critiquing the critic, further thoughts on the negative review

Toward the end of this past July, roughly at the point it began doing the expected social media rounds, an opinion piece caught my eye. Published by Crack, and entitled When did music journalism stop wielding the axe?, it had been penned by The Quietus’ Luke Turner, focusing on concerns surrounding a lack of negative reviews within the contemporary context of music journalism. Taking a more developed tack, this was followed in September by an article in the Wire, written by Britt Brown (Collateral Damage: Britt Brown on negative reviews), orbiting around similar concerns.

Both pieces raise import considerations, not only for readers and listeners to address – how music and ideas are mediated, but also for those who make and write about it.

Turner’s piece is fairly simple and direct. It draws on experiences close to home. A recent funding drive for his magazine drew attention to severe losses in advertising revenue, which played a part in his thoughts. This was combined with observations of the responses to a negative review the Quietus had recently published. While personal and one dimensional from a critical point of view, Turner’s piece cast light on important elements lingering below all journalism – the murky waters of freedom and its consequences. As he describes it, in a reality which depends on advertising revenue from the very institutions which request your critical point of view, there are dire risks for rendering an honest opinion of something that you dislike. Perhaps even more sinister, are his descriptions of those same institutions engineering a system of inevitable consent.

Brown’s piece takes a more developed and pragmatic point of view. It is better piece of writing, which expresses engaging ideas, placed in interesting dynamics with each other, while examining both sides of the coin. It is drafted from the position of a writer and thinker, rather than someone faced with the nightmarish logistics of running a magazine. Brown’s concerns largely center around the necessity for open discourse, debate, and dissent within the field – something I agree with. However, he takes a fairly romantic and outdated position on the critic’s role in these things, and perhaps of the potential of music journalism itself.

When I initially embarked on the task of writing reviews, something I never intended to do, I was forced to consider the things which both articles discuss, debating them to make decisions about how to proceed. I took on the task for a few reasons. I was being asked by labels and artists who were desperate to hear thoughts on their work. This struck a chord with existing concerns – that much of the emerging music I deemed worthy of discussion, was being ignored or not done justice by the contemporary context of music journalism. As we encounter them, the majority of record reviews are appalling – reworkings of one-sheets, which say nothing at all. They exist as indications of consensus, or directional nodes within a hyper-saturated landscape, and little more.

A number of observations guided my attempts. The first rested with the artists and labels themselves. In the cases of the music I write about – sound which exists beyond the realms of mainstream interest, the vast majority is produced by artists who invest great amounts of time, energy, and money into something they believe in, while possessing little hope for attention or return. The products of this labor are then placed into the world by labels who, working on faith, invest the same again, likewise with little hope of much return. Whether the outcome results in great art or not, it is worth remembering why people make these records, and what they sacrifice in the process. It was my belief that this effort and risk should be respected and mirrored by a critic – that these albums, when achieving something worth drawing attention to, should be offered a similar level of investment by a text. If the form of a record review or its context does not allow for such a thing, then they should be changed.

The second observation drew on the fact that an important historical balance within the paradigm of recorded music has broken down. During former eras, there was a symbiosis between artist, label, shop, magazine, critic, and the listening and buying public. Each had an important role, which sustained the creation of art – one equally dependent on the next, while keeping the whole in check. Some of my early interactions with record labels, indicated that they couldn’t see the importance of music journalism at all. Given its current state, who could blame them?

The final observation drew on the fact that the classic paradigm of the record review, where a gatekeeper evaluates and describes an album for someone unable to immediately hear it, is dead. In an era where the average teenager’s social media account has access to greater pool of readerships than many publications, and music can be heard and evaluated with the click of a mouse, the entire form has to be rethought. If a critic’s job can now be fulfilled independently on the internet, what does it then become?

Within their respective articles, Brown and Turner both argue the virtues of a former paradigm of criticism, but fail to critically address the full challenges faced by its current incarnation. If the entire context of recorded music has changed, it seems logical to expect music journalism to adapt. The question isn’t whether it should change – this has already happened, it is how it should change and who determines its new directives. There’s no going back.

The easy scapegoat is capitalism. It is sinister and plays its part, but there has never been a moment in the history of recorded music, nor in the contexts of writing which respond to it, that this wasn’t the case. To think otherwise is romantic and willfully naive. We have simply failed to keep it in check, and that is part of the critic’s job within the symbiosis mentioned above.

How do we resolve these challenges? If a reader can occupy the role that the critic once did – gatekeeper / interpreter / mediator, then by necessity, as critics, we must offer more. This doubles as a resolve for the hope to respect and mirror what artists and labels risk and invest. Of course, within a context defined by a relentless stream of new releases – more saturated than it has ever been, this is easier said than done. It is impossible to invest and offer more, without choices and sacrifices being made. I choose to write about music which I view as great art – which achieves something exceptional, but is faced with the risk of neglect. In a hyper-saturated landscape, exasperated by the internet, part of the critic’s job is to process the static – to be a filter, pointing toward the greatest rewards, or discoveries that might not be encountered through the usual means. Why offer attention to things that will waste a reader and listener’s time – static which best left ignored? Why tell them things that they already know?

The freedom to express unmediated opinion, debate, or dissent is crucial, but to view these things as best realized in a direct form, may also be naive. Sometimes silence is criticism’s greatest tool. Having cut my teeth in the trenches of fine-art – a product of art schools as much as the commercial world, where rigorous deconstruction and criticism is the expected norm, experience has taught me that negative criticism rarely does much good. It can be a vent for legitimate frustration, but almost always reads like someone trying to elevate themselves by cutting another down – a desperate attempt to appear to be the smartest voice in the room, something no truly brilliant or insightful person needs to do, and something only a slim minority likes to read.

Negative criticism is a lesser form. It’s easier to find the faults within something, than to attempt to understand it on its own terms and seek what it does, over what it does not – to step beyond the limitations of your own tastes, ideas, and understanding, and see the world through an other’s eyes. While it sets out to stem the tide of opinion against what it views as unworthy of attention, because it is often the product of mediocre thinking, it almost always fails – easily forgotten, while the legacy of its subject is sustained by the attention it brings.

As a critic, I chose advocacy because it’s the harder path, and because I trust trust my reader’s ears. I am accountable to them as much as to the music itself. If I am incapable of offering more than a listener can hear for themselves – ideas, history, proximity, context, etc, or present a solid argument for the virtues of something they might not intuitively like, then I can not do my job. If this is the case, my energies are best devoted to something else. There’s certainly enough to love and keep a writer busy these days.

Within his article, Britt Brown states that it is not the journalist / critic / writer’s job to boost record sales. In the explicit sense this is true. We work within the realm of ideas, which should be allowed the freedom to form, without an obligation to a particular end. That said, to ignore art’s connection to capital – our own, or that of others, is romantic, naive, and arguably irresponsible. There’s a difference between being an industry stooge, and recognizing that our words have the potential to influence what people engage with and buy, and that money plays a role in how the image of culture is formed. I might not like it, but I must contend with it. In former eras, we had the luxury of romantic detachment – when record sales and readership where booming, but today we’re faced with a house of cards. When I write about a record, it is because I love it and think it is important. While I accept that my passion may only take the reader as far as a Youtube or Bandcamp stream, my hope is that the will buy it, not only because I believe that investing in the object of music – making a sacrifice for it and living with it over time, is an important part of listening, but because the exchange of capital, when placed in the right hands, is what currently sustains the creation of great art.

Faced with the fact that the contexts of recorded music are in greater peril than they’ve ever been, strategies of critical approach may appear to be the least of our concerns. Most record shops, not to mention independent labels and their artists, can barely keep the lights on. Publications shut down at a regular pace. The few that survive can’t afford to pay their writers a living wage. It isn’t hard to conceptualize the current infrastructure surrounding recorded music being entirely gone. Most interpret these realities as direct consequences of changes introduced by the internet – how music, with the writing addressing it, are accessed and distributed, and how this subsequently allowed many fans to lose sight of the arguments for paying for what they listen to and read. While this position is based in truth, it presents the internet as a self-fulfilling reality – one beyond our control, with an inevitable equilibrium, whose momentum we must follow. It isn’t the internet which has caused this. It is our misreading of it, and our unwillingness to form it or adapt.

This is were music writing and criticism play important roles – where we might reactivate the sustainability of recorded music, rooted in the symbiosis between its diverse arms. In order for music writing to survive and thrive, so too must the artists, labels, publications, and shops, and this is impossible without an audience to reap their rich rewards. Against the projections of homogeneity and consensus within much of music journalism today, it’s easy to forget what the medium once was, and even more importantly, the place that music is capable of occupying in our lives. It is the raw voice of the culture from which it springs. Music writing is the place where a vision of these things distill – offering a reader and listener a means of entry, understanding, and attachments to a culture to which they may or may not belong. Looking back over the course history, music is always bound to cultural identity and proximity – through it we not only find each other, but a sense of who we are. It was the writers and publications that helped this image to form.

There is as much incredible music being created today, as any era before. There are no less people excited to hear it. What has changed is the availability of great publications, offering writing which gives the reader entry, context, and developed understanding – texts which transmit the importance of seeking pleasure and meaning within music, of investing and inviting it into our lives. Music journalism lost faith in the ability of the listener, and in so doing lost its readership and relevance within the cultural landscape. It became the weak link in the symbiosis which sustains the entire ecosystem. If people have lost sight of the importance of investing in great music and writing, it is because we have failed to convince them of the importance of doing so – something each of us believes in. The internet didn’t do it. We did. In the face seeking an understanding of culture and its connections – of finding pathways to the future and means for music to thrive, or joy of introducing readers to incredible sounds, why would you waste your time writing a negative review?

-Bradford Bailey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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