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I'm confused. From the perspective of online hifi review publishing, the ad-based business model would seem badly broken. Let me explain. Quite a rarity on the net, pay-per-view porn sites create their revenue stream exclusively with subscriptions. Failing to appeal to such baser instincts, almost all web-based hifi publications rely on ad revenues instead. That's where it gets weird. Say you saw a dentist. You, your insurance or some government-subsidized plan would pay for those services. Nobody would dream of no money exchanging hands; or paying by detour into the dentist's favourite charity because, somehow, taking direct money made the dentist and his services circumspect. Only moochers and losers expect free services from anyone not deliberately designated a charity or pro-bono outfit.

And as far as impartiality goes, sports umpires and referees get paid. So do judges and arbitrators. Receiving payment concomitant with their expertise and experience is the natural way of things. Having to render objective judgment isn't in conflict with being directly remunerated. But wait, what about reviewers in the ad-based publishing model? Were they treated like professionals in any other service industry, they'd bill you directly either on time or per job. The latter would seem more practical. Hence a 5000-word review with 20 photos would carry a higher fee than a 1500-word review with 5 images. A review by a top expert would cost more than one from a rookie; and top-tier publications would charge more than third-rate outfits. Promotional copy like a factory tour or interview would come with a fixed fee, travel and ancillary costs would be included or reimbursed. All of that is basic business where services come at a price.

Alas, that's not the case for our sort. We get paid via ad support. Depending on publication, the balance between reviews of advertisers vs. reviews for non-advertisers could be 50:50 or 30:70. For this discussion it matters not. What matters is that there's a paying faction which funds the enterprise so the readers pay nothing and the rest of the reviewed companies pay nothing. Think on that for a minute. The notion that 50% or 70% of companies reviewed should get their services for free is completely asinine. No reader not a trust-fund baby or otherwise retired from the need to generate a livelihood would tolerate working for free. Yet people expect exactly that of hifi publications.

In a normal world it would be utterly normal for any maker approaching a magazine for a review to ask about associated costs. You and I do the same for any service we might pursue of a gardener, baby sitter, plumber or locksmith. We shop around to get a feel for going rates. Then we make a decision based on value, convenience and whatever other factor enters the picture. But take the current ad-based model and such inquiries can't be answered with a sensible "we charge €1'000 for a standard review or €25 per hour". Or any other figure. They can only be answered by, "you'll have to take out an ad, talk to our ad department".

Of course the very moment that happens, people cry wolf. Quid pro quo. Collusion. Corruption. But in the absence of a fee-based model, what do they expect? That we work for free? Guess what, that's exactly what they expect. What gall! Back to reality. In the existing model, payment for services rendered can't be direct. It must be routed through a favourite charity called adverts. But what if a manufacturer dislikes that charity? They might find ads ineffective. They might have other objections on the general subject or your execution in particular. They would much rather pay a direct one-time fee. But they can't. This business model won't allow it.

So please, explain to me now why ad supporters should pay not only for themselves—to promote their brand whilst contributing to the magazine's bottom line to insure that it continues to exist—but also for all the Freddie Freeloaders who get their reviews for nothing? That's asinine again. Yet it's the status quo. What would happen if all manufacturers were forced to take out ads to pay for the work involved in writing proper reviews? You'd end up with far more ads than content. If you apply consistency and logic, that would be the unavoidable result. The only practical solution? Limit the allowable number of advertisers by increasing content with multiple reviews per advertiser. Now just 30 advertisers could generate 150 reviews a year which seems sufficient content for most publications. Of course you'd also have only 30 brands and five reviews for each.

Clearly readers would object to such severely limited variety. Hence what persists instead is this existing very imbalanced and unfair model of operations. By virtue of it, publishers of web-based review magazines are made to feel corrupt or wrong to remind one and all that they can't work for free and shouldn't be expected to in the first place. So let's get practical. Pretend you're a publisher. You're being solicited for review. You bring up this subject. Now you're told that they're too new and small to afford any advertising. Next you're told that you're in the news business, that they and their new product are news, hence it's your bloody job to review 'em so get on with it.

Being a reasonable sort, you appreciate that they're indeed new and let the matter go. You figure that these things always balance out in the end. So next day you're being solicited by a major very successful company. Should they get a free pass too? And how about the company for whom you've published five reviews over the years without ever asking anything in turn? Shouldn't it be common courtesy that they'd approach you now to reciprocate for a change? At what point do common sense, enthusiasm and generosity degrade into becoming blatantly abusive?

For 6moons, this way of things means that a minority of manufacturers not only pay for your ability to read us for free; they also pay for your ability to read about products from their competitors who don't pay a dime and wouldn't dream of offering. It's actually amazing that we've managed to do this for 12 years by relying solely on the goodwill of the few. They're the real benefactors behind these scenes. They deserve a major shout-out. So let's hear it. Thank you!
PS: After everything is said and done of course, none of it makes this system right. It really is in dire need of repair. It doesn't work properly. Until this discussion is being held out in the open to propose meaningful solutions, nothing will change. Have you ever wondered why so much of this industry feels so hobbyist (which is simply another way of saying, not professional)? Clearly here is one very practical reason. It's why there are so many part-timers moonlighting at hifi whilst they must run day jobs in the real world to pay their bills. You can't really expect professional results over the long term if you're unwilling to pay for them in the first place.

PS2: A day after publication, we posted this exchange in our feedback section. I append it here to reiterate just why this subject is so worthy of consideration.

Dear Srajan,
I am in total accordance with your analysis of the deficits in the payment arrangement of professional review journalism. Every manufacturer should be aware that an audio magazine or on online portal needs some funds to run the business. Some companies can do more to support such activities than others due to extremely large differences in the advertising budgets. I see it more like a tax where the strong can do more than the weak. Paying no "tax" at all is antisocial and there should be some sort of penalty.

Where I disagree is that small companies are discredited as dreamer or simply as unprofessional. Our mutual market place is relatively small and heavily overcrowded: sometimes I have the impression that a 1:1 manufacturer / customer ratio is reached. In addition, even the smallest niche is segmented in to tiny fractions.  It may be my personal perception, but it is fact that we all do (including review magazines) work that no one really needs and therefore no one really wants to pay (much money) for.

What’s the consequence? Ignore all small businesses that can’t afford to act big? If so, I don’t think that high end audio would survive in the long term. Our business and yes, our passion would become progressively boring leading to further decline. We should all agree upon proper rules of game in the benefit of us all. Besides all monetary difficulties, we should never forget our customers. He is the only one that makes it all possible.
Ivo Linnenberg

Hello Ivo:
Good points but, obviously, something for nothing is not a working business model. Your customers do pay you. If my readers are my customers, they pay nothing. If the manufacturers are my customers, some pay, rather more of them don’t pay anything. How would your business work if only some customers paid for your product? Not very well I imagine. My article simply pointed out that in the current model, the majority of manufacturers pay nothing. That creates a grave imbalance. Hence my proposal for a fee-based model instead that would do away with ads entirely. There's no dispute that larger companies have larger means. That's not really the point. Anyone in business relies on ongoing services to stay in business. You can't not pay your electricity bill because you don't feel like it or can't afford it. And nobody implies that reviews are a must in any hifi maker's business plan. But if one does decide that reviews are a service one needs from time to time, expecting that service for free is not only unrealistic and asocial, it is unprofessional. That this should even be argued underlines just how badly the current model is broken!