Critic – one who engages often professionally in the analysis, evaluation, or appreciation of works of art or artistic performances
The debate about the value of music criticism and those who write it is not new. In the digital age, 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, largely democratising effect on music criticism and writing about music in general. Such writing is no longer confined only to the mainstream media (MSM) and specialist journals, and the rise of the blogger and independent reviewer/critic has opened up the world of opinion-making and debate like never before, creating a vast and lively forum for the exchange of views. In addition, the internet provides access to an enormous range of music and information, and 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 available online.
The internet 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 just 500 words or less. In addition, as publishers’ budgets are squeezed, niche subjects like classical music are often the first areas to be cut; today newspapers employ fewer or no 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. Independent writers and bloggers, meanwhile, can plug the gaps in the 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” or amateur pundit 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/specialist/”proper” 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 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.
Yet a number of excellent blogs are written by individuals who have studied music and who have wide knowledge; 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.
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
Professional music critics have always been regarded as specialised/expert journalists 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 have a significant role in assessing and defining “quality”. Critics are important in creating marketing momentum around a certain artist, concert or CD to attract the attention of potential audiences/buyers. One of the criticisms regularly levelled at independent reviewers and bloggers is that they are “cheerleaders” for certain artists, and that this unprofessional bias/favouritism means they lack objectivity in their criticism. In fact, there is plenty of cheerleading in professional journalism, and MSM critics regularly coalesce around certain artists who are “flavour of the month”, “one to watch” or “a rising star”. This is great news for the marketing people and PRs who can maximise the attention paid to their clients while also picking up flattering quotes about them from reviews to be shared in press releases and other promotional material. More than ever criticism, whether in print journalism or online, is seen as a powerful publicity tool. And the artists themselves are not immune to this; while many may have embraced new media and platforms such as Instagram to self-promote and recognise the importance of trusted independent writers and bloggers as “influencers”, many more still set much store by critical coverage and will include favourable quotes from respected or established MSM critics and reviews in their biographies and websites as positive endorsements of their activities.
Let’s face it: no self-respecting musician would include a quote from a blogger in their publicity
a music journalist
What do critics do?
Describing performances is at the heart of the critic’s craft, yet music is one of the most difficult artforms to write about, not only because it resists description in words but also because it is recreated at every performance. This is also the reason why concerts should be critiqued, for a review acts as a commentary on and a record of an event, placing a concert in some kind of context (a composer anniversary or premiere, for example). Reviews 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 job. 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 performance or a piece of music simply in terms of “good” or “bad,” but rather 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 and perhaps encouraging further or deeper engagement with it.
Criticism and reviews also act as a guide for trends, artists to look out for, debuts and premieres, 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. Critics can also offer commentary on wider issues within the industry beyond the concert stage – for example, equality and diversity, salaries and fees, musicians’ working conditions, abuse of power – or challenge long-held traditions (e.g. applauding between movements), perceived norms or stereotypes.
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 matter.
In conclusion, I would assert that yes, we do still need music critics, for all the reasons outlined above. There are good critics and bad ones, 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 matters is that their writing is intelligent, insightful and entertaining because quality writing, whatever its source, prevents mediocrity and dumbing down, and encourages variety, authenticity and objectivity.
This article first appeared on The Cross-Eyed Pianist