August 01

Why Music Reviews Still Matter

I was talking to a music journalist the other day who suggested that music reviews don’t matter, because nobody reads music reviews.  I wouldn’t be surprised if people don’t read reviews as much as they used to, but the claim implicitly appeals to a belief that the social function of reviews is to funnel listeners to albums based on the review. That is, that the reader reads a review that says something complimentary about an album, and so decides to get the album because the review says that the record is good. It is a useful function no doubt. This is why reviews are part of the bread and butter of old school music promotion. Reviews have a function as a promotional tool because outlets have a readership which can be counted on (in theory) to read the reviews posted to an outlet, and buy the album in question based on a review saying that the record is a good one. (And relatedly, it’s because this account of funneling is increasingly false in the modern day that the value of reviews has been more recently questioned).

There is a different social function that reviews have, however. It’s a function which I believe has fallen in stature somewhat, which is that of allowing upward (and downward) social mobility. This is to say that reviews can (in principle) give a musician the opportunity to be publicly evaluated and placed in a position that is higher or lower than other musicians, regardless of their finances, connections or general social stature, based simply on the quality of the record. So, if a relative unknown releases a very good record, if everything is working as it should, then a reviewer will review the record, and give it a very good review. And if a well known artist releases a very average record, if everything is working as it should, then a reviewer will review the record, and give it a very average review. There is then a good case to make that the relative unknown deserves more recognition, and vice versa. This isn’t to say that a good review is a guarantee of success, fame and fortune, because the world is very complicated place. But it tends to, ceteris paribus, move things in that direction. Moreover, and this is important, there are very few other music institutions that serve this function. In fact, it’s because music reviews uniquely serve this function that it’s important to attend to.

Of course, there are people who will insert the relativist bogeyman here and say, “but who is anyone to say that one record is better than another?”. One could take up the position of relativism, but it turns out that nobody who really listens to music actually seems to hold onto that position with any real vigor or consistency. And in fact, the relativist bogeyman always seems to come in whenever someone wants to preserve the status quo. It’s why every relativist about music always seems to have a really important opinion whenever Year End Best Of lists come around and the like. So, I will dispense with that viewpoint as a form of sea-lioning.

Turning back to social mobility, this function of reviews is not unlike that of the public school system, which (in theory) puts students on an equal playing field, where students’ individual merits can shine, allowing them opportunities that would only be available via family connections, social status, and the like. The comparison with public education is especially apt on a normative level, because both the public school system and journalism have intrinsically public-facing constitutive aims. The public school system (in principle) provides opportunities to all members of the American public. It does this, in part, because Americans need a minimum skill set in order to participate as effective citizens of the nation. But also, it (in principle) gives everyone the ability to achieve at the very highest level, making it the case that, say, anyone can become President of the United States.

Journalism has similar public-facing constitutive aims. Because Americans have the right to know about things that affect them, journalists have a duty to keep the public informed of important goings-on – even if reporting on those goings-on do not particularly serve the elites or the ruling class. In fact, journalists have a duty to keep the public informed of important goings on – even if the public itself doesn’t ex-ante prefer or isn’t interested in stories of that kind. And as the arts provide a great benefit to society, journalists have a duty to keep the public aware of the most important music that is being released. Regardless of whether those artists are popular, or well-connected, or financially well off, or the like. Because society does better being aware of better art. Or at least that is the story I would like to tell.

I think push-back from this kind of thinking comes in the form of “good enough” reasoning that I’ve seen bandied about online by writers and editors, especially in response to the criticism that well-known musicians too often come from wealthy or connected backgrounds. The justification is given that (1) just because you are wealthy or connected doesn’t mean that you are bad. Or (2) that perhaps the wealth and connections gave these musicians extra musical development that made them better musicians than people with less wealth and connections.

The second form of reasoning is flatly a non-sequitur because it doesn’t justify ignoring the social mobility function – it only provides a weak predictive factor for how the results will pan out, given one empirical observation. The prediction is that if musicians are weighed fairly against one another, then the wealthy and connected will tend to come out ahead because of the advantages they had in their development. It doesn’t justify music journalism ignoring its fairness obligations.

The first form of reasoning, I think, reveals a kind of limitation on people’s beliefs as to what music and art is capable of. Suppose Princeton University adjusts its admissions standards and only admits legacy students and students with parents that make contributions to the new library wing. People would be up in arms, no? Even if they didn’t have a dog in the race (read: child applying to Princeton). And how good of a response would it be from Princeton to say, “Hey, look this isn’t a problem. I guarantee you that the legacy students and children of benefactors that we admit, are pretty smart kids.” People would consider it to be a very bad response. After all, the issue isn’t whether the legacy student is smart. The issue is whether they were the smartest. And this issue ties in inherently with public commitments of the institution. Princeton publicly claims that it strives for excellence and surrounds students with other students who represent the best and brightest new students every year. Much like music institutions publicly commit to providing listeners with the best new music every week, month or year.

But actually there’s a lot more. We will set aside a kind of rights issue which might rear its head, for a variety of reasons. (After all, the smartest kids were also the most deserving of admissions to Princeton, in comparison to the legacy children – a separate but related issue).

But the claim here isn’t just that a smarter student should have gotten into Princeton University. The issue is that a smarter student has a much better chance of doing something more important for the world. After all, Princeton University isn’t just an institution which ranks students and tells everyone who the best and brightest students are, like a sorting hat for 18-22 year olds. It’s an institution that trains students who will be future leaders and will do great things after they graduate. And it’s because these further outcomes are so important that the integrity of its sorting function so crucial. Maybe this student will become President of the United States. Maybe this student will fucking cure cancer. And an institution increases the likelihood of these odds by ensuring that they pick the best students, not just that they merely pick pretty smart students. And so it goes with music institutions. The problem with the first form of reasoning is that it doesn’t care about the difference between merely promoting good music and promoting the best music because it doesn’t believe that the difference is meaningful. In other words, it doesn’t believe that music can cure cancer.

At least this is why I think music reviews still matter.