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Dance Business Asia: The economics of music reviews — the good, the bad...and why they're still a thing

“Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, critique”.

  • Otto Clubman
  • 16 November 2020

Welcome back to Dance Business Asia, Mixmag Asia’s monthly column focusing on the business of dance music in the region. Dance Business Asia dives deep into the business issues confronted by artists, managers and promoters. We look at the economics of dance music in Asia to see what’s working, what isn’t, and how issues can be addressed. The column also features interviews with movers and shakers on the business end of the industry in the region. Your guide, Otto Clubman, is a music industry executive with over twenty years of experience in the dance business.

I hate Critics. Book critics, restaurant critics, movie critics. I’m not sure if this is an actual adage, but it should be: “Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, critique”.

Of course, the worst of the lot, as I’ve mentioned in previous columns, are Wine Critics. The gall of those patronizing know-it-alls telling the world which vino is “good” and which bottle isn’t. Even those Critics who go out of their way to make their columns appear to be non-patronizing and “accessible” to the common folk (e.g. “Wine for Non-Wine Drinkers” or “The Approachable Guide to Choosing a Wine that’s Right for You”– I made those up, but you’ve seen similar columns) almost prove my very point by protesting way too much that they are indeed so not being snooty at all -- they are writing their column so that you, a layman, can understand it. Thanks, Jerk.

True, as previously discussed, my drink of choice growing up was Zima, so, you can see my middle-brow pedigree. But, even if I came from a fancier side of town, I’d still be offended. How dare they try to “rank art”? (Isn’t wine-making an art, subject to personal taste?). It’s easy to be bamboozled into letting someone dubbed an “expert” by the press lead you to doubt your own judgment. And, furthermore, doesn’t one destroy art by trying to describe it? How can you describe a taste with words? In that case, why not describe a movie with a song? Or a poem with a glass of wine? Can one form of art be used to critique another?

"It’s easy to be bamboozled into letting someone dubbed an “expert” by the press lead you to doubt your own judgment."

Which brings us to Music Critics.

I used to revere them. In high school, I would run to the corner General Store after class in my small town, anxiously grabbing the fresh copy of Rolling Stone magazine from the news rack. I’d anxiously peek inside, looking for the “Stars”, hoping the review would confirm my own views. Four stars for the new Van Halen album. Yes! And, why did I trust this publication? Mostly because they validated my own personal taste. But if they happened to not like my favourite group at the moment, then, of course, I’d immediately conjure a host of excuses: “That reviewer just doesn’t get it” or “He was probably in a bad mood the day he listened to it”. (It’s kind of like believing the tally of an election when you win it, and not accepting the results when you lose; seeking excuses for the result).

But, as a grew up, I started to think about who was actually writing the reviews. What were their credentials? Why did I even care how many stars they gave the new Depeche Mode? I liked the music, either way.

These days, one can preview — or listen for free — to almost any song on the planet. Click…and for thirty seconds we can see if we like the track for ourselves; without the need to rely on an, ahem, an Expert to bring good music to our attention. So, that begs the question: What’s the need for Music Reviews (and Music Reviewers) in the modern world? Why does this field of critique still even exist?

Well, as usual, economics has something to do with it…

The Good (of Music Reviews)

First, before diving into the economics, let’s not overlook a few of the benefits that a good Music Critics can bring to our lives.

It is estimated the 50,000 new songs are released on Spotify every single day. Over the course of a year, that’s…a lot of new songs (I’m not going to do the math here). No human being with a fulltime job could sort through all of these, trying to dig up what’s most interesting, innovative, worthy of consideration. So, one could argue that a good music critic (who has nothing to do but listen to music all day), can serve the role of bringing interesting music to light. They can highlight exciting developments on the scene and serve up insight as to what is worth three minutes of one’s time. Now, like a wine critic, I’d rather they not pass absolute judgement; but they can add color, insight and context. So, fine, I’ll concede: In a world where too much content to digest is flowing through the veins of Spotify (and the other platforms) with scant filter or quality control, it doesn’t hurt to have an insightful, educated tour guide. (Now, whether most music critics rise to this level is another question entirely).

Second, a good critic may help deserving bands / singers / DJs with limited resources reach an audience they might not have otherwise have touched. Big record companies can plough hundreds of thousands of dollars into a new single from a group they have signed. Essentially, they can force their way to the front of the line. Sure, they can’t “make” you like it, but they can maximize the chances…or at least wear you down into submission. They can put Shawn Mendes in front of you all day and all night, until you have no choice by to give it a spin. But for other worthy artists without major label support, it’s hard to compete and be seen. A well-versed, thoughtful critic can help bring these diamonds in the rough to attention, highlighting acts that one may not have noticed amid all the marketing hoopla for the big acts. Accordingly, I would argue that this is a worthy service that the best music critics can provide, even in this digital age. Again, with 50,000 songs a day hitting the market, maybe number 49,940 is the true masterpiece, but you many never get there as a listener without someone calling it out for attention. I’m all for this kind of review that sheds light on a deserving underdog!

The Bad (of Music Reviews)

And the downside of music reviews? First, in my opinion, reviews may give undue weight to one individual who may / or may not have a clue. And even if they do have a clue, music is a mostly subjective art anyway. One man’s thrasher metal is another’s concerto, and vice versa. Who’s to say what’s good and what’s not? Every reviewer has their own subjective biases, tastes, proclivities and blind spots. Ok, it’s fine amongst friends to express an opinion. But, an Opinion plus a Platform can be dangerous. Just because an individual writes for Billboard, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork etc. doesn’t make them right. Somehow, they just scored a cool gig reviewing music. They have a big megaphone but it doesn’t mean their opinion is correct; or relevant to you.

Also, for every album or record reviewed, the other 49,999 of the day are left unreviewed. It seems pretty arbitrary sometimes as to which tracks are selected for reviews. Sometimes, as mentioned above, a big record company may be able to push their songs to the front of the line for review, further blocking out exposure for the little guys. That doesn’t seem fair. As Neil Peart reminded us, “Glittering prizes and endless compromises, shatter the illusion of integrity.” Or, in other words, who is standing up for the little guy, the new girl, the artist without a label but an amazing track, to get a review and see the light of day?

The antidote to this, of course, are those select, enlightened music critics who are able to resist the temptation to merely review the latest Shawn Mendes release (no offense, Shawn), and dig deeper into an industry to review other deserving tracks and artists, to provide context and insight, and to educate the reader. These reviewers exist; they are just a few and far between.

Why they're still a thing?

In this digital age when everyone can sample any piece of music at will, with almost no financial risk for a “bad decision” (i.e. buying a clunker CD, which I did many times back in the day, at a great cumulative expense), why do Music Reviews still exist? Why haven’t reviewers become extinct out of sheer irrelevancy in this digital age? Well, a few reasons, some artist and some financial.

First, economics: Music reviews are still good for business. Just as a good review from a well-known wine critic can have a direct effect on the market price of a fine wine, a good music review can drive record sales (or, these days, more likely, streams). Studies have shown that positive reviews can increase consumption in products across categories by 18% or more. The music industry is no exception. A decent review can generate interest, positive buzz, and serve as a “call to action” – especially for new fans. Existing fans, of course, were probably likely to stream the new David Guetta or Shawn Mendes track, no matter what the review said. Fans tend to be loyal and rationalize / discount reviews that don’t line up with their own world view. However, a good review on a well-read platform can pique the interest of new potential fans, urging them to try and buy. As a result, record labels, artists and managers have an economic interest in seeing this industry survive. Thus, they’ve always been willing to make their songs available for review, and their artists available for interviews.

"Advertising draws money. So, publishers still keep the Music Reviewers around."

But what about the bad press? Doesn’t a crappy review drive down sales? I haven’t seen specific data, but my educated guess would be: Nope. A bad review probably drives sales up too. Any press is good press, as they say. As mentioned, a 1-Star review from the dim-wit that just didn’t “get” Van Halen II wouldn’t have stopped me from shelling out $14.99 (Seriously, that’s how much a CD cost in the 1990s!). In fact, a bad review would have probably encouraged me to buy two copies of it, to prove the reviewer wrong. Just the exposure in the review leads to broader name recognition and awareness. Casual music fans tend to forget the “bad review” part but remember the artist’s name…so they might be willing to lean in when that artist pops up on a platform, and give it a try. So, I hereby posit that the economics of all reviews — good and bad — are favourable for artists, record labels, and managers.

As for the Music Publications, reviews remain a generator of good economics for them too. As mentioned the best music reviews provide: education, enlightenment, knowledge. Readers are drawn to this. The worst music reviews provide: gossip, muck-raking, shlock. Readers are drawn to this too. Avid music fans will almost always gravitate to a review of an artist they like, and casual readers will consume these snack-size articles for entertainment and knowledge. As a result, reviews draw eyeballs. Eyeballs draw advertising.

Advertising draws money. So, publishers still keep the Music Reviewers around.

Finally, what’s the economic case for readers / music fans? In the old days, I’d say that a reviewer you trust and that you know is in line with your personal taste could help save you a poorly spent $14.99 on a CD. These days, however, you can either sample everything or consume as part of an “all you can eat” package at no additional cost, so that argument is out the window. Well, we can argue that “time is money”, and a good review can help point you towards worthy / interesting songs and keep you away from the time-wasters. Over the course of a lifetime, those cumulative increments of “three minutes saved” could add up to a week or so of your life. So, you can thank the Critics for that.

From the fan’s perspective, I’d argue more that there is more of a benefit on the knowledge front, in the case of the well-written reviews. Did you ever read a New York Times Book Review? The best of them not only tell you if the book was good or bad (actually, the best ones rarely tell you that). Instead, they provide history, context and colour to help understand who the author is, why they wrote the book, the book’s place in the literary world and maybe then provide some subjective views on it. You can learn about a whole new world from just reading a single book review. The best Music Criticism can do the same. Reading a review about a sub-genre you’ve never listened to before — let’s stick with Thrasher Metal — can open an entirely new world to you, well beyond the judgement of the actual song or album itself. This is the real value-add that great Music Critics should strive for. Open new worlds to the readers, and explain the place of this particular piece of art within that world. It’s rare; but amazing when it happens.

Read more from Otto Clubman here

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