Ok, so this might seem like a strange title for a blog post but I have an issue that I need some insight and input on from my Neffmusic readers. Here’s the issue and then I will pose some questions at the end.
Mouthpiece Reviews and Morality: Nine years ago I started what is now neffmusic.com. It started innocently enough. I had a Barone tenor sax mouthpiece and was describing how it sounded and played on SOTW (Sax on the Web) when the idea occurred to me to record it and try to figure out a way to post it so everyone could hear what the mouthpiece sounded like. I immediately got a lot of positive feedback and people seemed to appreciate my short review of the mouthpiece and what I played on the sound clip.
I had a bunch of people email me asking about certain parts of the clip and what I was playing so I came up with the idea of recording a short audio lesson on the subject instead of trying to answer everyone’s emails separately. There was a great response to that short audio lesson and a bunch of players said that I should do more and they would be happy to buy them. So I did more and put a price on them and the site took off………..
I was searching for a mouthpiece during this time so I started posting more reviews and sound clips to get feedback about what people thought about each mouthpiece and sound clip. I actually learned a lot from the feedback and responses I received back. Soon, I was reviewing more mouthpieces but it was getting a bit expensive. I’m sure many of you have been there. I kept having to find ways to afford the next mouthpiece to be reviewed and many times I wasn’t ready to let go of the last one…….You know how it is………
Soon, I started having mouthpiece makers contacting me asking if I would review their mouthpieces also. I was excited! I get to try all these expensive mouthpiece for free! Send away. I was in heaven! Pretty soon however I had a dozen mouthpiece on my desk with more coming in. I was getting better at the reviews and adding more details but that was also adding to how long it took to do a review. There were many weeks where I spent all week on reviews. 40-50 hours just doing review after review and then sending the mouthpieces back.
So let’s get to the crux of the matter, after awhile I started getting sick of doing mouthpiece reviews. I’d spend half my week working on reviews and I’d see a lot of traffic to my site to read the reviews but I wouldn’t see much profit from a review of a mouthpiece besides maybe selling a few books on the side. Many times I would hear back from the maker about how many pieces they sold after my review or how busy they were because of my review. Meanwhile, I just spent 10-20 hours working on these reviews but had nothing to show for it.
One day I was discussing this with my wife and she was surprised that I didn’t keep the mouthpieces. She told me that it was common in the review site world of the internet for top review sites to get free products sent to them just to get a review on their popular websites. I did some searches on Google and found that this was indeed very common and most review sites were run this way. (Amazon even sends free products to people for reviews actually)
At around the same time, I started having different mouthpiece makers offering to send me a free mouthpiece so that I could review it. This was their idea and they were surprised every mouthpiece maker didn’t do it. They felt it was just respectful of my time and supportive of my work. I was thankful for their support and encouragement. I always made it clear that I appreciated it but it in no way was a guarantee of a review and that I might send it back if I didn’t like it. My policy has always been to do positive reviews that help the saxophone community to find the right mouthpiece for them. I always felt that I wasn’t interested in doing negative reviews. You might ask why?
1.) Reviewing mouthpieces and their playability and sound is mostly subjective. I’m talking about my experience, my feelings, my opinions, etc…..It isn’t like I’m reviewing an iPhone and talking about facts like processor speed or screen pixels. Here I am talking about what I perceive for the most part. Although I might believe something strongly, it can never be defined as a fact. So writing negative reviews based on opinion is already a gray area in my mind…….On the other hand, writing a positive review based on my opinion is something I’m happy to do………..
2.) I have played mouthpieces that I absolutely hated that another player has loved and sounded killer on. How many times have you heard a great player and asked if you could try their mouthpiece only to find that you hated it. It has happened to me a number of times. Is it fair to write a negative review that might hurt a business forever when my subjective experience might not be true for everyone?
3.) Writing a negative review will be on the internet forever. Many times, my site comes up on the first page of a google search when you search for any of the mouthpieces I have reviewed. Sometimes my site comes up before the manufacturer’s site even does. Writing a negative review based on my subjective experience would forever hurt someone’s business. I don’t want to do that!
4.) Some of these mouthpieces that I receive are from young mouthpiece makers trying to figure out their craft and pathway. They are experimenting and learning as they work on their craft. Is it right for me to write a scathing review that destroys any chance they have to succeed before they even figure out their niche or hit their stride. I think it is better to send the mouthpiece back to them and say it didn’t work for me and maybe a few reasons why so they can try again………
5.) I hate playing a mouthpiece that doesn’t work for me. I hate it so much that if I had to review mouthpieces that were bad I would quit doing this immediately! It is too painful! You have all been there and no what it is like if you have a horrible reed. It’s the worst! A bad mouthpiece that doesn’t work for you is the same thing. It’s just painful. I want that thing off my horn and out of my house as fast as possible.
So, what is my policy on reviews? I only write reviews of mouthpieces that I think are good. These are mouthpieces that I can play and they work for me. They might be darker or brighter than I like but if they play well and I feel like I can really play and get around the horn then I will do a review.
Now, back to the topic at hand, what soon started happening is that I started getting requests from mouthpiece makers I had never heard of before. When these guys started contacting me asking for a review I would say “Sure, send me a free sample and I’ll check it out”. I figured, if they are bad I can just send them back, if they are good or great then I just discovered a great mouthpiece. This is how I found out about great new mouthpiece guys like Liu Shizhao, Benjamin Allen, Ken Okutsu and Lawrence Waldron for example. They would send me a mouthpiece or sometimes mouthpieces and if I liked them I would review them. If I couldn’t play them then I would send them back.
Asking for a free sample mouthpiece had two affects, it would help me be more excited about the review because if the mouthpiece was awesome I could keep it for myself. Secondly, it would allow me to perhaps sell it at a later date and get some income for my labor which I could use to pay some bills and feed my family. This was a much better system and I was much happier because I had something to show for my hard work. I could keep paying my bills, eating and continue to do mouthpiece reviews. I always joke with my wife that my mouthpiece stash will eventually pay for a few years of our retirement hopefully.
Getting a free mouthpiece was not in any way affecting the results of the review because in my mind I was still only reviewing the mouthpieces that played for me and I thought were good. Any others, I would send back to the maker. I don’t know the exact count but this year I have sent back close to 20-25 mouthpieces to different makers. Many of these were mouthpieces I could have kept and sold if I was unethical but I could not do that. I’m not saying these were bad but that they just didn’t work for me. I couldn’t find a good reed, the tip opening felt too small, the tip opening felt too wide, I just didn’t feel comfortable on it, etc……….
Anyways, I say all this because a few weeks ago a certain mouthpiece maker wanted me to do a review on my site. I said what I have been saying for awhile now. “Sure, send me a free sample and I’ll check it out”. This person responded that there was no way that they could do that to which I said I understood and I wished him well. I thought the subject was over and assumed we were on good terms but then he started sending more emails and posting on Facebook publicly saying I was unethical, that my reviews were bogus, that it was outrageous to ask for a free mouthpiece and implying that I was getting paid to write good reviews and my site was a farce. He told me that the only way to do impartial reviews was to not accept any mouthpiece nor money in exchange. That would be ethical and right in his opinion. (That would also get him a free review at no cost to him so I wasn’t totally clear what his true motives were…….)
Just to be clear, most of the reviews on my site have been done for free. In the last month I did a review of the Bill Evans mouthpiece, the Retro Revival New Yorker and the Ted Klum London model, The Navarro Bop Boy and the Lamberson J7 1920 all on my own time and dime because I was interested in those mouthpieces. No mouthpieces were given for these reviews. They were either bought or borrowed by me because I was interested in these mouthpieces.
Other mouthpieces I have reviewed in the last month were at the request of the mouthpiece makers and I accepted a free mouthpiece for those. I would say 80% of the mouthpieces on my site were reviewed with no mouthpieces given in exchange. I have never ever accepted any money for a review and never will.
So at the end of the day, I guess my questions to all of you is:
- Is it unethical to take free mouthpieces to review on my site?
- Is it ok to ask that of makers who want a review?
- Does my accepting of a free mouthpiece affect your view of the review?
- If one review is of a mouthpiece I received for free and one isn’t would you weigh the reviews differently?
- Is not doing negative reviews ok? Or is that unethical also?
I honestly have not seen the conflict of interest here but maybe that’s because I feel I am being honest in my reviews. The reason I am posting this is similar to when I posted my first mouthpiece clip. I want to get your opinions and other perspectives.
I am very open to any and all opinions you all might have on this. If what I am doing is wrong or unethical I would like to know. I’m actually perfectly happy not doing reviews and just working on transcriptions and teaching as that is what I love most. Let me know what you think…….in the comments below. Thanks, Steve