Clearly, the professional critic has financial support and time on his (or her) side, but in the world of arts commentary, that’s far from everything. It may very well be that the days of the professional critic are numbered, but I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. Bloggers are ready to take over most of the work…
1) They’re experts
A lot of music bloggers are knowledgeable professionals actively engaged in the creation, presentation or marketing of music. They have the vocabulary to describe an excellent performance and the practical understanding to explain a bad one. Some of them are considerably more influential in their day jobs than all but the biggest critics.
2) They’re not experts
Critics really aren’t representative of the audience, and their reviews aren’t a good barometer of public opinion. We don’t always want to know what a know-it-all thinks. The reaction of somebody experiencing a work for the first time is sometimes a lot more telling than the view of somebody who has either heard it a hundred times before or feels the need to pretend they have.
3) They don’t need to be experts
As an unpaid blogger, I don’t have to pretend that I know what I’m talking about. Nobody’s going to fire me. That doesn’t always stop me, but it really is nice to know that I have the option.
4) They’re everywhere
A critic can only be in one place at a time. The audience is everywhere in direct proportion to the popularity of an event. If ever there was a job that could be crowdsourced, this is it. A lot of critics seem to think that their profession developed as a result of their exceptional ability to commentate on a performance. In fact, it has a lot more to do with the cost of access to a printing press. Newspapers don’t pay critics to know a lot about music. They pay them to meet deadlines and meet word counts. Neither of those things really matter any more.
5) They have a mixture of agendas and motivations
The critic for the local paper wants to get paid and can’t afford to piss off his editor, his paper’s readers, or the local symphony orchestra that has been comping his tickets (and drinks) for years. The critic for the national music magazine has a vested interest in the status quo of endless and almost-indistinguishable recordings of the same repertoire. That’s not healthy. It’s nice to hear some other points of view. I’m not going to claim that I don’t have an agenda, but it isn’t either of those.
6) They’re not published in a newspaper
I don’t want to read the San Francisco Chronicle. I had to cancel a credit card to get rid of the San Jose Mercury News. I do not want a newspaper. I certainly don’t want to buy five or ten newspapers to get one review that I want to read. I shouldn’t have to pay to find out people thought of something that happened in front of hundreds or thousands of attentive listeners.
7) They don’t have to publish anything at all
When I started my blog, I promised myself I wouldn’t post unless I had something to say. Looking back over a little more than a year’s content, it’s clear that the worst things I’ve written have been on the occasions that I’ve broken that promise and thought “crikey my traffic is even lower than Lebrecht’s – I’d better write something”. Professional arts correspondents have to come up with something to say, even when all the new releases and local performances are remarkable only for their mediocrity. Their work suffers.
8) Anon (n.) anon (adv.)
There’s a certain freedom to publishing anonymously that the newspaper critic will never know, but it comes at a cost. Without recourse to “you should trust me because I’m associated with a large institution” an anonymous blog has to reference sources, to aspire to a more scientific – or at least academic – standard of reporting and analysis. I’d argue that’s a good thing. It doesn’t make it impossible to build a brand, either: I don’t need to know Miss Mussel‘s real name or who pays Opera Chic‘s rent to trust in the consistency of their judgement on subjective matters. They’ve been right enough times before.
9) They’re a tough crowd
Concerts are boring, and that’s a big problem for audience development. It mostly wasn’t a PR problem, though, all the time that there was somebody paid to write about the performance. In the absence of subsidized word-of-mouth, we’ll increasingly see that the performances that generate the most buzz are also the ones that grab the attention of the audience. If we can’t all agree that this a good thing, then something is deeply messed up.
10) They’re professional critics
Who writes the most influential classical music blog? Alex Ross? or is it Alex Ross? It’s not like anybody is planning some sort of criticageddon in which the oceans part and swallow up the professional pontificators. They might have to find something else to do for money, but the accumulated knowledge isn’t going away. It’ll just have to be passed on to talented amateurs. I, for one, welcome the innovation that will arise from the smart critics starting something new and the pompous fools fading into the background.
Big thanks to Helen for pointing me in the direction of this inspiringly whiny piece by Chicken Little in New Statesman. Curtains? Please. I wonder if he realizes that he just called Spain uncivilized.
There are still music critics who write about concerts for print publications that tell the truth, but they are few and far between, and they cover only a small segment of the concert spectrum. I imagine that there are just as many astute critical souls around as in years past, it is just that the print format for their criticism gives them very little (or nothing) in return for their critical perspective. This is why blogs are important.
What I see from the hinterlands (when I see music criticism at all) are reviews that reflect nothing about the performance. They tend to be glorified program notes (often taken from program notes themselves) written by a kind soul willing to exchange a few paragraphs of uninformed praise for some free tickets.
Writing real concert criticism is hard work. You have to know the score beforehand, and you might even have to take it with you for the performance for reference. You can’t really sit back and enjoy the music, because you have to take notes. And the people around you tend to watch you take notes. People in the audience recognize you as a critic and look at you strangely. Performing musicians will shy away from talking to you, because you are an “authority figure.” There is a tradition of “power” connected with concert criticism, and musicians still tend to believe what critics say when it is good, and tend to get angry at them when they report something that is less than complimentary.
You only get one chance when reviewing a concert. You get many chances when reviewing a CD. And when you review a CD the proof is in the pudding: anyone can listen to the CD at any time and determine whether your criticism is valid.