Saturday 2 May 2009

On the nature of free lunches and associated paraphernalia

When we first started this site about two years ago, we really didn't think anyone else would read it. I continued to hold that view until October 2007, when I was astonished that we'd been noticed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orceshtra. It seems that, due to our being powered by the Google owned Blogger, we come up straight away in their news alerts service whenever we mention an organisation or artist (I know, because it alerts me when I write about the people I have alerts for). Certainly, I suspect this is what happened when the Gabrieli Consort cleared up the identity of their soloist. Anyway, I still thought nobody else except a few friends and family read us (the only measure I had was the number of views my profile got, which wasn't, and still isn't, all that many). Then my cousin suggested I install Google Analytics. It takes about ten minutes to set up (just copy a bit of code into the website) and, from the point of view of someone who objects to people storing too much data about them, records a frankly quite frightening amount of stuff. It also told me that hundreds of people were coming here each month. In the last couple of months this has risen even more (I think in large part due to my use of twitter, my review of a popular tv show and a very nice plug on the Guardian website). The result of which is that in the last month we've had well over a thousand unique visitors.

So, why am I bothering to mention all this? It's because in the last couple of weeks something has happened that hasn't before: people have started to offer me free stuff (actually, I was offered a free ticket to a BBCSSO concert a year ago, but already had one, so didn't give it much thought). In this case it was a CD I very much want and an invitation to a press night of something (which I couldn't anyway have made, and to which I anyway have tickets later in the run). Somewhat surprising myself, I did not e-mail back straight away asking them to send me the review CD though post haste.

Who on earth might want to turn down a free lunch? After all, it would be a nice reward for the effort I put into this site. The problem is this: why am I being offered a freebie? Well, because the organisation in question wants me to write a review. They are, in effect, paying me, albeit not very much, to do so. That, for me, is a big problem and represents a glaring conflict of interest. Being in touch with various orchestras and artists via twitter, I already feel guiltier than I did when I say something negative, I'd feel worse if I'd had my seat for free. Similarly, if I rave about a performance, I like to think that the reader has a confidence that nothing improper has coloured that. It would also make it harder to comment on value for money. For example, despite paying a quite absurd portion of my monthly salary to see Don Carlos from the good seats, I don't feel in the least overcharged. If I'd had the ticket for free and said that (though, admittedly, I didn't in the review), the response might be that was all very well for me to say, but amongst those paying the astronomical to prices of Royal Opera's best seats, things feel a little different. I'd also no longer be able to say I felt short changed, rare though that is (actually, even if it had been free, I'd still have felt cheated by The Beggar's Opera).

Then there's the fact that if I don't pay for my ticket the artist doesn't get any money. Now, while some people are sufficiently rich not to notice, others are not. Regardless of which, I want them to get my share of the money, particularly if I've enjoyed the performance. Arts funding does not grow on trees, and especially in the current climate budgets are stretched. I would feel a little wrong and guilty not paying my own way.

Anyway, the question bounced back and forth in my head for a week or so until, after about an hour of setting the world to rights in the pub on Monday, I came to a decision: I don't want to take free stuff (at least, not so long as it isn't also available to the general public). So, if you work for an arts organisation and are thinking of offering us something, this may save you the trouble. However, we are very happy to be contacted for informational purposes: you're welcome to add us to press release mailing lists and we will try to come to press launches of seasons and other such things if invited. It's just, when it's something everyone else has to pay for, we want to too. That said, should you have a performance or CD you want us to review, or think we would be interested in, do still get in touch all the same - we may not be aware of it, or may already be coming.

I should note that I have taken one or two free tickets in the past (a couple were comps a friend of mine had to concerts I didn't in the end review), at other times they've been concerts free to the general public, which is different. Similarly, I am sometimes the guest of a friend or family member, but since in those cases the ticket has been paid for, it isn't a free lunch in sense I've been discussing it.

This may come across as a little prissy or overzealous. Possibly it is, but my integrity is of great importance to me and I find to do otherwise just doesn't sit quite right. I'm also not, I hope, trying to suggest that all professional critics (who, of course, take free tickets all the time), or bloggers who do take free tickets, are somehow morally bankrupt. It is a personal choice, and possibly if you do this sort of thing professionally, rather than just as a hobby, it may feel a little different. In the end, though, for me, this is just how it is.


Craig said...

Free stuff is good, and quite often I'm with you on your comments about the morality of it, a good post, and getting people to visit a hobby site is brilliant, and when someone picks it up even better, what I started out as a hobby turned into a small venture - UKwins, and of course quite often you get freebies, mostly sent, all in all, good...! - keep up the good work!

Dan Holloway said...

Tam, this is a fascinating post, and it is really refreshing to read about your scrupulous approach - especially in an industry whose oil is the slapping of backs.

I am not a classical musician (although I know many people in the indie rock music scene) but a writer. I would love to make a point from the artists's perspective if I may. I understand a reviewer's concerns over conflicting loyalty. From the artist's side (at least for me), however, I would never expect someoen to review my work one way or the other - I would expect them to say what they thought. The problem for the artist is to get people to review their work at all, and alas in a sphere like the arts where structures are so rigid, the only way of achieving that is giving away free copies of our work in the hope that someone will be kind enough to read it. Without doing that, we don't get read or heard at all. When we send people free books or CDs there is no question of us being owed anything. And believe me, to see a review that tears one's work to shreds is more heartening than seeing no review at all (in fact, some of my harshest critics are now some of my closest colleagues, doubly so because as an artist I appreciate someone's integrity more if they give me a negative than a positive review). It means that one has been read/heard, and at the coal-face of the cultural world, that is the most uplifting news one can receive.

Good to make your acquaintance,

Tam Pollard said...

Thanks for your comments Dan. Very interesting to have a different perspective on the issue.

Actually, I know several people who've struggled to get stuff reviewed in various fields (and have a lot of sympathy for people in that position).

I think the answer to the problem is to embrace ways of getting things available not just to reviewers but more generally. For example, services like Spotify enable you to try stuff for free before you buy. Similarly I wish publishers would embrace ebooks more wholeheartedly rather than what currently seems like a panicked wish that they'd never been invented. How much better for everyone to be able to sample the first few chapters of a book online and buy the rest (either electronically or on paper) if they liked what they saw.

Out of interest, what do you write?

Gert said...

I've just found this and I'm pleased that you wrote this, because I feel the same way but I have received some rather negative feedback for taking this posiiton

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