A fascinating exchange over Twitter today with Angus Batey, Dan Cairns and Martyn Young has got me thinking about where critical writing is headed.
The basic tone of the conversation travelled from the low quality of some music criticism on well known music sites raised by Dan into the lack of support (financial in the main) available to writers by Angus to my thoughts on the 'first not best' culture driving so much of the media in general these days. See The Mail calling the Amanda Fox verdict early in big newspaper world or my comments on the mistaken identity of Matt Willis of Busted / Matt Willis who manages Tricky for a music version of that. We were bemoaning the lack of sub-editors leading to inferior copy in print and on the web via lack of strict editorial controls (especially on the web) when Martyn; not one of those I would bracket in the poor online writers, popped up to shine a light on the lack of actual wages or payment available to those who generate much of the copy about popular music in all its forms. What really surprised me was his assertion that he 'has never been paid for any work'. Leaving aside an observation about the Tories new under 25's 'work or get fucked' policy and the wider culture of 'free work' I will merely permit myself to look at this in context of the music criticism.
Critical appreciation is a necessary part of a civilised society. Like many roles in society it is easy to demean, critics serve no immediate quantifiable purpose to society (nor do half the City Of London but we will refrain from going into that) and so, in a culture defined by 'usefulness' as a unit of production, the serious critic is not a figure that engenders immediate massive public support. Yet the history of public art in all its forms is one that travels from the margins to the centre of society with the aide of critics. This is as true of the novel as it is jazz and is especially true of popular music.
The process of critical unravelling, in essence the devaluation of music criticism and discussion to mere 'content', has been gathering pace for the last decade. No one in the process, from the critics themselves through the magazines and papers that employ them to the music industry and prs that supply them is blameless in this journey to the hole in which we now find ourselves.
The first misconception was that the internet would be a place for greater critical appreciation. The monetisation of the internet, driven by access and non word based delivery forms has resulted in a landscape of untrained enthusiasts mingled with sites that are more interested in traffic driving than unique content delivery. This is not a catch all, there are many great writers and devoted sites out there as previously there were fanzines, but the sheer scale of the financial opportunities involved for the large media companies and their ability to push into markets has both marginalised the 'enthusiast' community and driven down standards as a whole. Alongside the 'first not best' dictum has come churnalism and a slackening of editorial oversight that delivers not just massive clangers (see the Vampire Weekend album sleeve story for a more amusing example) but a steady drip drip of 'print it as soon as you can' stories that range from puff piece press releases to half baked 'news' featuring a big hit name in the middle. Competition being what it is, it is inevitable that standards across the board dive as sales of print fall, endless new players enter the market undercutting the existing players and margins disappear. The internet will not be the saviour of the written word.
The second misconception was that to survive the written word had to compete on the same platform with video and audio. Video in particular cannot deliver serious and considered critical opinion. Those of us who love culture can count on the fingers of one hand the cultural discussion programs that have worked over the years. As a starting point to considering any art they serve a purpose but I cannot accept that to come to a considered opinion on a work of art (and I firmly place my chosen popular music in that category) a video can deliver that experience. Similarly audio is limited by delivery. Only the written word can really allow you to consider and appreciate a work of art outside of the work itself. The ability to return to the arguments and opinions, to pause and consider, to control the pace of your understanding and to internally rebuke or concur with the critic, all these are only possible with the written word. Thus, the music website template, of video this and on tour that detracts from the writing and devalues it, delivering a portion of your attention span to the work that should demand such attention in its entirety.
The third misconception is that of the role of the critic and their relationship with the music industry. Dan highlighted the label's schedules and concerns over album delivery to critics in our discussion. Whilst I have sympathy with the labels and the artists given their product is so insecure and those stealing are unlikely to face any sanction, the work of the critic should be based on immersion, not casual acquaintance. We need critics to be ahead of us in their thoughts and reasoning. As a pr I despise an ill thought out review, I accept a bad one well argued. As a human, I accept that receipt of an album days before copy is due is not a position of strength from which to deliver the perfect prose. Further, the increased reliance on digital delivery of albums may well be a money saver and deliver some vague ecological message on a par with those 'please do not print out this email...' footers but the truth is that listening to a well crafted album on a compressed stream or a download does not give the music its best setting at the very least. As for the other elements of an album that matter, cover image, sleevenotes, its very existence as a physical thing, these are long since casualties of that 'quantifiable value' theory that permeates our culture.
The fourth misconception is that the public are better at choosing art than critics. Whether a product of human ego or, more likely, the logical endpoint of an individualism that encompasses Ann Raynd, 'Because You're Worth It', 'There is no such thing as society' or the 'respect' agenda of the stereotypical UK gangsta, the truth is that if you choose art on the basis of public appreciation your culture will undoubtedly wither. The list of things that now define the UK that were outside public taste, indeed hated by the public, is so obvious I won't bother to list it. Further, releasing albums by massive acts one week early only feeds into this idea that the public should be on a par with the critics. That is a nonsense. As Angus pointed out, if the web is awash with fan reviews of a record the week before release why would a publisher bother to pay for a reviewer to do it properly?
The best critic is, with no exaggeration, a prophet. If you feel uncomfortable with that in the current context of music criticism, choose one of the obvious past masters and reconsider that phrase. Their actions give deeper meaning and understanding to the music that, for many, is more than just a background. Their words can help to build new communities of strength that take music as the starting point for a meaningful cultural journey that can (and does) change the very way that society works; its relationships, power structures, values and behaviour, for the better. Their slow removal from our music culture leaves it with less meaning and depth and weakens the foundations of our wider culture. Whilst we celebrate the stories of the past we risk the destruction of the stories of the future, whilst we point to the generational progress soundtracked by popular music but interpreted by its critics and celebrants we risk reducing new expression to a clutch of short lived headlines and ill thought out reaction, devoid of wider meaning.