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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.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. June 16, 2010 10:11 am

    Hey Steve,

    Long-time reader, first-time commenter.

    I hear what you’re saying about music criticism and its potential effect on people and their exposure to new music, and I agree that, with the advent of streaming everything, music criticism need not be relied on for judgement of a new album. That being said, the aspect of music criticism that you don’t address in the first paragraph is the one that I think is the most interesting and most effected by technology: Discourse.

    Print media about music(Rolling Stone, Blender – truthfully none of which I really read), has definitely lost relevance for me becuase there can be no back-and-forth through print. On blogs like this, however, or most any on the internet, it’s easy to get a dialogue going about a particular album, topic etc. That’s where I think web based music criticism can/should go, because the music experience shouldn’t end when you hear that “beep” on your CD walkman.

    With the web, criticism of all kinds is moving away from the Moses on Mt. Sinai model and towards the model of the Forum, with each poster/tweeter/buzzer/updater/tumblr/commenter/youtuber having a say.

    I won’t deny the fact that if a music critic gives an album I know nothing about a crappy review, I will be less inclined towards it. That said I do agree with Chris Weingarten in his speech on criticism(see link at bottom) that aggregators and people concerned with being the “first in” are not good for the industry. Critics with the most stars, RTs, hits etc. will be regarded as more relevant, but that doesn’t mean that they should be deified.

    As far as exposure I agree, more important than critics or the internet, I will still always get (audio) high(s) with a little help from my friends. Ultimately music criticism shouldn’t be discarded completely however, but viewed as a forum where people should use the comments section to get involved.

    John

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