If, as predicted, the Compact Disc, dies soon, this essay might be rendered meaningless.
Until then, though, here is a belated response to an article I read in the January/February 2011 edition of B.C. Musician.
B.C. Musician is based in the Okanagan and has been publishing about eight years. Most of the contributors are musicians, who share their experiences and pass on advice. Frequently, each new issue is based on a theme, such as the listing of summer outdoor festivals. As the Okanagan Valley isn’t a hive of music industry and B.C.based music publications seldom last more than two years, the mag deserves credit just for surviving. With all the challenges from the Internet facing any publication, this must be tough.
The article in question was “Critiquing The Hype Machine” by Barbara Bruederlin, which examines reviews and reviewers. It seemed naive, made a few faulty assumptions, and some of the opinions she solicited from various musicians indicated she/they didn’t know anything about the media. Not that Bruederlin et al can be blamed. The media have wrapped themselves in a mystique and uses it as protection.
When I was through the article, my first question was, Why not ask a reviewer? Nowhere is anybody who reviews records asked about the records they review or what considerations go into choosing what records will get reviewed. I review records and am puzzled myself.
Reviews don’t sell records, at least not directly. Anybody can hear any record and make up their mind themselves. What a review serves to do now, though, is to create an awareness that the record exists. So much music is released in a year that even a brief recognition of the record’s existence is important. A well-written review, no matter how short, can pique curiosity, and, if the content is accurate, help both the buyer and the maker.
The Province prints hard copy reviews on Tuesday under the name Ultrasound. When Ultrasound started, it was a full page and included one main review, six mid-sized reviews (called midis) and six brief reviews (minis). Now it’s a half page of six midis, about 150 words in length each. That’s not a lot. With some records, putting an album in context can be 150 words. With others, the record might be so ordinary that 150 words is a stretch.
In the past couple of years, reviews have gone online. That’s offered some relief as in theory all reviews are printed, not just six, and they can be more than 150 words. The latest wrinkle is that the records chosen for the hard copy have tended to have been plucked from the wire service, not written by Stu, John nor I. I’m speculating that these reviews are more timely. Tuesday is the official release day of most records released by the major labels, Universal, Warners, Capitol/EMI and Sony/RCA.
So, records arrive the weekend before release, are reviewed immediately and The Province runs them Tuesday. There is something wrong with this. In the interest of being timely, for what is a newspaper if not timely, major releases might be reviewed based on a first impression. First impressions can be wrong, and often a record reveals itself over a period of time. What sounded great doesn’t hold up on repeated listening. Conversely, what at first seemed unremarkable, shows more subtle strength. Unfortunately, even a record that was released the week before is regarded as old news. The classic example is The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street. It was regarded as a sprawling, sloppy, badly produced record when released forty years ago, now it’s frequently cited as The Stones’ masterpiece. Newspapers don’t have forty years to deliberate. The emphasis is on the now. It might be fun to revisit such albums to see how they’ve weathered, though.
Another question is, what records to review? The priority is usually given to major new releases. Thus, if Madonna has a new record, it’ll be reviewed and probably be hard copy. Madonna doesn’t need another review as she probably has three thousand of them already and her fans are going to buy her new record anyway, but The Province has to publish a review. It wouldn’t be doing its job, otherwise. Madonna, then, has one of the six midis available. That leaves five spaces and these might go to Kanye West or Taylor Swift or Lady Gaga or any other familiar name. There might be one space left for a locally made independent album, but which one? I usually review local indies and get approximately 250-300 a year, which is a small fraction of what’s out there. I might listen to all of them, but there is no way to print a review of every record and some of them are a struggle to review. It’s not that these are badly made records, as everyone seems to know what a record should sound like, but a lot of them go nowhere and are unremarkable.
Having decided what records to review, there are a few other considerations. Some time ago, I concluded that negative reviews serve no purpose. They’re fun to write. They’re an opportunity to show some teeth, flash the claws and possibly invest a little snide wit. I’ve even written one word reviews, funny, I hope, but nasty. However, if you’ve only got six spaces per week, it’s more productive to tell readers about good records that they should hear. A negative review means one less slot for records that are commendable. Besides, one word reviews leave a huge hole that looks bad on a newspaper page.
Reviewing a local indie requires further consideration. If Madonna’s newie isn’t good, and the review says as much, there is an element of anonymity. The three thousandth review probably means nothing to her and won’t deter the fans. The local indie record review is more personal. I strive to find something positive to say and hope the criticism is constructive. The act actually can get something out of this that it can use, possibly when it comes to making the next record. The local is like a neighbour and possibly a positive review is the start of a blossoming relationship. The local has to live with a review, good or bad, because friends will comment on it and word of mouth will get around. Good words, rather than bad.