Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Promo CD problems

The Detroit Free Press is reporting this morning that WDET DJ Martin Bandyke has been "allowed to resign" over accusations that he "trafficked in recorded music and accepted free concert tickets in violation of WSU policy." (WDET is Detroit's Wayne State University-operated NPR affiliate.) Apparently, Bandyke had been taking duplicate copies of promotional CDs provided to WDET for airplay to used music resellers and exchanging them for additional titles to add to WDET's library. He also, apparently, had been obtaining free concert tickets from music label representatives.

Unlike many NPR affiliates, WDET plays little or no classical music. Instead it airs new music between NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered." Spending most of the past year in the Detroit area, I found myself listening to WDET almost exclusively, especially given Detroit's dearth of original radio programming. (Old 90s standbys 88.7 and 96.3 have become exactly that--stations that split their broadcast between the music popular in the 90s and the MTV track of the week, which, more often than not, is deservedly removed from the playlist after a few days.) Last year's regulars ranged from Beck and Kraftwerk to John Prine, Sonny Landreth, and Mary Gauthier. I worked in a music store, and I discovered far more new music through WDET than I did at work.

At the same time, as the circumstances I've described have hinted, WDET is a bit of an exception, and I'm sure that they have to work pretty hard to keep it up. There is something of a perception that working at a radio station or music store means that you're swimming in free CDs. I can tell you from experience that this is far less true now than it was ten years ago. Ease of CD pirating has meant that labels are far less likely to distribute free CDs before a release date, and since so many commercial outlets have installed digital listening stations, there's far less of a need to distribute promotional listening copies at all. Since the promotional CDs we did get came in after release dates, we tended to only get copies of discs that were selling well, and different sources would end up sending us multiple copies of the same few titles. I imagine that this was often the case at WDET as well.

I have two reactions to the news of Mr. Bandyke's habits. Working in a store that sold used CDs, one of my pet peeves used to be label reps and employees of other music stores that would bring in big piles of promotional CDs to sell. In part, my frustration was my employer's apparent "plausible deniability" policy. If "promotional CD -- not for sale" was actually printed on the CD or booklet, I couldn't buy the disc, but if the CD were marked in one of the handful of other ways that labels use to distinguish promotional discs without the words "promotional" or "not for sale" actually appearing, I was supposed to accept the item as saleable. While selling promotional merchandise as "used" could have led to a lot of trouble were we to get caught, the attitude seemed to be that so long as we could plausibly say "oh, I didn't notice that the bar code had been punched out," that it was no problem.

On the other hand, in contrast to the label reps and music store employees that used to tick me off, Mr. Bandyke was not exchanging the discs for personal gain. This is a big gray area. While ethically, Mr. Bandyke's defense that "everybody on staff" was doing the same thing carries little weight with me, the fact remains that not only is the selling and reselling of promotional merchandise rampant, but that while record labels claim that promotional discs are "property of the label and must be returned on demand," I have never heard of a case where a label has ever asked that a promotional disc be returned, and I believe that you would be hard pressed to find anyone who was aware of such an event ever having actually occurred.

Thus, promotional CDs, for all practical purposes, do not remain the property of the label. They are distributed with no intent of return, and it is arguamble that the intent is all but for employees to take them home for their personal collection (at least after a period of broadcast or in-store play). While I still have issues with promotional discs being sold for cash, which still makes Bandyke's actions questionable at best--he may not have been selling the discs, but he was trading them for eventual sale--I have a hard time working up much in the way of outrage over Mr. Bandyke's apparent motivations.

There are big problems with the music industry, not the least of which being that if you want to run a radio station that broadcasts a wide variety of new and archival music, you have to resort to shady dealings to get your hands on the music you can't get from the labels.

(There is of course, room for a great deal more discussion, including the fact that WSU was not able to produce a copy of the policy under which Mr. Bandyke was asked to resign, and Mr. Bandyke's apparent feeling of entitlement to free concert tickets for personal use, but I think that 850 words for a blog entry is more than enough. Click here for my October 17 posting on a new proposal for copyright law, which also links to an October 11 post on Snarkmarket which discusses the ethics of selling used books and CDs.)

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