A New Chance For Music Criticism
Part of the monthly column ‘Degtyarov’s Despotisms’, posted every last Friday of the month
Introspection of what it means to be a music critic often reeks of egocentric rambling. Little imagination is required to cough up a meta hot take that declares music criticism obsolete in the light of the digital age. Lest we tumble into this trap of onanic thinkpiecery, this article will briefly explore the traditional role of the music writer, identify its shortcomings, and offer concrete solutions to ensure its survival into the age of Spotify, Bandcamp and exclusive streams. No aimless pondering, but a new perspective that we can start to work from right now.
On music criticism
Before all else, a music critic, journalist or blogger should remember that he would be nowhere without musicians. We can pen the most stunning panegyrics, produce the most poignant critiques, but without the source material offered to us by countless bands, we would be dead in the creative water. In this sense, our role in relation to the artist has a strong component of dependency.
We should not, however, mistake this hierarchy for irrelevance. Music, like all art, is ultimately a language with which the artist can communicate thoughts, ideas and emotions to his audience in a way that mere words never could. Therefore, successful music does not just rely on its creator, but on the understanding between him and the listener.
Oftentimes, the best art should not be taken at face value, as its true power is more implicit in nature; obscure references and details about the compositions may seem meaningless in themselves, but together they can augment the listener’s understanding to such an extent that it makes the difference between a good and a great experience.
And this is where the critics come in. Exhaustive, sincere music criticism can lead to a more wholesome music experience. With this in mind, the abundance of music that the listener has at his disposal–often free of charge–is not the writing on the wall for music scribes, but rather the starting signal of a new generation of music criticism, as there are simply more beautiful secrets for us to unravel. This does, however, require the reviewer to do the dirty work of exploring the depths of different music scenes to find their hidden gems. In the information age, the critic cannot rely on which promos roll into his inbox if he is to validate his existence.
No more buyer’s guides
While music writing as a whole still has difficulties adjusting itself to the digital era, the art of the review in particular has come under fire. Just this month, Shayne Mehling contemplated the (ir)relevance of reviews in a rather typical think piece at Decibel. Even when not everyone goes as far as to openly declare the review dead, music publications are moving away from these articles as the bread and butter of their output. At best, the review is considered a crutch that is increasingly inadequate in carrying the weight of the publication’s ambitions, be they clicks, ad revenue or overall respectability as a voice for music enthusiasts.
In addition to being a bloody shame, the projected ‘fall of the review’ is unnecessary. Reviews are, in fact, a perfect case study for where music criticism should move as a whole.
In terms of functionality, music reviews used to differ little from standard product reviews. What are the pros? What are the cons? Assign a final grade, and we know whether it’s buy, rent or avoid. While those days are–fortunately–long behind us, many reviewers have yet to broaden their narrative to a point where it includes more than just an answer to the obsolete question “should you buy it or not?” Big metal magazines in particular show that, to them, the review is an afterthought–filler material, as their 150-word blurbs merely give us some background information with a buyer’s advice slapped on. Instead of openly asking themselves whether the review is relevant any longer, they should evaluate their review method.
The key to understanding what makes a review worth reading is realising that, in this day and age, it should not matter whether the audience has already listened to the album or not; even if they never heard of the band in question before clicking on your review, what is to stop them from going to their streaming/download service of choice to check it out for themselves?
Still, the widespread availability of music is not a problem as long as the reviewer adjusts his focus. As we have observed earlier, the right information–no matter how small–can significantly enhance our appreciation of an album. It is therefore up to the reviewer to shift his focus away from simply trying to tell the reader what the music sounds like, which is a largely futile activity to begin with. Instead, he should provide his readers with an entry point from which to better understand the essence of the record at hand. Especially when writing about music from outside of the more familiar scenes (Western Europe & North America), making the reader aware of cultural references, implications and other details that may have otherwise escaped him ensures the continued relevance of the review as music criticism’s weapon of choice.
In addition to choosing the right angle for writing a review–quality over quantity–reviewers should make sure to be consistent. When it is clear where a reviewer stands, his opinion on [X] album will carry more meaning. Ideally, this consistency should extend to the publication as a whole. An outlet’s verdict is only relevant when the opinion of one reviewer can be meaningfully contrasted against the taste of the entire staff. That is not to say that the writing staff of a website or magazine cannot, should not be allowed to disagree on many topics, but it helps boost their collective credibility when they at least approach the music from a similar perspective.
For a music publication to be consistent, it should make sure to either limit its number of contributors or have a strict entry policy (preferably both). Websites such as Angry Metal Guy are more interesting to read than Terrorizer, because they have a small crew of writers, each with their own individual tastes and quirks, yet adhering to the same approximate philosophy. Even Death Metal Underground, for all its flaws, is able to survive on the account of all its contributors judging music by the same set of principles. It is to the discretion of the reader to agree with these principles or not, but when a record gets a good review from DMU, it is obvious what that means. The same cannot be said of larger metal zines such as Terrorizer, where the reviews are handled by an effectively anonymous group of writers whose motivations and standards are a mystery to the average reader.
Tempting though it may be to preach the downfall of the review as a vital part of music criticism, we should simply accept that the reviewer’s job description has evolved since the days Rolling Stone wrote their ‘hot or not’ review blurbs. Music critics are no longer the sole decision-makers in whether an artist finds an audience. Rather than clutching to the last remaining bit of that waning power, they should instead embrace their role as curators who are able to provide new music with a meaningful context, helping listeners discern between the good and the truly great. The predicted death of the review will surely materialise when editors treat it as an obligatory afterthought. Therefore, the future lies with small groups of enthusiastic writers who share their passion for music with the rest of the world. Whether you preach doom or hope will reveal which side you are on.
It is good to say it although it strikes me as amazing that big review websites need this explained to them. It’s always been pretty obvious to some of us. The review as a “hot or not” only existed in commercial pop writing. The published criticism of classical music was a far more interesting and delightful thing to read in the 19th century. Today, however, it has devolved and degenerated into commercial pandering and political tyranny.
Indeed, it feels like a lot of this is just stating the obvious. But with all the ‘is the review dead?’ clickbait floating around, I feel it is necessary to put this out there.