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 Everett True

a 10 point survival guide for music critics in web 2.0

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This entry is inspired by recent commentary centered around the release schedule of the new Radiohead album.

Let’s establish a few rules first.

  1. I will need to write this as a bullet point list if I want other websites to link back to it. (c.f. my advice for aspiring music critics)
  2. Most of the commentary on this album that I encountered happened on Twitter and Facebook, among the numerous readers’ comments on The Guardian‘s ‘live’ coverage of the release of The King Of Limbs, and not in traditional music criticism outlets at all. It is still only the day after the album was released.
  3. There are clear parallels between the way music criticism and music is accessed these days. Music can be accessed via the traditional music industry (record companies etc), blogs, MySpace, amazon, radio, gigs, etc etc. As can music criticism (substituting print magazines for record companies, and pub/work conversations for gigs etc). Yet no one goes around saying “music is dead” or “everyone’s a musician”. It would be absurd, right? And yet both sayings are just as true as “music journalism is dead” or “everyone’s a critic”. The first is patently untrue – as long as people can speak or write, there will always be dialogue around music, around any kind of art, around life itself: and while the second may be clearly true (for both music and for music criticism) it is patently useless as a definition. Of course, you don’t need to use definitions at all – and often it’s more fun if you don’t – but the people who, in particular, state “everyone’s a critic” are the ones using it as a definition.
  4. Oh. Don’t throw the old “Music criticism is a parisitic art form” at me. True, mostly. But so is most of music, come to that.

OK. Let’s clear something up. One self-important major league band with a bunch of even more self-important fans releasing an album and not bothering to tell music magazine editors the release date in advance does not herald the death knell for music journalism. Old school, traditional, print music journalism perhaps? Not even that. The dialogue around the music still exists. It’s just moved elsewhere: onto blogs, and fan sites, into Twitter feeds and Facebook updates, onto user-generated reviews on YouTube and yes… even onto live blogs at traditional newspapers, and immediate review/reactions at online music magazines: even into the print media itself. All of this is music criticism/journalism. Opinions are being shared, discussion is taking place, people – both fans and non-fans of the band in question – are using this torrent of argument and counter-argument to inform their own opinions of what they think of the music. Their experience of listening to the new Radiohead album is still being enhanced. The music is still not being listened to in glorious isolation (except by the people who would always have listened to it in glorious isolation, anyway). Indeed, in many respects, there’s more music criticism around than ever: the move away from ‘paid’ criticism came years ago, a decade or so ago even – partway inspired by the move within many magazines and websites towards ad-dominated copy, the fact that too many publishers had been made brutally aware of the connection between their paymasters and the end result. So, somewhere along the line, many of those traditional platforms for music criticism – the magazines, the websites – lost credibility with a crucial section of their readership.

Radiohead choosing not to inform folk of when they’re releasing their new album has not changed any of this.

Let’s have a look at the following, reprinted from Brighton musician Al Horner’s Tumblr blog - and linked to by Drowned In Sound founder Sean Adams, among others

How Radiohead’s ‘The King of Limbs’ is killing off music journalism

The King of Limbs, the eighth studio album by Oxford titans Radiohead, will be “the world’s first newspaper album” according to the group’s website. After a frenzied day following the early digital release of the record, this now seems riddled with an irony I suspect Thom Yorke and friends would quite appreciate.

The online furore that stirred this morning as the hotly-anticipated collection of new songs leapt onto people’s hard-drives underlined the problems faced by print journalism – a medium increasingly sliding towards becoming obsolete.

The mere existence of the record was announced on Monday with its imminent release slated as Saturday. For reasons unknown, it arrived a day earlier, forcing music scribes to drop what they were doing and frantically issue their hurried opinions. Reviews began to surface within minutes of the album emerging online.

By the time tomorrow’s newspapers print their reactions they will probably appear dated. NME readers will have to wait until Tuesday to hear the thoughts of Emily Mackay and company. The music-monthly Q magazine must wait a fortnight to register their thoughts in cold, hard, physical copy.

These are the publications – scratch that, institutions - that popular music fans would once turn to for advance word on what awaited me on a new release, leering longingly at the privilege being a music journalist once held. No longer though. There were no advance copies of The King of Limbs.

As a result, you could practically hear the stampede of critics racing to blurt out their initial thoughts online, desperate to remain fresh and relevant. The advent of live-blogging and Twitter has clearly brought with it an urgency to what the press would typically report on – music journalism included.

It prompted founder of the popular Drowned In Sound web-zine Sean Adams to speak out on Twitter:

It’s an interesting and arguably legitimate comment on a day which saw the ancient art of the music-review reduced to a sort of knee jerk, first-time-round decision making. Thumbing through my record collection, I notice that the albums I continually return to years after their release – Radiohead’s own Kid A included – I had difficulty warming to on initial listens.

It’s dangerous ground to tread for those who look to music reviews (perhaps foolishly) as something oddly special – the beginning of a sonic debate, the setting of a listening rhetoric for what will follow.

Should bands follow in Radiohead’s steps (all fifteen of them…) in turning to instantaneous digital publishing of music, I hope there will still be room the sort of considered and informed reviews that Sean speaks of amidst all the chaos and impatience of web 2.0 culture.

I agree with a lot of what Al has to say.

So here is a 10 point survival guide for online music critics

  1. It is never too soon for anyone to judge/review an album.
  2. You are a critic. Not a fan. Not a blogger. Not a hack. A critic.
  3. Who gives a fuck the effort a band put into making a piece of music. IS IT ANY GOOD?
  4. Who gives a fuck how much time you have got to review that piece of music. Fucking review it. Do your job.
  5. It doesn’t take long to make your mind up.
  6. If you’re not trusting your gut reaction, you shouldn’t be writing about music.
  7. You shouldn’t worry about Search Engine Optimisation, sure. But don’t drop off the map either.
  8. Music journalism isn’t dead. The ways it’s being accessed are mutating. As are the ways music is being accessed.
  9. You are not a parasite. Well, OK… YOU probably are, because you’re crap and have no ideas of your own. But exactly the same can be said about most music.
  10. There is nothing wrong with having an opinion different to other people’s.

“I want considered, informed and beautifully written reviews,” wrote Sean Adams on Twitter. “Not tossed off live-blogged gut reactions.”

Since when was music criticism “considered, informed, beautiful writing”? Even given a lead-in time of a month or more, the overwhelming majority of music critics would struggle to fill that brief. Most critics listen to an album with half an ear, and move on. Maybe the fans don’t. Maybe the fans make for ‘better’ critics? That’s not my call. Also, if – across the vast field of the Internet, music critics were struggling to come to terms with the new Radiohead album in under 24 hours – the question begs: why? It has long been the tradition at the big record companies that when a Madonna or a White Stripes or a Kate Bush release their new album to invite a few select journalists in to have a listen, one listen: and then the critics to go away and write their review. And they did. And often those reviews were great, and more often they weren’t, but the fact remained: they got written. Why were critics not able to do this when an album is available for immediate streaming (and hence can be listened to as often as they want)? There’s no difference. It should be easier, if anything. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the quality of the music critics working online or – more pertinently - the quality of the music critics writing about Radiohead online. Radiohead aren’t a very interesting band, fundamentally. So perhaps it’s no surprise then if the quality of the writing about them reflects that fact.

Why not take the sports journalism approach, and review the album in real time? I’d even set up a template last year.

Of course, this approach only works if the writer has any clue. For example, ‎”A beatific étude, bejewelled by extremely restrained strings, and shy brass. Piano swims back into the mist” … (taken from the online review at MOJO). Fuck sake, man.

How does a piano swim? What is shy brass?

Radiohead are very astute at marketing themselves. The revenue they lost by allowing their fans to download their previous album for free, if they chose, was clearly more than offset by the ridiculous amounts of free publicity they received in return.  This time around, music journalism and the blogosphere went into a feeding frenzy to try and prove that they were still able to contribute to the dialogue around the album. Does this prove music criticism is dead? Quite the opposite, in fact. People were desperate to write about the record: people were equally as intrigued to read it.

Yes, sure: maybe this means that the dialogue around the album didn’t help sell copies of it (although I could argue otherwise) – one of the primary requisites of music criticism. Yet there are numerous examples of where the dialogue around music still does translate directly into sales: see the recent outrageous mainstream success of Arcade Fire, and Fleet Foxes, and The National, and Vampire Weekend – four very ordinary college rock bands – all of which has its roots in Pitchfork’s unswerving support for these bands. Indeed, you could argue that Pitchfork have more power than any of the traditional music press inkies since their prime.

Now, how the hell is that the death of music journalism?

13 Responses to a 10 point survival guide for music critics in web 2.0

  1. Princess Stomper February 20, 2011 at 10:16 pm

    Great article.

    Since people were taking such exception to my dismissal of the intermediate Radiohead albums between OK Computer and In Rainbows, I’ve gone back and given them a proper, fair hearing. I do have to say that every criticism you have of Radiohead as a band applies fairly and squarely to Kid A, Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief.

    I’m as mystified by your failure to distinguish between Good Radiohead (The Bends, OK Computer, In Rainbows, King of Limbs) and Bad Radiohead (everything else) as I am by those who insist that Kid A is a great album. It’s absolute twaddle and if it didn’t have Thom Yorke on it, it would have been quickly and deservedly forgotten.

    There are some albums I’ve been indifferent to on first listen and later come to love, but they are rare-to-non-existent: it’s usually one track that I come to love, rather than an album as a whole.

    Certainly with Radiohead, with eight albums’ practice, I’ve learnt that if it grabs me within the first 12 seconds of the first track I’ll love it, and if it doesn’t, it never will.

  2. Mac February 20, 2011 at 10:51 pm

    All I want to know is how many days Greil Marcus had to review Self Portrait back in ’70.

  3. DC February 21, 2011 at 5:57 am

    Bravo.

  4. Jeremy February 21, 2011 at 6:53 am

    Of course, this approach only works if the writer has any clue. For example, ‎”A beatific étude, bejewelled by extremely restrained strings, and shy brass. Piano swims back into the mist” … (taken from the online review at MOJO). Fuck sake, man.”

    Ha! What’s ironic is, though you have asserted – quite rightly – time and again that the field is unwelcoming to female journalists, there is nonetheless a serious shortage of testosterone in the writing itself.

  5. Jeremy February 21, 2011 at 7:00 am

    I would also argue that music journalists have a lot to do with the misconception that the purpose of writing about music to begin with is to inform the public’s buying habits. That may seem a ludicrous defense of the music journalist’s profession today, but 10 years ago – 20 years ago – it was much easier to toss off that explanation to an inquiring layman than to make a sturdy case that one was, yes, contributing something worthwhile to the rock & roll dialog.

  6. Wallace Wylie February 21, 2011 at 8:26 am

    Radiohead have consistently been given the easiest of rides by music journalists. The idea that their “challenging” music has been in any way controversial is a joke. “Kid A” was met with almost universal praise, and went to number one on both sides of the Atlantic, yet retrospectively it has been given this controversial status as if they had released their own version of “Trout Mask Replica” or “Metal Machine Music”. I get sick and tired of people talking about how “far ahead” Radiohead are in comparison with other bands, when nothing they have done has ever even remotely approached cutting edge. I don’t care whether something is cutting edge or not, I care whether the music is good, but please let this talk of Radiohead being pioneers end. Also the only reason Radiohead’s promotional tactics have worked, i.e. releasing an album for free, releasing an album with no previous warning, is because they are an enormously successful rock band brand name that has been given an unqualified amount of support from music journalists. If I released an album for free tomorrow with no warning would anyone care? No. Radiohead don’t have to work for anything. Their size and power has allowed them to create media events by the very nature of the fact that it is Radiohead. This then leads to what are in fact pseudo-debates about the nature of the music industry and now the nature of reviews and music journalism. Nothing has changed. It’s just Radiohead flexing their promotional muscle in an attempt to “innovate” the pre-release marketing schedule. The only person applauding should be Bill Gates. Radiohead as a brand are controlling the debate and people are acting like it’s one in the eye for music journalists. No, it’s just more power to Radiohead the media entity. Writers being told “ha, it doesn’t matter what you think now cos your views will be dated” is just a way of delegitimising what are in fact the opinions of often very poor and powerless music fans who feel like in some way they want to be part of the debate. Only Radiohead get to set the tone of the debate though. If anyone thinks that’s a victory for anyone other than Radiohead and in a larger sense those with media power then I don’t know what to say.

  7. Wallace Wylie February 21, 2011 at 8:37 am

    I suppose I should add that I meant nothing has changed in a good, healthy or positive way.

  8. ed February 21, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    I retweeted a number of Sean’s tweets and retweets on Saturday morning because I agreed with what he and others were saying. In the last week online music publications have become the online equivalent of 24 hour rolling news channels. The trouble with those channels is on the days when not much happens you get the same stories repeated every few minutes on a continuous cycle and on the days when things do happen so much of what’s being reported is un-substantiated and chaotic that you don’t really learn anything anyway. As you only follow four people on Twitter you will have missed the endless stream of nothing-ness, This Is Fake DIY – http://www.thisisfakediy.co.uk/thekingoflimbs – being a prime example, managing 22 stories (at the time of writing), as well as setting up its own microsite, since it was announced that Radiohead would be releasing a new album. 22 stories, endless tweets/retweets.

    Not being a reviewer, I’m guessing when record companies do those one-time listening sessions, the reviewers just brain dump as much as they can come up with in the time it takes for each song to be played, then go away and put all their scribbling into something more readable. I’ve got no problems with a live review but just because you can doesn’t mean you should, just to get your review out first so you can make the most of Trending Topics on Twitter. The aim of the Radiohead live reviews wasn’t to provide any critical oversight as much as it was to get something/anything available to be read first. Even writing about music must fit into the Project Triangle – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_triangle

    At least The Guardian have said that their live review won’t be their final review (on one hand it does beg the question, why bother other than to get ‘FIRST REVIEW’ in your review title, on the other hand, why should any publication be restricted by only writing one review of anything, especially when the story of the reviewing is probably more interesting than the music itself…) but I’m wondering how many other online publications will write a second review.

  9. Anders Limp Art February 21, 2011 at 8:10 pm

    Good article and well done for laying bare the Radiohead marketing strategy. Love them or hate them, they are genius at making an event out of an album release. They’ve built up the biggest buzz for any album over recent years without spending a dime.

    I could be off with this, but the last time they used the traditional release mechanism – with Hail to the Thief – I’m sure the album became the least revered of all their post-Pablo Honey releases. Maybe the speak-easy ‘soft launch’ is just more Radiohead. It’s certainly interesting how many people were willing to pay up to £35 for an album they knew nothing about. Radiohead fans are definitely up there with Michael Jackson fans in their unwavering (and sometimes unnerving) adulation.

    For me it was refreshing to listen to an album without having pre-conceptions shaped by critics, blogs, a single, or even a track listing. Just for 38 minutes on Friday I was able to do that. Very pleasant it was too.

  10. Princess Stomper February 22, 2011 at 12:49 am

    I think a lot of people are over-thinking it.

    Radiohead started off by rehearsing 5 nights a week and then played 150 gigs in one year alone. Before/after each gig, Jonny and Colin would hang out chatting with the fans – so you have this very tight, professional-sounding band who make all the kids think they’re personally friends with them, and thus create that loyalty.

    The first album is meh, but the second (sorry, Everett) is Nevermind for Brits: well-produced complaint rock for middle class poets who describe themselves as ‘complicated’. If you don’t at least concede that The Bends is a flawless example of its genre – beautifully-produced well-written radio rock with no fillers – well, then you’re just being contrary for the sake of it.

    They then followed it up with another flawless record – take any song bar Fitter, Happier and you have something you could release as a single, and people could hum along. That’s why most of the songs *were* released as singles. The big, secret, mystifying appeal of OK Computer is that it’s full of catchy pop songs – they just fuzzed up the guitars a bit and slapped a few samples in there.

    Kid A had only one song on there that was any good, and you couldn’t really hum it. The trouble is that, by that point, all the kids who’d been along to their early gigs had now grown up and some of them were writing reviews, so they’re so of the mindset that it’s that band they’ve been rooting for that they can’t divorce that from the fact the songs are crap. Also, apparently the songs sound good if you’re on drugs – which is fine if you’re on drugs but sucky if you don’t want to risk health and sanity for the sake of some miserable poets from Oxford.

    Amnesiac was so-so with a lot of turgid fillers and only three or so songs that were really worth hearing and even those I’d have trouble telling you how they went. Hail to the Thief was even weaker – though There There is a really good single because I could even hum it last week after only hearing it once several years ago, it’s one of only two decent tracks on the entire album and the rest of it makes you want to PUNCH THINGS. Still, people really want to like it because they’ve done two really good albums and they’re such nice boys, so they’ll just concentrate on the two good tracks and try to forget that the rest of it sucks.

    Of course, for the rest of us, they bloody well HAD to give In Rainbows away for free because there was just no way we’d want to listen to it otherwise. The big, magical secret for why In Rainbows then went on to sell lots of copies after they released it on CD is because it’s actually a good album full of good songs that you can hum. Well, sort of. They’re fun to listen to, anyway.

    Contrast this with Nine Inch Nails, a similar complaint-rock-band-turned-noodly-bleepists. First album – some good tracks; second and third records – outstanding. So far, so Radiohead – and, again, it all goes downhill after 2000. Again, they have the bright idea of giving an album away for free, but even though it’s better than the previous few albums The Slip is still kind of average – only three or four good songs – so everyone goes back to ignoring them.

    Then Trent Reznor writes the Facebook movie soundtrack and wins an Oscar, so I suppose he’s headline news after all – despite the music not actually being much cop.

    Meanwhile, Radiohead’s marketing genius is to divert the backlash against a cancelled show by releasing an album a day early, thus turning attention onto their strange new video and appeasing those oh-so-devoted fans. I remember lots of attention being given to Chris Cunningham’s video for Windowlicker by Aphex Twin, which basically sounded a lot like Lotus Flower – except that the latter is a much stronger tune.

    That’s the big bloody secret Radiohead don’t want you to know: it’s a bloody pop song. Don’t tell anyone.

  11. HiHo February 22, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    Radiohead is like “arty” Dadrock.

  12. Chris Ovenden February 23, 2011 at 6:21 pm

    Nicely argued piece. My take on it is diametrically opposite, though, and takes its cue from ‘Psycho Killer’:

    “When I have nothing to say / My lips are sealed.”

    Some music takes longer to absorb than others, and all music criticism benefits from giving the music a fair hearing before putting fingertip to keyboard. Just because writing often has not lived up to Sean’s hopes and expectations doesn’t mean it shouldn’t or can’t.

    As a writer I want to feel proud of what I have written, to feel I have contributed to a debate in a useful way, to have opened eyes or ears. If that means writing about a 20 year old album I feel passionate about, so be it. If it means keeping silent on the release of the hour (major Radiohead fan; still struggling to listen to King of Limbs all the way through in one sitting), then that’s what I’ll do.

    Thoughts are fleeting; writing is forever. (This is part of why I hate Twitter so much.) There are a great many of us on this planet. The decline of the traditional music press has (at least) one stupendous upside: there is now no need to force an opinion where none exists, no need to fill column inches to meet deadlines unrelated to the time taken to appreciate a piece of art or the pre-decided importance of a particular work, no need for *anyone* to write “I’ll probably change my mind about this later, but…”

  13. Darragh Murray February 23, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    Princess Stomper – your comment nails Radiohead for me I think. I totally agree.

    The big, secret, mystifying appeal of OK Computer is that it’s full of catchy pop songs – they just fuzzed up the guitars a bit and slapped a few samples in there.

    I didn’t ever even think about it in this particular way before, and again, you’ve nailed it. Bravo.

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