Why We Need Better Music Criticism

Great post in The Daily Beast claiming that music criticism has degenerated into lifestyle reporting, and our culture is all the poorer for it. The whole thing is well worth reading.

Yet there’s an even larger issue at stake here. The biggest problem with lifestyle-driven music criticism is that it poisons our aural culture. Discerning consumers who care about music and have good ears should be the bedrock of the music business, but many of them have given up on new artists because they can’t find reliable critics to guide them. Record labels, for their part, need frank, knowledgeable feedback from critics—both to keep them honest and hold them accountable—but such input is in short supply and veering towards extinction. Above all, artists deserve a milieu in which musical talent is celebrated and given some acknowledgement in the media.

In other words, criticism is a tiny part of the ecology of the music business, but an essential part. Without smart, independent critics who know their stuff, everything collapses into hype, public relations, and the almighty dollar. We have already seen where that leads us—take a look at the trendline of recording sales, if you have any doubts. It’s not too late to fix the mess, but that won’t happen until critics stop acting like gossip columnists, and start taking the music seriously again.

That does seem an accurate picture of how things have gone downhill. If critics has focused on the music rather than offstage tabloid behaviour, would Oasis ever have been so huge? Would Pete Doherty even have had a career?

It’s become painfully obvious that mainstream success has far more to do with the money spent in promotion than it does with actual quality. Not only that, the lowest common demoninator has become far lower as those who care about music check out of the mainstream and devote their time and energy into niche scenes. Does anyone think, for example, that a band like The Foo Fighters, despite their obvious strengths, are in the same league as any of the top-level hard rock acts of a generation before?

Serdar Yedalulp has also blogged about this same subject, saying it’s not just about music but other media as well, and calls for more honest criticism rather than mutual backscratching.

I don’t believe this is fair or honest to anyone on either side of the equation. If I write a review of something, and someone wants to chomp out a phrase from that and use it somewhere, fine. They misquote me at their own risk. But this business of supplying what amounts to a premanufactured bit of ad copy, out of some misguided sense that mutual backscratching is okay even when it comes at the cost of debasing and vulgarizing the very standards of the craft — sorry, no.

Indeed. That is a place where I’m not going to go. It may be one reason why an act I won’t name told an editor I work for that they didn’t want me to review their album.

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