An essay on past and future music criticism
So that show review on Shining and that album review of Caligula’s Horse’s latest record Bloom were my last ever ones in their respective categories. Part of my motivation to stop writing was that I lost touch with the genre a bit. Metal was just one of the genres I was interested in (and mostly older stuff), whereas reviewing albums required deeper and more up-to-date knowledge than I had and have, since recently I’ve spent my time digging deeper into dance, funk and film and game soundtracks, and of course my nu disco mix project.
But another reason was that I had an itch that what I was doing was becoming a somewhat pointless practice. Sometimes, the best way to describe music that occurred to me was to add a YouTube or Bandcamp link, but that immediately made me raise the question: why, then, should I even write? And even when I read a strong review, I would often still rather listen the music myself, because I knew I rarely agreed with reviewers anyway. From a literary perspective, I have a lot of love for the genre of the review, which used to be music criticism’s primary weapon, and I can name various book, film and album reviews that are pieces of literature in themselves (feel free to email me if you’re interested), and simply a joy to read. But it has to be said, a good review, one that does the subject matter justice, has a strong tendency to be long, and can easily slip into becoming boring or even tedious.
To see why reviews have this tendency, let’s glance quickly over the history of the genre. For a long time, reviewers had a privileged position because they had access to content before their audiences. They could get away with simply describing their impressions, and did not do so as often because to be published and to reach an audience was so hard for anyone without a musical or literary background that reaching that position virtually entailed having literary qualities. And their impact was great, because more often than not listeners had the opportunity to read the review before they could hear the music for themselves, and so could use the review to decide whether they even would.
But when printing became less expensive, and even more dramatically when the internet became publicly available, anyone could become a reviewer, whether for a website, on a music discussion site, or on a personal blog, and that remains true today. During this transition, especially for those writing for established media or high-profile websites, content generally remained exclusive. Prior to release, nobody had an idea what a new album sounded like. Listeners would depend on reviews to tell them whether something was good, because they would have to pay to find out for themselves. Even just before the rise of the internet, there was no album preview except in some stores, just like there was no pirated version of a movie to watch on your laptop. Aside from reviews, you would decide whether or not to pay based on a poster or the commentary of a friend who heard it first.
This situation was very much temporary, however. When digital piracy grew, music, games and films became available at the same time as or even before the reviews. Books managed to escape this trend for a long time because nobody wanted to read from their computer screen, but that was only until smartphones, tablets and ereaders came. By then, reviews already had started to diminish in strength, because the average amount of literary education with reviewers dropped along with the exclusiveness of their subject matter. Note that I include myself here. I had some training in writing, but most of it is self-taught, and I have had no training in the more technical aspects of music. My reviews were rarely of actual literary quality, and I gladly admit that.
The real turn came with the responses from the music industry. Not with the attacks on Napster, LimeWire and The Pirate Bay, of course, since they were merely symptoms, not the “disease” itself. I mean the services that made major consumer groups commit to legally acquired music (again): iTunes, YouTube, Spotify. You can also name your favourite rip-off or spin-off. But iTunes, YouTube and Spotify worked because they took the advantages of pirated music – comprehensive and easily available (iTunes), almost free (Spotify) or completely free (YouTube) – and made them (legally) available to everyone. But maybe even more important changes, at least in the case of music, occurred in the attitudes of musicians and promoters. The idea that fans could and should be the first to listen to a new track had caught on, and exclusivity for press, and primarily the review in its traditional form, began to vanish.
Of course, the review, let alone music criticism in general, never vanished, and it never will. Rather: it takes on different forms. Those who adapted well have seen early enough that there were still things an organized press can uniquely offer, such as quality interviews (many printed magazines have put their focus on this), specialties for underground genres and artists (XLR8R is my favourite example), and intel on events (Resident Advisor comes to mind), which have become more and more expensive for consumers as album sale revenue dropped. Reviews have changed quite dramatically. Many reviews now appear at the same time as, or even later than the music, and most reviews now exhibit some kind of awareness that that is not what “it” is about. What they are about is still a point of contention, but they often put an emphasis on a broader context and insights about the genre, often related to observations of a changing genre and music industry.
Here, I would like to look broadly at music criticism again. The review, in adapted form, still has a right to existence, but I know there is more to music criticism. I have seen it. There are many examples of new and revived old forms of music criticism, and I think they can be of great service to a musical landscape that is so massive that it often takes a lot to find your way in it.
Excuse me for taking the dictionary approach here, but using a quotation from The Oxford Companion to Music may give my claims something of a foundation. It says that music criticism is “the intellectual activity of formulating judgements on the value and degree of excellence of individual works of music, or whole groups or genres.” Traditionally, this would mean that a music critic wrote a review and said the piece of music in question was (to this or that extent) good or bad, often related to some statements about technical aspects (“degree of excellence”). However, if you have ever studied a bit of philosophy, you probably know that the definition of value is one of the least clear-cut of all in ethics and aesthetics. Value can be intrinsic or instrumental, the latter meaning that the thing is good to a certain end. The latter is the notion I will take up in relation to music here.
Because although we sometimes make it seem so, especially in reviews, music is never good or bad in itself (intrinsically). If anyone still adheres to the ancient aesthetics that defend the intrinsic value of art, they will probably reject most music criticism anyway. Music is good or bad relative to time, location and genre-specific standards. And music critics have always judged music, implicitly or explicitly, over these standards. But why would we then not take the list further to include much more specific or unexpected standards? I will name a few examples.
Several new businesses have taken up the existing concept of curation, and taken it into today’s musical landscape. The music critic (whether coming from a musical, a literary, a collector’s or whatever background, this is all open now) is in a fine position to curate, because he knows his way around this landscape, while others don’t. Spotify allowed for sharable playlists, which playlists.com offers a lively marketplace for. Apple Music now also allows for sharable playlists, but still focuses on its own curators, which largely remain unknown. One of the most surprising initiators in this area has been 22tracks, which has connected its service, which is curated by chosen people from a specific area where you can listen tracks from, to a gaming console, to hotels and even to its own festival, where it featured a no-headliner line-up, in other words: relied on its reputation of curation.
Another route to take is music analytics. Intelligence today has to take some stance towards data, which is available in quickly increasing quantities. Last.fm was an early enthousiast of large user based data sets, which it used to display user libararies in graphs and rankings as well as to randomly generate radio playlists and produce artist recommendations. This service has been slow to adjust to newer technologies however, and its tricks have been copied and improved upon by Pandora, Songza and of course Spotify and Apple Music, although Last.fm is still the only one to provide a complete overview of every song you’ve ever scrobbled (registered). Still, music criticism of course consists of more than just stacking data sets, which is why it is services that combine the knowledge from data with human expertise that are effectively reinventing music criticism.
Above, I have already hinted at music criticism’s possible value in providing guidance in a confusing musical landscape. As a third option, I will coin a somewhat more abstract possibility, namely for music critics to give a more personal outlook, blog-style, on their music listening habits. I propose this because music criticism has lost the exclusivity of hearing music first and free (or at least cheap), it has to shift its focus from the “what” of listening music, while still retaining that as background knowledge, to the “how” of listening music. It may inspire to see how someone else discovers music, how someone else collects music, how someone else listens to music. There are countless ways to do so, and they add up every day.
This The Guardian article is one example, it uses the case of classic music sundays to ask questions about our listening habits: “So how are you listening to music in (this year)? Do you still see the album as superior to the single? Can you multi-task and take all you can from a song while cooking, cleaning or writing a blog? Or is time to sit down, turn off the laptop and engage in some serious Slow Listening?” Of course, the internet already has plenty of answers for you, but they’re often jokes or very general observations based on statistics. Let me take one example from my own experience. The below image, however full of nonsense it may be (since it’s a fictional commercial), inspired me the way reading a thousand reviews couldn’t, because of that single line “Give life back to music,” which did not strike me when I heard the song, but did in combination with the image.
Not that I want this set-up, not that I idolize Daft Punk so much that I want their slipmats, but I just want my music to sound good. I want to give back life to my music. I am inspired.
And I think this gives direction to where the future of music criticism lies. We can be overwhelmed with the amounts of music existing, and not know what we “should” listen. Should, not as a matter of fashion obligation, but uncertainty as to what are our own desires, our own tastes. You can listen to new music continually, the necessity to choose something to stick with is gone. There is a job for music criticism, and that is to inspire, to give new ways of discovering, collecting and listening. And maye, doing so, give life back to music.