I sit here wondering what to do with Roland Nipp’s gift of a BC. liquor board certificate.
It is a thank you to me for reviewing his album, The Cool Of The Dawn. I like him and his recordings because his approach to playing instrumentals on electric guitar isn’t all technique. There is something elusively human that transcends technical ability.
I wanted to review it anyway to inaugurate a regular feature of my website. So, no thanks are necessary. Yet it is rewarding to have good intentions rewarded.
The gift card had me thinking, though, of perks or the peripheral rewards of being a music critic. This came after the fact, so it isn’t really a perk, but it does reinforce the view that being a music critic is glamorous. Free t-shirts, tickets, booze, food, records.
All things of the past.
There still are perks – I regularly wear a Common Kings t-shirt given to me in December by fan and show promoter Holly Wood. I’ll say right now the band is hard working and the shirt made me aware of the Common Kings – four guys whose mixed lineage is kind of mirrored in the mix of music it plays. Reggae at the foundation, some pop and soul with a bit of that airy, light vibe of Hawaii. Could make the band popular.
Maybe that’s really what perks are about. They focus your attention, make you prioritize. They promote.
Of course, one man’s promo item is another’s bribe. This can be disputed. Bribery doesn’t make a bad record into a good record. Any sensible music critic knows that, which means that no amount of bribery can – to use the phrase – make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. The public knows as well.
But all that free stuff and the assumed power spells glamour.
I used to get asked to appear at Career Day at different schools and always was asked how so-and-so could become a music critic. The questioner usually had a romantic view stoked by the free goods and influence. My glib response was, “Why do you want to make your mother unhappy?”
Being a responsible critic actually can be hard work and it doesn’t pay well.
But those perks! For the few months he focused the Georgia Straight’s attention on rock music, (Sir) Bob Geldof claimed that he only wrote about rock because of the t-shirts, booze and food, which made up for the Straight’s lousy and infrequent pay.
Perks kept him clothed and fed.
It’s true that it seemed like every week there was a record/band launch and t-shirts, badges, buttons would arrive in the mail. Critics never paid for concert tickets and never had to buy records.
Then it all changed. It was a gradual change but it was based on the economy. As record companies got weaker , promotion stopped being a priority, money had to be spent elsewhere. This is a mighty simplification of what could be a complicated story.
The years of perks came to an end. There’s a fairness to this as now every band or its record comes out of the same starting gate. There is no favoritism. All are equal.
There also is an ethos. A scrupulous hard liner wouldn’t (or couldn’t) accept free tickets, records or anything else given away as promotion.
Such potential for compromise can create a dilemma for a critic. I’ve received hundreds of t-shirts, thousands of records, been to a lot of concerts, but none of those things has influenced my opinion. Fortunately, no one has tried to change it. Yet it is hard to draw the line. There was the musician who wanted to give me a free pizza. Couldn’t take it. It didn’t seem right that this musician had to augment his income by delivering pizza and probably paying for a freebie to me out of his own wage while I could afford one.
Turning him down made me feel noble but the situation was far different from receiving a t-shirt in the mail. Can’t return it, might as well wear it while hoping that the record or band being promoted is a good one.
Another time, eight years ago, I received two compact discs and a cheque to listen to them. The idea was to provide feedback on one writer’s hope that his songs would be used for the 2010 Winter Olympics. The cheque was an inducement. Instead, I was horrified. Listening to a hopeful writer was part of my job as I saw it and I would have put on the discs anyway. I felt like I was being bribed. I listened to the records. One was all latin rhythms and self written, though the best track was an imaginative arrangement of The Beatles’ Blackbird. The other was an impressive selection of pop-rock songs. I never wrote back, sorry to say, and didn’t cash the cheque. I’ve always wondered if the story would have been different if I hadn’t been sent that cheque.
I’ve also wondered if the perks are a miniaturized version of payola.
Payola basically is a record company or an artist manager paying a deejay or radio station programmer to play their latest record and possibly making it a hit. An investigation committee was formed in Washington. It’s target was rock and roll, and in the committee’s sights were Alan Freed, Dick Clark and several others who took writer’s credit on songs they had nothing to do with creating, or were paid in thousands of dollars (or expense-free vacations, or TVs or whatever). The investigations started in 1958 but got serious by 1960. Freed was ruined, Clark slipped away.
Payola has carried on in different forms and still exists. By comparison, perks are harmless.

“You got a free t-shirt? So did 199 others. Big Deal.”
They are no longer. These days, the perks come from indy acts. When they send you wine or chocolates you can only hope that the record they’re promoting is worthwhile. Maybe you spend extra time with it. Easy if it’s good. Much harder otherwise. The perk, then, is working. Not being seduced by it relieves any pressure.
Perks are nice to have but I live without them and feel cleaner for it.