Where Did All the Critics Go?

In an age of free music, are music critics going the way of the dinosaur?


It’s become much harder to confine yourself to an entire album, which is an absolute necessity for any music critic who wants to really understand what the artist is trying to say.

It’s already November, and in the next couple months, we’ll all be inundated with a plethora of year-end best-of album lists, even though we still have a couple months of releases yet to hit the racks of our local record stores.

Yes, the last part — the “hit the racks” part — was intended to cause a reaction. If you were born after the year 2000, you might have wrinkled your brow and thought “What rack? What record store?” Whereas, if you were born before 2000, the comment likely generated a half-suppressed, scornful laugh, what we in the business call a “snicker.” Because as a musician friend of mine likes to say: Ain’t no one buying music no more.

He’s wrong, of course. Plenty of people still buy music — mostly collectors and music fans who want tangible evidence of their devotion to their favorite artists. Collectors have driven the music industry to the point where, for the first time since the ‘90s, vinyl is going to outsell CDs. That fact is more of a reflection of the weakness of the CD market than the strength of vinyl and, more than that, proof of the dominance of streaming as the primary way people hear their music.

This is all *yawn* old news to those of us who have been following the technological transformation of the music industry over the past couple decades. I don’t know who makes money off streaming. Certainly the streaming companies do, and to a (much) lesser extent, the record labels. Last in line with their calloused paws held out to Spotify and YouTube and all the others are the artists themselves. Has there ever been a worse time to want to be a rock ‘n’ roll musician? At least in the old days you could dream of gold records and babes, babes, babes. Those days are gone, gone, gone.

Actually, when it comes to music-industry-related careers, the lowest of the bottom-feeders are us critics — thousand-year-old mollusks attached to the hull of a decaying, sunken ship.

For this month’s column, I intended to lay out a list of the best local and overlooked releases of the past year, a sort of preview to the onslaught of top-10 lists you’re about to endure. But then I thought, ”What’s the point?

Music criticism has become not so much passé as unnecessary for a number of reasons, the first of which is social media. You’re more likely to first hear about a red-hot album or track from your Facebook or Twitter page than from online music websites like Stereogum or Pitchfork. And that recommendation and/or diss will likely come from someone you know rather than a mythic “music thinker” or “tastemaker” hidden in some far-off basement.

I’m personally more apt to check out an album suggested by, say, Mean Dean Lundberg or Jeff Runnings than Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen because I know those guys. Critics used to have a leg up on the rest of the listening public, not because they were smarter or in some ways better, but because we had access to more music than the rest of you. Back in the pre-streaming days, our mailboxes overflowed with promo CDs weeks before anyone else got their hands on them. But these days, while critics often get downloads of albums a few weeks before they hit streaming services, everyone has access to everything eventually. And it doesn’t cost a dime.

And that’s the other reason criticism is becoming less relevant. If all new music is a click away, what’s stopping anyone from just checking it out themselves?

Who remembers the old days when slapping down $5.99 or $6.99 for a vinyl album or $10.99 for a CD was a real roll of the dice with money you could ill afford to waste? You may have heard one or two singles from an album on the radio or MTV, but the rest was a mysterious gamble. We all hoped we’d just bought the next Born to Run or Exile in Guyville or Pleased to Meet Me instead of the next Re-ac-tor or The Spaghetti Incident or anything by the Goo Goo Dolls. That’s when music criticism was really important, when everyone had skin in the game.

Now that it’s all essentially free, there’s nowhere for artists to hide the filler. If you don’t like it, don’t play it. Add the good tracks to your playlist; leave the rest behind.

That attitude has changed the way everyone listens to music, including critics. It’s not so much that our attention spans have shortened as much as it’s no longer necessary to sit through dreck when you can simply tap to the next song. At the same time, it’s become much harder to confine yourself to an entire album, which is an absolute necessity for any music critic who wants to really understand what the artist is trying to say.

It’s that striving to understand that differentiates a critic from some guy bloviating on Facebook. That, along with an understanding of an artist’s history, a genre, the ability to see through a first impression for something deeper that lies beneath, and then to be able to tell you about it in a way that makes you want to listen.

So while there’s no shortage of people willing to spout their opinions, there are fewer critics writing for print publications than ever before, and fewer still as papers and magazines become as obsolete as land lines and phone books and people willing to pay for music.

Over The Edge is a monthly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com.


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