In online age, do album reviews still matter?
Toronto vocalist Serena Ryder is shown in a handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Mary Rozzi
TORONTO - When Serena Ryder was a teenager with a fresh face and full voice, she landed an auspicious opportunity: the chance to open for Steve Earle and Missy Higgins for crowds numbering in the five digits. But it wasn't long before a critic from Down Under brought her down, indeed.
She knew it wasn't a perfect gig. Young as she was, she brought only one guitar with her on tour and when a string broke, she improvised and performed a couple songs a capella — a patch of metaphorical duct tape that failed to fool this particular reviewer.
As the now 30-year-old Ryder remembers it, he likened her to an Alanis Morissette who screamed more. He also called her unprofessional for failing to bring a backup guitar.
She was 19. She was crushed. She was also pretty much in agreement.
"He was really harsh on me, but at the same time, I was like: 'He's right,'" she recalled in a recent interview in Toronto. "He was totally right. I should bring two guitars. What if I break a string again? I don't have a guitar tech.
"He was mean, but he was the first person (to tell me that)."
In the intervening decade, Ryder has released four well-received albums and won three Juno Awards.
Yet she still reads her reviews, and she still finds herself alternately indignant and inspired by what she finds — often at the same time.
"I read my reviews, and I'm very highly affected by them even though I don't want to be," she said. "Because I still do — as much as I don't want to — give a big damn what people think."
Fair enough. But perhaps it's not worth getting so caught on critical barbs anymore — after all, it sure seems these days that the importance of the music review could be rapidly diminishing.
There was, of course, once a time when buying music was a calculated leap of faith. There was radio and there were the usual public forums for music, but listeners hoping to dip their toes into less mainstream currents or discern whether the rest of "Tommy Tutone 2" was as good as "867-5309/Jenny," for one example, would have to turn to their favourite rock critic for guidance (spoiler: it wasn't).
These wise souls were the all-knowing gate-keepers to a musical world that still required some degree of unlocking. Or, at least, they were valuable curators with free and early access to records whose content was a hazy mystery to fans desperate to learn more.
Now, however, the situation is drastically different. Record labels have responded to leaks by guarding important new releases with the tenacity of a prime Scottie Pippen, in some cases refusing to let journalists listen until days or even hours before the general public — thus rendering it impossible for these scribes to cobble together an informed take on deadline.
Then there's the increasingly overwhelming quantity of reviews available, gradually diluting the importance of each. There's also the reduced reach of the mainstream media, and the resultant splintering that has left fewer sources that can be generally agreed upon as authoritative.
And perhaps most damaging to the traditional CD review, there's the fact that most artists — even the massive likes of tween-pop pin-up Justin Bieber — stream their albums online for free before they come out.
If fans can decide for themselves whether an album is worthwhile without investing money or effort, how many will still search out the opinion of a "qualified professional" before clicking play?
"Do you want to buy something based on someone's opinion or based on your own ears?" said three-time Juno winner Terri Clark. "I think that's the difference. I think there's a greater chance of somebody buying my record based on their opinion than somebody else's."
Which, of course, presents a problem for music publications already struggling with industry-wide crises in ad revenue and print readership.
Last year, Spin magazine experimented with a major change to its reviewing procedure. By way of an editorial declaring the album review a "redundant, gratuitous novelty in an era of fewer and fewer actual music consumers," Spin announced that the mag — founded in 1985 — would begin reviewing most records in the form of 140-character Twitter missives, with only records that were notable (usually especially good or bad) receiving more in-depth write-ups.
While Spin's era of Twittercism has since subsided, senior editor Christopher R. Weingarten — who wrote that much-discussed editorial — stands by the assertion that the value of the music review has receded.
"I think reviews still serve a purpose ... but there's certain things that they don't do anymore," he said in a telephone interview. "They're not the way for people to discover music like they were. They're not the way for someone to discern what something sounds like. We live in an age where if you want to know what something sounds like, you can listen to it very, very easily.
"With a Google search, you can hear about 80-90 per cent of records that exist with your own ears, with very limited tools," he added. "So why do you need to sit down and read someone talking about an album?"
And it's not just streaming as a free tool of evaluation that has eroded the relevance of reviews.
There's also the sheer number of publications spilling proverbial ink on proverbial wax. Gone are the days where such legendary critics as Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau could scribble a well-reasoned review in Rolling Stone, Creem or the Village Voice and possess more or less the last word on an album. Now, a buzzworthy new record inspires tens of thousands of words in Pitchfork, NME, XXL, Mojo, PopMatters — what feels like an endless array of sources, all accessible, all reputable (to at least some degree).
To focus the deafening din of criticism, review aggregators like Metacritic have become almost essential, meaning fans tend to opt for critical consensus rather than the impassioned arguments of a lone writer.
"Every record review is just one little patch of snow on a giant snowball," Weingarten said. "To make a band now, you have to have sort of an agreement among a lot of sources, instead of just one big source."
So the days of a single review breaking a band could be over.
It was very nearly a decade ago when Pitchfork published a 9.3-scored rave for "You Forgot it in People," the sophomore album by the heretofore relatively obscure Toronto collective Broken Social Scene, immediately opening up the eclectic disc to a significantly wider audience.
Now, it's become increasingly difficult to point to a recent example of a single clipping so drastically changing a band's fortunes.
So record labels have had to adjust, too. Steve Waxman, director of national publicity for Warner Music Canada, casts his mind back to a time in the mid-80s when — working for the indie imprint Attic Records and representing Charlottetown hard-rockers Haywire — he campaigned a local Toronto paper for a review. (Tellingly, he points out that he'd "never call anybody now and bug them to review a record").
Eventually, the frustrated editor told Waxman that he didn't like the record and if he were to write a review, it would be negative.
"I said to him: 'I don't care if you like it or you don't — if you don't review it, no one knows it exists!'" Waxman recalls with a laugh.
Things are different now.
Waxman argues that the appetite for journalistic discovery — for unearthing a treasure in the soil of a local rock club — has subsided as more media have focused on celebrity journalism. For a new artist, being noticed by the bigger press is "next to impossible" and tends to require arduous buzz-building on the blog circuit first.
Somewhat similarly, Weingarten argues that the system is now publicity-driven, with overworked music scribes taking tips from a few industry taste-makers and rushing to serenade the same sudden sensations.
The musicians themselves, meanwhile, feel an understandable ambivalence toward the decreasing importance of reviews — particularly given how many still harbour resentment over one or two especially mean-spirited pans.
But many acknowledge that a well-considered piece of music criticism can be constructive.
"I think there are critics whose writings are useful and those whose aren't," said Ottawa folksinger Bruce Cockburn in a recent interview.
He's had vitriolic negativity spewed his way — one particularly rankling review he remembers referred to his fans as "sycophants" — along with more positive notices too, of course, and both have had some effect.
"Did that (negative review) affect my work at all? I doubt it. But it certainly affected my state of mind... But a lot of the time, the positive stuff is as off the mark as negative things," he said.
"But I guess the point is, these things do inspire you to stand back. Even if the writer gets it all wrong, what did I do for that guy to get it so wrong? Whether it's positive or negative. And that's useful. It's another tool in sharpening the focus."
Ryder, meanwhile, said that the reviews that sting the most are sometimes most helpful.
"I find that when I get really defensive about a bad review, it's probably because it's true," she said. "If I'm super defensive ... well, probably what they said was a little true then, you know what I mean?"
Of course, other artists take a slightly less reverential approach.
"I've never given a (crap) about (our) reviews," said legendary Who guitarist Pete Townshend in a recent interview in Toronto, in fact using a different four-letter word to sum up his lack of interest.
"No, never. Oh God. There are so many ways that you can get 'round the other side of it. You can say, 'Well, he's a frustrated guitar player and he's jealous.' Or, 'This is a phase I'm going through, he's right, it's a crap record but who (cares) because I'm rich and he's not.'"
And Townshend is quick to point out that some artists weather a persistent critical drubbing before having their reputation miraculously restored over time. Led Zeppelin is a popular example, while Burton Cummings recently mused on the Guess Who's lack of early traction with rock scribes.
And it's not always easy to parse the cause behind the shifting winds of critical opinion.
"For years and years and years and years, in the U.K., record reviewers really had it in for Phil Collins for some reason," Townshend recalled. "You know, he wasn't allowed to exist anymore. And suddenly, about a year ago, suddenly it stopped.
"I couldn't quite work out why but people suddenly started to talk quite favourably and kindly about Phil Collins."
Those artists didn't need friendly feedback from rock scribes to succeed. And highly successful acts still don't — observe the soaring popularity of Canada's own lowbrow midtempo sludge-rockers Nickelback, who scarcely even acknowledge the print press anymore after absorbing years of critical arrows.
"A lot of these artists don't need us at all — it's so funny," said Weingarten.
"I can't even begin to run down a list of bands who are doing great without the help of good reviews. That Mumford and Sons record got savaged by every critic — including us — and they're doing just fine. They made the best-selling rock record of the year."
The other side of the argument, of course, is that with consumers facing what feels like a never-ceasing avalanche of new music, critics are still needed to help sort through the snow.
And even those who believe reviews hardly matter the way they used to haven't given up on criticism in general.
"I think music criticism is an artform — I think (it) needs to exist for its own sake," Weingarten said. "To get people to make connections between records and other records, to get people thinking about the things that are in the air."
Like everything else in this turbulent time in the music industry, the importance and form of criticism is simply shifting.
Even those most cynical about critics still acknowledge the thrill of discovery, and see a purpose behind thinking carefully about music — both the stuff we love and loathe.
Townshend, for instance, might not have any time for reviews of his own material. But he still trusts the words of a few sage scribes when it comes to finding new music.
"When I first went searching and I found Pitchfork for example — this is a long time ago and it was fairly new then — it was so exciting," said Townshend.
"If you read somebody who writes a review of an artist that you end up liking, you'll go back to them again. It's taste-making, isn't it?
"I think (reviews) still count," he added. "I do."
With files from Canadian Press reporters Victoria Ahearn and Cassandra Szklarski in Toronto.
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