Criticism and context: why we still need professional reviewers

Me and a friend backstage at a gig.

Backstage, and reaching for my notebook.

Is being a music writer “tough and important work”? Well, one music writer thinks it is. Tim Sommer, writing in the New York Observer, argues that “Daily newspapers need music writers now more than ever.”

He’s talking about writing for a USA “big city daily” and, while there’s no equivalent in the UK, his arguments also apply to writers on local newspapers here. Having worked as a writer on a regional daily newspaper – I was pop columnist for the Liverpool Echo – I think he makes some good points.

Why is this important, and what’s it got to do with the internet?

The rise of the blogger and the growth of consumer reviews have created a landscape where anyone can write about music, or other art forms. And this has called into question the future of the professional critic, many of whom are no longer valued by the publications that used to employ them.

Even Robert Christgau, one of the earliest professional rock critics, has become a victim. After making a living as a journalist for more than 50 years, he’s found that his employers are no longer prepared to pay for his work.

But it’s not just about people making a living, important though that is. As SF Weekly reporter Matt Saincome says of the Christgau situation: “When it comes to critical analysis and writing, you get what you pay for.”

Anyone can gush about something they like. Anyone can allocate marks out of five. Not everyone can be a critic.

I’ve recently been reading Mark Kermode’s book about film criticism, Hatchet Job, and his view is that what makes you a “proper” critic is being able to sit through the films no-one else wants to watch. Watching all the new releases – good and bad – allows you to write accountable reviews that include “opinion, description, contextualisation and analysis”.

In my days as a music reviewer, I watched a lot of acts that I would not otherwise have seen. Sometimes they were awful, but often I was pleasantly surprised.  And when it came to writing about them, I tried, as Tim Sommer puts it, to: “avoid being swept away by trends, yet remain informed enough to report accurately about them and place them within a workable and realistic context”.

It’s easy to write about things you like, and there’s room for “fanboy” reviews, but without context – what Tim Sommer calls “knowledge and perspective” – you’re not a critic. This means knowing about history and influences, about movements and trends, and about having benchmarks for what’s new, what’s good and what’s original (and recognising a cover version when you hear one). And when writing for a local paper, it means knowing the local cultural landscape as well as the national/international context. I liked his view that a good local journalist “helps keep alive the cultural tradition of the city where they write”. It’s something I felt proud to be part of.

I don’t do that job any more but I like reading people who do, and who do it well. (My favourite music writer is the Guardian’s Laura Barton, who combines knowledge, passion and wonderfully lyrical writing.)

That is something we need to value, and I hope Mark Kermode is right. He faces up to the doom-mongers by declaring that “unpaid amateurism is ultimately unsustainable”, and concludes from experience that, despite everything, professional criticism is here to stay.

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