Is technology killing music criticism? This is an honest question. It’s killing plenty of other things, so why would this somehow be immune?
Now, music criticism as of today isn’t on life support. If anything, with the advent of the internet there are now more places than ever where you can find people offering their opinions on every record that comes out. Whereas twenty years ago you’d have to find a print magazine to give you the scoop, there are now dozens of blogspots writing their own critique.
But it feels like we’re nearing a point where those unsolicited opinions won’t mean much to anyone that isn’t the person writing it or the band looking for validation.
Movies, books, theatre — these are mediums that still require reviews, arbiters of taste who dive in so you don’t have to. Instead of spending hours or weeks yourself, you can read a person’s own take and then decide if it sounds worth your effort and money. And music, for a long time, was similar. Dropping twelve bucks for a record with one decent song is something we all like to avoid.
But the days of blindly spending money on an album have all but disappeared. Instead the music is being delivered directly to any potential fan. People can listen and mull it over and at some point someone make a decision which no amount of Pitchfork finger-wagging or WordPress cheerleading is likely to change.
So what is the purpose of a music criticism today?
Critics are still instrumental when it comes to giving inches to bands that people may not have heard of. Those self-released gems or minor label classics with zero promotion are given a fighting chance with a well-placed rave. But in an increasingly digital age, the reliance on a static review seems more and more unnecessary. Saying that you simply recommend something, and then linking off to the actual music, is a much more direct and efficient way of promoting a band than trying to use your impressive vocabulary and powers of persuasion to have people stalk them down.
After all, music reviews are, by nature, utilitarian. People may try and spice it up with their own Lester Bangs impersonations, get in a few witty turns of phrase and humbly brag about their encyclopedic knowledge of genres or niche scenes (I know I do). But a review comes down to a binary decision: listen to an album or don’t listen to an album.
When you’re 13 in 1988, having to get a ride to the mall before you drop your weekly allowance on an album was a momentous event. And you were thankful for a music critic’s guidance, which led you to … And Justice for All instead of Reach for the Sky from Ratt or the debut by the Bulletboys.
In a couple days, though, another 13-year-old kid is going to see that Hardwired…To Self-Destruct is streaming on Spotify, Tidal and Apple Music. It’s going to be uploaded by a thousand different channels on Youtube. There’s already a leak of the album waiting for them on Pirate Bay.
Reviews are fun to write and can be incredibly entertaining to read. But when consuming music becomes so cheap, and personally judging its quality becomes so straightforward, what exactly then is the function of the traditional music critic? I’m not sure I know the answer.