Do we still need music critics?

Critic

one who engages often professionally in the analysis, evaluation, or appreciation of works of art or artistic performances

The debate about the value music criticism and those who write it is nothing new, and is one that is likely to run and run. In the age of the internet, the music itself has not changed, but the technologies through which we discuss, transmit and share it have changed immeasurably.

The internet has had an extraordinary, democratising effect on music criticism and writing about music in general, with the popularity of blogs and independent sites which offer quality writing from independent contributors. The rise of the blogger and the independent reviewer/critic has opened up the world of opinion-making and debate like never before, and has created a vast forum for the exchange of ideas. In addition, the internet gives people access to an enormous range of music and information. For the critic, whether paid by a newspaper or journal, working independently, or an unpaid blogger, there is scope to do more research and write better because of the wealth of resources the internet offers.

The digital age has also challenged many traditional ideas about writing and journalism. Space is no longer an issue and longform writing has become popular in online reviews and blogs, whereas a music review in a newspaper may be limited to less than 500 words. In addition, as publishers’ budgets are squeezed, niche subjects like classical music are often the first areas to be cut; today few newspapers and journals employ in-house music critics, the work now being farmed out to freelancers, while only the “premier division” of concerts and artists merit attention in the mainstream media. Bloggers and independent writers, meanwhile, can plug the gaps in coverage of music

This has led to a fair degree of protectiveness amongst professional (i.e. paid) critics who feel that the blogosphere and the rise of the “citizen critic” is partly responsible for the slow death of traditional print journalism. Some also feel that bloggers and independent reviewers have no place in the ranks of “qualified”/professional journalists because they lack appropriate experience or specialist knowledge, and that the writing of these individuals has little value compared to a review or critique in a newspaper or journal. This kind of gatekeeping is interesting, though not surprising. Feeling threatened by the rise of the independent blogger — a dangerous interloper in the field who can challenge the established norms of professional music criticism and reviewing — professional journalists are on the defensive.

Professional journalists also pride themselves on their “total immersion” in their specialist field:

Every day as a professional critic I’m talking with artists, attending concerts, listening analytically to recordings, writing concert program notes, and getting on planes to hear what’s interesting beyond my native shores, and the sheer weight of context that brings to every review can’t be equalled by someone with a non-musical day job…… Furthermore, technical knowledge is a vital ingredient towards painting the picture for a reader who wasn’t there……when artists themselves have spent their lives training to the highest technical standards, they deserve critics who are similarly trained and who properly understand what they’re doing. I’m actually yet to meet an artist who wants to be reviewed by a non-professional

Criticism Reviewed, Charlotte Gardner

Yet a number of excellent blogs are written by individuals who have studied music, who have wide knowledge and are skilled writers; they are “amateurs” only by dint of the fact that they don’t get paid to write. It should also be noted at this point that some highly respected music journalists are also bloggers — perhaps most notably Alex Ross (USA) — who offer invaluable viewpoints and opinions.

Traditional print journalists and critics need to accept that the blogosphere is an established part of 21st-century life and that it makes a valid contribution to our rich and varied cultural landscape.

Before the rise of the internet, professional music critics were regarded as specialist journalists and and commentators, and for many years were (and in some cases still are) the gatekeepers of the artform because their opinions could affect the success, or otherwise, of an artist or recording. Thus, music critics had a significant role in assessing and defining “quality”. Critics were, and still are, important in creating marketing momentum around a certain artist, concert or CD to draw the attention of potential audiences/buyers. One of the criticisms often levelled at independent reviewers and bloggers today is that they are “cheerleaders” for certain artists, and that this “unprofessionalism” means they lack objectivity in their criticism. In fact, there is plenty of cheerleading in professional journalism, and critics regularly coalesce around certain artists who are the “flavour of the month”, “the one to watch” or “a rising star”. This is great news for the marketers and PRs who can maximise the attention paid to their clients while also picking up flattering quotes about them in reviews to be shared in press releases and other promotional material. More than ever criticism, whether in print journalism or online, can be seen as a powerful publicity tool. And the artists themselves are not immune to this; many include favourable quotes from critics and reviews in their biographies and websites, as positive endorsements of their talent and activities.

What do critics do?

Music is one of the most difficult artforms to criticize, because it is recreated at every performance, but this is also the reason why concerts should be critiqued, for a review acts as a commentary on and a record of an event. A review can place a concert in some kind of context (a composer anniversary, for example). Additionally, reviews should record and explain the reviewer’s opinion (simply writing “I liked it” is not sufficient!), but this should not be at the expense of ad hominem comments on the performers nor seek to tell the performers how to do their jobs.

The critic’s job is to find a balance between objectivity and subjectivity (i.e. personal taste) in order to offer a well-balanced review. A critic should not evaluate a piece of music simply in terms of “good” or “bad,” but rather to explain how it works as a piece of music (instrumentation, orchestration, structure, character and so on), to guide the reader to appreciate how the music can be understood and to perhaps encourage them to find out more about the music/composer/performers.

Done well, such writing should be a pleasure to read with the intention of bringing the reader closer to the artform. Thus, one does not want to read an opera review which included no description of the set, for example. The critic should seek to recreate the event for the reader, while also offering a considered, critical commentary on the performance, performers, direction (in opera) etc.

Criticism and reviews also act as a guide for trends, artists to look out for, CDs to hear, identifying or spotlighting new talent, or rediscovering old talent. A critic’s job is to persuade people that what they are paying attention to is worth that attention.

There are good critics and bad, and whether they happen to be paid or unpaid, or writing in print, in managed review sites or on independent blogs doesn’t really matter. What really matters is that their writing should be intelligent, insightful and entertaining. Quality writing, whatever its source, prevents mediocrity and dumbing down, and encourages variety, authenticity and objectivity. Judge critics then by these criteria, not by where/who they write for or whether or not they get paid.

Writers on classical music are ambassadors for potential new audiences and listeners, and anyone who writes about classical music, from a tweet to a long-form article, is part of a much bigger conversation about the artform — and as such their views and input matters.