readers shouldn’t circumvent ads or refuse to interact with banners. Banners enable content. Unlike in print where even very expensive full-page ads can’t be held accountable to prove their effectiveness save for basic sell-through numbers padded with comp and giveaway issues, even the smallest cheapest online ads are often asked to provide click-thru stats. This type of advertiser won’t renew if their stats fall short. No clicks, no advertiser joy, no content. It’s not quite as clear-cut but close enough.
No matter how I slice it then, we’re left with the lesser evil to get at the thing readers, dealers and manufacturers alike want: informative easy-to-read unbiased reviews. Just how much one colors the other is where opinions diverge and fingers point in different directions. As DAR boss John Darko told me during our meet in Munich this year, he’d love nothing better than take DAR full-time [Yup – Ed] and quit his teaching day job. Against today’s feature, you’ll perhaps appreciate why he’s been with DAR for nearly four years already and still has not taken that plunge [Again, yup – Ed].
It’s likely for the same reason that Art Dudley didn’t rejoin the self-employed ranks when Listener closed and he moved to Stereophile for a monthly column. Or why Ken Kessler didn’t launch his own publication when he lost his position at one magazine and instead moved to another. Even the legendary Harry Pearson’s HPSoundings solo venture tanked within one short year. It’s why many of the big-name reviewers with the requisite standing and reputation prefer to have someone else worry about economics. Artistically speaking, it is undeniably more liberating to just write and draw a salary or fee than double-team as a business manager.
That’s always been the dream of the Baroque composer or Renaissance painter who pursued commissions from aristocrats. But then there always also exist those stubborn Stephen Maturin types. They don’t really know about the proper lesser weevil. It’s probably because they don’t really work in ‘the service’ of the standard system. They’re hobbyists turned pro whom reality forces to embrace the usual commercial aspects but who still do it in a way that’s more artistic than hard-nosed business. That makes them no better or worse than the more corporate guys.
In the end it doesn’t matter which side of the bed you step out of. You must end up with both feet on the ground or you won’t make it. The world’s best content won’t pay for itself unless you make the necessary arrangements and keep managing them. Solid ad support itself doesn’t guarantee quality content which readers enjoy, trust and come back for. As with everything else in life, balance is key. With reviews, the evidence is out in the open for all to see. If a magazine can produce consistent reviews which square with the findings of readers, bloggers and other reviewers with competing magazines; then clearly the lesser weevil is nothing but a harmless bug. It may not look so pretty; it may be impossible to eradicate; but it otherwise doesn’t really conflict with delivering the desired goods.
To end where we started, here’s our final quote from Russell Crowe’s movie.
Doctor Stephen Maturin (who gets his wish to chase after the wingless bird): “Jack, I fear you have burdened me with a debt I can never fully repay.”
Capt’n Jack Aubrey: “Name a shrub after me. Something prickly and hard to eradicate.”
Stephen Maturin: “A shrub? Nonsense! I shall name a new species of tortoise after you: Testudo Aubreii!”
Further 6moons reading: A Broken Business Model