Reviews – important or not?
The role of the reviewer is sometimes difficult to gauge. As a reviewer, I once asked a record label owner whether reviews made a difference. He replied it was hard to tell. It is difficult to get answers yet a lot of people request a review. So, I put out an open question asking musicians, labels and venues to respond. I did not expect much back as even when musicians have asked in the past, they got almost zero response.
Photo by William A. Clark (Flickr)
I asked: What is the value of reviews if any? Do they actually help? If so how, if not, why
The response I got was intense and surprising. To give context, I review for 3 columns – each with a different market and leaning towards different genres within jazz music (and sometimes outside it). I have had 2 books on jazz commissioned and published and am now on my third (my 6th book overall). For most reviews I get no payment – partly because I feel reviews should be unbiased and also because it enables me to make choices and I am able to put people who should be heard (in my opinion), in front of potential listeners. For me, I guess that justifies what I do. I have been asked and would like to review professionally but not to be told what to write – and this is difficult with commercial papers. They would be taking on not only a slightly Maverick reviewer (a reputation I enjoy and my editors approve of (mostly)) but the material would not always tie in with how magazines generate income to stay afloat. The last commission I accepted was fine until the editor tried to tell me exactly how to write – what was the point in asking me to review? It raised doubts in my mind – and a lot of questions.
Hence the question; What do reviews actually achieve?
The reactions were so varied the only way to weave this together coherently was to divide the answers into sections. So, here are the responses from musicians, listeners, PR companies and others.
Overall, musicians see reviews as having value and purpose. When a musician or band release a new album they want to make some noise – they might make promo videos, media announcements of new collaborations and they also want reviews.
Reviews offer the chance for external feedback. An objective review of your work can give it reality so you see it more objectively.
For bands hoping to increase their audiences, reviews are important. Some musicians believe reading how the music made an unbiased reviewer feel can make them aware of different aspects of their music (or how factors they felt were present are not apparent to an objective listener).
Reviews are also important for festival and venue curators looking for a new band or a variation to their program. Curators need a decent line up and if they are told about a band, reviews are one of their ports of call to gain a feel for the band’s worth. Speaking to an agent or talking to their manager will not be as objective as reviews. For PR companies looking for bands to promote it is important to represent clients who are likely to be successful so reviews are important, especially if you haven’t managed to catch them live. Reviews therefore are part of the tool kit for understanding a band’s or musician’s presence and where they might fit.
One promoter told me, ” I find reviews very helpful and they have helped me decide whether to take a band or consider them for a tour.” Another told me, “I always check out reviews by particular reviewers – then I have to see the band too of course.”
It is important to note too that the role of reviews has changed in recent years. At one time, listeners found out more about a musician or band through magazines or mainstream media. Musicians made money from selling recordings. Now it is different. Some people have told me they never pay for music because it is shared, which is a problem for musicians trying to make a living. Less money is made from recordings unless you are a mega star selling zillions of tracks online. So, some musicians rely more on money from gigs and merchandise sold at gigs. Reviewers have a changed role; they are not the only way people can get to know about a band. People can see reviews and comments left on media sites and video sites for example. They can see reactions on social media. So, is the role of the reviewer less important? For most musicians it seems not.
Many musicians enjoy getting reviews. One told me, “Some of us really like getting reviews. Really, we do”, because they want an opinion from a reviewer they trust.
It is important for musicians to have a healthy response to reviews as well. One musician succinctly summed it up when he said, ” I have a love/hate relationship with critics. I don’t put any stock in their opinions (good or bad), but I realize a good review can keep my band working. ”
For PR, reviews can provide a link to the potential audience in terms of providing a stepping stone to getting work, growing a fan base, adding to the press kit. The musicians will have material to quote.
All this is cool but how then do you take a bad review? Even the most successful musicians have had a bad review. Reviewers are people, they are opinionated people, so you will get good and not so good reviews. Most musicians say a bad review hurts and it can put them off their game temporarily, or make them doubt their worth but others say poor reviews make them stronger. If it is well written, they can learn and actually benefit from a less than ecstatic review. Constructive criticism in reviews can be useful. An honest review with positive, instructive critique can help a musician understand how their music is heard by an outsider. Only once have I had a musician ask a piece to be changed when I (gently) pointed out she was flat for a phrase (because she was and it detracted from an otherwise gorgeous number) but generally, musicians understand that different people hear things differently and a review acts as feedback. Criticism can also be positive if it is constructive. For example saying the artist has more to come, is evolving and so on with backed up reasoning is good for a musician (remembering this is just opinion).
Some reviews however are just nasty and say more about the reviewer than the musicians. I recently read one where the reviewer informed the readers he, personally, had never heard of this (4 times Parliamentary award winner) female musician, was not familiar with some of the tracks (2 were standards and 3 had been on her previous albums) and that the club was a ‘bit dark’ and he remembered it when it was called something else. Towards the end he added a paragraph on the gig. He didn’t enjoy himself it seems. The piece was more about the reviewer than the music and he offered no insights at all. Considering he had not paid for his ticket, got free drinks and left after the first half when the musician in question dared to disagree with him on something (I was told this later), it was a strange read. The reader was left wondering what the gig was actually like. Another review by the same writer was openly homophobic and spent much of the review discussing his lack of familiarity with the songs (mostly standards) , with a final 2 paragraphs on the actual recording .
Good reviewers would set the scene, discuss the band and singer briefly and put it in context for the reader, then discuss the music, engagement etc.
It is also amusing to hear musicians describe writers. Generally, if things go well, the writer is a reviewer. If not, they are called a critic.
Overall, it seems many musicians value and welcome reviews. They are a tool to help them reach a broader audience. In all cases though, musicians value review more if the writer has a way with words and the publication, whether in paper or online, has ‘clout’. They are helpful for labels and reflect their good choice of putting out a musician’s work and they can open doors to even more exposure and tours.
Some musicians do not give reviews much attention though. A few say they don’t have time to read them, they have been hurt by negative ones and therefore stopped reading them. One even told me they had read a review where the reviewer showed no understanding of the music at all. The band still got gigs so the reviews – to them- are meaningless.
So, it seems the jury is split regarding musicians, though more are in favour of reviews than not.
At the end of the day, a review is an expression of opinion. It is a review, a reaction at that time, it is not the divine finger pointing and picking fault. Just a review, just an opinion and you can ignore it if you want to. We are reviewers, not God.
The feedback from people who enjoy music was interesting. There is a scary amount of music out there with new material becoming available all the time. Although it is possible to listen to music for free, people want to own a great playlist or find new acts to see. This is where reviewers come in as a sort of curator (or trusted friend as one described it). They can interpret the vast amount out there for the would-be buyer or audience member. Reviewers can’t cover everything though, so this also means that that there is probably some awesome material out there that we will never know about.
A reviewer with good knowledge will direct readers towards good music; they may help focus attention and even bring a different aspect or a new act to the reader. One person told me, “As a music lover first and foremost, I have bought many albums from reading reviews. Sometimes musicians/bands don’t tour or gig locally so a review will often lead me to discovering music I may not have.”
Now that we don’t have the ‘gatekeepers’ – people in label offices who let the public see a few artists at a time, releasing a few records at a time and carefully tailoring their artists to suit a market- anyone can release a recording which, for listeners and music fans, makes it difficult to find the good stuff. Many people rely on reviewers for help with that. I found this surprising as I had not really thought how people navigated amongst the new music produced on a regular basis.
Reviews are considered more trustworthy than adverts and press releases because obviously what a label says about their artist or a PR company puts out about their clients are going to be positive. So, for readers, the reviewer can convey the feeling of a piece of work, the artist’s intentions and background to a recording and help the listener frame the work within the bigger picture.
Knowledgeable and well informed reviewers can introduce new listeners to more experimental music in a more meaningful way sometimes perhaps. One reader told me that if it were not for reviews, they would not have got into jazz.
The hidden sides to reviews
If you think every review you read is objective, think again. Many are but it is also important to read reviews with a couple of caveats. Firstly, the reviewer is one person. Their knowledge has limits and many reviewers are not musicians. Secondly, if writing for free, most reviewers are going to review music they like. Personally, I turn down more requests than I review – and why not when a negative review can hurt? If something does not work for me, it is maybe going to work for another writer. Paid reviews are different. A commissioned review can, in theory, be negative or positive so long as you justify your opinion but this is not always the case.
Magazines and website have outlays. They have staff to pay in some cases and they have websites to run. All this costs money. So, unless they have deep pockets it is unlikely larger magazines and sites they are going to be publishing reviews without charge to anyone unless they are publishing their own reviews due to their passion for the music (and there are some small sites who do just that).
Most sites take adverts – either from artists promoting their music, PR companies or maybe venues promoting their activities. This potentially brings into question whether reviews can ever be completely objective. If a label is paying for adverts on your site, do you publish negative reviews of their artists? If a writer is paid by a PR company, will they write a negative review? If a PR company advertises their services on a site, will the site publish a negative review of an artist the company represents? Tricky questions. Yet it is not wrong to take money in order to keep a site or magazine alive, it is just that readers need to judge and be aware.
The line maybe become blurred years back when record labels started ‘bribing’ magazines in different ways as some see it (placing large adverts for a band’s tour for example) in the magazine. The magazine is more likely to review favourably in this case. Some musicians may feel that because of how magazines work, there is a sense of rewarding and promoting mediocrity. You can be ‘brilliant’, 5 star’ and ‘ a great new find’- if you can afford it.
So what about the genuine star who emerges and cannot afford to pay for reviews? It is then they have to hope they find a reviewer who is empathetic, who understand their music and can spot quality, but they may not. It is too glib to say , ‘ if they are good, they will be successful’ because there are many react acts out there who never get a break because they get lost in the crowd and reviewers miss them. However, sometimes this is where a good and incisive amateur reviewer can come into their own. They can bring that musician to the attention of people who need to hear them ( in the reviewer’s opinion), they can maybe get them radio play and then, they can sit back and watch them shine, given as they are now, the tools with which to do so.
There are ‘reviewers’ who are lazy and this is an area difficult to understand. You will see ‘reviews’ of artists which resemble each other because they are all tweaks of the EPK (Electronic Press Kit) put out by the PR company. This happens a lot with well known bands because the reviewers wants to be able to say ‘ I reviewed (xyz)’. So you get lots of reviews saying almost the same thing because the reviewer just tweaked the press review and not really listened to the music.
You can also buy a ‘good’ review. There are ‘reviewers out there who offer 5 star reviews for a high fee, 4 stars for less money and this without ever listening to the music until a contract is agreed. Many people are not aware of this practice but it happens. What does this do for impartiality and quality? I became aware of the practice when a musician explained after she offered me money for a review because she assumed this was how it was done. Having said all this I do occasionally get paid by one PR company but before we went ahead we agreed the reviews had to remain objective and would not automatically be positive. For me that was important because I write for readers who are discerning and intelligent, not sheep (apologies to sheep).
It is difficult for an artist to hide poor reviews. A simply internet search will bring up reviews, good and bad but of course more labels/PR companies only share the positive reviews to gain momentum for their clients, so might some critics be encouraged to only write positive reviews to the increased exposure the will get as well?
The point is, read the review with awareness. As a reviewer it still comes as a surprise when you are told a magazine will run your review if you can persuade the label or musician to place an advert with them because, whilst it is perhaps understandable, it is bribery.
The importance of the reviewer
Many people told me that it is not just getting a review but also getting particular reviewers that makes a difference. Anyone can write a review. Your mate can put a review on a blog and it might be insightful and well written but unless your mate is known for their integrity and knowledge, it will not help in terms of marketing you.
Many musicians said they aim to get reviews from particular writers because they know these people get read – a lot. Some also aim for particular reviewers they know understand their kind of music ( note to musicians – do your research). Certain reviewers, columnists in magazines and bloggers carry more weight than others due to their knowledge, listening ability and time they give a review. You won’t get a re-hash of the EPK from them. You will get how the recording came about, how the band got together perhaps, who is in the band, any meaningful background and maybe a direct quote from the artist. The review will let you feel the music, or understand the atmosphere at a live gig and put it into context.
Some columns are seen as more valuable than others. These include ( the list is not exhaustive): Something Else Reviews, free Jazz Collective, Jazz Views, Straight No Chaser, The Jazz Mann, All About Jazz and there are more. Within the columns, if they have multiple contributors, there are particular reviewers musicians aim for. These include ( but again, this is not an exhaustive list) Brian Morton, Pete Margasak, Nick Lea, Lee Rice Epstein, Victor Aaron, Adrian Pallant and there are others just as engaging.
Because it was raised more than once ( and with passion in two cases) , it is also worth including the sexism which still prevails in music and is encouraged by musicians who mine the erotic seam. It is still true that females who sit half naked at a piano playing crap will get more attention and therefore potentially reviews than a male player who is a rework of Ellington. A glance at some pinned pictures on Twitter will give you some idea of those still plying this ancient method to get attention. It works to some extent but readers need to discern, as do reviewers, the talent which lies behind the pictures and the longevity of both. It is aimed at men, which are just half of the potential audience. Talent, on the other hand, aims at everyone. Just putting that out there because it came up.
So, why do writers review?
This question got a range of answers. The reasons include that it is about documenting the music. It is also about sharing the music a reviewer is passionate about and trying to allow others to understand the feelings it brings about. For me, it is about all the above but also how it connects us with the past and makes us look to the future and not repeat historical events connected with the music. Plus, I get something out of watching an artist I gave a platform to – whether this is in a review of on the radio – and seeing them soar – watching what they can do given that chance. I am lucky to have people who believe in me so I understand how it is important for a musicians to have writers believe in them. For other writers, it is about connecting with people – seeing their name at the head or foot of a review, something permanent. It gives them material to cite when looking for other work and it is about gaining respect and connection with musicians of immense talent. About being part of a community.
Most musicians say making music is their top priority ( along with family and friends) . Next comes admin for their band/self/business and then all the rest including promoters/reviews. But reviews are definitely in the tool box.
SAMMY STEIN, may 6th 2020
First printed Mats Gustafsson's webstite: http://matsgus.com