what has ears but doesn’t listen?

“Music critics.”

One of my beloved past mentors offered this cheeky response to the above social media clickbait riddle.

While I don’t exactly agree, I couldn’t help but laugh. It must be a fairly rare proportion of music reviews which actually serve to tell anyone anything about the music, or disclose the critic’s true opinion of a show or recording. Thank heavens for star ratings, eh? Reductive as they may be, at least one has a chance of deciphering what the critic really thinks. (Naturally, some “reviews” don’t even provide this brutish evaluation.)

Anyway, as an early-career introvert with a cursed aversion to self-promotion, I’ve taken some time recently to ponder the role of music criticism. I’ve made some important realisations along the way, and I hope to provide a fairly reasoned perspective in this post. I’ll start by acknowledging that it’s incredibly easy to be disillusioned with music criticism and generally dismissive of the whole deal, so let’s begin with some…

1. dismissive thoughts about music criticism (and counterpoints)

“music critics don’t produce anything”

Well, obviously aside from concert and album reviews, right? This thought used to cross my mind often, as an extension of the rather extremist “art is the only thing that matters and everything else is bullshit” mentality (which I’m proud to be gradually shedding).

You’ll find comments like this being thrown around in amateur (and sometimes semi-professional) music circles, and it’s easy to get sucked in. The thing to note here is that this is almost invariably an attack against a group of people. I’ve never heard anyone try to make the case that “music reviews are literally nothing”—that would be simply absurd—so we start by devaluing the product and move onto attacking the creator. “Music critics don’t produce anything” is an expression of resentment against a class of practitioners who have the potential to make one’s career ambitions viable—and the core delusion here is that critics knowingly choose to snub and withhold support from ’emerging’ and ‘underground’ artists. (Through various sources, I know the exact opposite to be true.)

Here’s something to contemplate: yes, a smoking hot review in a prominent outlet will probably help you gain some career momentum (if properly leveraged). But a coolly indifferent (or even icy) review of your last gig or record is going to rapidly fade to obscurity as long as you don’t draw attention to it, and as such it’s remarkably unlikely to bear much impact on your natural career trajectory—unless you let it get to you. (N.B. Aggressively negative reviews may have complex flow-on effects, but such pieces are generally unlikely to be produced by reputable critics anyway.)

“music critics don’t support emerging artists”

It is easy to feel scorned and become bitter and disillusioned, but some comfort may be found in a practical understanding of why you and your friends maybe aren’t getting traction outside of your friends’ Insta stories and the odd local blog.

It’s important here to acknowledge that critics definitely do not write about music for the money. (I mean seriously, name two industries which are struggling harder than music and journalism in the internet age.) For critics, I have no doubt that love goes into their work and personal fulfilment comes out of it.

Anyhow, today’s established music critic has been on the scene for a couple of decades, and probably started writing about music in the midst of an economic boom (and importantly, before the internet was widely adopted). While you and I are just getting our bearings, those we believe could help us have had decades to make close connections with an existing generation (or two) of artists who probably wouldn’t split a gig bill with us, even if we asked nicely.

So here’s an empathy task: let’s say you’re a critic sifting through dozens of gig invitations and album submissions each week, and a few of those come from old friends who are absolutely superb musicians. Be honest: whose gig are you actually going to see? (And hey, let’s say you do blow off your buddies out of sheer dedication to the scene… well, the music these kids make had better be worth it, eh? It’s quite reasonable to expect a decent standard of work from someone who reached out to you with a cold call.)

The above scenario begs also the question: are you inviting music critics to your shows? Sure, it feels intimidating to approach influential strangers and ask for a favour, but it’s absurd to imagine that a stranger you’ve never met will independently and voluntarily snub her long-term associates on a Thursday night to check out your newest project, and simply deluded to think that you and your peers are being intentionally ignored.

“reviews are boring and/or no one reads traditional media”

Two clearly false generalisations, once again typically thrown around in amateur circles and intended to devalue an object of unattainable desire.

Some reviews will be boring, some will be interesting—so what? As for traditional media, pfft, yeah, no one except “old people”—you know, greying hair and wrinkles. A quarter of the Australian population. Few to no dependents, disposable income, and plenty of spare time. Lifelong music lovers, big ticket venue representatives, top-tier arts professionals and notable philanthropes. People who leave the house to go to seated concerts and still buy physical CDs. People who don’t check Facebook very often, but might sign up for a mailing list.

It’s important to remember that the various social and traditional media platforms will segment potential fans by age group (and by your personal relationship to them). For artists, this means that promoting gigs and releases takes more work, not less. I’m out of my depth here, but my understanding is that social media platforms are largely operated and curated by AI, while traditional media platforms are still fundamentally operated and curated by people. AI will never have your back, but people might. Early-career artists like you and I would be unwise to dismiss the significance of visibility across a variety of media outlets.

2. credibility

I think I’ve made my stance fairly clear. Whether it interests you or not, music criticism clearly serves some purpose to some people. This raises a big question: what service(s) does music criticism actually provide, and to the benefit (or detriment) of whom? I tortured myself with this for months, and then realised that the answer is quite simple if one simply drops the “art is everything” mentality. I know who ultimately benefits, and you know it too, dear reader. So rather than address this crude subject directly, I’ll share an anecdote which tactlessly blurts out the answer, and then promptly redirect the conversation.

Some months ago, a stranger messaged Anoesis offering a service of “photography plus a review” for an upcoming show—at a bargain rate of around $70! Hmm… the band compensates the reviewer directly, eh? A discerning person could fall sound asleep trying to count all the red flags in such a proposition. While preparing a polite decline, curiousity led me to check out the portfolio anyway. Oh dear. Just try for a moment to imagine an improvising band—niche music with a tiny pool of potential listeners and practically zero profit margin—directly paying an untrained amateur critic out of pocket for a poorly-written but glowing review on a blog that receives no traffic. It’s not exactly a great look, is it?

Now, all of this is just to highlight that credibility is the crucial factor in determining whether a piece of critical music journalism provides any value whatsoever. So what makes a critic credible? How does my example above differ from occasional instances of reputable reviewers awarding high marks to friends and associates? Well, while there’s no doubt that bias comes into play in such cases (critics are people), the reputable critic’s friends are not her clients: there is a professional separation. The published review is an indirect gift from the journal to the artist, and not a piece of merchandise sold by the critic. Sure, there may be subconscious factors, or even a social incentive for the critic to hype the positives, but there is no market incentive to blatantly misrepresent the truth.

(Aside: regarding the above anecdote, I understand that people need to hustle in creative ways in order to build the career that they love, but let me be very clear in saying that if your business plan relies on taking money specifically from aspiring artists in their early twenties in exchange for single-use products or services, your business will fail. No two ways about it. We’re wasting disposable cash on nothing, because we don’t have any disposable cash.)

3. humanity

Not much left to say, I just wanted to express the fact that despite mixed feelings about published art evaluations, I do ultimately value the ongoing practice of human accountability for music listening recommendations and evaluations, in a world where anonymously and/or automatically curated playlists increasingly prevail, and undiscerning computer science Honours students throw away endless hours conducting AI analysis of music databases in vain effort to create a ‘hit song detector’. (No disrespect fam—but really?)

Anoesis will play a low-capacity show at The Gasoline Pony on Thursday 28 October 2021 — details here

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