Blog It: How The Web Changed Music Criticism
Two words: Almost Famous. It may be cliché but this was the movie that spurned my foray into music. The fact that you could travel around the country with a rock band fascinated me. The ability to be able to capture the process of a band connecting with their audience and the unspeakable and indescribable quality with which they win over millions of people. The idealistic notions in the movie inspired me to become a music reviewer. In late 2007, as I was rereading my first review of Tegan and Sara’s The Con, I realized my perspective was just like the movie—written by a fan and not a journalist.
As a precocious teenager with dreams of writing music reviews, I spent most of my time collecting early editions of Rolling Stone and Creem. In these initial texts, authors and reviewers like Lester Bangs, Hunter S. Thompson, Ben Fong-Torres and Joe Ezterhas spoke amongst their pages; they set an unknown standard for young aspiring reviewers with their insightful and engaging reviews, interviews and articles about music.
The Old Review Standards
Reviews in the earlier volumes of these publications tended to focus on the editorial agenda instead of the author’s unique perspective. The standard review contained obvious things like mentioning the name of the band and it offered an overall interpretation of the album. Beneath a thinly veiled raucous structure, the truly great reviews held subtle hints of insight that often left the reader swirling in an abundance of emotions. The expertise of the music review appeared in the ways the writer related an album’s meaning to the reader’s own life. In doing so, the critic gave them what they were looking for: a reason to buy the music.
In the dawn of the music critic era, writers made a mere thirty dollars for a review. However, the real perk of the job had nothing to do with the money, but the clout that a reviewer had. This was at a time when it was not unheard of for a record label to fly out a reviewer to one of their band’s shows and put them up in a nice hotel. Such expenses were chocked up to the cost of breaking an artist; many reviewers looked at it as a subsequent income. Yet, despite the amount of money that major labels spent on wining and dining critics, more commonly, their reviews written were a result of editorial direction.
"In the end, the magazine that had made
a point to flout conventionality became the very
thing it was founded to argue against."
Often times, having a different opinion about a band than the managing editor was an issue amongst reviewers. For example, Jann Wenner fired Lester Bangs from Rolling Stone in 1973 because he wrote a bad review for a Canned Heat album. Despite Bang’s popularity among the readers, he was fired because of a differing opinion with an ornery managing editor. Amusingly, it was these type of personalities, much like Bangs—those who flipped their finger at the taste hierarchies of mainstream publications—that later founded magazines like Rolling Stone. As the years passed, however, Rolling Stone shifted its editorial focus from an independent mind to a mainstream one in regards to music criticism. In the end, the magazine that had made a point to flout conventionality became the very thing it was founded to argue against.
While publications started to take a broader approach to music coverage, the music review kept changing. Music reviews took the shape of something more along the lines of a consumer guide. Popular magazines opened to publish music reviews; they offered the reader a more centralized opinion, but were sure to never veer too far left. Magazines like Billboard, The New York Times and The Village Voice offered a blue-plate buyer’s perspective to their audiences, making sure to only review bands within the pop music paradigm. As blogging technology began to make its debut, it offered a new way the amateur music critics could voice their own opinions in a free and untamed environment.
Zines To Blogs
Before sites like Stereogum, Pitchfork and Blogspot existed; zines were one of the ways each underground music community connected. In the early nineties, The Riot Grrl movement of the Pacific Northwest offered the modern feminist her own music genre with bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater Kinney. The Riot Grrl music movement found its strongest support in zines from around the country between its two epicenters, Olympia, WA and Washington, DC. Soon, word of the scene spread quickly across the country. In her book, Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution In Music (22), Marisa Meltzer offers her take on how the word of the movement spread. “In those pre-Internet times,” she writes, “word spread through the punk community via zines, letters between pen pals in far-flung music scenes and bands going on tour.”
As the Internet quickly and voraciously grew, it offered a new cheaper and far more efficient way for zine makers to spread the word about their particular music genre or interest: a blog.
Blogs first started as “Weblogs,” a term popularized in part by the open diary started in 1994 by Claudio Pinhanez of MIT. The open diary was a web page with the basic outlines of the daily activities of his life. As more web site builders incorporated these open diaries into their web sites, the need for a widely usable source of building one came to fruition.
"As more people began using these journal
tools, interest-minded associations began
springing up around the web."
In 1999, open blog sites like Live Journal, Blogger, and Xanga burst on to the scene. These open blog sites offered the basic Internet user a chance to share their daily activities and interests in a diary like way. As more people began using these journal tools, interest-minded associations began springing up around the web.
Some of the first music blogs on the scene were known as MP3 blogs. Sites like Fluxblog, Stereogum, and Buzzgrinder, offered the music geek a chance to hear music outside of the TRL mainstream. Stereogum was started in January of 2002 by Scott Lapatine as a Live Journal site. Since it’s beginning the site has offered a way for those interested in indie rock a way to hear new up and coming artists. Among those bands touted by Stereogum early in their career were Vampire Weekend and the Cold War Kids, both of which later went on to find commercial success. These music blogs began to offer people a way to find out about new music without reading the reviews by major publications. The blogs offered an honest and untouched by the music industry perspective from someone just like them, whose interest in music was not for profit, but pleasure. With the rise of the MP3 blog, the voices of the new generation of music critics had a new way to share their opinions on music.
Everyone Is A Music Critic
Depending on whom you ask, Pitchfork is either the future or bane of the music industry. Despite offering an indie music perspective, its reviews are famous for using big words with tiny meanings. The formula for the review is consistently the same throughout all of them coming in three basic parts: the intro, the body paragraph and the conclusion; they all blend together amongst words like “incongruous” and “flat line.” The most revolutionary part of Pitchfork is the rating system it cohesively mixes with its reviews.
Historically speaking in the history of music criticism a rating system and a review never mixed well. With the advent of the Internet and subsequently the generation that grew up with the web, the average time span for someone to sit on the Internet and read a music review was smaller than when they appeared in magazines. Thus, giving the ratings system even more license and importance than a well crafted review.
The new music review is a mixture of many different things and unlike its predecessor; it lies more within social media and it’s users than a publication’s pages. Unlike the reviews published on the usual music magazine sites like Rolling Stone and Billboard, the new review is a result of many different opinions a general consensus of opinions within a niche community. In the new era of the digital music review, entire music collectives are built around certain genres, not unlike those built in the era of the zine.
"With the rise of these niche-oriented blogs and
sites, the public expect to read album
reviews within that respective genre."
There is a blog for everything from blue-eyed soul to riot grrl to underground hip-hop and every genre in between. With the rise of these niche-oriented blogs and sites, the public expect to read album reviews within that respective genre. Record labels want into these areas with their unknown bands to send massive amounts of mp3s and press releases to these bloggers for mentions or mp3 posts for a free download.
A music critic in the new era of the young and digital doesn’t worry about pleasing the major labels or an editor who only wants to offer a mainstream point of view. Instead these blogs focus on what the writer or writers want to cover. By offering their own opinion on music, the bloggers are initiating their own foray into a music critic career. These bloggers are the artist’s most important press because they are also their fans. As more and more artists become savvy with new media these bloggers should be their first targets. Not only are these sites a way for artists to gain more fans, but they are also a way to get the attention of someone in the new music industry.
The selling point of the new music review is that it’s both a way to rate a band and also a way to help band’s sell albums. In the time of now, where people are more likely to download an album from LimeWire instead of purchasing it, it is important to remember the direction of word of mouth. In my opinion, this kind of virtual word of mouth found amongst the music populace is more powerful than a review in Pitchfork in terms of sales. What makes it more important is that the opinion of the blogger equates to sales. If someone is an integral part of a music blog, they comment and read it daily and are more likely to purchase a song on a recommendation than if they read it in Pitchfork. The weight of the new music critic is in their recommendation.
In the late 1960’s, music journalist opinions found in the pages of the mainstream publications could make or break a band’s album sales. Now the influencers of said publications don’t hold the purchasing right the blog does. In the ever-increasing realm of the Internet, these blogs and niche communities are the places where the new music journalists are cropping up. Most bloggers don’t realize the power they hold because they still think of themselves as a fan first.
"What the mainstream publications fail to grasp
is the connection within these communities."
In this fractured musical landscape, it’s important to remember that technology doesn’t hinder social interactions of music communities; it enhances them. Niches are constantly springing up around certain music blogs and within these places the purchase sway of reviews is real. The blogger has the influence to encourage people to purchase music rather than said people illegally downloading it. What the mainstream publications fail to grasp is the connection within these communities. By refusing to incorporate different types of album reviews, such as those from the perspective of the fan, they lose their influence. And, if they fail to grasp the changes of the music review they, like the old music business model, will lose their relevance too.
- Jim DeRogatis, Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs America’s Greatest Rock Critic
- Marisa Meltzer,Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution In Music
- The Life of the Blog (NPR)
- Corey Crossfield (@popqueer) is an intern from Los Angeles, CA. She is twenty-three and has a strong interest in exploring how music is marketed to her. Here at Hypebot, she will write about music 3.0, how it affects independent and major label artists, and how major label artists whose careers were built by the big labels now shun them for independent ones or no label at all.