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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.


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.

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!

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

  1. Niall January 12, 2012 at 1:28 pm

    The statement “in an era of fewer and fewer actual music consumers” is absolute bullshit.

    “Single sales at all-time high in 2011 with 177.9 million sold”


    But then of course if you write for Spin, perhaps a single is not “actual music”.

  2. Everett True January 12, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    I’m glad you picked up on that. I noticed it as well, but was already floundering at the number of points that needed addressing.

  3. Jason Seiple January 12, 2012 at 2:05 pm

    It’s pretty fucking sad that they feel that way. Yeah, maybe the majority of people have access to any album online prior to release, but that’s not the point. There are still many amazing bands who are just starting out, and if it wasn’t for music reviewers and critics, nobody would know about them.

    You fortunately still give a shit about music, whether it’s known to many, or unknown to most. You were telling people that they should be listening to bands like Tunabunny and the Bastards of Fate, and explaining what is so good about bands such as these. You know that these are things that are not to be expressed in a short twitter post, as that would be a disservice to both the bands, and to the people who may find that these bands are their new favorite bands.

    So, to Spin (and to anyone else who may follow Spin’s example), do you really not give a shit about the bands you are reviewing? Do you really believe that a tiny review will really help a band find an audience?

    To Everett True (and any reviewer/critic who still gives a shit about music), keep up the good work. There are many bands who can use a good word, and many music lovers who may need someone to say “hey, this band rocks, and I am going to tell you why this might be the band that your ears have been looking for!”

  4. mike turner January 12, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    i can’t believe i’m kinda pointing this out but spin killed off their music reviews long before this announcement.

  5. Everett True January 12, 2012 at 4:34 pm

    Ha ha! You read Spin! Ha ha!

  6. mike turner January 12, 2012 at 5:45 pm

    so you’ve never been stuck in a dentist office, in an airport, at the doctor, waiting to get a haircut, or bored at your once cool aunt’s house who can’t figure out how to cancel her subscription?

  7. Niall January 13, 2012 at 12:31 am

    Urgh, fuck Spin, if this is the death throes of their magazine then good riddance, they were obviously never in it for the right reasons.

  8. Princess Stomper January 13, 2012 at 6:27 pm

    @ Mike it’s on those occasions that I end up reaching for the copy of Heat magazine that someone left lying around. “Ugh … I can’t believe that people read this vapid cra- ooh! Kim Kardashian’s wedding! …”

  9. Al Taps Spin January 14, 2012 at 3:40 am

    The. Dot. After. Every. Word. In a. Sentence. Is. Annoying.

  10. Neil Kulkarni January 14, 2012 at 9:03 pm

    Weingarten fkn hates me, as you’d expect, cos he’s a cunt.

  11. Neil Kulkarni January 14, 2012 at 9:08 pm

    oh, and I wrote for Spin waybackwhen Simon Reynolds was reviews editor – Reynolds actually quit cos the cowardly motherfuckers so repeatedly insisted on butchering stuff he’d sent through by me, Taylor Parkes, Simon Price cos they simply weren’t used to big bands getting criticised and terrified of pissing off majorlabels. The notion of them now calling time on a type of writing they never had a fucking clue about anyway would be funny if it weren’t such a mask for their dipshittiness.

  12. Lou January 16, 2012 at 8:07 am

    Eight in-house editorial staff? Wow. I’m the editor of a music magazine, albeit dramatically smaller than Spin, and I dream of 1 in-house writer, let alone a whole team (that’s the way it goes now I guess). However, knowing as I do about why music lovers devour the music press, it’s because of the authority and expertise that writer lends to the subject at hand. So, as a regular reader of whatever magazine you read, be it NME or Terrorizer, you get to know who you trust. So if Jim Martin (for example) reviews a drone record in Terrorizer and you trusted his write-up of ‘Black One’ you’re more likely to believe in what he’s saying – it’s authoritative and that’s what makes you trust that review. Ditto with Everett and his glowing reports of Tad live gigs in Melody Maker when I was a wee lass – those bylines you see at the bottom of your review become your imaginary big brothers and sisters; instead of passing down their dog-eared vinyl they’re whispering in your ear about your next obsession.
    And those critics you put the trust of your pocket money in (or these days, bandwidth) are often freelancers… Of Spin’s 8 in-house editors how many are geeky, walking wikipedias on drone, or avant-garde thrashcore (ok, not technically a genre), or Cascadian black metal (actually a genre), or electro-pop? Because that is what we readers and consumers want from our reviews – someone we trust. By letting an intern loose on 140 characters you’re really cheapening the bond of trust between reader and the publication, not to mention the platform taken away from the freelancer who has tirelessly built up that relationship.

  13. Mof Gimmers January 16, 2012 at 9:19 pm

    One thing that is oft overlooked is that, regardless of changes in trends or the way in which people access music, the main problem seems to be the people who are being hired. Criticism isn’t dead – it feels like 99% of the internet exists to solely chide or promote the various strands of pop-culture.

    Alas, the reason (I think, which is ultimately worthless, granted) music criticism is flailing (at the moment) is that the people getting on-board are too busy wanting to be minor celebrities or trying to make friends with musicians. In art, film and any other artform outside of music, critics make their names by poking people, ranting, fawning over dumb things and generally having a decent turn of phrase. The music writer who rails against the industry is too concerned about pissing off PR companies and not getting freebies. They don’t want to upset bands or their fans, rather than thriving off the absurd outrage they can cause. All my favourite critics weren’t frightened of getting a bloody nose from an article.

    Currently, it seems like a lot of writer’s main motivation is little more than “I like a lot of bands just before they get famous and my friends tell me I’m kinda funny.” It’s not enough. It seems to me that there’s not enough stigma to go along with music criticism. People think it’s a cool job. And so, the endless revolving door of ‘cool kids’ come and go because they try it for a while before realising that it’s often a joyless, payless, thankless job.

    Ostensibly, music criticism needs to become unswervingly un-cool again so it can save itself. It needs to start making enemies. Music and music criticism is always at its best when it despises each other, yet oddly, has an ill-advised crush on each other.

  14. Mike beale July 28, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    Hmmm, as someone who’s performed for over 30 years now, I think one problem facing ‘journalism’ be it online or mainstream( like a lot of music) is a lack of true belief and passion
    Much of the industry is contrived … And I think a lot of readers/consumers are easily tired of ‘same old ‘ music and media

    Believe in what you do, make that your genuine passion … And people will read you

  15. Tommi January 18, 2013 at 5:10 am

    Good article. But wait until he gets really upset. Hell start putting dots IN.SIDE.THE.W.Ö.R.D.S! (And on top of individual letters, as illustrated.)

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