Sunday, 1 October 2017

Opinion Piece : The Death of the Negative Music Review

There is an increasing amount of talk in the chattering circles about the death of the negative music review. This comes at a time where the art of journalism is undergoing substantial structural change alongside the mode of publication being forever turbulent to the tide of technological advance. Traditional outlets, even in the online form, are no doubt under a constant threat of diminishing revenue streams, and thus the stranglehold of commercial reality over artistic integrity continues to strengthen. At this juncture, it would be moot to consider the impact of the favourable review over the one not so kind. With advertising revenue being the obvious king, the biggest driver is traffic, so therein lies the conundrum of what kind of review accrues the target numbers.

Descending several steps down the ladder, advances in technology continue to entirely democratise the independent voice and thus the proliferation of the amateur publication, which indulges in the timeless art of music criticism. Whether in the guise of the solo blogger or the more polished websites operating in the shadows of the pseudo content elite, opinion has never been more open and accessible. By and large though, this is almost entirely positive from top to bottom, even when the financial stake can only have a token effect.

From a personal perspective, I fall wholeheartedly into this solo category with seven hundred plus reviews in the book over the last five years. The ethos to remain positive and independent has evolved over time to become the main driver and writing guide light. Any change in the positivity tone has always been tempered by where do you start. Do you randomly pick an album you don’t like and then choose to dissect the rationale? This may be a record you perversely chose to purchase or likewise, chose to spend a lot of time listening to in order to come to a rational conclusion. On the other hand, it may be a promo where a publicist is keen to read a review – good or bad!

However, it is likely that if you are receiving promo copies for review there is a strong element of positivity in your writing. Developing a smart notion of the stakeholder in the music chain is useful if you enter some part of it. In addition, there is a chance that if a publicist is sending you multiple artists, the likelihood is that some are going to appeal. So if you reside in the finite world of leisure time, stark choices in the way you take to an album are presented in the review opportunities. Now there is the obvious route of balancing your output, should you choose it. This comes back to the previous assertion of allocating time to something, which doesn’t really appeal.

The whole value of a review is also something to ponder. These days it is easy to sample all material purchased, so any review is likely to be a signpost rather than influence taste. Of course, artists, publicists and any other stakeholders can feast on a positive review; some to greater extent than others do and not always, where you predict. Social media presents endless reach for the positive review. As long as it’s written from a genuine independent stance, they can be a force for good. The art of constructive criticism is a peculiar one in terms of it suggesting what would make a record appeal more to you – the individual. Although, you should never lose sight that all reviews are subjective by their nature.

If the demise of the negative review continues, does this signal the end of the review possessing any valuable credibility? The true test to its survival is in the quality of the piece and to the extent that the style appeals to the reader. It also must be totally independent to the PR blurb, which is increasingly being written with such flair. Perhaps an indication of the flight of the journalist to the other side.The strength of the positive review is to remain grounded, while indulging in the odd bout of hyperbole should the feeling arise. Stressing why you think a record has appealed should be the goal and perhaps why folks should come round to your trail of thought. Only after they have listened to it, mind you.

Developing an effective filter system is a good trait, should you get embroiled in the the web of PR and possess the desire to remain independent. I am fortunate to be in the position where submissions easily double the review limit that life imposes. Of course any publicist worth their salt will get a grasp on what moves you as a listener. This will obviously lead to more reviews in their direction, but this is not necessarily a major issue as long as your filter system is strong and working.

One danger of getting too embroiled in a publicist network is leaving too little time to use the power of your own feelers. Some bloggers choose to open up their reviews to the purchased content, this firms up the positivity angle, while strengthening the independent nature. Over the years, I have resisted this route. To this extent, I am quite pleased with the current balance of roughly 50/50 when looking at my evolving albums of the year list in terms of promo and purchased. The most important thing about music blogging is its freedom to do whatever you want. Over the years, I have toyed with following others by going down the content route. Gladly this didn’t prevail and now I am totally comfortable with the format of the near entirety of independent self-written album and gig reviews.

The art of blog and website analysis is to truly understand where a writer is coming from. Hits and traffic that massage an ego can be harmless and perfectly fine, especially for those who know the romanticism of their role. If the demise of the negative review is likely to continue, then it becomes more important to evaluate the product and substance of the source.

Essentially, there will be a response to assertions of demise from those who do actively partake in balancing the thoughts of their mind in print or online. It is important though to stand back and consider that we are all just playing a subjective game. Alternatively, it may be viewed that standing up to weighted interest is vital in this day and age. Regardless of your point of view, music reviewing should remain fun, especially when operating on the lower rungs of the ladder. However, being smart and astute is more fun. 

5 comments:

  1. This is a great piece of writing, David. Not just because for the most part I agree with you but for the debate that it might hopefully engender.
    It made me think of this and how I must have considered the issue very soon after I started blogging (which I actually find rather surprising as I also said that I would be extremely surprised if I ever reached one hundred posts):
    http://rpgreenhalgh.blogspot.co.uk/2006/11/negative-reviews-are-fine-but.html

    I love your gig reviews especially when either you and I have both seen the same or, perhaps maybe even more, when you have seen ones that I haven't been able to get to see!
    If writing a music blog bought me an unsuspected benefit it was that (again possible largely because of digital advances) it rekindled my youthful interest in photography but this time in the direction of live music.

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    1. Thanks for your response Richard and for the kind words. Keep up the blogging. Most of all it's fun and keeps your mind focused especially when you want your content respected.

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  2. Interesting - and astute - take on the subject. I read the original piece about the decrease in positive reviews but hadn't read a followup until I read your piece above. One thing I'd add is that while entirely negative reviews may have disappeared (for the most part), I think that "damning with faint praise" is still around, and one could argue has become more prevelant. I think where reviews offer scores or stars, I take 3/5 or 7/10 to mean mediocre - and I think that has replaced the full-on negative review. I certainly don't always agree with the reviews I read ("YMMV"!), but if I see a consensus emerging after reading several reviews of the same album, I then get a sense of a starting point (ie. "most people think this is an average album, do I agree?" or "this seems to be being talked about as an album of the year, do I agree?") and while I may not agree, I think the reviews have then served their purpose of acting as a launching pad to find out more - whether their tone was entirely positive or, in this day and age, just a little less than enthuiastic.

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    1. Thank you for your response Michael. I fully understand your point about faint praise. Although I have regards for my filter system, there is an inevitable hierarchy in the reviews selected and this will no doubt seep into the published content.This is more pertinent for gig reviews where the only initial filter control is whether to attend. Luckily most I go to give me sufficient content to retain the positive tone. On the rare occasions where this has been missing for a variety of reasons, the review has been shelved. Generally most artists I choose to see are highly talented, humble and always give 100%. They probably wouldn't survive without that in the sphere I operate in. Anyhow thanks once again for contributing and keep up the continued success of the radio show.

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    2. Thanks...and keep up the stellar work on your website - which I always check to see who has impressed you recently - which is very helpful in focusing my attention... Mp

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