As one could infer from our readings this week, it's commonplace that the lines of journalism and public relations, or strategic communications, can blur. It happens in many different instances and in many different parts of the media. However, I would say the industry where it can be the most confusing, in terms of the question "what is ethical", is by far the music industry. As someone who was formerly a staff writer for an editorial music website and is now a music public relations practitioner, I have seen both sides, including how it gets complicated with musicians and bands themselves.
Conflicts of interest: in the particular niche of the music industry I'm in happen more than ever, and not even just with the journalism roles (PR or editorial.) I once wrote for a music website where the owner of the website also had started to manage bands and develop his own record label. Although I have nothing personally against him, don't think him to be a bad person and have no proof that any certain agenda was pushed, I'm more than sure his position was not ethical, even if unintentionally so.
Although we as staff writers were pitched a wide range and variety of bands to review or write about, many of whom he had no personal hand in, we were also certainly still pitched a fair amount of bands that he had business ties or personal relationships with. In fact, I once personally wrote a fairly scathing album review for one of the bands that he credits with helping his website rise to its large following, and for some reason, that review never got posted. Granted, this was a website where none of us were getting paid nor any college credit, so things could tend to fall through the cracks when editors had other priorities higher on their lists. Still, things usually were always posted even if it was quite delayed because the website was big on content, as most of them are. I would venture to say that this perhaps was quite purposeful, and fairly unethical.
As is reflected on in this article, as a music writer it is near-impossible not to become friends with bands. It is even more difficult when you are a publicist for bands, but much more ethical because your job is to promote them positively anyway. As I mentioned earlier, I work in a very niche part of the music industry related to the genre, and it is certainly the smallest of worlds. There are a small number of music journalists who write about the bands I work for, and the mingling that turns into friendly relationships is near-impossible to avoid.
You can try to sidestep writing about bands who you do end up bonding with on a personal level, but that can also be difficult when they are either very prevalent and almost unavoidable content during a specific period in time (buzzworthy) or when there is a limited amount of activity happening in the music scene at the time, with limited choices for content. If you can be friends with a band and truly review them objectively, which is possible as I have done it personally, then I don't think it's unethical. However, if people reading the website are aware of the relationship you may have with them personally, or word gets around about it, it can be a very bad look and you may get flagged as unethical, even if you honestly were objective.
The relationship between publicists and editorial journalists in the music industry can probably seem a lot more questionable from the outside than it actually is. It's crucial that as a publicist, you work hard to have and maintain good relationships with music editors and writers. However, it's not just because you want them to say nice things about your band. You need them to premiere singles, albums and music videos, even if they are not giving an actual opinion.
Our artists' well-being so largely depend on general exposure; getting a website with a large audience to post a music video, or even just tour dates is absolutely critical, even without a targeted message. If you want your band to stand out and get enough coverage in the oversaturated music industry/Internet, it is simply imperative as a music publicist that you have music editors and writers willing to post things for you and the bands you represent at the exact time you need said materials posted.
You do often end up taking editors and writers to dinners or out for drinks, but its not to get them to say a band you represent is their favorite: it's simply for the sake of coverage and having someone willing to promise you a certain time for a certain post. As musical PR professional Rachel White states in this video, "the idea is to get the artist known."