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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?

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