Stuck in the Middle with You

Yes, I am a reviewer. But that doesn’t mean I’m not self-aware. As someone who has had to endure many a writing class, I know fully well where reviews stand on the literary ladder. The most accessible and easy form of writing, penning a review will always be the first assignment school teachers and university professors alike give to a fresh batch of students. Only after the capable have been separated from the barely literate will the class be allowed to take on more serious matters, such as crafting an essay or venturing into the dog-eat-dog world that is creative writing. That book review of Great Expectations you spent 3 nights on? That was just Mr. Smith’s way of determining whether you were one of these kids who need extra time on tests.

When I look at the present state of music journalism, I cannot even blame my teachers of yore for treating reviews like the handicapped brother of articles, essays and interviews. You only need to open a random music magazine, skip to the review section, and brace yourself as its irrelevance soaks into your eyes. Muffled away at pages 78 to 81, countless blurbs, none of them over 100 words in length, haphazardly throw around obligatory biographical info and half-baked opinions. Nowhere does it say “this article is a stub; you can help by expanding it”, but other than that, these few pages have all the makings of a cemetery for rejected Wikipedia write-ups.

One cannot help but wonder whether reviews have overstayed their welcome. The root of the problem lies in the prevalent review format stemming from an age when compact discs were still widely considered newfangled and potentially lethal thingamajigs. In those days, music journalists took it upon themselves to advise people on how to spend their music budgets. No such platforms as Spotify or Youtube were around to help us figure out what album to buy or download. The fact that this ‘consumer guide’ approach does not work anymore in the present day is so blatantly obvious that I feel embarrassed even pointing it out. But why, then, are so many music journalists sticking to their habits as if their readers cannot find more accurate information by typing the band name into a search engine?

While diagnosing the problem is easy, finding the proper cure is not such a straightforward ordeal. With the potential of a review as the go-to source for basic information off the table, logic denotes that reviewers would have to start offering more in-depth information, clever observations and more profound contextualisation of the release in question. You know, stuff that you don’t normally find out on a 5-minute YouTube escapade. And indeed, most of the music outlets still worth reading – the present webzine being no exception – have already adopted this more analytical approach to reviewing. And mainstream publications? Well, if this form of reviewing is truly the superior one, they’re bound to follow. Right?

If only it were that simple. The internet era did not only bring us easy access to information; it also introduced a whole new palette of distractions. Information is ubiquitous, opinions are abundant, and the slightest quirk can motivate us to look for satisfaction elsewhere. This culture of instant gratification results in websites and, to a lesser extent, magazines all fighting for your attention. Such a struggle, whereby not the quality, but rather attracting traffic/readers is the highest goal, is the hallmark of rampant commercialisation. Readers become consumers, and articles become products.

Being a good writer makes you a hiring risk.

Those who have familiarised themselves with commercial writing will know that this craft is essentially about two things: grabbing the attention of the reader and keeping it – or rather not losing it. And not losing attention boils down to avoiding risks, at all costs. After all, the smallest imprecision or misinterpretation can generate bad publicity for the company. Creativity thus becomes a risk, as it is a force that thrives on such elements as multi-layeredness and ambiguity. The same can be said of many of the other qualities that tend to shape the more evocative texts, be they eruditeness, profoundness or boldness.

Composing a text based on commercial interests is only logical for copywriters, but it starts becoming a problem when this mentality spreads to other branches of writing. A music journalist may not write texts with an explicit commercial purpose like copywriters do, but there is an implicit commercial purpose at play. When a website’s existence depends on the acquisition of ad revenue, articles – and by extension their authors – will have to prove themselves by working toward that goal. Long articles may provide more information, but come with an increased risk of the reader closing the tab because he does not want to make the effort to bear with the author. So the marketeer says “cut it down”. Profound, atypical observations may be more exciting, but they are also more probable to scare away more superficial readers. So the marketeer says “tone it down”. Telling the truth about that band’s new, mediocre album may be sincere, but odds are their record company will stop sending us promos of big-shot bands, so the marketeer says “cut it out”. When the marketing boys call the shots, being a good writer makes you a hiring risk.

Fortunately, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The rigid conservatism of the more mainstream outlets causes them to shoot down potential threats in order to make their “product” appeal to a broad audience. This allows smaller outlets to distinguish themselves with passionate writing – writing that is motivated not by ad revenue, but by the healthy intrinsic drive of just saying what you want to say about the music you enjoy and hoping it gets you in touch with a handful of like-minded individuals. And I’m convinced that analytical reviews which offer a unique perspective on a piece of music are a great way of doing just that. It doesn’t matter if an album is 2 or 20 years old – one insightful review can help you experience the music in a whole new way. That is the true power of reviews.

It is also my conviction that major publications will eventually have to cave in and reconsider the value of their current review format. Sure, it can be a safe idea to just go with all those high school teachers and see reviews as a light-hearted manner of flexing one’s writing skills, but if they truly hold such little value, why bother including them in your magazine at all? Furthermore, what does it say about an editor-in-chief that he apparently has so little confidence in his writing team that he does not think they would be able to captivate a reader in talking about an album across several pages? It might be worth contemplating why ‘we’ are interested in reading how some smug rock star yaps on about his new, “groundbreaking” release throughout half the magazine, yet we feel compelled to restrict gifted writers to 150-word snippets.

Old habits die hard, and it will take a long time before the “I like this band, 8/10”-type reviews are a thing of the past. While said style of reviewing is gradually losing the little relevance it had left, they are apparently still viable enough to keep on life support for a while longer. Meanwhile, the analytical reviews on the other side of the spectrum certainly have potential. But as long as the purple trousers of the marketing department remain unconvinced that such articles can help boost magazine sales or ad money, the review is bound to remain the special-needs kid of writing in the eyes of the Mr. Smiths of this world. For as long as this lasts, we’ll be here, stuck in the middle with you, perhaps not raking in revenue, but having a damn good time regardless.

The editor of Black Ivory Tower magazine, of which the first issue was published in July of 2014. He writes about (black) metal, art, and himself in third person.

2 Comments

  • Reply May 21, 2014

    Baron

    This is precisely the reason sites like Lurkers have stayed pinned to my bookmark bar despite the dearth of updates. The old lefthandpath did this perfectly as well. A passionate review trumps an editor assigned first to post blurb any day.

    • Reply May 23, 2014

      Alex

      Thanks for the kind words. The lefthandpath was a mixed bag for me; some reviews were great while others left me scratching my head. I wish that site was still around!

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