The Ethics of Music Criticism

Steeped in subjectivity, music criticism is always likely to upset someone…

Who do we write for?

Such a question underpins the journalism industry, particularly in the consumer markets. Are we writing for ourselves, a publication, a reader, or even for the PR Officers? The only thing I’m sure of is that, in some way, each of those answers is wrong…

Take music criticism. It’s a battlefield, and writers are on the front line. We’re suited and booted, armed with naught but our wits and coffee, going over the top to besiege an album, a single, a gig. But first, we must cross the journalist’s no-man’s-land – we’ve got to get past the readers.

We step from track to track, ever more aware of the landmines underfoot. What if we dare to disagree? Who are we upsetting with our words of disapproval? Is it even worth having an opinion?

For the smaller titles and the bloggers, it seems niceness is a necessary evil. The last thing we want to do is burn a PR person so early in a fledgling career. So we make the most of a poor album. We find the silver linings and, if we’re feeling brave, throw in the odd backhanded compliment. It always shows, though, when writers don’t believe in their words. I’d take healthy creative writing over brown-nosing any day.

On this site, my rule is simply not to write bad reviews. If I get an album and don’t like it, I won’t write about it. Admittedly the freedom to choose what to write about is a luxury – had I been writing for a publication, I’d have to bite the bullet. But I’d ask myself – why bother?

To save people money? Perhaps. But the readers of such a modest blog are the die-hards. Regardless of my fair warnings, they’ll pop out and get the album. What’s more, they’ll like it. When fans disagree with writers, authority goes out the window. Opinion ceases to be such, and we find ourselves battered by a tirade of discontent. All for having a gut feeling…

So, is it best to write from a fan’s perspective? Having done so before, I say certainly not. Trying to do so it to undermine the privilege of being a ‘hack’. I’m not an authority, an oracle or a ground-breaker – I’m just a writer who loves to engage music fans and offer my thoughts unto them. Why would I sacrifice that in the name of cowardice?

One concession I would make is context. It may be wrong to review an album from the fans’ perspective, but an understanding about the ways in which a CD’s popularity is framed is a handy tool. I may not like Justin Bieber, or any of his songs, but in order to write a coherent review, it would be wise to understand WHY he’s so popular. That way, should I be forced to sit through an entire album of his and write about it, the review becomes less like a petulant attack on an artist, and more like a considered response, which may soften the blow for all parties.

My decision to not review albums I dislike is based on a desire to use my time wisely. Admittedly, that’s a self-glorifying assumption, and I never want to assume that my ignorance is justified. But the beauty of music writing is in the subjectivity. If we take that away, all we’re left with is a platter of topped-and-tailed press releases. Who would engage with that?

So, fans of the world. I ask you to lay down your (metaphorical) quills of rage. Call off the mutiny against critics who have wronged you. Instead, let’s celebrate different opinions. Encourage us to question the music sent our way. We don’t want to tell you what to like, we just want to offer an opinion. If you’ll let us, that is.

Who knows, we may even have a healthy debate…

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