Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Negative reviews

There's a lot to unpack in Luke Turner's short essay about the decline of the negative review.  I see exactly where he's coming from, because I've been complaining about perfunctory 7/10 reviews in print and online media for ages.  When a veteran band with an established sound and a loyal following release a new album, I can visualize the review and the rating from many publications before even reading it.  All of "us" (= people who love music criticism) have an interest in reading genuine criticism that breaks down the strengths and weaknesses of the music in a fair, not belittling way, like Jeremy Larson just did in his review of the new Arcade Fire album for Pitchfork.  In principle, that is what "we" want. 

But who is served by these negative reviews?  In the mid '00's, when everyone and their brother started a music blog, everybody fought to establish their tiny niche in a competitive field.  The large print publications and websites dominated the coverage of the most popular, enduring bands -- at the end of the day, this is what attracted eyeballs to their product and made them money.  Small websites and blogs couldn't compete with their coverage, so they worked on becoming tastemakers.  Who could be the first to write about an up and coming band?  The first to post their mp3's?  Writing about the most newsworthy bands and keeping up with the evolving canon wasn't as important as becoming a "trusted source" for music and opinion.  However that largely meant writing about and promoting the bands you liked.  The glory was in being the first to hop on to an emerging bandwagon, not in being the one to spoil the party by burning it down. 

These days, print magazines, blogs and online music crit websites are dead or dying and the casual fans' exposure to music criticism begins and ends with auto-recommendations via Google or Facebook.  Purists might be put off the advertising money being funneled through megacorporations rather than the small, struggling publications, but it's been all about positive reinforcement for a long time anyway.  Mp3 blogs were predicated on the idea of building a brand and earning the readers' trust.  If you liked that song, then maybe you'll like this, etc.  Google has algorithms for that now.  The selection churned out by Youtube's autoplay has more overlap with my tastes than any single publication online or otherwise.

Plenty of people might be in favour of the concept of reading more negative reviews, but nobody has been interested in writing them for some time, and that was true long before the tech giants took over. This is where Turner and I disagree, and it gets me back to the question I asked earlier -- who is served by the negative reviews?  Writers don't want to write them because it's better for their careers to discover and build up bands, rather than breaking them down.  Is there a serious demand for taking popular whipping posts like U2 to the woodshed one more time?  Who is willing to pay money to read snarky comments about a band they don't even like, besides Melody Maker readers of the 80's and 90's? In the 00's and '10 we can troll and be trolled on message boards for free, and the jokes about Bono's pomposity have worn thin over the years and decades (and I'm a U2 fan).  

The democratization of music criticism via the internet means has crushed the influence of the individual writer.  Consumers don't follow writers, they follow brands.  In sports, ESPN is a brand that can (and has) easily weathered the loss of many a flagship individual writer or TV personality.  So it goes with music journalism as well.  People are trained to consume music via a particular outlet, which makes the individual writers, unfortunately, expendable.  In that sense, why would a publisher or editor side with a writer who pitches or writes a negative review?  Striking the wrong tone in a review might cost them -- a loss in ad revenue or access to artists.  Losing a writer who stands up for his or her principles costs them nearly nothing because it won't damage their brand.  So why not play along and write positive reviews all the time?  It's by far the most risk averse choice.