I was talking to a fellow hack last week. Said hack was due to review a new album for one of our more august newspapers. The only way the record company would let the hack listen to the record was if one of their employees came round to hack's place of work with an iPod containing said new album, found a spare office somewhere, sat them down, clamped the headphones on and then played them the record while the drone looked on to make sure they weren't uploading it to the internet.
This ritual, which introduces into the carefree world of pop picking a formality more usually associated with registering a death, is the most absurd thing I've heard of in the increasingly ludicrous and security-obsessed world of pre-release reviewing. I won't tell you the name of the artist in this case lest it should embarrass my friend, who's only trying to earn a living. It ought to embarrass the newspaper, who are prepared to give space to a review based on so glancing an encounter with the record. It probably won't embarrass the record company who are one of those who have worked themselves into such a state of hyper-tension about piracy and pre-release leakage that they prefer to send journalists links to password-protected streams rather than CDs.
Personally, I'm too old and set in my ways to play along. If I have to listen to a record under those conditions I'd really rather not hear it at all and, if they've got any sense, they won't want me to because I'm likely to take out my anger at the process on the poor bloody record. One thing is certain. Whether you're sitting in a meeting room under the gaze of a PR or tethered to your computer auditing a stream, anything much less conducive to the proper spirit in which pop music should be enjoyed would be difficult to imagine. It encourages the rush to judgement which usually comes up with the wrong answer.
Of course, record companies don't care whether critics are wrong about their records provided they're favourably wrong. They know that the first past the post review system forces critics to come up with an opinion before they have one. They hope that based on a hack's often premature opinion people may buy the record. This all conspires to deceive the public. Reviewers trying to justify their continued employment tend to have crisp, quotable opinions when what they really think could better be summed up in a Gallic shrug.
Time was you bought the record and got to know it afterwards. If you'd bought it on the basis of some review and it didn't seem to live up to the claims - I bought Patto's Roll 'em Smoke 'em on the basis of a review that called it "the missing link between Abbey Road and the Mahavishnu Orchestra" and I still haven't forgiven the bastard who wrote those words even though it's 38 years ago - then you persuaded yourself that you liked it. This created a tradition of self-deception which ran like a silver thread through the collective memory of the rock cognoscenti.
We don't have to do it anymore. Now we can get to know records over time and decide if we want to stream them, download them or even buy them on the basis of how we feel. There's no rush. The records aren't going anywhere. The record companies should calm down and so should the papers. There are no verdicts. Just opinions. If they're interesting opinions we'll still have them next week.