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The critic, money and conflict of interest make for a very current kind of conundrum

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Now that Musical Toronto is redesigned, I’ve begun to sell ad space on the site, and that raises many questions about potential bias and conflict.

My basic position is that, since the Toronto Star, Canada’s widest-circulation daily newspaper, was fine with me accepting free concert tickets to review them on pages containing advertising from that same organization, I can apply that same arm’s length attitude here.

It’s easy at a newspaper, where the advertising salesperson is someone I don’t know, working on another floor of the building, reporting to a manager I’ve never met. It’s a whole different story when all the people involved are me.

So it all comes down to trust: You, gentle reader, need to feel comfortable that I’m not being influenced by the people who are helping put wholegrain on my plate; and the advertisers who are presenting concerts I or someone else connected with this place will review need to accept that a concert will be called as it is.

I’m convinced that Toronto is mature enough to be able to appreciate this compact. I also know that the devil will be in the day-to-day details that have nothing to do with performers and concerts, but with the internal workings of the bigger organizations.

What if I need to write about a financial issue or a leadership crisis at one of the major presenters? Since it doesn’t fall within the traditional arm’s length relationship between critic and artist, and may, in fact, involve the very person I approached to buy some ad space on Musical Toronto.

In this instance, the conflict is clear and palpable.

I’d like to joke that I’ll burn that bridge when I get to it. But it’s a very serious — and very real — concern.

My response is that the current closeness between writer and advertiser is temporary — as temporary as my efforts and economic circumstances will allow.

The first order of business to clear up potential for conflict of interest is to get an outside person to sell advertising. But that person won’t do it for free. I’ve been working on Musical Toronto for free, several hours a day, seven days a week, for nine months. That doesn’t even address the several thousands of dollars I’ve spent to make Musical Toronto look the way it does today.

There are concert listings to maintain on the site now, which are fiddly, high-maintenance things that will add an extra several hours of work every week.

I’m still the official freelance classical music reviewer for the Star, but my income from that over the past two months has amounted to the grand total of $600. Work will pick up now that a new season is almost starting, but there’s no guaranteed minimum, and there is a lot less space and interest in classical reviews in the paper than there used to be.

There is freelance work available here and there, but every other job I pick up means less time for Musical Toronto.

The whole thing is a massive Catch-22 on many levels, but I’m determined to push on, in the hope of building something larger and more interesting than being merely a vehicle for my words. This could be a very exciting community of exchanged news, information and thoughts from a multitude of voices and points of view.

But one has to start somewhere.

Right now, even if I sell every ad space on Musical Toronto every week of the season, I’ll be making a fraction of my former staff salary at the Star, and I’m fine with that. I’m even fine with taking a portion of that income, when there is some, and passing it on to an independent advertising salesperson and coordinator.

Classical music represents a small sliver of the demographic steak-and-kidney pie, but I’m hoping that if there are enough musical advertisers on the site, I can then go to businesspeople not associated with the music world and say, look, others are here, you should be, too.

Once I’m at that stage, I’d like to set up Musical Toronto as a not-for-profit organization, so that I would never have to face even a hint that I am in this for the money.

All this is, I suspect, still a long way off. The way we as a society exchange news and information is also changing in ways we don’t even quite understand yet. Along the way, I may well be proven to be more of a dreamer than a realist. But I’m going to toil on until it all begins to work financially — or until the bank account has run dry and I’ve been forced to take on work that actually pays.

If you have any suggestions, offers or criticisms, I’m all ears.

John Terauds


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