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Criticising the critics: what happened when musicians got to answer back to reviewers

Last night’s LATE at Auckland Museum panel discussion delved into the relationship between artists, audiences and critics. Russell Brown reports on what went down – including some surprising revelations about how musicians respond to their harshest reviews.

Surely, I thought, they’re not going to spend all night talking about the critics. But they did, and it was actually pretty good.

Not that things started perfectly. Charlotte Ryan, the chair for last night’s LATE at the Museum discussion, ‘The Music Machine’, asked James Milne an opening question about the changing role of the critic that appeared to completely flummox the poor man, but things soon picked up.

The critics, it would be fair to say, did not have a terribly good time of it in their absence. Saiko Management’s Scott Maclachlan declared that critics were fine if they delivered good reviews, but otherwise were “a barrier to the music”.

“Don’t send your albums to critics,” he continued, “send them to producers and musicians you respect.

“Not one of my artists would care what a reviewer thinks,” he said, which is the kind of thing you’d only say if you actually really did care.

The LATE at Auckland Museum panel: (left to right) Chip Matthews, Anna Coddington, Charlotte Ryan (host), Scott Maclachlan, James Milne

The LATE at Auckland Museum panel: (left to right) Chip Matthews, Anna Coddington, Charlotte Ryan (host), Scott Maclachlan, James Milne

Anna Coddington was more convincing when she explained that by the time she’d got to the stage of releasing an album, she was happy enough with it that a bad review could not unsettle her.

As if to prove the point, Ryan noted that Coddington had actively drawn her attention to a terrible review of her new album by Gary Steel in Metro. In truth, the problem with the review was not that it was unflattering about the music (“it’s not the kind of music he likes”), but the terribly patronising “poor Anna” opening sentence, which further convicted her of the crime of associating with Fly My Pretties. A bad review is one thing, but there’s no need to be a dick about it.

But the biggest elephant in the room was soon identified. Ryan raised the matter of “a certain reviewer in Wellington” who was notorious for delivering extremely bad reviews, and asked if any of the panels had withheld their babies from him, as major labels have been known to do.

“You’re talking about Simon, right?” said Chip Matthews. “I like him. Some of his reviews are shit, we know that. But some of the shit I’ve been involved with was shit.”

The idea that musicians hate Simon Sweetman was swiftly demolished, albeit by artists who have never endured a bad review from Simon Sweetman. Milne noted that the cruel man of the capital mostly only gave terrible reviews to artists who didn’t rely on good reviews, like Fat Freddy’s Drop.

But all this was really only getting us to the key point of the evening, which was that for the most part, critics don’t matter any more. The old function of a reviewer was essentially as a consumer guide. It used to be that it was difficult to know what an album sounded like you needed someone to tell you whether to spend your money. Now, you just go to Spotify.

Indeed, in the old days, the limited catalogue of new releases led to a different kind of contest: a status game between reviewers. Maclachlan noted the recent Guardian story in which Dorian Lynskey invited a number of other music journalists to reflect on their reasons for awarding five-star reviews to Oasis’s Be Here Now, which is now almost universally acknowledged as a load of cocaine-fuelled bollocks that killed Britpop.

I can relate to the social pressure. A couple of times as a journalist for the British music weekly Sounds I gave an indifferent review to an album that was supposed to get a good review (one was the KLF’s The Ambient Album, which I still don’t think is very good). It wasn’t much fun.

Now, of course, there is so much music released (and, as Coddington pointed out, such dramatically reduced mainstream media space for music reviewing) that there is almost no point in bothering your readers with bad reviews. Just tell them what’s good, and why.

It was telling that the only reviewer for whom Maclachlan expressed any affection at all was Jim Pinckney, late of the Listener – because Stinky Jim told him about music that he simply would not otherwise have heard.

What we could have heard more about was Maclachlan’s relationship with music bloggers, who have been important to every Seiko artist apart from Sol3Mio, an entirely old-media phenomenon. There is an element of stage management that it might have been useful for the audience to know about. Basically, modern music bloggers don’t want to be admired for their critical acumen, they want to be admired for being first.

In part that’s because music bloggers are no longer members of a separate caste of critics. They’re fans, basically. Really good fans. Fans who are more like DJs than writers. And you know that in the age of the playlist, everyone’s a DJ.

The Spinoff cropped up twice. Once was Matthews’ retelling, sincere and without rancour, of the time that Opensouls felt they’d played a great gig in Albert Park one day – and got absolutely burned to the ground by future Spinoff supremo Duncan Greive. It did spawn the band’s best song by way of reply, so there’s that. And Ryan asked whether the Spinoff’s launch of a music section was a welcome development. You bet it is: have you ever talked to a music publicist? They are starving for people who might bother to read their press releases or audition their clients’ releases.

Audience questions were few but good. One magnificently-framed query of Milne (oh, all right, it was me) asked whether the assessments of close listeners like William Dart and Nick Bollinger had intuited something about his music he had not thought of himself. Why yes, Milne said gratifyingly, he had occasionally enjoyed that sensation.

Another question was much more interesting. It was, essentially: what about the algorithm as critic? Coddington responded with an observation of the kind that only musicians have to bother with. If you’re in a Spotify playlist along with the stars and your song gets skipped too many times, your songs will be dropped from that playlist. It’s like Uber ratings for artists.

The final audience question, from a young woman at the back, drew an interesting response. She asked about things to do to get her music noticed. Do not let that sully your art, they all responded. “If you write a great piece of music, it will get heard,” intoned Maclachlan. In which case, why are you paying 20% to Scott Maclachlan?

In truth, just getting noticed is possibly the major challenge for musical artists. You might conquer the challenge by becoming part of a community (that in turn gets noticed by being bigger), by working social media, by busking, or by getting a manager.

But in an era when there is more music available than anyone can listen to, Maclachlan’s idea that you will be noticed simply because you exist was an odd fantasy. As NZ Musician‘s Silke Hartung endlessly points out, your guaranteed supportive review in the magazine requires you to write a decent bio and list the track names on your album. In the end, Matthews’ advice to “just enjoy every step of the journey” was probably the best, even if it doesn’t mean anyone’s going to actually follow your Soundcloud.

This discussion about the critics would have benefitted from an extra seat for an actual critic. We’re part of what’s happened too, and it might have been interesting for the artists to see themselves reflected.

Perhaps, having aired the “everyone’s a critic” cliché, it could have delved further into the artists’ relationships with their audiences, which is where the most compelling testaments to the joy of making music emerged. Matthews told a brilliant story about an Australian fan who sprawled across the stage – so she could plug her mobile phone into the keyboardist’s multibox. And Milne simply observed that when everything was going well between band and audience, it was “a kind of euphoria”.

We could all do with more euphoria.


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