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August 29, 2012

Music Criticism in 2010

June 11, 2010

What’s the purpose of music criticism?  I admit, the question may sound naive and juvenile but think about it for a second.

If you’re reading criticism, what utility are you seeking?  Presumably, you are in the market to buy or steal some new music and you need someone or something to help refine your choices.  In my opinion, it’s all about music discovery.

What if you’re writing criticism, what’s in it for you?  Maybe you have the noble purpose of rewarding those who create great content with praise (and the opposite for those who create poor content).  At best, your criticism encourages creativity and thoughtfully steers people into broadening their horizons.  Unfortunately, I think that’s seldom the case.  More often then not, music criticism becomes merely a means for critics to show-off their depth of knowledge in pop culture or music trivia.

Before the internet, music criticism was far more vital than it is today.  Buying a record was an act made more or less on blind faith and hunches.  You might have heard one song on the radio but you had no way of sampling the entire album before purchase.  At that time, we needed critics, no matter what their agendas were, to help steer us in the right direction.

Today, it doesn’t take much internet savvy to hear an album/track before purchase (or stealing).  Instead of reading a review of the music, we can go straight to the source and hear it for ourselves.  Consequentially, traditional music criticism has lost almost all of it’s value in my opinion.  Artists still care what Rolling Stone thinks of their latest effort but the consumer should really care less.  Why let David Fricke or anyone else influence your decisions when you can make up your own mind?  Really, what gives a music critic the authority to be a trusted source on musical value?  What does his or her resume look like?  Criticism is not something that you can get better at over time like most other skills.  I would even argue that music critics are the worst people to take your music recommendations from.  They’re jaded, they’ve seen it all, and aren’t easily impressed.

If it’s all about music discovery to begin with, I would value a friend or acquaintance’s opinion or recommendation  much higher than a music critic’s.  Hopefully, that friend or acquaintance will know my musical preferences and make suggestions accordingly.  That person might also know things that I haven’t listened to or been exposed to and thus could make suggestions on that basis.  In all cases, I think taking music (or other content) suggestions from friends is a better method of music discovery.  That’s why I’m excited about the social initiatives Spotify and MOG are taking.  Pandora’s Facebook integration is great too.  I think these types of features represent the future of music discovery and criticism’s influence will continue to wane.  I don’t think many people will miss their snarkiness.

Apple Can’t Make iTunes a Subscription Service… yet

May 13, 2010

After Lala announced that it would be shutting down at the end of May, tons of chatter began about the coming Apple subscription service.  It’s no secret that Apple has intentions of moving some portion of its iTunes business into the cloud.  They confirmed those ambitions by purchasing Lala a few months ago.  However, people forget a huge roadblock that prevents Apple from turning iTunes into a subscription business: they don’t have the legal rights.  As of now, the music sold in iTunes is licensed to Apple only for a la carte sale.  Apple would have to go back and re-license every track in its 10 million+ song catalog in order to be a viable subscription service.  They can’t simply flip a switch that turns iTunes into a subscription service (although that would be great for consumers).

Peter Kafka at All Things Digital reports that his sources at labels have hinted that Apple has begun preliminary talks about securing rights for an  Kafka points out that these talks are very young and the likelihood of Apple unveiling a subscription service on June 7th is extremely low.  Most likely, Apple will soon unveil a cloud based storage locker for iTunes purchases.  Such an offering will not be the Spotify/MOG/Pandora killer that everyone is talking about.  Also, it’s unclear whether Apple even has the rights to offer this extension of iTunes.  Rights holders are claiming that a cloud based service accessible on multiple devices constitutes a different type of use than the a la carte digital track or album sale.  They are arguing that they should receive adjusted compensation from Apple for this new type of use.  That’s an issue for the lawyers to work out.

In the end, Steve Jobs has to be considering eventually pushing iTunes into a subscription service; it just isn’t going to happen this summer and probably not this year.  Subscriptions services are very low margin compared to hardware sales but he has to be thinking that such an offering will boost iPhone and iPad sales.  In the meantime, competitors like Spotify, MOG, Rhapsody, and Pandora have a chance to entrench themselves in the marketplace.  If they don’t take a stronghold now, Apple will undoubtedly wreak havoc as mighty competitor soon.

Why Release Dates?

April 30, 2010

Last night at Webster Hall, I was pleased to hear that Frightened Rabbit‘s opening band, Maps and Atlases, was actually really good.  Not too surprising as Frightened Rabbit is really starting to gain steam.  You would think that they would have some quality support on their tour.  Maps and Atlases definitely impressed with their complicated song structures and an amazing drummer.  This is however, besides the point.

Towards the end of their set, the band announced that they have a new record coming out in June.   I’ve heard bands announce these things countless times, but it really stuck me as odd and antiquated last night.  Turns out that Maps and Atlases were recently signed to Barsuk Records and will be releasing their “debut” album June 29th.  I don’t mean to call out Barsuk’s marketing strategy on this one because I know that most indies are still using this “build to climax” release strategy.  Now I understand all of the traditional reasons why record labels (especially majors) do this.  They need to pitch the long lead press outlets months in advance for the chance that they might get a review or feature in a major magazine.  They also want to have all of their marketing efforts reach a frenzy point around the release date so the buzz will continue to build on itself.  These reasons make sense if you have an extensive radio campaign as part of the marketing plan but do they really matter for smaller indie bands?

Traditional (print) press is definitely losing it’s influence at least from a record sales standpoint.  Buzz builds most when people have the music in their hands.  Attention spans are so short now, you can’t expect someone to wait for a release date for an unknown band.  Why not put the music out as soon as it’s finished?  Then it doesn’t matter if it leaks.  People are going to steal the music no matter when you put it out so at least give the people that want to buy the music an option to do so.  In a nutshell, everything should be focused on building fans, not on securing press.  The press will come once an audience is in place.

Apple vs. Amazon vs. Google

April 23, 2010

The three behemoths of technology are getting ready to battle over who will rule the new publishing industry.  It’s interesting because not one of them really cares too much about dominating the space.  Their core business all respectively lie in another sector.  However, egos will get involved and fireworks will inevitable follow.

The publishing industry is merely a pawn in Steve Job’s game of hardware dominance.  He needs the Big 6 publishers to sign up with iTunes so all of those iPad owners have something to buy in the bookstore.  He could really care less if this helps the publishing industry as a whole.  Can you blame him?

Bezos is in a similar position but he knows his Kindle is an inferior product.  He’s hoping that he can outsell iTunes by using books as a loss-leader.  Amazon can afford to do this because the rest of their business is so strong.  However the publishers are really pissed off (read Ken Auletta’s great article here) with this plan.  They don’t want to be told what to price their products.  Rightfully so there, but is a digital book really worth as much as a paper copy?  After all, screen glare is annoying and you can’t show off a digital book on a bookshelf.

Google has a different strategy of sheer brute force.  Scan millions of books a year and have the largest catalog on the planet.  Let anyone on any device access the material.  Make all of that text searchable through Google.  If you find something of interest on Google Books, you can preview part of it and then buy the whole text through their soon to be launched digital book store.

Who will win?  I don’t really know.  Definitely has a lot to do with the success of the iPad.  If history repeats itself and Job’s duplicates the success of the iPod, he will be hard to beat.  Regardless of who wins, is this good for the publishers?  Probably not.  I don’t see Kindles or iPads boosting readership rates.  People that read books already might start substituting those purchases with ebooks.  That will most likely hurt the publishers’ bottom line.  People that don’t read books won’t do so on the iPad and definitely won’t buy a Kindle.  This will be interesting to watch though.


April 16, 2010

I’m intrigued by the soon to be launched site Unvarnished.  Unvarnished allows its users to anonymously comment about other people on a public profile.  They claim that the site is an online resource for “building, managing, and researching professional reputation, using community-contributed, professional reviews.”  The site is in private beta know but I’m anxious to poke around on it (if you have an invite please send one my way).

I think that Unvarnished represents a shift for how people will use social media.  Slander and bashing is not new to social networks but it has always in some capacity been discouraged by developers and/or culturally taboo.  Facebook doesn’t have a “dislike” button and the lack of anonymity on sites like LinkedIn probably keeps most recommendations hollow and superficial.  Charlie O’Donnell at the Business Insider pointed out that Unvarnished represents an unprecedented opportunity to actually get valuable and constructive feedback.  Let’s face it, no one is going to give you anything but a glowing review on LinkedIn.  There just isn’t any incentive to be honest.  However, when you obscure the identity of the commenter, you allow for genuine and honest feedback.  Your comments or collective reputation on Unvarnished could end up being a truly valuable asset in your career (and especially in a job search).

You might also think that Unvarnished could unravel into a free-for-all bashing by bitter clients, coworkers, and even psycho ex-girlfriends.  I admit that’s quite possible, but Unvarnished has built in some checks and balances to prevent absolute libel.  There will undoubtedly be some bashing going on, but as the service becomes more mainstream, I would argue that users will start to discount and even ignore blatant attacks.  Everyone has enemies and the internet makes it too easy to bad mouth someone.  It’s impossible to please everyone at all times in the business world and tiffs and hurt feelings are inevitable.  I think that experienced Unvarnished users will be able develop a filter for comments based in fact and hollow praise or worthless attacks.

Regardless of the outcome, I think Unvarnished is poised to become the next big culturally phenomenon.  Bold statment I know but everyone wants to know what people say about them behind closed doors.