Monday, August 30, 2010

Has record reviewing gone mad?

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.


  1. When I was a teenager exploring my musical taste, I bought a number of records based on opinions expressed in my 3 paperback volume Encyclopedia of Rock (Phil Hardy and Dave Laing).

    Needless to say, it was a hit-or-miss process, but I learned a lot about music.

    A review that sticks in my memory is an NME review of The Velvet Underground's "1969", which said, "Give or take Trout Mask Replica, the long-lost greatest rock and roll record of all time," or words to that effect.

    I still don't know what that means, but I bought it anyway. It was all right, I suppose.

    Since developing a taste for modern country music, I generally have to fend for myself.

  2. How do they square this with the increasingly mad singles market where they release them months before you can actually buy them. Personally I am sick of hearing them before most of them are purchasable (not that I would though)

  3. At least the album is going to be reviewed. How about all the poor sods (myself included) who go to great expense to produce promo CDs for review purposes, only to have them totally ignored?

    As the pattern of listening to music changes, so should the pattern of reviewing music. If the traditional media still want to get their mitts on physical product, then they risk becoming irrelevant in an era where that physical product becomes less prevalent.



  4. I know this is not something you want to hear if you've made your own record at your own expense but the fact is that hundreds of new CDs come out every month and only a fraction of them get reviewed. I can't see that changing. The problem is that you've got even less chance of getting reviewed if you supply a stream rather than a CD, which at least sits in plain sight on somebody's desk.

  5. This anecdote proves if further proof were needed that 'record companies' have no clue about how their product is being pirated.

    It's not through journalists that's for sure.

    This measure is an additional expense to their operating costs and it yields little if any benefit. Perhaps it delays the inevitable piracy by a month. If at all.

    It certainly doesn't endear them to one of the few remaining partners that are on the same side.

    We *are* all on the same side aren't we ?

  6. Fair point, well made, David, although I imagine that most albums sent for review actually sit in plain sight in someone's wastepaper basket.

    I just reckon that if one is going to be ignored by the media, one might least be ignored in a manner which is cost-effective to the artist...;-)

  7. At the risk of being a little tangential, a discussion at work today raised the topic of Joanna Newsom and her fairly recent Jools Holland appearance which, in my office at least, seemed to have either attracted or repelled.

    So, having hunted down the clip ( for those interested), I risked a look at the comments, wherein the following was to be found:

    She reminds [me] of what Nick Drake would be like if he had a vagina and played the harp... that's supposed to be a compliment by the way

    I think it's the use of "reminds" that made me laugh so much. But whatever, that surely has to be a tag line any artist would be proud to have on their next tour poster.

  8. Are you sure your friend wasn't being waterboarded at the same time? As a long time reader of reviews through the ages (and, in recent years, writer of same), most of us know that it's all window dressing and that a true classic probably won't flower for a couple of years anyway. That's why you're as well off by tapping your own periodical's 'My Night In With...' barometer when you want to take a reading.

  9. There was a time when thousands, myself included, would buy a record purely on the basis of a 9/10 review in NME, even though we hadn't heard anything by the band.

    But those days are over. What's the point in reviewing a mainstream record like Arcade Fire when everyone will download it for free and make their own minds up anyway. The whole thing is a farce.

    Record reviews are still a great way of discovering unknown bands, but I suspect reviewers of unknown bands don't have to listen to the record on an ipod in their office.

  10. This isn’t entirely new. When Creation released the follow-up to Morning Glory (Oasis For Sale or whatever it was called) I seem to remember that the luckier reviewers has to sign gag clauses; riff-raff had to go to a sealed room where an Ignition lackey would play the precious tract for them.

    The tactic seemed to work, possibly by investing the album with an aura of importance that it didn’t really warrant. Hacks tended to play safe and praise it mightily, only to backtrack/wake up a few months later.

  11. I still read reviews to point me in the direction of new bands and it's great that you don't have to shell out the cash in advance to make your own mind up. Though half the time they sound crap and I wonder what the reviewer was talking about but at least I haven't spent any money. Like David I still remember the bitter feeling after shelling out for a record I hated because of an NME review.

    Remember in ye olden days having to go into a record shop and asking the bloke behind the counter to play something? Half the time they'd say no which struck me as an odd way to sell records.

  12. Ahh, Patto ... Brings back pleasant memories of Windsor's subterranean rock club in the late 60s/early 70s. I quite liked them and Ollie Halsall seemed like a good guitarist at the time. And my missus knew Mike P a bit and tells me he was a nice enough fellow.