Fake Review Comes Amid Tight Grip on Preview CDs

Maxim featured a mediocre review of Warpaint, the new Black Crowes release. But the magazine's reviewer never heard the CD. Music industry observers say the fake review was an anomaly. But it's also a sign of a music industry desperate to stop leaks of new releases.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, the voice behind "Goldfinger."

But first, a few weeks ago we noted a controversial review that appears in the March issue of Maxim. The laddie magazine gave the new CD by the Black Crowes a mediocre review. They just didn't bother to hear the album first.

Music industry observers say the fake review was an anomaly, but it may illustrate how artists and record labels are trying to control how and when people listen to their new releases, even when these people are journalists.

Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: The need CD "Warpaint" by the Black Crowes is the band's first in nearly seven years.

(Soundbite of song, "Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution")

ROSE: It took less than 100 words for Maxim to dismiss the record as boozy, competent and in slavish tribute to the band's classic-rock influence.

(Soundbite of song, "Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution")

Mr. Chris Robinson (Vocalist, The Black Crowes): (Singing) Cut a rusty engine out to sawdust town. Better deal with the man who shook them all down so put a little grease on my axle now, yeah..

ROSE: When the band's manager, Pete Angeles, heard about the review, he remembers thinking: That's interesting.

Mr. PETE ANGELES (Manager, The Black Crowes): And it's actually not possible because they don't have any music. We hadn't issued any music to Maxim magazine.

ROSE: Angeles says the band did send the music to some reviewers, but it didn't give out advanced CDs, and it definitely did not send one to Maxim. So Angeles got mad.

Mr. ANGELES: To take a guess as to what the material actually sounds like and how the artist may have changed over the years and put it out under the pretense of it being a review and rating it is indefensible.

ROSE: The same issue of Maxim reviewed a new CD by the rapper Nas, but according to his label, it's not even finished yet. Maxim declined our requests for an interview, though the magazine did issue a statement apologizing to its readers for the, quote, "mistake."

Most of those readers probably turned to the magazine more for T&A than R&B. Music critic Andy Langer says the fake review might have gone unnoticed if it had been a little more favorable.

Mr. ANDY LANGER (Music Critic, Esquire Magazine): If that was a four-star review, if that said the Black Crowes are back, and they're back better than ever, would the Black Crowes have said we didn't send any advances? No, we would've never heard from the Black Crowes. It's a two-and-a-half-star review, which is why we heard from the Black Crowes.

ROSE: In fact, the album debuted at number five on the Billboard chart, which might say something about the power of a bad review in Maxim or the publicity the Black Crowes generated from the controversy or both.

Langer, who's a music critic for Esquire magazine, says this does seem to be an isolated incident, but it points out the spot he and other critics are in. Record labels send out fewer advance CDs these days because they're worried that music by their top-selling acts will leak on the file-sharing networks before the official release dates.

So Langer says magazines have come to rely on so-called previews instead of reviews.

Mr. LANGER: That probably happens more than outright fabricated reviews, sort of guesstimates that sound like, that give the impression, that the reviewer had listened to the record when in fact they haven't, and I think that goes on a lot.

ROSE: Langer says it goes on mostly at general-interest magazines that go to press months ahead of time. The labels do make some concessions to the music magazines and critics they consider, quote, "credible."

The labels host listening sessions for their biggest releases, kind of like movie screenings that film critics attend, except for CDs. Jason Fine is executive editor of Rolling Stone.

Mr. JASON FINE (Executive Editor, Rolling Stone): For a long time, we basically wouldn't do reviews where we had to listen to them not on our own stereo, but since that's become impossible, we've had to bend on that a little bit.

ROSE: And Fine doesn't like it. Neither does critic Andy Langer.

Mr. LANGER: That's no way to take in a record because it's not the same experience that the listener or the reader of the review is about to have. It's a completely different experience to listen to a record at a record company in a room full of journalists or in a room full of publicists.

Ms. KATHRYN FRAZIER (Owner, Biz 3 Publicity): Nobody's happy about it. We would all love to go back to just sending out promos: labels, artists, journalists and publicists. But it's simply not working.

ROSE: Kathryn Frazier owns Biz 3 Publicity in Chicago. She represents a long list of rock and rap artists from Battles to MF Doom to Lady Sovereign.

(Soundbite of song, "9 to 5")

Mr. LADY SOVEREIGN (Rap Artist): (Singing) And I wake up late every morning, managers calling, I'm still yawning. Get up, wake up, hair and makeup, waiting for you, don't be stalling.

ROSE: When Lady Sovereign's label was trying to introduce the British rapper to a wider audience in America, Kathryn Frazier suggested mailing out CDs to journalists.

Ms. FRAZIER: The person that I was working with, they kept laughing because they thought it was funny that I was sending out promos.

ROSE: They laughed at you, how quaint to be sending out CDs.

Ms. FRAZIER: Yeah, a little bit, and it was obviously not the way that they were typically going about things over there.

ROSE: Frazier thinks it's rare for journalists to write their reviews without hearing a record at all, but in a lot of cases, she says they are working off just one listen.

Ms. FRAZIER: I don't think that that's going to lead to an incredibly insightful review. I mean, how many times have we all heard records that we maybe even couldn't stand when we first got them, and they went on to become some of our favorites.

ROSE: The Black Crowes didn't have listening sessions for their new album. Instead, manager Pete Angeles says the band, at its own expense, sent out dozens of MP3 players with the album on them to select journalists, after making sure the players were crippled so the recipients couldn't share the new album on the Internet.

Mr. ANGELES: We're not strip-searching people, and we don't put people through metal detectors. We just take some necessary precautions to protect the artist.

ROSE: But those precautions and others are having some unintended consequences. In the name of fighting piracy, the record labels are also biting the hands of the journalists who help feed them.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

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