The digital age: a blessing or burden to music critics?

Final project for a communications class. I was to write a 1200-1500 word feature article on a topic of my choosing.

Publication date: December 5, 2015.

Once upon a time, you waited months for the day your favorite band released a new album. Then you waited even more until you got a chance to run to the music store and buy a copy. However, there was one group of people standing in between you and that CD−people with journalism degrees and loud opinions that needed to be shared. The most experienced of these people could make or break a musician’s career. These ruthless writers were known as the music critics.

The prominent figure of the music critic seems to be nothing but an old folk tale now. In the age of vinyl records and CD’s, music journalism thrived as a means of connecting the industry to the public. Topics ranged from celebrity gossip to concert coverage to deep analyses of any given album. The best part about all of it was that these professionals were paid to give their opinions, no matter how harsh they were.

Critics would hear a new release before it hit stores and publish reviews that ultimately affected an artist’s concert attendance and album sales. According to a 1980 study done by Dr. William Baumol of Princeton and New York Universities, “the indirect influence of musical criticism, at least over the long run, seems to be very substantial, and artists believe that accumulated critical reaction is a prime ingredient in building a reputation.”

So, what happened to this oh-so-important character? The fall of music journalism seemed to happen so quickly, but it’s decline can mostly be pinned to the early 2000s. The emergence of the iPod seemed to spark a new way of listening for younger generations. Soon afterwards the digital download took off in popularity, leaving critics in the dust, clutching their CD’s.

YouTube, pirated downloads, and streaming services like Spotify have since then created instant access to new music for listeners, hardly allowing critics to get a single word in. As a result, the role of the music critic in this new digital age has been continually changing in order to stay relevant. “By the time any of those reviews hit, you’ve heard it. You’ve made up your mind. The whole idea of sitting down and reading eight grafs about it after all that? It’s almost like, ‘Yeah, I’ve moved on,’” says Rolling Stone contributing editor Chris Weingarten, who has deemed himself “The Last Rock Critic Standing.”

Beginning in 1955, music critics’ works appeared in local newspapers, meaning it reached the largest audience. A study on newspaper coverage of popular music by Vaughn Schmutz found that “coverage in elite newspapers is a better indicator of society-wide legitimacy…it indicates that it has received more widespread acceptance in society.”

Music journalism reached its peak in the ‘60s, when rock rose to the status of “high art.” Woodstock showed that rock had the potential for high profit.  Former rock critic Don McLeese said in his studies on the changing role of the music critic, “by the mid-1970s, practically every good-sized newspaper in the country had a rock critic…devoted to the popular music beat, routinely reviewing albums and concerts, profiling artists, and filing trend pieces for a daily readership.”

Rock magazines also hit newsstands during this musical boom. You’ve probably heard of Rolling Stone, as this magazine is still widely popular today. Founded in 1967, Rolling Stone allowed writers to explore in depth any type of music they deemed fit for the magazine.

Other genre-specific magazines sprouted up as well, from metal to country, giving hundreds of journalists more opportunities than they could ever dream of. “They got their albums and concert tickets for free, they got paid to listen and respond, and to meet musicians and write about them,” said McLeese.

Jerry Tartaglia, an English professor that teaches a “Writing About Music” course at Albright College, noticed the definite change in music journalism. “Before the sixties, music journalism was written by stuffy critics comparing traditional music styles. Then the opinions got bolder, and reviews became antagonistic encouragement for artists. Over the past few decades it has become more open in its diversity to help further the variety in music.”

One of the most notoriously passionate music critics known, Lester Bangs, has written many examples of this “antagonistic” style. Bang’s work reflected truthfulness, no matter how harsh. He started out his career freelancing record reviews while pretending to be in college until 1971 when he moved to Detroit and went to work for Creem magazine, according to his biography.

Bangs also published over a hundred reviews in Rolling Stone between 1969 and 1973, when he was banned from the magazine for disrespect towards musicians. He became an icon in the rock’n’roll world for wisdom, satire, and sometimes cruelty. “Lester Bangs was a wreck of a man, right up until his death in April of 1982…He was fat, sweaty, unkempt—an out-of-control alcoholic…He also had the most advanced and exquisite taste of any American writer of his generation, uneven and erratic as it was,” said a New Yorker journalist, Maria Bustillos.

Critics could get away with such bold reviews because of society’s obsession with interpretation. Music as high art was thought to have extreme deep meaning. Critics began writing lengthier, analytical pieces that brought relatable value to the music.

Literary components like irony and tone and metaphors crept their way into reviews, grabbing the attention of “the searchers”, those who search for meaning, as David Grazian calls them in his popular culture book “Mix It Up.” “In the last several decades, rock critics and the remaining record labels have worked tirelessly to increase its prestige as a respectable American art form,” he said.

One of Albright’s many die-hard music fans, sophomore Paige Sutton, finds that the opinions of music critics affect her listening. “If they critique a part of a song, then I over-listen to that part, whether it’s positive or negative. It changes the way I hear it. Also, sometimes a review will point out something in the song or album that I never thought of before, and the work will mean more to me.”

While some reviews help her listening experience, Paige also finds that this day in age, there are some critics that seem insincere. “A lot of reviews that I see are really biased and almost sound like the writer is just telling people what they want to hear. Like the artists are looking over their shoulders and making sure they say something positive about the music.”

In today’s age of easy-to-access digital music, it’s true that music critics find themselves feeling pressured to please both audiences and musicians. They have to come up with insights that will be relevant to listeners even after they’ve “moved on.” Even more so, with internet forums so readily available, any average Joe is able hop online and share what they have to say.

The problem with this is that there are so many outlets for communication that the professionals are getting drowned within the amateurs, and the work may not be completely legitimate. Richard Campbell said in his “Media Essentials” book, “A blogger merely has to post his or her opinion about an issue or an event, yet many readers swallow this content whether or not it has been backed by rigorous reporting tactics.”

Why pay someone to write a review, or pay to read a review, when you can find one for free online? It’s almost as if professionals aren’t needed anymore. There are hundreds of bloggers that share their opinions with everyone on album releases, concerts, celebrity news, whatever it may be, for no cost. That old saying about everyone being a critic is really coming true. “With fewer consumers patronizing record stores to buy music, fewer were looking to journalists as gatekeepers, or to the major labels,” said McLeese.

Music journalism is going to have to evolve once again in order to remain relevant. The demand for inspired music and insightful journalism is still present, and so there’s still hope for critics. Many journalists have turned to digital formats as well. The key is to remain original and have as much variety as possible; writers must tell their readers things that they haven’t thought of before.

One successful online music publication is Pitchfork Media based in Chicago. According to Dan Singer in an American Journalism Review article, Pitchfork was founded in 1995 and covered both popular and indie music. The site features lengthy articles with strong opinions and news coverage. “Pitchfork doesn’t target users with short attention spans, instead publishing lengthy reviews, features and documentaries. Aside from its rapid-fire news coverage, the site is definitely for people who want to sit and take a deep dive in things.”

Albright College music professor and musician Lars Potteiger believes that the digital age has actually been beneficial to music critics. “It’s opened up more platforms for critics to express themselves artistically,” he said.

The good thing is, journalists are remaining optimistic. Freelance writing is still very much alive, and allows room for freedom of expression. Rather than hating the digital age for taking away the fame once associated with music critics, writers embrace it and use it to their advantage.

Keeping up with the ever-changing news methods is a tough task, but the success of online sources like Pitchfork has proved that it’s not impossible. After all, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, right?

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