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Positive Feedback ISSUE 4
december/january 2003


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Auroville 9
by Srajan Ebaen

Should you—just because you can? As self-proclaimed audio journalist, this question dances ‘round my head on occasion.  Especially since my ongoing work—as part-time contract writer and website dude for Soliloquy plus my ever-growing parallel investment in—keeps me deeply in the loop of industry goings-on, of a kind that would likely remain off the radar screens of other writers.

What if such goings-on concerned reviewer colleagues, not necessarily—and certainly not to be volunteered in public—specific individuals (though that happens as well) but multiple overlapping, more generalized reports from manufacturers that painted a broader and thus even more disturbing picture?

Should you—dish dirt like a trash tabloid just because you happen to know about it?

As is common knowledge, I’ve worked with SoundStage!, GoodSound! and before launching my own venture. Common operating protocol among these publications when review assignments were completed? You contacted the manufacturer for a call-tag pickup. This assured timely return of the loaned gear. It also avoided burdening the reviewer or magazine with ship charges that otherwise would have accumulated rapidly.

The only exceptions? If you wished to purchase the review unit—or use it in subsequent reviews. In the first case, customary protocol asked for an accommodation invoice, paid it and routinely included a written statement by the reviewer that said purchase was for personal use and that the discounted equipment wouldn’t be resold on the used market for x-period of time, typically anywhere between 1 to 3 years.

In the second instance, equipment could remain in the reviewer’s possession past the original review on extended loan if the manufacturer benefited from this exposure and could recall his property at any time. The mutual understanding was that the writer would mention the use of said gear in subsequent reviews or comparisons, to honor his part of this arrangement. Unless a writer were independently wealthy, such extended loans can be helpful. For example, they may flesh out a well-rounded speaker review with multiple partnering amps that, in power, topology or sheer number, would well exceed such a reviewer’s personal system needs.

All common sense and courtesy, right?

Well, volunteer reports after reports from manufacturers indicate that it’s anything but common anymore. Perhaps I hear more about this because I’m still consulting? I procure reviews for the Soliloquy umbrella (which presently includes Marsh Sound Design and American Acoustic Development). Other manufacturers ask me for feedback on how I deal with certain scenarios.

Scenarios? Such as not getting your stuff back. Perhaps not daring to ask for it back lest one’s rating should inexplicably slide, a promised front cover be assigned to a competitor. Not knowing how to broach the subject delicately.

Strange, eh? If you loan a reviewer a piece of gear for a definite period of time—as long as it takes to review it—why should the manufacturer feel any compunctions to ask for it back afterwards? From what I’ve learned lately, certain publications don’t seem to request call-tags at all. The manufacturer has to initiate the contact once publication of his review—often many months after the writer has handed it in—indicates that the reviewer is obviously done with the hardware.

Does this mean such publications—or their writers—assume that everything submitted is on extended, i.e. endless loan, unless specifically requested back?

That would seem exactly backwards of what it should be.

However, reports indicate that this type of reviewer religion is fully aware of the potential impact its findings can have on a manufacturer’s bottomline. It expects some form of, ahem, compensation outside of getting the Editorial contract fee. And it doesn’t seem above taking this compensation, whether willingly granted or committed to upfront by mutual consent—or not.

Divulged one maker how a reviewer mentioned a few choice bottles of expensive New Year’s bubbly compliments of a recently reviewed equipment firm. The writer commented "they well should have, my review sold them tons of stuff" before catching himself to soft-pedal any prospective damage this brief glimpse into his soul—and possibly, associated corporate culture—had caused. Too late!

Another manufacturer confided of thin-wearing patience over a reviewer’s attitude. The scribe apparently believed he had done the maker an enormous favor—for reporting honestly and objectively on his product as his job description demanded. By insinuation, didn’t the manufacturer now owe him, big time? And what was he prepared to do about it?

Another manufacturer explained how he was looking forward to a new product release. It would allow him to "upgrade" a high-profile reviewer and finally get his older product back "in trade", a few years after the fact. The implied reality? Don’t ask for it back unless you can replace it with something better.

Or how a publisher, when asked about a long-outstanding review, would mention that he was looking for a matching preamp. Wouldn’t a two-for-one review be a good thing for the maker? And how about a third amp for his surround-sound system? The maker pressed the point. He might consider such a proposal once the overdue review published and showed that the writer had actually produced it—and, by extension, was pleased enough with the performance to warrant sending him more like-flavored stuff. But seeing the tables turning, the publisher began talking advertising. He really wanted to get said manufacturer involved. Everything else could surely be arranged after that.

Hmm. Not quite outright extortion, but not too far from it either.

Or how a high-ranking writer had specifically requested a goodly number of components—specific down to particular features needed/desired—only to "freeze" exposure of said product once received to favor a competitor while preventing any other reviewer of the same publication from going after said product? When the manufacturer finally caught wind that the review was beyond what could reasonably be construed as gestation period, he contacted Editorial. Now he was stonewalled. In the monthly strategy meetings on upcoming reviews, this manufacturer’s product had never been mentioned.

Well, yeah, exactly our point, Mister Editor. Your writer failed to do his duty and report to you that he requested our stuff nearly a year back. He simply sat on it without any intentions to ever write it up. (This happens in retail exclusives routinely – lock up the market for a particular product by insisting on a written exclusive to continue selling one’s inferior but established product without competition.)

The same writer had placed a custom order for multiple expensive accessories with another manufacturer. When sending in the bill, the surprised fellow was duly notified that the review was forthcoming and a bill wasn’t really necessary, was it? When the thickheaded maker insisted on getting paid, the review was canceled. The manufacturer eventually managed to retrieve his product—banged up because it was carelessly packaged.

Another reviewer strategically misappropriated a piece of equipment delivered on his rural front porch in absentia. However, he claimed it had disappeared when he arrived home. Naturally, a lazy UPS driver had forgotten to take a delivery signature and for all intents and purposes, an unknown but eagle-eyed audiophile was now enjoying it somewhere in the burbs. However, our reviewer eventually forgot the fraudulent origins of said piece of gear and began mentioning it in the associated component listing of subsequent reviews. The manufacturer noticed and the rest is hush-hush history.

Four different manufacturers personally confirmed stories about their review product having been sold by the writer who obviously didn’t expect to ever be asked to return it nor counted on serial number tracking or warranty registration card mailings. When these firms pressed hard enough to have their merchandise returned, they were offered advertising in trade. In fact, this happened to me personally a few years ago when I was still the National Sales Manager at Soliloquy.

Sad, isn’t it?

Especially since it makes it pretty much impossible for the average reader to distinguish the straight from the crooked from the wobbly. When perceptions of such impropriety leak, everyone’s implicated. The already vertigo-prone sense of objectivity is crippled yet further. Manufacturers obviously could overturn this cart of rotten apples by openly complaining. But most don’t dare for fear of how it might affect their business—and proving actual misconduct rather than having it explained away as "miscommunication" is pretty much impossible. Many, in fact, seem to resign themselves to this trend as "the cost of doing business". They chose to live by the truism that the published word is stronger than the sword and that he who controls content has the last—word that is. Don’t mess with a writer? Sad but true, apparently.

Said one manufacturer, "Hey, if the review cost me $3,000 because the guy’s not sending the stuff back, or it gets back here so beaten up that I have to chuck it—that’s cheaper than a full-page color ad and certainly far more effective."

Can’t really argue with that if the review was deservedly favorable and factual. Though dealing in a manly fashion with harsh reality doesn’t make it any prettier. Finding myself in these murky waters by association (both as a writer and equipment review coordinator for a manufacturer) I’m still debating what good is served to air such laundry in public? Many readers already suspect such impropriety and debate it endlessly on Audio Asylum and other such venues.

And for every report to the contrary, I can point at individual reviewers I know personally and would vouch for any day of the week. So what to do?

Should one pretend ignorance, thereby painting fresh paint over blistering old paint for that nouveau curb appeal - while evidence about the rodent or insect infestation keeps knocking on one’s doors uninvited? That reeks a bit of the old ostrich head-in-the-sand tactic, no? Of course, as long as we’re dealing in generalities, the guilty parties can disassociate and point the finger elsewhere. To be effective and hurt where it matters, retaliations against such unfair or unethical treatment must be meted out by the manufacturers themselves. Having been there myself, I can vouch for the ensuing struggle between self-righteousness and prudence.

Sometimes, the better part of wisdom is to keep quiet, swallow hard and get on with life. So they say. I’m clearly lacking wisdom. Call it a temporarily weak stomach, the lack of judgment associated therewith.

I will add one thing though. The publications I’ve worked with in the past all operated in a very ethical fashion as far as I could tell. I enjoyed my tenures with them and believe that despite perhaps Editorial disagreements, their base-line approach to ethics and common sense couldn’t be faulted.

So before you condemn all of us pencil pusher to terminal lead sucking in one of the lower hells, remember that many of us are truly in the service of spreading exciting and interesting news about this hobby of ours to a like-minded audience. Not all of US-based audio reviewing is corrupt. I know, this isn’t a terribly upbeat unilateral statement to go out on, but it’s true and I truly hope that the straight-laced audio reviewer guys and gals among us aren’t in the minority yet.

Visit Srajan at his website