Rethinking Reviews

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.

19 Replies to “Rethinking Reviews”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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…

  7. 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?

  8. 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

  9. 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…

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