The world of print criticism is changing, and the Internet has altered all aspects of the music business. But after all these years, the job of music critic actually seems to be more special.
As time has passed, I realize there will come a time when Bob Dylan won’t be touring and another member of the Rolling Stones will hang it up, and Tom Waits, his performances already a rarity, completely retires. But the idea that acts such as Green Day can create vital, mature works long after their initial heyday gives me a faith in the future of rock ‘n’ roll’s importance.
The rewards of the job: Those moments when I stumble upon a fabulous record by an unknown like Ryan Bingham or enjoy Whiskeytown at the Mint or see Corey Harris (a recent MacArthur Genius Grant recipient) play at a house turned into a club in New Orleans. Morphine, Bright Eyes, Broken Social Scene — the list goes on of acts that make me glad I picked this career path.
The downside: Could you speak louder? My hearing is not what it once was. I cut out after-parties about eight years ago; they age you in a hurry.
At this point, I don’t have to review acts for which I have no affinity — and that goes across a rather broad spectrum. I will review Barry Manilow, but not Billy Joel; Metallica would get a yes, Axl Rose or Motley Crue a no; certainly Kelly Clarkson, but no to Clay Aiken. The no’s get assigned to another reviewer.
And I enjoy the knowledge that, in a small way, our reviews may help some deserving artists. Like the film world, where little indie pics need the nurturing of reviewers but summer tentpoles are unaffected, the music world has two sets of criteria when it comes to criticism.
Modern R&B, rap, country and pop are immune to critical denigration or praise; popularity in those genres is driven by hype and radio-appropriate sound.
But critics can make a difference in the indie rock world and occasionally when a veteran rock or soul act gets a groundswell of support.
And that’s part of the responsibility within Variety‘s music reviews: Alerting the entertainment industry to music they might miss. Indie acts have said positive Variety reviews have helped land song placements in TV and movies. And a review can serve up a set of (hopefully) helpful notes: A concert promoter in Ohio once told me that a performer changed his act after getting negative notice in our pages.
Over the course of the year, 300-plus acts and festivals will be covered in Variety. All of those run in print, and on Variety.com, which also carries CD reviews.
The immediacy of the Internet has changed the role of critic and consumers. Read a positive review, sample a song. Download it (legally or illegally), and within minutes decide if the critic was on the money.
There are pros and cons to this immediacy. When Leslie Feist’s album was ready for release, she received a multitude of positive reviews. But those affected her sales far less than an iPod ad featuring Feist singing “1, 2, 3, 4.” Without the ink, though, it’s quite possible Apple’s ad people would have never considered Feist and her work.
The new world of the Internet also results in reader responses arriving before the review is in print. Variety‘s bread-and-butter in music coverage is concert reviews. With that comes the responsibility of explaining to readers — some in the music industry, but others in TV, film, new-tech, whatever — the background and significance of this singer or group. Every concert requires some quick thinking: Is this worthy of a big-picture address or a quick snapshot to wrap up the facts?
Every act we cover requires a newsworthy angle — it can be as simple as a new album or a unique lineup — and that idea needs to be presented clearly and early in a review.
If something significant is not reviewed, in most cases it is not an oversight: We are always looking for a valid reason to review. Then there are times when an act is worthy of a review several times, such as Rufus Wainwright’s similar concerts in New York and Los Angeles or Crowded House’s appearances in a big theater and a small club on the same tour.
Since we focus on concerts, a considerable number of performers who register significant sales never get reviewed. Rap acts, for one, are rare on the touring circuit; much of modern country has little relationship to Hollywood or Gotham; and many pop acts will not get an even shake from an assigned critic.
But the Internet is doing more for music than any other form of entertainment. Pitchforkmedia.com, an Internet site filled with reviews and news items on acts that appeal to indie music fans, has hit a nerve over the last five or so years, during which time it has been an early champion of critical faves Arcade Fire, Go! Team, Devendra Banhart, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Sufjan Stevens.
Pitchfork demonstrated that where there is a passionate audience, it will spawn an equivalent base of commentators. Within the always swirling tidepool of obscure rock bands, it has created something of a hierarchal chain, much as Rolling Stone did in the ’60s and’70s.
Yet while the site’s impact has been measurable in terms of indie rock sales and coverage in major outlets that Pitchfork got to first, there’s a hipster attitude and pretentious writing style that sabotages its critical credence. At times, those of us who have worked at this for decades feel like experts in a sea of amateurs posing as experts.
Rave reviews from music websites, though, can generate an interest on our end and lead to a review; buzz, when it’s visceral, as it was with acts like Gnarls Barkley, Bright Eyes and the Arctic Monkeys, creates must-see acts for this paper, much more than MySpace or label hype.
Since Variety.com began running CD reviews, my listening to music has become more extensive and purposeful. It’s done at the computer and in the car, on the iPod and through the living room’s 5.1 system. Rarely is music listening casual.
There is a room in my house that is lined with shelves of CDs, a couch and a chair. The stereo, complete with a Rega turntable, was painstakingly invested in over the course of nearly two years. I figure I will sit in the room and listen to music for enjoyment’s sake when I retire. It means Jennifer Lopez gets two spins but the Caetano Veloso reissue from 1971 is just going to have to wait for a rainy day. Or my retirement.