State of the music criticism?


I would say a large part of the reason 555-5555 started the forum is due to the structural issues growing in the way the internet is maintained. The way people are connected to one another and the flow of information is entirely regulated by a handful of large corporations effectively leasing public space, and filtering how discourse flows in that space. Youtube 5 years ago may have been largely user-uploaded content going viral, yet today it seems Youtube is where you find the latest Late Night Show highlights and other professionalised content.

Essentially, a few minor tweaks to a private algorithm can have ruinous effects upon communities, and there is no way of having a say in it, either by choosing or voting on how your voice is distributed. The wild west of the internet pre-2005 easily turns into feudalism 2018. Once it becomes a game of statistics in getting your voice across the integrity and good-faith of the sort of things you feel will get published (music or music journalism) is severely impaired.

I think we are effectively in agreement with each other, only that social media at this point (the air we use to breathe) is commerce


I checked the forum CMS patten currently using costs $100/mo at least. It’s definitely not a totally free service from his side, thank you 555-5555!


As a releasing artist in the scene for some time I see the current press magazines and social media as a toxic outlet for getting myself promoted, while my words and expression are restrained most of the time for not trying to offend the players in the critics scene.

At the same time writers who release music at the same time suffer a bit from their words. These reviewers’ critics are often biased to their taste. However, their music could have sounded pretty dull to my ears, to the point I found pretty mainstream. I see there’s a disconnect between what they write and what they release.

I think the reviewers dominate the taste of the listeners to the state of being a bit complacent.


There are several reasons but ultimately it’s way harder than one might think to write about music.

Music/art is by definition subjective and it is difficult to be harsh towards someone’s material - especially when they are just a young producer - when you are aware of that. Every review is just a personal opinion but I (as an artist) value it very much as it does give me feedback and help me reach others outside my own circle of listeners/friends.

A lot of the money has gone away from music writing as well, meaning the sites are usually very dependent on ad revenue and as they are often writing for free as well, that is a very delicate balance. A band/artist who gets a positive review is more likely to share it and bring readers and responses to the writing. More clicks and engagement.

Also, if I were a writer I would naturally feel more excited to promote stuff that I like than to bash music I don’t, as it might just be a case of me not being compatible with it. There is no objectively bad music.

Appreciate music writers’ work, they are such a huge part of keeping scenes alive and moving new artists forward and are most likely doing it for free.


Very interesting thread and points made.

Some friends and I have been discussing this subject recently - Our main gripe (besides crappy reviews and top 10 lists etc) is that so many online publications like Fact and RA seem almost inaccessible as a promotional tool for upcoming artists and DJ’s. When i first got into dance music, we’d send mixes and tunes to (later turned Soundplate) and just having them reviewed on this pretty rudimentary site gave a real sense of pride and progress to aspiring artists. The site wasn’t amazing, but they felt accessible because submissions were a key part of their content, and they made that sort of clear in the way they presented themselves and worked with you.

I don’t feel like RA, Fact, or many of the others really cater for this anymore, and as such their content feels out of touch and sort of irrelevant. I know of loads of events, artists, and DJ’s (and I’m sure the rest of you do to) that aren’t covered in any of these mags - there are some trickling through the likes of Stamp The Wax and Test Pressing etc, but I don’t feel like there’s a decent magazine out there that acts like a hub for this sort of user submitted content anymore.

The only equivalent in my opinion nowadays are these youtube tastemakers like Definite Party Material and the like that take submissions via gmail and upload straight to their channel. I often think that if they turned their youtube channels into online mags and started reviewing the tracks they post, getting artists in for interviews, setting up a mix series/related label etc, they would become these hubs that felt like, and RA/Fact pose to be. Anyone else thought similar? Bit of a ramble lol

P.S love the forum - brilliant idea.


In a way, criticism has migrated to the comments sections of publications, which creates its own ugly environment while simultaneously removing the publications complicity in the negativity, which keeps the ad dollars intact.


I would love to weigh in here with my own thoughts later (to whatever extent that I would not just be repeating what somebody else has already said) but also I just saw this thread and it seems an interesting and eloquent perspective so I wanted to share:


Some very interesting points being made here about the organisational/business end that I hadn’t really fully considered until now. To this I’d like to add my disdain at most of the big ‘zines move towards video based content that offers zero critical analysis. Like those Pitchfork ‘classic album’ things that amount to nothing more than “REMEMBER LOVELESS! COR BLIMEY THAT’S A GOOD ALBUM THAT CAME OUT 27 YEARS AGO! HERE’S SOME STUFF WE GOT FROM WIKIPEDIA ABOUT IT WAS MADE! IT COST £250,000 TO MAKE! Etc.”. Perhaps it’s possible to view them as a necessary evil and that they, alongside the rather pointless listomania, are there to pull in (younger?) people with lower attentions spans so they can finance/justify written reviews and long-form pieces. But surely you can make video content that isn’t just there to, in my view anyway, fill up space, block the news/reviews/features and siphon my data through auto-play. Surely it can’t be that difficult to round up a few journos and film a round table discussion similar to this to balance out the pointless dreck:

(Worth pointing out they stopped making these pretty quickly… read the comments and you’ll see the depressing reason why.)

As to the overall quality of the writing itself, I’d say we’re in a relatively good time for music writing. There are plenty of people out there making great copy and pretty much everyday I read something I enjoy. Most of this does tend to adhere to my personal tastes… overall I do favour the measured approach (previous Wire sub, still a relatively consistent reader). However, echoing what many people have already posted, I do think that too much slack is given to the derivative and mediocre. Middling writing for middling music. I can appreciate that it’s possibly tough to write passionately one way or the other about blandness but surely the sheer volume of it should be making far people snap and reach for the hatchet. There’s a certain visceral enjoyment you get from reading a good hatchet job, an album or artist being sentenced to death. Did anyone give that Ed Sheeran album from last year a proper hatchet job? I can remember people moaning about how shit Galway Girl is on twitter but can’t remember anyone writing a piece framing Sheeran as the enemy, a foppish busker parading through the no man’s land of middlebrow, selling second-hand soul to the masses and (seemingly) getting off scot free!

There’s also something to be said for the absence of a proper GUSH, using evocative, exciting and immediate language. And I think that’s why so many people have cited the FACT singles column because whatever the view, the pieces are pithy and immediate. Which is perhaps what people are looking for?

There’s other things I could (will?) go into and expand on but that’s more than enough for now.


not naming any names but the previous iteration of the FACT Singles Club could get pretty gushy…


The forum’s built on Discourse, which is open source. No idea about hosting, and the amount of time patten’s sunk into this absolutely constitutes a cost, but the software is free.

@arcane_psalms mat dryhurst is consistently right about pretty much everything affecting this corner of the industry, usually in ways that no-one else realises until about a year after he’s said it. he’s right here too, the fundamental issue is with the models of ownership of these platforms.

@criminiminal I know lots of people who’ve written for Singles Club, and have always valued it as a way to check out new releases, but I think it suffers from the opposite problem: too many people trying to score sick burns on mediocre records make the whole exercise kind of dumb. I remember Ben UFO saying that the only person to ever come out of it not looking like an arsehole was Joe Muggs’ seven-year-old son, or words to that effect.

@ everyone else:

There are lots of interesting points in this thread, some of them on the money and some of them (imo) a bit wide of the mark.

The big one which really needs underlining is the point made at the top of the Crack article linked to by the OP… the almost total collapse of the ad-funded model which has previously sustained the sort of platforms we’re talking about here. Facebook and Google have hoovered up this market, to the extent that they now account for something like 85% of all the money spent on online advertising. Cue everyone else scrabbling for that remaining 15%, meaning more clickbait or unadventurous commissioning, and / or greater reliance on corporate tie-ins / external sources of income to fund losses on content production.

Some platforms embody this more troublingly than others: I generally agree with mat dryhurst that the fundamental problem here is the capitalist foundation on which the whole thing’s built, and the myriad ways that model replicates itself.

I completely agree with @blank about the actual quality of writing at the moment though: there’s some exceptional stuff continuing to be produced by The Wire, RA features, Quietus, Pitchfork, and all over the place. There are even a few really good blogs still bubbling along under the radar too, like those Japanese soldiers on remote Pacific islands, still fighting their own personal WW2 deep into the 1970s. If you’re consistently reading dreck, chances are it’s as much to do with your choice of outlet as with the industry as a whole (though not to say there aren’t systemic issues too).


on point… strong metaphors


I think the fact video essays are so popular could be put to good use actually, ‘ok we can get a million views describing what Loveless was, what Untrue was, what Vaporwave was…’ makes me wonder why no-one steps up to talk about current cultural manifestations in the same way. Underground music doesn’t get much publicisation, but if outsiders were given the chance to understand what’s going on on clear terms that might not be the case. There’s a Youtube channel out there getting a lot of hits just titling each video ‘Understanding {insert-famous-guitarist}’. It might take a little more creativity to get clicks on something not so culturally iconic, but not impossible if tied into some kind of cultural narrative. A few people have mentioned already that written reviews are declining in popularity since streaming, but the hunger for information still exists somewhere underneath all the Jake Paul soundcloud edits.


But the other side of the argument is that this kind of one-upmanship drives genres forward, e.g. jungle. Still, in this case, I agree that this sound needs freshening.

But that’s really secondary to music making. As a composer you should focus less on genre and more on your own idiosyncratic views on aesthetical categories and let them influence you. That approach will drive music ‘forward’ in a way more profound way. If there is any way forward that is.

The now-old Eno-esque ‘scenius’ concept is a refreshing corrective to the established view as the musician as an isolated auteur, but I think ultimately that this results in putting the locus of production in the machinic realm and is ultimately a masochistic, defeatist position to be in. Although enjoyable. Even music that embraces algorithmic composition and takes a ‘cold’, detached approach, like Mark Fell for instance, feels idiosyncratic and personal.

Could write on and on about this, but I guess this would derail the thread enormously.


Can you expand on this, please? I’m not sure I fully understand what you mean. How is this position machinic, masochistic, and defeatist?


@ehg @blank not so fast!

yes, totally agree that there’s still plenty of sharp, expressive, and inspired criticism regularly emerging from some of the more experienced writers of the bunch.

however, it has become increasingly fashionable in recent years for writers of a certain ilk to proudly wear one’s pop affiliations like some kind of badge of honor and, while I have no bone to pick with pop music whatsoever, this trend of championing low-brow culture in high-brow contexts has (for better or for worse) contributed to the dismantling of some established cultural hierarchies that have historically encouraged, enabled, and promoted the most timeless and transcendent music of the last half-century. in other words, especially for people of my generation, the distinction used to be very clear: mainstream = square; underground = hip.

obviously, the above axiom has its own inherent faults and, in most cases I welcome the democratization of all genres, but I do think the raising of the pop-tolerance threshold of late is one majorly overlooked factor in the recent decline of critical standards.


@euan “unaccountable power” is a bit strong - it’s a bunch of people in the public eye who make their opinions pubic and are therefore open to criticism in response. i’m not sure reviewers are really that powerful. but we should probably trust them to set an agenda more than we trust e.g. conde nast, converse, vinyl factory, all the other non-music-journos who own the music media!

more to the point, how can we expect a class of “reviewers” to exist beyond the rest of the scene? e.g. i’d have to write about 10 pitchfork reviews a week to actually live off reviewing money! i think i’d rather that “reviewers” were part of the scene – DJing, making music, releasing records, etc.


@ETC I’m not against video content in of itself. I just feel, as you’ve stated, that there’s definitely something lacking about it in its current form. Most of it just seems to me, for lack of a better word, clickbaity. And none of it is critical, it all just seems insubstantial. I’m not saying there’s no room for short, informational, well researched videos (especially if they’re about underground/underappreciated albums/artists/scenes etc.) it just worries me that videos may eventually undermine and detract from the meatier written content. Again this is probably purely down to economic reasons and, as @chalravens has mentioned, the pay rates for written work are pretty shit. I just don’t want my favourite writers being forced into becoming glorified Wikipedia copy/pasters.

@chava I would second @euan and would like a further explanation on this if you would be so kind.

@criminiminal Hasn’t this been the norm for a while though? A thread running through Paul Morley and new pop in the early 80s to the poptimists in the 00s? The whole ‘it’s hip to be square’ thing… I think part of the reason in the lack of division you’ve described could be be that, in the last 15 of or so years, the underground has lost a lot of its power as the cultural vanguard. The type of exciting, forward thinking that you would come to expect from bohos is being increasingly made by popstars, rappers etc. journos having to abandon allegiances in favour of following the cutting edge.

@chalravens I agree, I’d much prefer the agenda be set by people passionate about music or part of a ‘scene’ etc. rather than a company that makes shoes. Though I hope that we don’t arrive at a point where being either a writer or musician (in certain cases at least) is purely a part-time job, forcing people to be multifaceted in one way or another.


“Unaccountable power” may be a bit strong, that’s fair @chalravens. (Or it may just be that the phrase itself connotes more egregious uses and abuses of power and so seems inappropriate in this situation. Either way, point taken.) I suppose I was thinking less about reviewers than the ties between publicists and reviewers, and the inordinate power that PR has taken on in the current environment. It definitely strikes me that we should be as critical of PR as we were/are of big record labels, because they hold the kind of power (i.e. the power to get music heard) that the record labels used to; if a journalist has close ties to PR companies, we should think about their work just as we would a journalist with close ties to a record label. Obviously, the question becomes what kinds of close ties are okay, since every journalist needs some kind of ties to do a good job, but it’s not as if media ethics is a new topic!


I’m doing a PhD on this very topic, albeit predominantly the notion of the ‘golden age’ of criticism, the (arguable) autonomy the writers had, the sounds/scenes/societal tensions feeding into the prose and back, the cultural heft the writing exercised, all seemingly archaic feelings nowadays personally.

The turnaround from creation to reaction is so instantaneous in these times of overload it’s a perennial race against the clock(s) to listen, absorb, digest, think, think more, write and be satisfied only for more product to be sent your way. Maybe it was ever thus, but, the perception of time is definitely accelerating and having an adverse effect.

For me, negative criticism can be and is an art form in itself, after all, it’s all opinion. I find these days, in concordance with most of what’s already been written above, that there’s too much ‘craft’ gleaned from studying ‘music criticism’ and little ‘art’, that splenetic outburst of rage the product, the act, the context, anything. Crucially, there is a distinct dearth of humour in much writing.

All this only makes me continue to believe in a ‘golden age’, one unprecedented in terms of sounds and styles and the forward thrust>backward lag equation. When everything happens at once it’s difficult to know when’s when.


@DJSalinger out of curiosity, will you be grouping distinct time periods into multiple ‘ages’ of music criticism, or will you simply classify the ‘golden age’ as (approximately) Sixties San Francisco --> Death of Print? within this span of time, what era would you mark as being the pinnacle?