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 Everett True

Why. Music. Criticism. Still. Matters. (So. Go. Fuck. Yourselves. Spin Magazine.)

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By Everett True aka That Old Man Shouting At Clouds

BAM! Here I am, in the final year of my PhD research, studying the changing role of the music critic in web 2.0 environments, when Spin Magazine suddenly come out with an announcement like this:

The standard music review, once presented as an imperious edict, has increasingly frayed into a redundant, gratuitous novelty in an era of fewer and fewer actual music consumers. Tight security on major-label albums (and practically no security on indie-label albums) often means you’re downloading a leaked album the same day as your favorite magazine or website. The value of the average rock critic’s opinion has plummeted now that a working knowledge of Google can get you high-quality audio of practically any record, so you can listen and decide for yourself whether it’s worth a damn… Um, but don’t tell anyone we said that, okay?

As a considered reaction, we’re introducing a new way of thinking about the entire enterprise. The@SPINreviews Twitter feed is a massive undertaking, aiming to be an exhaustively definitive listener’s guide and argument-starter for virtually every album or EP or mixtape that matters in 2012. Within the confines of a 140-character tweet, we’re hoping to take on more than 1,500 new records this calendar year alone, all reviewed by our eight in-house editors and a team of a dozen valued freelancers. As someone who survived writing 1,000 Tweet reviews in 2009, I can assure you it’s a project often as difficult to pursue correctly as a 1,000-word essay… and I wager it’s a lot more fun to read.

So Spin Magazine are going to be moving the majority of their music reviews to a Twitter account.

Here’s my initial reaction:

Go fuck yourselves, you bunch of cynical, gimmick-grabbing blowhards. If what you’re doing means so little to you then why the fuck do it.

This announcement, which is considerably longer and the duller for it, is written by Christopher R. Weingarten, a senior editor at the magazine: a smart and funny critic usually, but a critic also driven to considerable cynicism and dismay by the workings of the Internet. It was Chris, who – as he proudly indicates above – popularised the idea of reducing reviews to a bunch of meaningless 140-character coded gibberish in 2009, via Twitter. Some of these were smart. Some very insightful. Most weren’t. Whatever. That’s not what mattered to Chris. What mattered is that people read his Twitter reviews, that he got invited to multi-media conferences on the back of them, that he was offered work because of them. He. Made. A. Name. For. Himself. So, he figured, this must be the future. So he leapt to the same conclusion as everyone else: no one is interested in reading folk like him writing about music anymore, because everyone has the same access to music – critic and reader alike.

It’s a spurious argument, and one that is based on a single model of music criticism: that of Rock Criticism as a Consumer Guide, something propagated by the advancement of graded reviews the world over. It’s one that makes several assumptions, mostly erroneous: that a music magazine’s readership only reads reviews to discover information about the record, how “good” it is (nebulous as that concept might be), that the review is in some way a stand-in for the music itself.

No. It’s not. The greatest criticism complements and increases understanding about the music under discussion. It can stand alone, for sure. Usually, it’s best when taken alongside the music, though. Read this assertion of Chris’s again.

The standard music review, once presented as an imperious edict, has increasingly frayed into a redundant, gratuitous novelty in an era of fewer and fewer actual music consumers. Tight security on major-label albums (and practically no security on indie-label albums) often means you’re downloading a leaked album the same day as your favorite magazine or website.

Why the FUCK should this matter? If anything, rock critics should be welcoming the age of the free illegal download as a Golden Age, that for the first time ever their audience can access the music while reading the review.

It’s never bothered film critics that people see the trailers of the films they discuss: indeed, on television shows featuring film critics, usually trailers and snippets are shown alongside the discussion. It’s never bothered art critics that folk can see the art AND the criticism: indeed, the two are often so mutually dependent, I’ve often wondered how one can survive without the other. It’s never bothered sports journalists that fans watch the game first and read their words after. And so on. So why are folk like Chris are racing round like dyslexic chickens with their heads cut off, screaming “Firsties Firsties, No One Cares For Me Anymore, Firsties” nonstop?

Of course, none of this matters to Chris, up there in his ivory tower. He’s merely trying to find new ways of surviving. He’s looking for more gimmicks so he can get invited to more multi-media conferences. And. Everyone. Loves. Twitter. Right. Now. Especially. The. Traditional. Print. Media. In. Fact. Mostly. The. Traditional. Print. Media. Because. It. Show. How Hip. And. With. It. They. Really. Are.

In Chris’ version of the music industry, the bottom line is money. Spin Magazine wouldn’t exist without this bottom line. (Oddly, one gets the impression that Pitchfork would, albeit in a radically different version. Maybe that’s why it’s become the New Establishment.) And then he’d have to find some real work , writing scripts for Family Guy say – and that’s what scares him.

The value of the average rock critic’s opinion has plummeted now that a working knowledge of Google can get you high-quality audio of practically any record, so you can listen and decide for yourself whether it’s worth a damn…

This is pathetic. Even though you know he doesn’t really mean it and he’s tipping you a complicit wink, it’s still pathetic. The value of the average rock critic’s opinion is exactly the same as it’s always been: worthless because the average rock critic is a journeyman fool, NOT because someone can access the same piece of music as the critic. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with expanding the form – which is presumably what Chris will argue he’s doing – but to turn your back on criticism, and music reviews, just when the opportunity to let rip on both has never been greater … you fools! You scared, misguided fools! You social network-loving, opportunistic fools! Who’s to say any of Spin Magazine‘s album Tweets will be any more interesting than the “overwrought 80-word blurbs on middling, nobody-cares bands where a grade of “6” or a “7” ultimately translates to ‘Hey, this exists; and it doesn’t totally blow!'” that Chris rightly derides elsewhere in the article? Chris might be an intelligent writer and editor, but Spin Magazine has hardly covered itself in glory during the past 20 years; and – bam! – soon Twitter will be full of wannabe Chris Weingarten’s Tweeting stuff like:

Reviewer’s initials. RT @acollins876: @SPINReviews I get the number rating, but what is the 2 letter hashtag?

T.I./F*ck Da City Up: Stand-up guy gets keyed-up, tears up club on brontosaurus beats with every famous rapper. Top o’ the world, ma! #CW#7

SYMMETRY/Themes For An Imaginary Film: Johnny Jewel’s official/unofficial ‘Drive’ score arpeggiates, pulses. For real human beings. #BS#8

(The above are lifted from The Daily Swarm post on the story, smartly titled SPIN USHERS IN THE PHASING OUT OF MUSIC CRITICISM…)

Chris continues:

The@SPINreviews Twitter feed is a massive undertaking, aiming to be an exhaustively definitive listener’s guide and argument-starter for virtually every album or EP or mixtape that matters in 2012.

What? You mean you’re going to list every album of EP or mixtape (let’s leave aside the woolly use of the words “that matters”) that’s been released during 2012 … but on Twitter! Wow. Revolutionary. Back in my days as reviews editor of Melody Maker we used to do that as well: we called it a Record Release Guide, and we’d often have a line of description underneath the artist/album title/record label. We didn’t imagine for one second that that one sentence – or, as it’s called these days, 140 characters – was an “exhaustively definitive listener’s guide and argument-starter” because  … um … it wasn’t. Not by any stretch of the imagination.

At a Twitter conference a few years back, Chris gave an impassioned rant about how the Internet has changed his beloved music criticism out of recognition. (Has it really? What about The Quietus, Pitchfork, Drowned In Sound, The Vine, Collapse Board, Blissblog … hundreds more). He memorably said:

“Let’s talk about firsties! Firsties! The race to be first! The race to be first is currently the most fucked-up, nasty, Ebola virus devouring music writing from the inside. Let’s say I’m at a rock show and something interesting happens, like Jay-Z brings a guest out or Lady Gaga’s fucking face falls off …  I could go to one of my editors and file one of the most evocative, lucid pieces of writing about it, I could have my photographer friend there shooting these gorgeous, artful photos, but the most clicks for that story will go to whoever got it up the fastest. Insight and artistry are no longer an end-goal, they’re afterthoughts.”

Now, it seems that he can’t wait to embrace the folk who’re sucking the fun out of writing about music. Hey! If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em! Strengthen them. Comfort in numbers, and all that … and who knows, that might be where the money lies. (This is what often happens when you let academics follow through their pet theories and put them into action, incidentally.)

Chris signs off:

SPIN would love to spend the last years of the music industry with you!

Chris, hold up a second. Enough with the doom and gloom already. Is the comfort of familiarity really that important? The music industry and music criticism is mutating. Not dying. Mutating. Folk read Pitchfork now, not Spin. Oh. Boo-hoo. Why? Not because people have fallen out of love with music reviewing but because people have fallen back in love with music reviewing. That is so apparent, even to a dyed-in-the-wool Pitchfork haterz like myself. Spin is a tarnished brand, devalued currency. Rightly or wrongly, most ‘alternative’ music press readers don’t view Pitchfork the same way – so they flock to Pitchfork instead. It really is that simple.

In other news, LA Weekly recently announced:

… you’ll notice that in recent months we’ve dispensed entirely with album reviews. Wanna know why? Nobody read them. And we know this with certainty because not a single person has complained.

As Digital Music News rightly commented:

The LA Weekly bow-out is less about the death of the critic, and more about a shifting cast of curators.  The ecosystem of oversaturation has merely crowned a  new cast of incredibly-powerful tastemakers, with immeasurable influence over music culture.

PITCHFORK

When they gave a review that was over an 8-something to an artist, we’d get 40 calls to book them. You can break a band off … one Pitchfork review. (Marc Geiger, William Morris Endeavor, on ‘This Week In Music’)

DMN summarise:

Instead of tuning out critics and curators, the reality is that most fans are just dialing into different tastemakers, and building their playlists and preferences accordingly.

As I stated in January 2011:

The question, whatever happened to music criticism is not meant to be answered [with finality], it’s just a question.

To summarise, then.

Do I think it’s a bad thing that Spin Magazine are phasing out music reviews? Fuck no. In the main, these reviews are filler: poorly-written (or, at least, poorly thought-through) and serving no purpose except to (presumably) please advertisers and record labels, they fail to engage on even the most rudimentary level with their target audience, the reader. Honestly, I wish more magazines and websites would follow their lead – but this has NOTHING to do with demand from readers for music reviews, and EVERYTHING to do with the fact that most music critics can’t write reviews for shit. Why does music criticism exist? To create discourse around music. Will a bunch of near-incomprehensible, 140-character ‘reviews’, written in jargon, help do this? I really doubt it. (Yeah yeah. I know. This article exists. Whatever.)

Do critics matter anymore? the Digital Music News headline asks.

Did they ever?

The next logical step for Spin Magazine would be to stop listening to music altogether. It’s such a fucking pain in the ass.

ADDENDA
The most important change in music criticism that the advent of web 2.0 environments has brought about is that it’s changed its nature from that of a monologue to a dialogue. So Chris is correct to seek new fields in which to carry out that dialogue. What a fucking way to carry out a conversation, though: deliberately restricting yourself to 140 characters!

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