In times of crisis we need to re-evaluate our practice as music journalists, argues former GROOVE editor Kristoffer Cornils. His proposal: an international code of ethics for music publications.

The Global GROOVE: Electronic Music Journalism workshop programme was designed as an opportunity for journalists from all over the world to discuss their practice and learn from each other. Over the course of the ten sessions held in August this year, it became apparent that despite our very different backgrounds, some of the hurdles and problems we face in our work are quite similar, if not identical. This especially includes conflicts of interest – the dilemmas and double binds we encounter regularly while trying to write about an industry and from within scenes that we ourselves are an integral part of. How can we objective if we as subjects are so firmly embedded in these contexts?

When preparing for my workshop on conflicts of interest and criticism, I originally intended to map out the interdependencies and struggles that are inevitable in music journalism. Personal connections with artists, labels, and other actors from the music industry lead to ethical conundrums: is it acceptable to review the new record of someone whom I consider a friend? Even more pressing are the economic questions that we have to ask ourselves in this progressively precarious industry. Can I as an editor really say no to featuring an artist represented by a label that has just paid good money for advertising in my magazine? If my magazine is financed by ticket or record sales, does that mean I have to report mainly on concerts or festivals and releases through which it can create revenue – and if so, can I truly be critical of them?

These are just some of the questions that we have to deal with every day, whether we work in Berlin or Beijing, Mumbai or Cairo. And while they existed also before the COVID-19 pandemic catalysed and accelerated the on-going crisis of the music industry and the field of music journalism, they have become more apparent in the past months. If we all face these dilemmas globally though, I wondered, couldn’t there also be a blanket solution for them? Or at least a general approach that would help evade some of them? So I sat down with a bottle of wine and tried to imagine what that would look like. The key, it seemed to me, was making our conflicts of interest more transparent, sharing more information about our dilemmas amongst ourselves but also with our audiences, who mostly know very little about our daily conflicts.

Since the music industry as a whole and the reporting on it are inherently international but laws concerning the press differ greatly from country to country, a legal solution did not seem possible. However, I thought that clear guidelines for resolving or at least highlighting certain conflicts of interest between the industry and journalism, publications and their writers as well as amongst writers could be helpful. That, I think, would help audiences regain the trust that so many have lost – something that is more important than ever. Music journalism can both amplify the voices from within the scene while also being the one in the back of its head, intervening critically wherever necessary, fostering more dialogue about issues like systemic racism and sexism, income and social inequality amongst its members, and so forth. For that it needs to be credible and free itself from the constraints that come with the job.

I hence put together a brief code of ethics that I believe would highlight certain dependencies and make it easier to circumnavigate around at least some of them. You will find it below together with my explanations for why I suggest certain rules and practices and what potential I see in them. While this places the responsibility for fair and transparent conduct on the publications and, to an extent, also the journalists, all of whom would need to adapt and implement this code of ethics, I believe that the small but incisive adjustments could contribute to a more just and varied music journalism in the long run.

What’s next? I will personally discuss the implementation of the proposed code of ethics with GROOVE’s editorial team. Before that however, I want to encourage other journalists, editors, and members of the music industry as well as of course our readers to be in touch with me at kristoffer@groove.de to discuss the following proposal. Is it at all realistic that music publications would adapt and implement such a code of ethics? What would need to be amended? What are its blind spots? I am happy to discuss each and every detail and have the entire concept questioned.

For now, I’d like to thank my colleague Laura Aha and all of the Global GROOVE: Electronic Music Journalism participants for their valuable contributions without which this proposal would never come into existence. In alphabetical order: Amaan Khan, Crystal Mioner, Fady Adel, Gustavo Gómez, ılgaz yalçınoğlu, Jackie Queens, Jaime Chu, Justiz K. Laude, Lucy Ilado, Steffanie Torres.

Finances

Each publication should

  1. At least in brief explain its business and how it generates revenue, which expressly includes sources of income that are not directly linked to the editorial, including advertorials, banner advertising, native advertising, ticketing, record sales, e-commerce, and the likes.
    1. Most conflicts of interest emerge directly out of underlying economic interests that sometimes contradict the values of music journalism: in-house magazines (e.g. ticketing platforms with an editorial or mailorders that review records) for example are by design incentivized to put more emphasis on what benefits them in their reporting and perhaps omit negative criticism entirely in order to sell products. The audience should be able to identify this fundamental conflict of interest, especially in cases when publications are owned by brands that are not directly involved in journalism but rather use it to diversify their portfolio and market themselves, e.g. telecommunications companies and energy drink manufacturers or records labels, pressing plants, and the likes.
  1. Provide a list of companies, PR agencies and the likes from which it has received any money or had barter deals with in the previous past twelve months; provide visible and unmistakable disclaimers on all articles that have been paid for or even mention companies, PR agencies and the likes from which they have received any money or had barter deals with in the past twelve months; provide disclaimers on the representation of every artist covered by it and list artists represented by the same PR and booking agencies that have been covered in the previous six months; and provide disclaimers if it has barter deals with artists, DJs and other people or institutions covered by them, e.g. if it profits from said artists playing at concerts or club night sets that it profits from financially, etc.
    1. In music journalism, like in any other forms of journalism, disclaimers are used to point out to readers that what they are consuming has been paid for and thus advertises something rather than offering critical and unbiased reporting. This is not always done, and especially a lot of backroom deals and verbal or even unspoken agreements between for example PR agencies representing artists or labels and publications are never communicated in any way to the audience – even though they have a severe impact on editorial decisions. Creating more transparency in these cases would not only make it possible for the audiences to judge the legitimacy of the reporting, but could also grant publications themselves more freedom since they could always refer to their code of ethics whenever a situation arises in which they are confronted with a potential conflict of interest like the ones outlined above.
  1. Provide detailed information on how and how much freelancers will earn from writing for them while also providing information about how  – and by whom – their staff is being paid in relation to each other (i.e., in percentage relative to the highest-earning staff member), expressly including interns; always and without exception name a fee before they commission a piece; pay a late fee of 20% of the net sum plus VAT should they not manage to pay the initial fee after a previously agreed upon time
    1. Freelance journalists work and live precariously and generally have very little leverage or rights. By being transparent about expected fees – whether writers are being paid by the word, the hour, or according to a different system – and by committing themselves to pay their writers in a timely manner, publications would be able to establish more meaningful relationships and trust with them. Writers on the other hand would be less subjected to the inequalities of the labour market as a whole since the comparability of fees could potentially eliminate or at least reduce discriminatory practices like paying journalists less based on their gender, ethnicity, or other factors.

Personnel and editorial

Each publication should

  1. In their hiring strive for gender parity and diversity beyond the binary and, should they not succeed in employing at least 50% of staff members who are women, trans, or non-binary people, permanently provide the reasons for that on their homepage; strive for the inclusion of at least a third of people from marginalised communities, expressly including persons with a working class background, in the region where it is located and, should they not succeed in that, permanently provide the reasons for that on their homepage.
    1. While many publications in the past decade have made efforts to diversify their reporting, representation alone is not enough to guarantee structural change. People from socially marginalised communities and the working class should be included to also guarantee a more diversified reporting. By subscribing to that, publications have much to gain. The proposed step towards this however should also leave room for publications to provide reasons on why they perhaps have not yet succeeded, making it possible for their audiences to judge for themselves whether or not those reasons are legitimate.
  1. Apply the same rules to their freelance writers and list regular contributors on their homepage; implement a system that allows freelancers to send in blind pitches.
    1. Especially aspiring writers have a hard time getting their foot in the door of well-known publications, and discriminatory practices – whether conscious or not – make it harder for some to tell their stories. Anonymous pitching would solve these problems while also benefiting publications greatly. Listing regular writers and other contributors (e.g. graphic designers, photographers, etc.) would not only give those more exposure but make more transparent whether a publication’s efforts to diversify their personnel also extends to their collaboration with freelancers.
  1. Install, formulate, and publish its policy on how it deals with the authorisation of features, interviews and the likes in accordance with the legal regulations in the country in which it is based and provide according disclaimers on every article should they have been authorised and/or edited as per the suggestion of artists, PR agencies, managements, and the likes.
    1. More often than not artists, PR agencies, or managers will try to influence a publication’s or writer’s reporting in order to ensure that the narratives they want to build around themselves or their clients are facilitated by the press. By making transparent a blanket approach to for example authorisation practices, publications could have more leverage against these attempts and would also spare their writers long and often uncomfortable encounters with persons and institutions that want to influence their work, since they could at any time refer to the publication’s policy.

Freelancers

Each freelancer should:

  1. In their initial pitch to a magazine make clear whether or not they have previously dealt with and/or have a friendly or even business relationship with the artists, their labels or PR representatives.
    1. Much like publications should make an effort to guarantee a reporting as free of conflicts of interest as possible, writers should do the same. As music journalists are usually not only involved in the respective scenes they cover, but also as, for example, label owners, musicians, DJs, etc., and oftentimes have close personal connections with artists, labels, or even PR agencies, they regularly encounter conflicts of interest. Publications should be able to judge how much these would interfere with the quality and honesty of the reporting and be able to decide accordingly whether or not they want to collaborate with one writer for a project that may be compromised a priori.
  1. Handle the authorisation of features, interviews and the likes according to the policy outlined by each magazine.
    1. See above. 
  1. Pledge to never offer their work for free or at a lower price than their competitors.
    1. The rising precarity amongst freelance writers is also an expression of an erosion of solidarity that can be traced back to growing responsibilisation under neoliberal capitalism. If journalists would refuse to offer their labour for free or in exchange for anything other than financial compensation (guest list spots, records, etc.), or even at a lower price than potential competitors, this could ensure that publications will make more efforts to fairly compensate them and hopefully globally provide more security for freelancers.

This article is part of the Global GROOVE: Electronic Music Journalism series, hosted by GROOVE in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut. Read all other articles here.