One veteran rock journalist recalls the waning days of the job’s coolest perk: getting albums in the mail
There were days – days that became decades – when I really, really looked forward to the US Mail coming to my house. And when I saw the brown UPS truck drive up, a smile broke out across my face.
Those were the days, my friends. I thought they’d never end.
I was (well, still am) a rock critic and during the heyday of the pre-internet music industry and the pre-internet journalism, boxes of LPs – and later CDs – showed up in the mailbox daily. Major labels, indie labels – they all came a-courtin’.
It was one of the early and fundamental joys of rock critic-ing. And I know if you didn’t have that job/perk, and maybe knew people who did, you envied them or, let’s be frank, kind of hated them for that. I understand.
At a certain point in life – I’m thinking especially, college and ten years or so beyond – what could be better? I lived for rock ‘n’ roll, listening to it on record, seeing it live, writing about it. An avocation that became a vocation and the basic tools of the trade were the discs that came in the post.
The categories: There were certain albums you most definitely would have bought, and as you not spending cold cash on them, this was a big whoop. There were discoveries – someone you’d never heard of but were snared by once you dropped the stylus on the the wax. There were other albums you were perhaps curious about, but wouldn’t have purchased. Bonus music! There were the albums by veteran rockers that added to your long-ago purchased catalog. And, sure, there was a lot of flotsam and jetsam – the detritus of the music industry – that showed up as well and was soon shown the door. A lot of ‘80s hair metal comes to mind. (More on this later.)
Those were the days – for me I’m talking the mid-late ‘70s – when the requirements for getting on that promo list were, as best I could tell, not all that stringent. Or not so stringent that a writer for a free music magazine in Maine called Sweet Potato, the University of Maine’s free newspaper, the Maine Campus, and Maine’s largest daily, the Bangor Daily News, couldn’t get on them. I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit that whenever I was added to a list that was a feather in my cap. Being admitted to the club. Recognition, status, free music.
It wasn’t all about that, of course. There was the writing, the feeling that you were contributing to the wave of critical opinion that shaped the culture. (Yes, there was some delusion involved in the latter part of that statement.) There was the satisfaction that came with turning a well-honed phrase or shaping a sharp argument for or against the latest album, operating (again, somewhat delusionally) under the premise that it really mattered.
I became a writer because I read. Good radio was non-existent where I lived, so I learned about bands from The Stooges to Roxy Music to Silverhead to Tucky Buzzard via the rock press: Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, Creem, Circus, Circus Raves, Rock Scene, Fusion, among them. Oh, and a young rock writer named Stephen King who wrote for the Maine Campus a generation before me explaining why, for instance, it was perfectly OK to hate Chicago, which I did.
I started freelancing at the Boston Globe in 1979, did that eight years and then another 18 as a staff writer. The Globe was one of the country’s top papers and one that boasted a terrific arts/music section. I shared staff duties with Steve Morse and, later, Joan Anderman joined the team, along with various freelancers like Paul Robicheau, Elijah Wald and Scott Alarik. The Globe had some clout and we had some connections; not too many interview requests were denied.
Still, while I believed we critics had a certain influence, yes, particularly among those rock fans that read, that was nevertheless a subset of the larger audience. (Creem magazine had a fantastic story about rock fans and on the magazine’s cover was the tag, something like, Creem’s Guide to Rock Fans: Duh? Huh?)
Who had the clout? Radio. Top 40 of course before it turned to crap. But mostly in my world that meant album-oriented rock FM stations and/or (later) the alternative rock stations. MTV, certainly, back in its heyday when we’d all watch “120 Minutes” every Sunday night.
Artists, I think, gained a certain credibility and legitimacy through the beavering away of rock critics – think Captain Beefheart, Warren Zevon and Tom Waits and pretty much all of the early punk and new wave. Before the Police and U2 came up big, American mainstream radio and audiences hated or ignored that music. (Different situation in Britain; oh, how we American rock crits envied that scene and those scribes writing for Melody Maker, the NME and Sounds!)
The big gets were being added to the Warner/Elektra/Asylum list and the CBS list, encompassing Columbia, Epic and the spinoffs. I remember one of my first Warner packages had Van Morrison’s A Period of Transition album along with a canvas album tote bag promoting such. I carried it proudly for years.
The package I remember ripping open most avidly and popping disc after disc onto the turntable: The Sire punk four-pack of ‘77 – Ramones, Dead Boys, Saints and Talking Heads.
There were the advance copies – white label LPs or cassettes. So, there was the cachet of hearing something in full before the rest of the world got a taste. It would be disingenuous to deny that little kick of rock ‘n’ roll elitism. And some of those albums never actually came out making them, indeed, rare gems. I recall a never-released Brian Eno album I got on tape, “My Squelchy Life,” and one for the Butthole Surfers. Warren Zevon personalized an advance cassette tape and sent it to me.
The promo records we got were all marked some variation of “Promo only – not for resale.” Elektra, at one point, sent out albums embossed serial numbers. Rock critics and DJs lived in fear of the record company police coming to their homes to retrieve these “borrowed” albums, knocking down doors, fearing early AM raids. Thus, these promo records were never sold to used record stores. (I checked with several prominent Boston DJs who confirmed this account).
Is there a sarcasm emoji yet? There would be one here. Yes, records were sold and traded and I built up a fairly good blues collection, swapping brand new crap for old blues masters.
I posted something about this free albums/rock criticism subject on Facebook a while back. Jeff Tamarkin, my editor at BestClassicBands responded: “The free records were definitely a big part of it, but I didn’t even know that was part of the deal till I’d already had a few reviews published in my college paper. Then the editor told me I could just call a publicist and request things. My first package of freebies came from Columbia/Epic and consisted of Meat Loaf’s debut, Eddie Money and and a few others. The most interesting-looking one was by a new British singer called Elvis Costello. At first, I thought it was pretty good but I didn’t love it. Then a couple of nights later a friend called me from a venue where EC was playing and said, ‘I don’t care what you’re doing. Just get down here for the late show.’ That’s when I discovered free admission. It was a lot easier to talk your way in back then. That Costello guy was pretty damn great too.”
“My whole life has essentially been me putting myself in position to receive free records,” posted Marc Hirsh, who freelances at my old home, the Boston Globe. “College radio station, college newspaper, record store promo bin, free alt-weekly, online ‘zine, online outlets, metropolitan daily. All of ’em, awash in free music, which I’m guessing will never ever fill the hole in my soul, since still I demand more.”
Times have changed. There’s no flood of CDs anymore. And there aren’t that many CDs sold, period, as we all know. Record stores are few and far between. The world has mostly shifted to downloading or, increasingly, streaming. Why own – clutter up your space – when you can rent forever at a reasonable price and have access to millions of songs with the tap of a pad or the click of a mouse?
In terms of ownership, that’s been going away in many aspects of society and in consumerism and it’s not necessarily a bad thing at all. I used to take pride in my catalog as it were – my LPs and CDs and even the bins of cassettes – but when the musical product overtook available living space, changes had to be made. While I still feel the need to own certain CDs and pop them into the car CD slot – and I certainly have purchased a bunch of compilations and previously unreleased recordings – I’m not showing off shelves full of music any longer. And though I like playing the CDs in the car, those days are numbered, too. They’re not including CD players any longer.
As to critics, well…
1): There are so many damn blogs and websites everyone is a rock critic. The bar to entry has never been lower. Am I complaining? A bit, but I also would have to answer the question: “Exactly how did the 19-year-old me get in the game with nothing to show in terms of credentials?”
2): Do any particular critics or publications really matter? Yes, there are magazines and writers I trust. But I feel there’s an over-inflation of new talent on the part of many young writers. I get it. It’s what you’ve got in front of you and it’s your peer group, but I’m happy that I was peers with people like Pete Shelley, John Lydon and Joey Ramone (maybe a bit younger than Joey) and that I grew up with The Kinks, The Who, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, among many others.
Best I can tell, most critics get advance streams or downloads if they get anything. I can request CDs and sometimes a publicist will send them – just so glad to have the interest! – but often times there’s no budget and a stream it is. And with Spotify, Tidal and similar services, everyone who ponies up for the month (or suffers through free service + ads) has most everything any rock critic would get.
We had a basement flood last fall and, yes, that’s where many of my CDs were stored. There was major loss. I spent one horrible day separating the wet from the semi-dry (salvageable) and tossing the soaked ones into industrial trash bags. Not a pretty sight.
But we’re insured and the insurance company came through with a reasonable settlement. I’ve got a replacement budget which I’ve been chipping away at: A Richard Thompson box, The Beatles’ White Album a PiL box, a Jam box, Loudon Wainwright III’s unreleased tracks, a Sweet box, Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks outtakes … you get my drift. I’m not specifically replacing what was lost, but trying to curate and select those CDs I’d actually like to put on the home system or take with me in the car.
I still like playing full albums. I still like the process of putting on an album – the LP back in those days–and just the CD sliding into the slot and the player registering track 1. It’s hard to kick old habits.