A few weeks ago, Noisey (everyone’s favorite internet-only police precinct) published this article which posed the question: are music reviews dead? We here at Nine Circles inevitably ended up having some internal dialogue about the relevancy, arrogance and conclusions of the piece. Essentially, the author goes all the way back to Lester Bangs, made popular and somehow lovable despite a history quite contrary by Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal in Almost Famous. The author supposes that Bangs’ era of journalism is the upper echelon of criticism — and that their superiority has been compromised by the dilution of their voice and sphere of influence as a result of access to blog-style publishing platforms. So this week we tackle that very same question:
From the perspective of both a writer and listener, are albums reviews still relevant?
Tenebrous Kate: A better question might be to ask whether thinkpieces have ever been relevant.
Manny-O-War: First off, to assume that one era is somehow superior to a current era, which has yet to be completed and viewed through the lens of history, is egoism at its worst. To say that Lester Bangs was somehow more important than music writers today is absurd. Music writers are made important by the bands they cover. Cover bands that no one has heard of and you will be a nobody. Cover hot topics and trendy bands and you will ride by a mere degree of separation to short-lived scene fame. My point is, it was never about the writers and it will never be about the writers. The reason to write about music is simple: because you absolutely love music. Sure, it’s almost impossible to make a living without compromising your ethics but hasn’t that always been the case with art? Most of the world’s greatest thinkers and artisans died penniless without the humbling experience of seeing their works on display in the world’s greatest museums. So why should the critic be any different? But, to get back to the topic at hand, music reviews will never, ever be dead. It’s an buzzword laced exaggeration used for the sole purpose of acquiring clicks.
Claiming that something is a “dead” art form is merely someone having difficulty facing their own mortality. Thus, the author of Noisey’s puff piece has realized that death is inevitable and that things will forever be changing. What they have yet to realize is that it’s OK for things to change. It’s OK for paradigms to shift and for landscapes to become even. Hell, Manhattan used to be an island full of hills and valleys but it’s pretty flat now. I have previously ranted about technology but my main point is this: as the older generation sees the younger generation using technology in new and interesting ways, that democratically (and may I say socialistically!?) allow for equal opportunity of voice, that older generation will fear the diminishing of their own light. It’s only natural to fear the new young buck that will take your place as you drift off into the cold arctic sea to die alone. The changing of the guard may be scary but it’s no different from any generation in history.
As for the import of music reviews I will ask a rhetorical question in response: who cares? I am willing to wager that the majority of writers out there are not paid. I am further willing to wager that the majority of them are not interested in making a career out of it. They are merely looking to engage with music in a new way. Even if the interaction between writer and musician has weakened, and maybe musicians don’t thoroughly take the criticism of writers to heart, sometimes writing is an exercise best experienced by the person doing the writing. Learning to analyze music in different contexts and describe it without the use of noises and audible examples is something to be valued. If one person reads a review and gains something from it then that review has value. It’s not all about fame and fortune. Sometimes it’s just about social interactions and not feeling so alone.
Jaci AKA Dæmoness: I’m gonna be dead honest here: I don’t read reviews nearly ever, unless it’s about an album I’m highly anticipating OR about an album that I already love and I want to see if others agree with me. I feel a bit shitty admitting this because a large percentage of my friends write reviews and here I am being all NAH, I DON’T READ A DAMN WORD YOU WRITE. I get most of my new music by my friends who send me albums via Google Drive and yell at me incessantly ’til I listen to them, not by reading reviews and then tearing ass after their Bandcamp. But hey — I do believe that if you want to write reviews then you absolutely should. Maybe you will inspire someone to listen to or buy something, which is awesome. The sheer fact that you’re putting something out into the world is pretty great. Review writing will never die because there will never be a lack of people who have an opinion about music and the internet gives everyone a voice and a platform. The reason people write reviews is because they are passionate about something, and passion is something I support 10000000%. What I urge y’all to do, if you write, is to hone and refine your voice and your writing skills. Sure, there are about a million sites and a billion music writers. But push yourself to stand out and be memorable. Don’t, for the love of fuck, use clichés. Be funny, be conversational, be entertaining, and people will keep coming back. Also, I want more drunken reviews in the world, like our very own Drinking with Satan.
Dustin Grooms: Absolutely. Even with listeners’ access to albums more unrestrained than ever, I think there will always be a place for someone taking the time to invest in processing, analyzing, and critiquing music in a thoughtful way. Similarly, I think those same people who take time to discuss music will always have an audience, even if it’s a small one. To an extent – and we may not even admit it to ourselves – we as listeners still look for sources to verify or reinforce what opinions we may already have, or in the case of albums, to help us form an opinion to begin with if a work or band is brand new to us.
More important than just the validity of album reviews, though, is the trust that readers put into writers whom they follow. That is why album reviews are still relevant; not so much the review in itself as the unspoken connection between us as music listeners. I have a lot of faith in our writers here at 9C — maybe that’s partially because I see the “behind the scenes” and know how much time we invest into listening and writing about albums — and hope that our readers have a degree of trust in us as well. But even prior to writing about music, I had certain writers and websites that were my “go to’s”. I knew that they would always cover quality music in a quality way. I remember cutting my teeth on Chronicles of Chaos and The Metal Observer as a teenager, and those two websites were huge in developing my understanding about metal and understanding new albums in the context of the genre as a whole.
And you know what? Yeah, there are a ton of small blogs out there, the content of which isn’t great; but my take is this – if someone is writing about music for the love of it, they’ll also learn how important it is to hone your craft as a writer over time. It’s part of the territory. You can’t keep using the same formula as a writer and expect to see growth in stats; some competition is a healthy thing. Writing about music is not a dick measuring contest, by any means (some see it that way, though), but if you’re not figuring out and better ways to write about what you’re hearing, you will lose people along the way.
Anyway, climbing out of the rabbit hole… yes, reviews are still relevant. One of the great things about reviewing today is that we’re not relying on the gatekeepers and tastemakers of old to tell us what to listen to. The power is in the hands of the listener now, where it was always meant to be, and if Average Joe in Kentucky wants to contribute his voice, no matter how small, to the metal community, who the fuck are you to stop him?
J. Andrew: I believe album reviews are still relevant, thought I don’t have a sweeping, systematic justification to cover all cultural aspects of their place in music journalism. My reasoning is mostly personal. I like to know what other music writers think of an album. This is especially true of writers I completely disagree with. I remember reading a very dismissive review of Tsjuder’s latest album and thinking “hm, I thought the record was pretty sweet. Not the best, but definitely worth a listen, perhaps this other person is on to something.” When a reviewer writes with an honest voice, one that praises an album because he or she has actual things to say about it, it can really enrich the listening experience. For me, reading about music has always added a great deal of color to the music. It makes connections in the brain between where the artists are coming from and what they’ve actually produced. Reviews can do this as well, and they add the amusing weight of an editorial or op-ed to the exercise. Sure, a lot of reviews are promotional fluff. But the solution is more and better reviews, not fewer. To me, the idea that the album review is “outdated” and “irrelevant” is just contrarianism for it’s own sake. It’s a way of taking cynicism and snark about music and music journalism to it’s logical conclusion, “I’m so smart that I’ve unlocked a great secret…a whole category of our lives’ work is stupid! (cue the applause sign)” And I don’t deny the role high-profile reviewers play in shaping the consensus about an album. But the shaping of your personal opinion is…well, your personal responsibility. Whether or not you like the latest Ihsahn record is up to you, and you might find my opinion interesting or it might direct you to a dimension of the record you hadn’t thought of before. But it’s still up to you.
Jesse Degtyarov: Album reviews are still relevant, but their function has evolved drastically. Obviously, the ubiquity of digital music (both through legal and illegal channels) has rendered the ‘buyer’s guide’ review obsolete. When a reader can uncover the information you provide in your review himself by simply going to YouTube, Bandcamp or Spotify, there is no point in wasting your time on crafting that bland 150-word blurb.
In finding out how to remain relevant, music writers can take a cue from journalists who cover other fields of interest. Our situation is, after all, not unique: the internet has made large amounts of knowledge, statistics and data available to anyone with a connection. It is the journalist who (ideally) distills the relevant facts and opinions from this never-ending tidal wave of information, and contextualises them through proper analysis and research.
Similarly, music writers should aim to use their insight to fish the most interesting releases out of the ocean of promos and streams, which overflows more with each passing day. In the reviews themselves, they should then aim to alter the reader’s understanding of the record in question, regardless of whether or not said reader is familiar with it already. A good reviewer provides the reader with a new entry point into an album or EP; he uses anything from enlightening insights to humble facts to enrich the listening experience. Sadly, those who lack the skill to do so are still overrepresented in the vast majority of publications, hence why many have come to question the relevance of the craft in the first place.
Rev. Hunt: My very first published review was for Weezer’s Maladroit. That was back in the late spring/early summer of 2002, for Relevant magazine’s relatively new website. I was a junior in college…fast-forward to 14 years later and I’m still writing reviews as time allows. For me personally, as a writer, crafting reviews is something that I do selfishly. It gives me an excuse to work on my own skills as a communicator, to sort out my thoughts, and (for the reviews of albums that I think are worthwhile) it gives me an opportunity to showcase and argue for the meaningfulness of the art that I love so much. In the years that I’ve been writing, I’ve also had to cover a lot of music that is simply crap. And in those instances, I see reviews as a chance to help someone save a little bit of time and hearing by steering clear of those bad records. So for me? Yeah, reviews are still relevant, if only because I get something out of it in the process of creating them.
From the listener side of things? I think that probably depends on what the listener needs. I think the days when reviewers were essentially gatekeepers on what albums got heard is long, long over. Thanks to album streams and leaks and YouTube uploads, most everything that a general listener might want to hear is right at their fingertips. Why would I read what this person thinks of an album if I can just play it for myself? Additionally, thanks to email lists, Bandcamp, and to a lesser extent, social media, bands have a pretty direct line to their fans. If there’s a new (theoretical) Cave In album on the horizon (and I not saying there is, not trying to start any rumors here), I’m already tapped in to all of their various forms of digital communication. I don’t need a reviewer telling me to listen, I’m already there.
That said, I do think that there is value, for the listener, in the album reviewer/music critic playing more of a curator role. Or possibly more of a commentator role? In this example, I’m thinking of a specific film critic who I’ve been following for years. His name is Drew McWeeny and I love his writing at hitfix.com. Movies are clearly a different beast than albums, but I think this comparison will work. Drew has honed his voice over years of film criticism (and some screenwriting projects) and he has a very specific way of talking about movies. Over the years, I’ve learned that I tend to process movies in a similar manner to his approach. I’m not saying that I’m as good as reviewing music as he is at critiquing films (far from it), but rather that he’s become a trusted voice for me as I think about the movies that I want to see. As a result, if his column brings a film to my attention that I didn’t know about before, I’ll usually make a point of trying to catch it in theaters or on Blu-Ray as soon as it hits.
Wrapping this back into the topic at hand, I think (I hope) there’s space for us as music reviewers to function in a similar way. Hopefully each one of us can carve out a niche where we can help others by curating what’s worth hearing and listening to. It really comes back to simply being in conversation with the folks who read our reviews: “Hey, remember that time I told you to listen to Kowloon Walled City because they’re badass and you need to hear them? Well here’s another band that’s worth your time. And here’s why.” It’s an extension of the process that’s already happening on a daily basic between me and my friends.
Josh Stewart: Reviews are something I’ve always enjoyed reading and have been doing so for many, many years. When reading reviews, say in multiples such as in a magazine (yea print, remember that?) I generally will start with the writers I am most familiar with then move on to the others depending on the album covered. Off the top of my head I could name at least 20 writers I will seek out first on any particular album I want to know more about. That’s just off the cuff, theres actually a lot more that I thoroughly enjoy reading and can gleam a ton of information from regarding a particular release and the band to which said release is from.
A long time ago the review was the only way I could get a glimpse into an unknown band or album to decide whether to seek out that particular band / piece of work or wait until something else comes along. Of course this was all before the Internet made on demand listening as easy as a Google search. Nowadays and really for quite some time, you can find just about anything you want to hear and form your own opinion about it. But what about deeper meaning or reading something about an album you had no idea about before John or Jane Doe penned it? Also, a review can either confirm or deny whether the band in question has drastically changed their sound and if this change — in the opinion of the reviewer — is good or bad. Definitely something I’d like to know before picking up the latest Death Puke only to find out it sounds like Yanni. This is in no way trying to say the reviewers opinion is the end all be all, rather that the reviewers opinion can at least help you to know some idea of what you’re getting into.
Yes, from my viewpoint I do think reviews are still relevant and are still a necessity. Particularly when done correctly — in the hands of a great writer a review can be a thing of beauty and can make you feel the urgency to purchase the album in question, dive in with both feet, and cozy up to it. Not only that but the review along with your own opinion will be ringing in your head the deeper in you dive. Countless times I’ve bought albums that I listened to repeatedly, sometimes for weeks on end, until I knew every nuance and THEN searched for reviews of that album. More times than not I come away with a deeper appreciation and/or a different line of thought of what I was listening to that enhances the experience for me. There’s a lot to be said for gaining multiple angles of thought on an album and expanding your mind past your original thoughts and opinions.
Yet another reason the review is still relevant: lesser known bands benefit from the coverage and particularly so with a review. The well-known powerhouses will get written about, countless times, no matter what but the young or old unknowns oftentimes receive very little coverage.
I get the fact that with the Internet anyone can — and a lot do — voice their opinions on albums in review form. Some will say the art has been watered down because of it, to which I say: ‘whatever makes you sleep better at night’. If you think about it, this only puts more opinions and lines of thought out there to peruse, plus it increases these lesser known band’s chances of being heard. Not everyone is a stellar writer out of the gates and as such, review quality varies greatly but just like with the radio, if you don’t like it turn the channel. Voices should be heard and read, particularly when there’s passion behind it and an honest appreciation of the work being covered. Then there’s the argument of; if said band is that good they’ll be heard anyway. Well, someone somewhere had to cover them in the first place and more times than not this will be in written form, either on paper or a blog and it will either be from a recent live show or a streaming track. So without written coverage you have a fire that can’t breathe and subsequently dies out from lack of exposure. Tough break considering that one well written piece could have garnered a few listens, then a few likes and shares on social media, then before you know it the album has been heard by tons of people. And with any luck has sold well.
As for many of us, this is something we do because we absolutely love the music, have a deep appreciation for it and want to share it with as many people as possible. The review is absolutely NOT dead.
Josh Thieler: I don’t really have much to say about this topic. I can understand the points that are offered. The internet and social media have definitely changed many aspects of the music industry and culture. Sure people can just tweet “Y0 FAM, dat nu ke$ha is dope AF” or “smokin out to dis fire Kanye track” may be all that is needed to get millennials to feed the top 40 machine, but for people that look for whats below the surface and love music for music, I feel like we still appreciate reviews.
As a fan of music, I love reading reviews of new records. I have found a lot of bands that I had never heard of before by reading reviews on many different blogs. I also like reading reviews of new stuff of bands that I already love. The reviews are out usually way before I can get my hands on the record, so I like reading reviews so I can get an idea of what is coming. Reading the opinions of different writers on new records from bands I love give me a gauge to set my expectations on whether or not the band explored all new territory or just shit out the same record that they did last time. To this day, I follow many different sites and read them daily, like Sludgelord, Cvlt nation, Black Metal & Brews, Last Rites, Nine Circles, ETC. A blog about the meaninglessness of writing reviews is not going to make me stop reading reviews.
As a member of a band, I can tell you that, to my band, reviews are invaluable. Not only is it rewarding getting constructive criticism from writers/fans that we respect, but it is also awesome to see someone “get” what we are trying to do. It also has been invaluable for getting our music out to a wider audience. Since we can’t really tour so much, most of the reach outside of our home town that we get comes in the form of reviews.
Honestly, I find nothing more obnoxiously pretentious and groan-worthy than a blog saying that something is “dead”. How many “think-pieces” have been written saying that “rock is dead”, “punk is dead”, “metal is dead”, “the music industry is dead”, “vinyl/tapes/cds/ are dead”. There is more to life than the opinion of one jaded or self-important blogger. So, I may have no use for one writers review of music reviews, but I will keep on reading and writing reviews.
And that wraps up Volume IV of the Circle Pit. Have a any thoughts to add? Of course you do. Hit us up on Twitter (@_NineCircles) or leave your thoughts in the comments below. And as always, feel free to drop Circle Pit suggestions at us at NineCirclesBlog@gmail.com.
– The Nine Circles Team