Ah, music critics. Behold an industry being forced to adapt to the modern, internet age. Sound familiar?
No, I’m not referring to the new generation of music critics – audiophiles with YouTube channels and whiners with blogs – but rather to the old school, glamorous commanders of influence whose star ratings could make or break an album. These impartial judges with refined taste could be trusted to deliver their honest opinions with every magazine issue. Almost all cultural industries have their professional critics: restaurants have food critics, novels have literary critics, movies have film critics. It’s a pretty straight forward arrangement: the average consumer of this leisure activity has a limited amount of money in their wallet and Friday evenings in their lifetime; in exchange for them paying for a subscription to this magazine, they will receive honest and trustworthy recommendations for which of the latest products will be worth it for them and which won’t.
At first glance, this idea doesn’t appear to be one that is facing major problems adapting, right? As long as new products are launching on the market, critics will have the simple job of letting the public know whether or not they are any good. Especially in the worlds of music, movies, e-books and video games, one could even argue that with the rise of consumer-budget technology, and therefore independent releases, there are more products being released regularly than ever before – therefore bringing in more opportunities and revenue for critics. There’s a snag for the music industry though.
This is an odd thing to notice at first, but since the turn of the decade or so, more and more mainstream, major label albums have been getting positive reviews by professional music critics. Is the overall quality of music getting better? Turn on commercial radio and listen for yourself. Okay, clearly the good-to-mediocre-hits balance is still the same as it has been for generations – so what gives? Are critics across all industries slowly loosening up and realizing that at the end of the day, it’s all just art for the masses and tastes are subjective? Strangely enough, no.
If you are a regular movie goer having a conversation with your group of friends about what you should all go out and see next Friday, everyone in the circle quickly bounces around what the critics are saying about different feature films. It’s almost common knowledge that this historical drama has Award-Season-Buzz™, or that the latest superhero blockbuster is being called a dud. The point I’m trying to make is, if you were asked right now to name a modern movie that got bad reviews by pretty much all prestigious critics, you wouldn’t have to think very hard for an extreme case. Music critics, on the other hand, seem to have a harder time all calling out major label albums as being straight-up bad – some fancy reviews can even read like exercises in PR and spinning flaws into positives.
I’m not making this up. MetaCritic.com features an aggregator to add up all the review scores given to releases in movies, video games, TV and music by professional critics everywhere, creating a fairer average rating by balancing things with more voices and viewpoints. They use colour coding for consumers scrolling their listings to quickly identify if this release is generally considered good or not. Green means good. Yellow means mixed. Red means that the critical consensus is that this entertainment product should be avoided. Each year, about 10% of movies Meta Critic lists have red scores. So for every 7,000 or so motion pictures that get widely reviewed, around 700 are considered “bad” by the vast majority of professional critics. Music releases, in the meantime, fare a lot better. For example, from 2012-2017, out of the 7,287 total albums listed on Meta Critic, eight were given a red score (no red scores in 2017). That can’t be accurate! How can it be that only the music critics are getting soft and cuddly in the last few years, but other industries are as tough as ever to please!
The first thing to blame would be the rise of streaming services. Remember that consumers have always relied on critics for impartial judgement due to a limited amount of cash and free time. A romantic restaurant dinner requires a lot of planning, cash, and free time. The couple would have to make a reservation, book the night off, hire a babysitter, load gas in the tank to drive downtown, pay for street parking, all before even tasting an appetizer. In the good old days of record stores (remember those?), music fans would have to line up on release day and pay top dollar for a bundled disc going by the sound of the promo single, and the opinion of critics. The point is that for critics to matter, there needs to be a certain amount of risk for the average consumer to take by blindly buying something and blocking off precious free time to discover it. The professionals tested it first, and will let you know if it’s worth your time and money. However, with a plentitude of legal, easy, and even free ways to listen to an album on release day by simply connecting your smartphone to the internet, anyone can be their own music critic at limited financial cost. Type the artist’s name into the search bar… Hit play… Do I like it or not? Most music fans now aren’t taking a risk by clicking to listen on a new album. Audio can even be judged in the background – blasting off speakers while cooking, from earbuds while daydreaming on the bus – if fans don’t like it, they move on to the next thing, not much of a loss.
The second factor worth looking at is the rise of social media. While movie goers can have favourite directors or actors, music has always been seen as more personal and intimate. Teeny-boppers have fandom names for their favourite sparkle pop divas and boybands, but it hasn’t really caught on with Hollywood yet. We all have met someone who thinks a negative review of their favourite band’s album is a personal attack. Back in the age of print, if a reader disagreed with a prestigious music critic’s panning of their favourite artist’s album, they would write a letter to the editor (it was a much more civilized time back then).
Now that every respected music publication and their critics are online, it’s so easy to reach them right away, in the heat of the moment. Cue the rise of trolling, online harassment, and mob mentality from fanbases who believe their pop idol can do no wrong (want to start a fight? try Tweeting “Beyoncé is overrated” and let us know if you survive). Some publications will stand by their writers’ honest opinions through thick and thin, but most would rather not deal with a tsunami of misspelled insults towards their magazine.
More and more journalists these days work as freelancers, meaning that while they can write for as many places as they want, there is no job security and they’re only as good as their last published piece. If a paid per-article writer has a reputation for causing an uproar with music fans (who might potentially keep the magazine in business), the editors might not want to hire that writer again next month.
Okay, so we’re at the point where traditional music critics aren’t deemed as important by the general population anymore, and the only time music fans care about their reviews is when they disagree with a low rating, and get really nasty and hostile online, which then threatens the jobs of those paid to critique who dare speak their true thoughts. What should the Rolling Stone Magazines of the world do now? Shut down the presses in disgust? Of course not! Every employee has bills to pay and mouths to feed!
The print publication makes money on advertisements in between articles. It’s a formula: “if x number of people are subscribers and we average y number of sales from grocery store checkout lines this time of year, that’s x+y eyeballs reading cover-to-cover who will see an ad about your company. We think that kind of attention is worth z in cash.” Nowadays, most people read magazine articles online. The ratings are down for cover-to-cover zealous readers, and way up for clicking links to articles that your friend sent you.
So naturally, where the consumers go, ways of making money must follow. Highbrow trade publications are currently experimenting with hard paywalls (you must give your credit card info to access this article or three free articles a month but all access if you pay). National newspapers hold up donation jars at the bottom of every page. Tabloids are competing amongst themselves to display clickbait ads even trashier than their regular content. And somewhere in all these possibilities music publications have banner ads for drugstore makeup and pickup trucks. In the case of ads like these, they pay rent to the magazine for being there, their rate determined by the number of visitors there to read the articles, and percentage of people who click on the ad to go buy the thing.
As we all know, the most effective way to get a big number of people to read your article or buy your magazine is to be the first to report something, and/or have exclusive rights. Scandalous confession? Insider info? BREAKING NEWS? Being the first outlet to have information that interests people on a regular basis is how you get those readers, and thereby those ad dollars. There’s no prize for being the last to know.
Now, a lot of respected culture magazines (such as ones that do reviews) win at this game by getting exclusive interviews and access to famous musicians. Emotional backstories, behind the scenes, details for upcoming tours, the works. Naturally to get a hold of those on a regular basis, one needs to be on good terms with the artist, their team, and their label. How can a magazine easily do that? Oh, by giving their latest album a glowing review.
It’s a vicious cycle that’s hard to break. Now, I don’t know what the future holds for the music journalism industry, but they’re scrambling to adapt for survival. Hold on to your hats.