The Problem with Critics

by Don Skoog

     One difference between writers and musicians is that musicians avoid criticizing each other in print. Most book critics are published authors, seemingly the minimum qualification for publicly judging other people’s work. Musicians, however, tend to leave this job to a scorned class of musical eunuchs whose only qualification is, of course, that they can’t do the dirty deed themselves.
     Surprisingly, there are some advantages to this arrangement. When Tom Wolfe goes after John Updike in print, it may generate book sales but it also creates hard feelings. (Remember the feud between Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer? They’re still not talking to each other.) But in music we have a convenient and perpetually guilty scapegoat, who, by his persistent ineptness, helps to defuse possible hard feelings between musicians by printing opinions so incredibly stupid that anything anyone else says will look good by comparison.
     There are a few well-known examples of musicians calling each other out (Check out Pat Metheny’s much-loved and well-deserved fricassee of Kenny G), but for the most part they avoid it:

     1) because music runs on good vibes. Negativity dampens creativity and negative players are shunned like plague carriers. It is contagious and no one wants to be infected.

     2) because music is a small business. If you say bad things about people it will get back to them and you’ll find yourself awkwardly sitting next to one of them at the next convention banquet. (Uh . . . pass the olives?)

     3) because most musicians are just plain slaphappy not to have to work a day job (Y’all want fries with that?) and don’t want to jinx it, so they’re disinclined to make enemies for no reason.

     Critics, on the other hand, have nothing to lose. Their careers are already over. I have never met a music critic who is a successful musician. They either used to play, play in a garage band, pretend to play, or quit piano lessons when they were eleven. They start out hoping to make a contribution by pointing out how the real musicians fall short of the critic’s lofty standards. But in the end, most wind up as music-industry shills, hired suck-ups who hang at the teats of magazines and web sites that make their money from record-industry advertising. Even newspaper critics have to be careful not to offend the major venues and record labels whose money makes the Sunday Arts Section possible.
     On the other side, you’ve got indie critics with a bitterly anti-label agenda, who wouldn’t say anything nice about anyone who is successful enough to have industry support. Read enough of any one critic and you’ll see where his financial bread is buttered: they tend to either give the major artists a pass––no matter how bad their music is––and go after the independents, or they trash anything on a major label and promote obscure indies who only release music on vynal (because CDs are bad!) and who don’t have web sites because they’re hiding from the music police. These guys are like movie critics who rhapsodize about Iranian feminist art flicks (which never play in my neighborhood) but never mention a movie I’ve ever heard of. At least the anti-label critics aren’t selling out for money. No one will ever pay them to live on that particular fringe.

     Fact is, there’s no place you can go to get certified as a music critic. There’s no degree which can prove you know the history of a musical movement, or even that you truly understand the harmonic structures, song forms, or melodic vocabulary on which it is built. Ignorance of musical theory is like ignorance of the rules of grammar: you can still write, but not very well. Others will perceive you as uneducated, which happens to critics all the time. Critics get the basics wrong so often they lose all credibility with anyone who actually knows anything about music. I once read rumba described as “the simple rhythms of the happy islanders.” (What?) and a Son band in Havana referred to as “Mariachi” (What?!). I once went to a Chicago Symphony concert where one of the percussionists made a major mistake on a famous bass drum part. The next day a newspaper critic singled him out for praise (What??!!) but it was okay because he identified the wrong player. Yes, he got it wrong twice.
     Hundreds of years ago in Ireland, there were so many poets, eating people’s heard-earned food and doing no useful work whatsoever, that the king put a price on their heads. I propose we do the same with music critics. If George Bush really wants to make this a more moral country he should take a little of the money he’s using to inject religion into high-school science textbooks, and spend it on bounties for music critics. Twenty-five dollars a scalp should do it. Musicians in particular won’t need much encouragement. Are there any good critics? Of course, but they are so rare they’re almost a myth. In fact, you could count the good ones on your fingers. Since you only need to count to four to be a musician, we may lose one or two good critics during the upcoming purification, but on the whole I think it will be worth the sacrifice.

     So why don’t musicians speak out, demand higher standards, or at least require critics to get the facts right? Truth is, they’ve got us by the short hairs, or at least we think so.
     Everyday, independent musicians send copies of their latest CD to print and on-line media, praying they will get a mention. The goal is to generate a buzz and, hopefully, some sales. Guys, don’t get your hopes up. At least for independent music, reviews have little impact on sales. Word-of-mouth and selling from the stage move independent CDs, not reviews. Think about it. What idiot would spend fifteen dollars on a CD by a band they’ve never heard of, just because some guy they’ve never heard of recommends it? Remember, critics are mosquitoes sucking at the elephant of Art. Unless they’re diseased, they make no mark at all. And the only way you can catch their musical malaria is by believing what they say. Trust me, you know better than they do.
     One good way to market your music is by sending CDs to NPR and college radio stations (Forget about ASCAP or BMI royalties, Clear Channel and KISS-FM have made sure you won’t get any airplay on commercial radio). The DJs are often more knowledgeable, and certainly more daring, than those invested in the music-industry money mainline. They will promote music they like and, hopefully, their audiences will get to hear your work. So do yourself a favor and bypass the critics. If they want to hear your CD they can just go out and buy it like everyone else.

     “But wait!” I hear you crying, “Don, you’re such a hypocrite! Here you are, referring to critics as parasites, yet you post their reviews on your web site and you write reviews of other peoples’ CDs as well.”
     Correct. I’m not saying people should stop writing about music, but I’m not a critic, either. I don’t shill for the record companies or promote any of the indie ideologies which seek to politicize the art of music. I write reviews as a way of exploring artistic and professional issues that interest me, and to recommend music I think is cool. If I don’t like it you won’t see it on my site. It’s not my place to tell you what you shouldn’t listen to. People listen to music for different reasons. A thirteen-year-old girl will probably love music that would make a forty-year-old man’s skin crawl. But that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t listen to it. Her ears will tell her what makes her happy, not my words.
     As to the reviews of my works, well, everybody likes praise. For the record, I’ve never gotten a bad review (although that will probably change now) but the good reviews haven’t boosted sales, either. And I promise that when one of my CDs gets a bad review (anytime now) I’ll post it up on the site with the good ones, just as I will post dissenting responses to this article. I’m not looking for agreement, I’m looking for an argument. It will be way more interesting.

     Of course, musicians do have opinions about their colleagues’ work, but, unlike our literary brothers and sisters, we usually have the good manners to keep them to ourselves, in print at least. One of the overwhelming joys of teaching college is when your students discover they have critical faculties––they’ve got opinions about everything––almost always unencumbered by facts. One of the most important lessons we can teach them is that it’s okay to have negative opinions, but that it’s not beneficial to continually voice them. It doesn’t do anyone any good to condemn the work of other artists. One of my teachers told me you should never criticize anyone, especially if they’re better than you. Music critics should take heed, because in their case, that’s just about everyone.


     I think part of the music critic problem is that so much of the public has little musical training and/or understanding. They hear something and either like it or they don't. But they never studied music as much as they studied math, history, etc.  Many who did study an instrument as a child set it down years ago to focus on a non-music related career.  Many couldn't criticize a musical performance other than saying I didn't like it or I liked it.  So most don't even realize that a critic is inept and wouldn't know how to criticize the critic. If music was a bigger part of our basic education there would probably be more of a demand for better music and an intolerance of inept music critics. 

Mark Riordan

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