It’s probably an act of perfect timing on my part, observing the slow and arduous decay of the print medias, the proliferation of digital downloading (legal and otherwise), the advent of Spotify and Last.fm; and then deciding that my new favourite past-time would be reviewing some of the most readily available, free music there is.
It used to be the case that reviewers were arbiters of taste, in more fields than just music the person with the biggest medium to project their own views on to was, often enough, the one who got to dole out the success. Not exactly democratic or open as far as cultural hierarchies goes, but it happened and it happened not all that long ago. Even I at a relatively young 24/25 can remember the days when buying a magazine like NME was an actual cultural choice because, cynical though I may have been, what was contained within those pages still made up the scenery upon which my musical tastes were built. I could and did detest half of what they promoted but those bands I did settle on were still ready sealed with the stamp of a approval from one journo or another. Although you could of course point out that record company PR departments had as much (if not more) to do with defining that musical world as the writers did but even beyond the realms of ‘popular’ music the art of reviewing has usually meant something. Genre specific fanzines, local rags, even random people who just liked the sound of their own voice and the look of their own tastes; they created a system for propagating music, corrupt and discriminatory as that system may have been.
Nowadays though the foundations of that old top down model of trend setting is fading into the sunset. Anyone with internet access can listen to almost any music there is at the click of a button; the benefits of a promo copy, of background knowledge, of researching into the depths of the music are largely redundant. Everyone possesses the tools of the reviewers arsenal these days and, when a recommendation can be found and listened to in under a minute, there’s an almost archaic quality to those attempting to analyse, discover and explore new music.
Along with this access to the tools has come access to the means of distribution. TCUC is, at it’s heart, a rather traditional entity in that it presents a formal site, formal reviews, some sense of coherency and centrality; but that’s all something of a throw back in itself given that anyone with any opinion at all can stick it up on Jamendo, or on a blog or even on Twitter if they’ve got a particular mastery of brevity. Not that any of that potential speaks for quality, which is ever more variable it seems.
So why reviews then? Why write them, why read them? Why not just post an album link a day on Twitter and be done with it, after all the time taken to click a link and hear a song is probably going to be less than the time taken to read a full review beforehand. Beyond the boundaries of nostalgia is the distinction between listener and reviewer even a useful one any more? It is after all a hierarchical idea, one which relies on self appointed specialists to pass judgement on highly subjective art; but for the depth and (hopefully) quality of the opinion and writing the experience is almost the same as a judge on X Factor dictating that Sexually Ambiguous Boy Y is the height of musical excellence in our world. Why shouldn’t people simply rely on the recommendations and acclaim offered by friends? By strangers? By anonymous ratings stapled on to albums even? Why should they rely on any system of exploration at all in fact? Why not just download everything and find out for yourself?
Time is, I suppose, a factor. I listen to a fistful of albums a day so other people don’t have to, but then for most of the people who visit TCUC that’s nothing surprising. Without meaning to inflate too many egos the sort of people who move around the free music scene are, usually, the sort of people who’re adjusted enough to these new means of distribution to be able to selectively rake through just as many albums as I do without breaking a sweat. They’re self-sufficient listeners and as more and more new distribution structures emerge that model of self-motivated exploration and micro reviewing (a la Jamendo) is going to increasingly become the norm.
All of which is an awful lot to say against something which I (fairly obviously) love doing. I still write full length reviews, I still promote the concept of doing so and I still run a site which is based on them. What’s my justification? I’m often not entirely sure. There’s certainly an aspect of self-indulgence to it, egotism as to the value of my own opinions, joy to be found in the simple act of listening and writing, learning to be done from delving deeper into the music than I may otherwise do. But they’re all positives which are individual to me, not my readers. Perhaps more tangible benefits can be found in more dormant aspects of musical society. Reviewers still hold a role as historians, reflecting the experience of the music in a certain period of time. A one line thumbs up won’t offer context, it won’t draw a trail from any given album back to previous trends, it won’t represent a historical document to those who will eventually look backwards at this period of art in general.
Reviewers are also the crossing point, they provide an entry point for those who aren’t adepts of the new cultural/electronic landscape, they offer up something which regardless of actual content comes in a format which is familiar to most. And of course the nature of the writing comes in to play. A review can be entertaining, it can be interesting, even if it offers up no new conclusions or ideas it can still be a valid read and at the harder end of the reviewing spectrum you still have those hardened technical experts and conceptualists who delve so deep into the music as to make their work a rich and deep guide for others to follow. You may love or hate a certain album but a good reviewer can still explain the ideas behind it to you, they can still expose another aspect of the music which previously lay unseen, even if you do still hate it at the end.
More generally though reviewing as a craft is changing and it will have to change. Just as free music creates artists who’re far more involved with their fans, far more involved with the promotion and propagation of their music so we’ll have reviewers who are more and more active within any given community. Reviewers who are more level with their audiences. The age of hierarchical diktats is certainly passing but to have individuals who love music, who think about music and who involve themselves in it at all levels is still a useful part of its evolution. Perhaps the review is set to be more of a tool in a wider spectrum of activity on the writers part. We’ll see.