How music reviews are made

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If you must (“must”) watch television, probably the best thing on continues to be the Canadian program How It’s Made which shows the process by which everyday objects are manufactured. A similar program for the music industry might attract fewer watchers but be similarly informative.

The basics of the industry are that labels produce records, media write about those records, and artists — a pretentious term for musicians and bands — try to get chosen by either or both. Most records produce almost all of the profit they will create within a relatively short duration of their release. Labels need to constantly produce output so that they stay in the news, and media needs to constantly produce favorites (or drama) to sell news. Artists, on the other hand, are trying to create long-term audiences, but only if the artist believes they can produce quality material for a long period. Otherwise, their goal is to cash in and drop out, so they can go back to being the cool barista in a seaside town known for having put out that edgy metalcore album back in ’06.

When labels send out promotional packages, their goal is to ensure the reviewer spends as little time on the music as possible. They would prefer that the reviewer spend most of her time on the press release and biography, writing about the “unique” background to the band and how their album release is a news event, not a musical event. Ideally, the writer will focus on production and style more than substance, since new variations in production and style are easily produced while quality music is limited to a certain percentage of artists and striving for quality makes artists more valuable and labels/media less valuable.

The gig as a music reviewer is to say as little as possibly that is not blindingly obvious about the music while working in as many details as possible. The most successful reviews talk mostly about the biography, then about production, then style, and only finally in passing about the music itself. By the music itself I mean the composition, such that if you transferred it to midi or kazoo you would still recognize the song(s) but all of the production values from guitar sound through effects would be removed and you would see the composition as it is. If you have ever listened to someone playing acoustic guitar and realized the music sounds familiar, then figured out which song they are playing, you have had the experience of connecting with the music itself. The music itself however is the one part of music as a commodity that cannot be easily quantified and reproduced through systematic means (think of a recipe or instruction book). As a result, the music itself makes no one any money during the short period in which most albums generate profit.

You may see familiar names when you switch between your favorite magazines and your favorite music labels and the promotion companies that service them. The goal of most music reviewers is to get promoted within the industry, either as workers at the labels or writers in the media. They do this by making personal contacts, which generally happens when they are helpful to those people and promote whatever release they are working at the time. Very few people stay in the industry for long because it rewards a certain type of highly sociable person who writes whatever is needed to promote a record. This is why when you read record reviews, they normally take on a breathless tone that borders on praise. The goal of the reviewer is as a marketer, not a writer. Their job is to make you want to buy the album, but in such a way that you think it is your own idea, and so you blame no one when two weeks later you stop listening to it.

Most people are not words-people. They operate by gut feel, which is how their brains make a synopsis of all of the impulses they have in response to something. They tend to respond enthusiastically to new things but as time goes on, they respond less to them. For this reason, very few fans are aware of bad albums versus good ones. They know only that they bought something, they were excited about it, and then… it just sort of faded out of their consciousness. It became less interesting. The methods of art and music are well-known after centuries of exploration and what makes an album stay with us is no mystery. A good album is both musically adept, even if primitive, in that it is organized and produces something pleasing and non-obvious out of what it has to work with, and evocative, or representative of some feeling in ourselves or experience we have had in the world. Very few albums do this, but lots of albums can hit us with the pure physical sensation of listening to them, like acrobatic guitars, intense production, a bizarre or fresh style or even pure sonic intensity. These fascinate for a short while and then fade from our awareness.

As a reader, you must now be thinking this article is somewhat apocalyptic. I have just told you that the music industry has interests contrary to your own; they want to pump out formulaic stuff with new style/production, and you want to listen to music that stretches your time, money and energy by rewarding your listening minutes over many years. Actually I consider myself on the side of the music industry, because without labels to concentrate money that they can invest in production and promotion, good bands would remain unheard and without the budget to bring their promising music to a point where it is both pleasant as composition and pleasant to be heard. Few would listen to Beethoven if the only albums were played on kazoos and recorded on iPhones in subway restrooms. The music industry represents its own worst enemy because whenever something new — a band, an idea, a genre — makes a fan base, industry grows in response to it and produces more stuff “like” it that does not deliver the punch of the original. They thus ride trends for profit and then self-destruct when the trend is over, excepting a few labels who rise above the rest on the basis of having more profit, thus more money to put out new releases. The industry would be healthier if it could stop riding trends and instead focus on what makes bands and labels wealthy, which is the long tail or long-term relationship with fands.

The archetypal long tail band is Metallica. When …And Justice For All broke into the top 200, it brought every previous album of the band with it. During its classic era, when Metallica put out a new album and made a new fan, that fan tended to go out and buy everything else the band did, plus tshirts and concert tickets. It is the same way with massively successful acts in every genre — they cultivate a dedicated fanbase — but metal is a standout in how clearly it is defined in this way. The labels that dominate are the ones who get behind a band that cultivates a long-term audience. However, these bands are few and far between so labels make do with what they have. Unfortunately for them, the market is contracting as online availability of music reduces the power of novelty (“newness” + unique production/style). People can simply listen to the new fascination online for two weeks and then move on without having bought it.

To counter this, I propose a new model for the music industry: licensing. Under this model, bands would retain their copyright in an album and take out a license from the label, which would have the right to retain the album as long as they kept it in print. Big labels would license this content from smaller labels, creating a pyramid where the top reflects the bands with the best long-term audience potential and the bottom reflects new entries who are trying to build that audience. This would put more of a burden on the bands, who would be essentially taking a loan from the labels to produce their albums in exchange for that extensive promotion, but would enable labels to focus on the true breadwinners with their long-tail artists. In addition, because artists would be forced to assume direction of their efforts, there would be less of the kind of childish behavior of superstars in the 1970s and 1980s that caused labels to become strict in how they control their artists. This model also fits with the de facto standard of online music sales as they will become, which is the granting of a license to “own” the music regardless of form to the consumer. When physical form is no longer as important, we switch from a “goods” model to a “services” model, and the sooner labels do this the sooner they escape the overhead of defending a past business model and can move on to the future.