How to Talk About Music on the Internet

The ‘publishing revolution’ of the internets has been overwhelmingly positive. We know that, right?

However, there have been a few – perhaps unintended – consequences to all online words being given equal billing (at least potentially) and all public typed conversations being searchable. So let’s have a think about how we – as musicians – talk about music on the internet:

One of the hardest things for a musician to do online is work out two very distinct ways of describing music positively:

  • One that denotes real quality, the kind of opinion you can put your reputation behind that
    • a) helps people to find properly great music and
    • b) builds and maintains a reputation for being someone who finds great music (it’s a really important part of people trusting your music that they trust your recommendation, believe me)…
  • …And the other kind that allows you to be encouraging of your friends, of the effort people put into experimenting, working out how to be musicians etc… A way of offering support to those people and to the communities that you’re a part of that doesn’t – when people listen and find that the ‘recommendation’ seriously needs qualifying – ruin your reputation as a connoisseur of great music.

I got caught out early on in my internet travels, and had a few people that I said encouraging things to a decade or so ago who then went on to use them in their press quotes without any reference to the context in which those things were said. Which was problematic not only because it wasn’t necessarily true, but also because when asked about the work in question, I couldn’t in all honesty be effusive in praising it. It was great to see the effort and I wanted to encourage that, but wasn’t – stand alone – something I considered to be great work (other people may have considered it great – which is fab news, it just wasn’t something I liked 🙂 )

I see it happening all around me. I have a bunch of good friends on Facebook in particular whose musical recommendations I pretty much ignore for this very reason – they are strong community activists, and that’s an admirable, positive trait, but it never leads to me finding great music, even interesting music.

So, if you’re going to try and do both, there needs to be a way of putting it in context, of nuancing the language, of being careful who you say things about and who is going to quote you when you’re just being encouraging to them, as though you think they’re the next Pat Metheny…

For my own part, I VERY rarely ever talk about music I don’t love. It doesn’t help anyone. (OK, I’ll occasionally bitch about Coldplay or The Doors, but I don’t think their careers are going to be hindered by it, so I don’t feel guilty about it, and even then it’s v. rare 😉 ) But I never talk about music by my peers that I don’t really like. I’m never negative, because being a musician is hard enough without having other musicians bitch about it. My opinion may also not be widely held, and I’d be doing a disservice to someone who I want to do well – I want ALL my musician friends to do well, regardless of what I think of their music – the idea that it’s somehow ‘unfair’ for less great musicians to do well is patently absurd, and thinking that opens you to a world of hurt…

But, I’m not going to be falsely positive about something I don’t really dig, because I just can’t deal with having to be either dishonest or unsupportive if I get asked about it in any greater detail.

So what do I do? I spend my time promoting, encouraging, plugging and going into bat for those artists whose work I adore, those people who soundtrack my life. If you don’t know who the core of them are by now, you’ve not been reading closely enough 😉

It has resulted in my taking a step back from a few online communities that dissolved into seemingly limitless hagiographical back-slapping, presumably equal parts peer encouragement and desperation for reciprocal praise and offers of gig swaps (the overlap between altruism and narcissism online is a strange one to behold). In some ways it was a shame, but in others it freed up time to spend my time in open water – not tied to communities bonded by the mechanics of HOW they make music, but a wider community of people for whom music is part of their life. I could try to understand where music – and the rest of the arts – fits within the greater changing landscape of modern living.

One of my favourite aspects to the egalitarian publishing phenomenon is that trust networks can and do become incredibly powerful. I have listeners to my music whose recommendation generates more sales and interest in what I do than a review in a national magazine, there are personal music review blogs that create more buzz than getting featured on the website of a national newspaper. Twitter – and now, Bandcamp’s fan account recommendations – are by far my most trusted places to go for music discovery. At one point, musician forums and mailing lists filled that role. They mostly jumped the shark a long time ago.

If you as an individual are concerned about loads of people not trusting you at all – despite the people you’re saying all these lovely not-entirely-accurate things about being massively grateful – it’s worth giving some thought to how you talk about music online.

Addendum – I hope it goes without saying that there’s no ‘taste barrier’ at work here – I very much doubt that there’s anyone in the world who loves every single bit of music I recommend. That’s not the point. The point is that I maintain my own quality threshold, that I can stand behind every recommendation I make, and never have to say ‘er, yeah, sorry you had to sit through that, he was a guy I met at at trade show and wanted to help him out’.

…likewise the bullshit of reciprocity – ‘you write about me and I’ll write about you’ helps no one, is perhaps the most obvious and self-serving of the reputation-trashing online music-talk archetypes. Avoid it like the plague.

5 Replies to “How to Talk About Music on the Internet”

  1. Fantastic article. I especially liked your point about not speaking about music unless you absolutely love it. There has been numerous times on facebook when I have shared music that I love and have had my comments section flooded by people who felt the need to prove me wrong and list all the reasons why this artist I loved was in fact awful. It completely changed my opinion of them as potential collaborators.

    1. Yes, there does seem to be a large proportion of people for whom there is simply no distinction between “This is good” and “I like this” (and, of course, their polar opposites). I do tend to ignore reviews that use such black & white statements – tell me you like something (or not), but tell me WHY! In such cases, even if a reviewer doesn’t like something, I can get an idea that I might.

      I still remember my old music teacher’s take on this from decades ago. “Do they really mean they can’t stand it? The probably mean they can’t UNDERstand it.”

  2. Completely on-point article Steve. I always try to be very cautious/aware of the line between friendly encouragement and sincere praise.

    I do the same as you when it comes to posts I direct toward my followers as a whole–in that context, I only ever talk about music that I truly love and would be able to defend/continue to praise in any other context. When I want to offer more personal encouragement to an artist I know, I usually direct it specifically at them, and take the care to mention the specific elements of their work that I feel were well-executed, improved since last time, etc. Even in technically public places, I have no problem providing encouragement in this way because I think it’s fairly clear to onlookers that it is happening in the context of a 1-to-1 conversation (I’m not trying to “promote” their music), and because saying “the tone of your acoustic guitar has made awesome improvements since your last album!” is much easier to stand behind later than simply saying “you sound awesome!” (that type of language also has built-in qualification).

  3. Very pertinent thoughts, Steve: this is a minefield I find myself having to negotiate continually, and it’s something I find very difficult. Having said that, my taste is so eclectic that I’m always amazed when people take my recommendations at all! Sounds like you’ve struck a good balance; I should take a leaf out of your book…

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