Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond

Rethinking Reviews

November 21st, 2009 | 19 Comments | Categories: New Music Strategies · teaching news |

I’ve been asked a few times recently to write reviews of people’s albums. Not by magazines or websites who want it as journalism, but by the artists themselves, wanting it as promo.

Now, let’s leave money aside for now (given that paid journalism is a whole other subject – yes, magazines, I’ll write reviews for you, if you pay me – see the point about journalism below), let’s have a look at what reviews are, where they came from, and why we might want to rethink the idea, especially with regards to asking for them from someone who hasn’t yet heard the music…

Where they came from:

Reviews, as a literary form, are historically intrinsically linked to scarcity – a review was two things:

  • an informed, respected opinion on something that you couldn’t just try for yourself.
  • a piece of (often scholarly) journalism that sought to put it in the context of the artistic history and lineage, by someone who really knew about it.

For the reader, it was a way of deciding whether a piece of music, or a book, or a play or whatever, were worth spending some money on. The end process was still risky (though I was delighted to find out that my grandad used to spend his lunch-hour from work listening to records in Foyles, deciding what to buy, back in the 40s and 50s!) but you had some guidance. So over time, you worked out which reviewers (or curators of reviewers, if you ended up trusting an entire newspaper or magazine) you trusted, and you bought things based on that.

So the art of writing reviews was about giving people an insight into something that hadn’t yet experienced, and couldn’t experience unless you bought them. It was meant to be impartial, educated and the trust was cumulative.

Where we are now:

Fast forward to now and the transformative change that has taken place is that we CAN listen without buying. We no longer need a filter to tell us about the things we might buy. We do, as human beings with fragile identities, still often need our own inclinations confirming, and we also still enjoy the literary art of digging deeper into a particular work of art. But the role has changed.

Thinking incrementally, we get caught up in the idea that everyone with a blog is now a publisher, and is therefor to be approached for a review, the way we would a magazine or newspaper. Mags and Newspapers are tough customers, given that they have limited space, often fairly strong agendas, and are panicking about sales figures. Bloggers are way more approachable, and may well do some kind of reciprocal deal – you review them, they review you etc…

Richard Sambrook, Director of News at the BBC, commented on twitter the other day about the character of journalists:

“the third quality needed: independence of mind. No point becoming journo if you really want to be liked”

That independence of mind is lost if I start writing reviews of things I don’t really love as favours.

Actually, two things are lost:

  • any journalistic integrity (something that’s often in short supply on the web, and is thus easy to spot when it does show up)
  • the value of my recommendation.

Trusted recommendation holds far more value because it’s a filter that lets YOU decide. I can point to things, via Twitter, Posterous, Google Reader, Friendfeed or whatever, and YOU can make up your own mind by listening.

But the value of it is now there for me as well as you. It’s not a broadcast role, it’s about constructing social DNA – a genetic map of who I am and where I come from. The things that influence me, that resonate with me, and by association, the things that are likely to give you in-roads into the world that my music is created within. Recommendations are as much about me as they are about you.

If you want reviews written, ask a journalist. But don’t ask it as a favour. the journalism of favours is worthless. You either get the journalistic integrity that Richard Sambrook was talking about, of someone who will write an informed opinion piece on your work within the context of other work in the area, and the remit of the publication, OR you get recommendations from people who dig your tunes and want to share them.

So What Do We Do?

We make our art shareable. That’s the transformative power of the web. It’s not about getting ‘more reviews’ in the old school sense. It’s about empowering your audience to put your music in the path of those who they gather around them. Friends, family, musical acquaintances.

Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Youtube, Vimeo – any site with embeddable media is good for sharing, good for people who want to be able to recommend the things you like. Don’t expect everyone to like what you do, and don’t expect anyone to do what you aren’t willing to do for others. So, go, get recommending.


Footnote: where does this leave those of you who want to ask me to listen to your stuff? That’s fine – post it on twitter, email me about it, send me a link to it. DON’T ever send or give me CDs. I don’t do CDs. I have given up on them. Send me a link, and if I get time I’ll have a listen. If I love it, I’ll share it. But don’t send it to me if you’re going to get offended by me not pimping it on your behalf. That’s not how it works.

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19 Comments so far ↓

  • Phil Wain

    I write reviews for and the way I see it, it allows me to share my enthusiasm or personal reaction to something. People know it’s subjective but they get to know how my musical taste works.

    Right now, my personal feeling is – if I don’t like it, I’m probably going to ask someone else to review it – and if someone asks me to review their music for promotion, I probably wouldn’t.
    I just get to pick from a range of new releases and I pick the ones I am likely to enjoy. There’s lots of stuff that I hate that others enjoy and there’d really be no value in me banging on about why I hate something – whereas if I’m really explicit and specific about why I like something that can lead others to give listening to it a go.

    Yes, we can all listen to so much easily now; but then how to choose which tiny percentage of all the zillions of recordings out there to cast an ear to – that’s where trusted reviews and personal recommendations can come in.

    One feature of this web 2.0 world nowadays is that you can almost guarantee the musicians involved will read your review. This probably affects how people review things nowadays. For instance on Wayne Krantz’ site he has a whole page devoted to links to reviews of his current CD and his comments in response to them.

    Though that fact might temper reviewers’ negativity it’s the easiest thing in the world to write a review slagging something off and music is such a personal thing readers are, I hope, looking for a natural and honest reaction to the music rather than the formulaic review structures more professional and experienced reviewers than myself can slip into.
    Yeah, I’d agree. I’ve had an easy time with my reviews so far as I’ve loved every record sent to me but if a friend asked me to review their CD, it would open up a can of worms in terms of readers’ perceptions of reviewer honesty and impartiality.

  • Alun Vaughan

    Good stuff Steve :-). I must admit to not being keen on the idea of reciprocal reviews as there is a definite risk of ‘give me a good review and I’ll give you a good review’ which can devalue it totally. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in years to come if the current trends continue to move from olde world reviews to recommendations. Where will bad reviews go? Will the subjects (victims??) just be ignored through lack of interest and recommendations? I guess time will tell.

  • Jeremy

    This is something I’ve been considering myself and had basically decided on the recommendations route. I’ve started recommending shows, recordings, etc. on my Posterous and I just decided that I would unabashedly recommend things that I liked or found compelling and would not get into reviews as you described at the beginning of the article. The amount of new things to review seemed overwhelming to me anyway. There is no way that I’d be able to get to everything that I liked or found interesting.

  • Phil Wain

    This is definitely making me think about guys like me that review CDs but also spend a lot of time and energy on the personal recommendation front – wondering whether I might blur the boundaries and lead people to consider my reviews lack ‘independence of mind’ as they see me review Ruddder and then chat with Tim Lefebvre on Twitter.
    I guess all I can do is aim for honesty and integrity all the time and hope it’d be very obvious if I deviated from that path.
    Thanks for stimulating those thoughts, Steve.

  • Suzanne Lainson

    I’ve sent CDs (not mine, but for artists I’ve worked with) to reviewers who review that type of music. I assume if they are interested, they will review them, if not, they won’t.

    I’ve never asked for a favor because I’ve never felt the need. The CDs I send out are review-worthy for one reason or another, so they generate an acceptable number of reviews for that reason alone. The “gift” review hasn’t been necessary, and I’d never send out a CD for review that can only be reviewed as a result of a favor. I wouldn’t want to associate myself with any projects that need to function that way.

  • James Corachea

    I enjoy writing reviews for my guitar-playing friends and acquaintances, firstly because I like writing; and secondly because, while they have a ton of pithy press taglines to put up on their ReverbNation and gig posters, there is usually very little written about their actual recordings.

    I never have a bad word to say in my reviews, which makes them more akin to recommendations. I couldn’t play better than the people I review and in the rare cases where I think I could, the last thing I want to be doing is gaining a new enemy with someone who shares a lot of interests and could be a worthy friend to have later on down the line. If you ain’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. The numbers of recommendations should speak for themselves.

    I don’t expect you to pimp my music anywhere, but since you didn’t expressly say promoting your own music is a big no-no…

  • Suzanne Lainson

    Overall I don’t see the value in bad reviews. All they do is take up space that might be better served by helping people find good music to listen to.

    The number of mediocre CDs far outnumbers the good ones, so do we really need to be told which albums AREN’T worth listening to?

  • lateral

    pro reviews are junky. We don’t need goods as reviewers from which to learn . We need only our experiences and.. yess.. “our aesthetic – taste”. So.. also a shitty music can be a good music. it’s relative.

    the same song we may like it one day, the next day we dislike and the dayafter relike.. so.. If we would necessary want to get PRO-review we just can go for the TECH in a song. Here there is the glitch, tech is the less in a music. But also populism (which mostly look for the junkyes, poor tech and sudden-artificial-huge-plastic-studyed-marketing-sound\structure) is nothing.

    Then yess I’m with you. The pro-review on music are junkyes. We can only SHARE our experience, our point of views. But these are useless as well. Unless we are determining specifically the enviroment we listen , the “soul needs” and deep introspective analyzing. (100% impossibile)

    We can make 1.000000000000 infinite reviews for the same song.
    Cuz our times is the time to barbaric-dynamic-faster learning and shocking. A song is something to get in-depth through time. Something like circolar, not linear. Truly impossibile for me. I force myself to get choice just under pragmatic needs, and I go for the mix aesthetic and “spiritual empaty” as i can. And I’m WRONG. It’s not enough cuz it’s going to be changeable continiusly.

    I dislike the simplification-synthesis-minded tech, I hate the extremization of the tech and i hate The pitches limitation due to a mix between high tech and “accessibility”.

    Just one thing: Play. I love this term. Play like a child. No way! :) bububuub :)

    Playing reviews! :)

    Ciao! Great web

  • Patrick

    This is interesting (of course!) but I don’t agree with all of it. Frankly, there is just too much music to listen to stuff to see if I would like it! So I listen to the radio, read reviews, listen to some downloads – and of course talk to friends.

    You are completely right that writing pro-reviews for sleeves demages the integrity of your views.

    I regularly write reviews of gigs I go to; there was a post on the LondonJazz blog which questionned the uncritical nature of many reviews, which might chime with your feelings.

    By the way, any CDs people send you, you could always pass them my way…! I still buy them – I want the physical backup, and I like handling the physical CD…

  • Andy Mort

    Yes Alun I think to some extent stuff that people don’t like just wont receive any exposure from anyone other than the artist (and their close friends/family) and people will look to the recommendations of those people they trust and have built an affiliation for.

    Good post Steve, once again you got in there with something I have been thinking about a lot recently.

  • steve

    It is a tricky one, Phil – I think Richard Sambrook’s comment about journalism is a key one here – there are things that you have to accept come with the territory if you *need* to remain impartial.

    What’s clear is that you don’t – anyone who would call you out for becoming twitter-buddies with Tim after reviewing one of his albums is clearly not watching closely enough to know where the value lies in what you do.

    I do think you’re an example of the ‘informed opinion’ though – your knowledge of so many kinds of music makes you a good person to at least put new works in context of the history around the genre they exist within.

    But it’s good that you’re thinking about it :)

  • steve

    Hi Suzanne,

    I think the value in critical reviewing is all in the context, and often in the cumulative effect of the broad spectrum of opinion about how a much-lauded/hyped work of art actually stands up against other works in a similar field, or even by the same artist.

    For example, if David Bowie puts out an album, I’m enough of a fan of his best work that I’d be interested to know if other people who have listened to the new stuff consider it to be up there with his better work, or if indeed they consider the new album to be sub-standard within the criteria his own canon sets for him…

    I’d then make a judgement call about whether I want to hear it or not.

    Bad reviews of brand new works seem to serve no purpose, given that the ‘worst’ that can happen to any piece of art is to be completely ignored. Why say anything? The value of a critical review of something that is being advertised and promoted is perhaps to counter the often hyperbolic claims in the paid-for press/advertising.

    But you’ve hit on the crux of the issue – for us a recommenders, there is, as I can see it, no point at all in writing negative stuff about our peers’ work. Being a musician is hard enough without other musicians giving you a hard time. Better to say nothing and spend your time getting excited about the things you really love.

  • steve

    There’s still very much a place for reviews within journalism – I’ve got pages of them right here on this site. But I’ve had glowing reviews that I completely disagree with and bad reviews that made a lot of sense and I learned from.

    What I’ve also noticed, many times over, is that magazine reviews, no matter how lauded the album may be, lead to very little real interest/interaction, whereas a single tweet from a genuine excited fan telling the world about her favourite music can lead to a flurry of sales, interaction, conversation and knock-on sharing.

    I’ve long been baffled by the indie artist belief that ‘if only I’d got more reviews, the album would’ve done better’ – it just doesn’t hold up. The value in the reviews I’ve had have been from me going to my audience and saying ‘see, Jazzwise liked it too.’

    It’s the same with radio airplay – telling my audience I was played on a credible show will ultimately do more for me than the actual playing did. My audience get excited about the exposure I’m getting, and go and tell their friends, and it’s the trusted recommendation that works…

  • Suzanne Lainson

    Yes, I do expect that significant artists will be reviewed, whether their latest output is good or bad.

    What I do think is valuable, but isn’t done enough, is to put the work in historical context. When NME proclaimed “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” one of the “Top Five British albums ever,” I wanted to say, “Seriously? You really believe that? How many albums have you listened to?”

    I’m constantly reading blogs that laud some album or band as one of the best of its genre ever. Sometimes I wonder if the reviewer really believes that, is a shill, or doesn’t actually have enough knowledge to be credible. So it’s helpful when the reviewer backs up the claim with a substantial comparison to music that has gone before — and sometimes decades before, if necessary.

  • Suzanne Lainson

    Reviews are relative, but if an album gets enough good reviews from a variety of people I will check it out. I don’t have time to discover a lot of new music, so I depend on a collective agreement to encourage me to investigate. Often, I’m still not impressed, but it at least allows me to hear what a lot of people are talking about.

  • lateral

    Most of times, “reviews from variey” \ “shared feedback” are natural born segmented. In the sense that this is the age where people needs symbols and “tribal mores” to join and feel as a part of movements\community. So it’s hard to get pure variety imho. If you look a death-metal video proabally you have deathmetal addicted people comments.
    This is a great Tool, I’m sure. But this is a twin blade weapon. Distopic. Because our “madness”\”taste” we have to earn by ourselves via journeys. Not via rating.
    The problem is that those feedbacks influence us. No way. They do it.
    Numbers, strars… they unfluence our opinion. Also if you are thinking they don’t.
    Experience is something more than third part advices.

    Aestheticism is something different by using tool. Time has no value Vs the order of an aesthetic need.

    Aesthetic for example may spend 10 H to choose one useles invisibile particular due to an insane paranoia. Its food. Without eating and with out a regular daily until reaching the order needed that never reaching. A persecution, putting on the table both the whole life and future for that

    I fear this new internet sensitivity developing. I do admit.

    If we doing an esaltation of the visibility, we may have only the most HUGE SHOCKING thing on the top. Because industry get the same ractional. ” no time to investigate = following most variety comments = more accessibile tunes = marketing.sounds grabbing attentions all the costs.

    It is a great tool, we are not ready to get the usage I intend. Evereybody not ready, me, you.. ect.
    The risk is we’ll have only clever clones. Withour their own earned madness.
    Carryng on the cross of a SCI-FI hero. Furthermore acclamated.
    Je tiens une plume

    Never mind, I absolutely don’t want to start a competition :)


  • steve

    You don’t have time to listen to all of it, so you need filters. Those filters are no longer your only way of making a decision – if you trust it, you buy something site-unseen, after all there’s a lot of fun to be had in taking risks like that…

    But the bit that’s vital to understand here is that blogs are not defacto magazines. They can work as maazines – there are some wonderful impartial, scene-supporting sites that act as a big ole trusted referral hub in the way that NME, Sounds, Jazzwise, The Wire and others have for me over the years, until I outgrew their predilections and could second guess what most of them would say about a particular record.

    So your reviews can be valuable, and over time you could build up a reputation as someone who has knowledge, expertise and taste. That’s not the same as pimping other people’s stuff on a blog, just because you’re doing a favour or are to embarrassed to say you think it’s a load of #balls.

    As for giving you CDs – CDs cost money to send out! If someone’s sending me a CD for me to review, it hardly seems fair for me to give it away… However, I will suggest that people check out your reviews and make a call about whether they want to send you the CD to check out. 😉

    Radio still has a HUGE part to play. It’s still, for mainstream commercially marketed music, the second biggest discovery mechanism after TV. The balanced part of it is understanding that one track played once is unlikely to win you many fans, because not only do they have to like it more than all the rest of the stuff in the show, they have to bother to write down or remember who you were, then type that into Google.

    I’ve had more sales from tweets about what I do (mine and other people’s) that I have from YEARS of being played fairly regularly on Late Junction. That’s not a slight on Late Junction at all – it’s an awesome show, and their playing my music has had a very positive impact on my career… and I trust that my music has had a positive impact on their show, but just because they have an audience of tens if not hundreds of thousands, doesn’t mean that it makes it a better way to reach a new or dormant audience.

    Radio has done way more for me as a listener than it has as a performer… My life was changed by John Peel, in a way that no single web-agent has ever managed to replicate. Would I have discovered Peel if he’d been an MP3 blogger? Almost certainly not.

    There is something really special about the curation of talent and opinion that goes on in big media, be it radio, TV or magazines. Which is why it’s SO infuriating when they piss that away on lowest common denominator horse shit.

    My point is NOT that radio and magazines are dead – I REALLY hope they aren’t – but they do need to make their case better, and do what they do well… Despite them quoting me massively out of context in an appallingly written article this month, Word Magazine has a really interesting place in all this, as an exemplar of how to build a web community without putting your magazine online for free. Their website and mag are entirely separate entities, that clearly feed into one another, but which maintains the integrity of the mag, without turning magazine articles into link-bait in order to try and get ad impressions on the site. I so hope it works for them and others long term.

    Long live brilliant, scholarly, impassioned, informed, artful journalism. :)

  • Corey Mwamba

    Amen to that.

    I have to admit to not reading a lot of reviews on the web, and now even fewer in print: generally they’re the opposite of “brilliant, scholarly, impassioned, informed, artful journalism”. Music journalism has certainly changed since say for example

    There’s an article of a Sonny Rollins album by Gunther Schuller, where he even transcribes a Rollins solo to make his point. And the recording reviews are all thorough analyses of what is heard. I’m not saying that all music journalists/reviewers should be that highly skilled, but with some of the things that are written, you wonder if they listen to anything at all.

    I’m much happier listening to the radio every so often: or seeing what other people are listening to, trying it out, then making my own decision about the music. Although **you** obviously call out some hip things too 😉

    Happy new year!

  • Steve

    Thanks, Corey – the Hentoff stuff is fabulous, and clearly and his ilk saw reviewing as an artform all of its own – a journalistic craft that owed it to the amazing music they were writing about to be scholarly about it.

    That seems to be a lost art… sadly,