Thursday, June 30, 2011

One step behind: the consumer-critic

Do you always keep au courant with the music or does the weekly slew of new material prove too much? Do you give up, resign yourself to tips from mates or retreat into the endless commuter catalogue of your oedipod? And if you do keep up, do you feel obliged to use your social media to publish your take on your hot d/ls? If it’s enough for you to have the new sounds and refrain from reviewing them back out into web infinity, you could be in the minority. The tendency now is for us all to be sophisticated and frequent music consumer-critics, enabled as we are by social media.

Not quite at the position yet of Can’t Keep Up so Wont Keep Up, nevertheless I am beginning to say No a lot more. The constant stream of genres, styles and producers is more amusing than baffling and not something to put me off; ostensibly I like a lot of the new sounds. And I can afford to buy stuff every week (especially if I decide I want it on d/l). But I find I often let my initial enthusiasm slip away to the point when the urge to click Buy is far less pressing. Could I really trust my own evaluation of the new release after a few streams? Anyway, I’m not really going to have the time to appreciate it. If valuing the listening experience is still what it’s about. So I fail to take my copy of the Hot New Release from the ether, leaving the reggae reissue, that exotic orientalist retro or that prized jungle or grime mix on the counter too.

I’m also bemoaning the lack of definitive critical authority out there, perhaps nostalgic for an NME-like issuing of a Judgment on a big release (even when you know they might have thrown a curveball by giving it to an avowed critic of the band under review). Early underground blogworld could deliver this too: some delving deep into the musicology of an act; others looking at the wider picture of what they represent, the former a click away via a link from the latter. But the intensity of this medium has dissipated after all the good bloggers got siphoned off by online magazines and social media diverted energies/priorities.

Don’t get me wrong, good, unsullied-by-commerce criticism is out there (as well as average album rating sites for the time-poor) but granulated and dispersed to a million little corners of the web. Sure your personalised aggregators can pull it in but it’s not the same as the push-to verdict delivered by one or two voices.

Download technology just means ‘free’ to too many. It now seems that due to music’s relative financial and cultural impoverishment in the web piracy era that there is also much more obligation to big up everything, to represent rather than criticise, in order to keep it alive. Fact is a good example – of course it’s a brilliant portal for new music but you won’t find much criticism in their reviews. (It’s possible worthy and longer-form criticism may be more suited to the old culture of the landmark rock or indie release than the new microcosmic output, where it seems buying an old-skool tape with a download code for a digital version of the same tracks can give us as much pleasure than the actual music therein. But I think it’s the processes alienating us from criticism rather than anything inherent in the music itself; I’m certain that despite all the hip noise obstacles the producer still wants his output to be lauded and applauded).

But the democratising effect of our loving machines means that in various ways we have all become stakeholders in this Keeping Music Alive (please calm down with the upper-casing!). The growth of social media is muddying the waters again of music criticism. I do my bit here and there with 140-character overenthusiasm like everyone else, syndicating mixes, tweeting fave releases, adding to the noise [for me this is almost a proxy to the fast declining experience of sharing the music itself in a physical space with someone, anyone...]. All of this strains criticism, but ironically can serve the act better than the glowing review – publicity of the hyperbolic kind (spreading the message as everybody can get to get hear it one way or another) goes further (in the near term) than the big judgment. Again the democratising mirage makes us more like to distrust the top-down judgment (which are now generally to be found in weekend broadsheets anyway).

All this is making me realise there’s actually much more exploring to be done of the relationships between producers, consumers, publishers and critics in the modern web-dominated music business. Are these perfect feedback loops ending up in music too consciously geared to listener expectations? And how much of it is trying to buck insidious pigeonholing and appeal not only to the youngers but also to the ageing commentariat?

Too much doesn’t necessarily too meaningless, but in the network age more than ever it’s up to us to find the right steers to make sense of it all. It’s not the case that I’m drifting into the cloud, owning nothing and developing/consolidating my tastes via LastFm and Spotify (still of course a trackable record of our likes though tellingly they have little to convey about our dislikes). I still want to be on the big tune or the hot producers/bands, have that in my hand or on my desktop ready to blare out. But the glut and its infinite syndication seems to be inducing perverse responses. Or call them tactical withdrawals.

So don’t feel the music depends on you, don’t feel the Conversation depends on you. Don’t attempt to keep up. Let the guidance back in (from people who have time to really assess the music because it’s their jobs) and be selective, and maybe keep some of it just to yourself. You wont be missing out, either from the hot new stuff or from the conversation about it, as much as you think.
[next post will be more fanboy-than-critic impressions of stuff brought over the last few months, not hasty reviews of stuff out in the last few minutes]
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