Music Criticism – Objective or Subjective?

Some thoughts to close down 2017……….

Last week………As we do, over a pint, we started discussing music and, as usual, we agreed on the relative merits of quite a few things, but on many others, there was divergence. As we are friends we tend to agree that whilst one or more of us like one artists it may be one of us, for whatever reason, disagree on the relative merits of the local rocking teen combo. It’s not something to fall out over, there is some playful banter, especially when the beer has been flowing, one man’s LCD Soundsystem is another man’s New Order etc etc.

One of us made the point that “Music Criticism” had got safe, or perhaps too objective, and that you never seemed to see a bad review of anything these days. How can one retain any form of critical appraisal of the overall scene if the general output of reviewers was predominantly positive? Conversely the violent and sometimes nasty divergence of views on the relative merits of one artist over another on social media is decidedly more subjective.

Perhaps more worrying though is the propensity for music criticism to be restrained, and confined to what is popular. What is acutely clear to me is the difficulty of breaking bands into the wider world so that their efforts might be appreciated by a bigger audience. After 45+ years of serious, and sometimes obsessive, music listening I reckon I have a pretty good take on what is good and what is bad (notwithstanding the previous comment about relative viewpoints of things) and it galls me that the same old faces keep appearing on end of year lists, and local gig guides. This is further compounded by those same old faces being cloned by tribute bands so that despite them not being available for gigs there is always a xeroxed version somewhere being trotted out to feed the nostalgia gene of your average punter.

Criticism is difficult in a music context. A general criticism is easy, a wide snipe at tribute bands is perhaps a lazy assertion on my part, struggling musicians need to earn a crust to pay for strings, plectrums and amp repairs, rehearsal room hire etc, so why should I moan about it? Well, and again it’s a subjective view I suppose, I just get the feeling that the balance between “new and innovative” and “tribute” has leaned towards the latter. And OK, if you want to go and see a tribute band that’s your choice, However when it becomes more difficult for artists genuinely trying to break the mould to get any sort of oxygen in an increasingly crowded scene then I get frustrated.

A general moan about the scene around the Manchester conurbation is that it, at least from a public perspective, “rests on it’s laurels”, with perhaps an unbalanced proportion of reportage and criticism being focused on established artists – James, Oasis (and it’s sibling progeny), Elbow,  Joy Division, New Order, Happy Mondays etc etc. A Heritage Theme Park for 80s/90s music? Even the more recent “darlings” – Cabbage, Blossoms etc seem to get more than their fill, when equally valid bands tend to get little air time/column inches. It’s like the attention span of the industry can only cope with one or two bands at once.

Breaking bands into the national consciousness these days, post-Peel, is increasingly difficult, with commercial broadcasters constrained by the need for advertising revenue and safe playlists, and BBC an increasingly more complex glass ceiling to break with it’s Krypton Factor like maze of getting music through the first hurdle of the unpaid work experience intern, with a pile of e-mails/sack of CDs to wade through, before it gets anywhere near a DJ/Producer. There are few notable exceptions, Tom Robinson for example, who seems to put some effort into getting less well known people some attention.

We released 50+ albums, EPs and singles this year. We’ve not made enough money to cover the cost of our distribution deal. As a not for profit label this makes it difficult to countenance continuing as we are not even breaking even. With the exception of two gigs we have made a loss on each event we have put on. Punters seem to want free entry to gigs, and free or stream-able cheap music these days. The number of cheeky chappies who try to jib into gigs is quite astounding.

As an example one of our most popular releases this year Drink and Drives “This Is What Happens When A Fly Lands On Your Food” has received 1226 plays on Spotify since it’s release. To put that in context that’s around three times higher than our second biggest artist Issac Navaro. That many plays in a month for a small label might seem good in the overall scheme of things. However just feed that amount into the online Spotify Calculator you will see it raises a paltry £3.67.  For further context if we weren’t offering a collective approach via our label the band would have to pay around £20 (which recurs annually) to get the album onto digital distribution. We can reduce that cost to around £7 for an album with one of the deals we get with the distributor. So we need around 2500 plays to break even. If we sell an album on Bandcamp (which is outside the general distribution deal) then we get hit with admin fees of around 15% from Bandcamp and around 10% from Paypal just for selling something. So a £7 album will net around £5.25. Having said that Bandcamp is probably the most cost effective way of distributing our releases given the poor stream-revenue rates with the wider digital distributors.

I write the above paragraph as context to attempt to describe how difficult it is to continue to offer new/challenging music in an environment where there seems to be an increasing reliance on what people already know, what they feel comfortable with, and where their expectation of getting it for next to nothing. And musical criticism which fails to offer a proper context, and fails to balance both an objective fact based approach, with a more visceral subjective, emotional response is not helping.

An industry which maintains the familiar (and some might argue bland) to the exclusion of the genuinely new and exciting and different is heading into an evolutionary blind alley. Criticism need to describe where artists are treading water and repeating what they have done before. Criticism needs to be honest. As a case in point “Luciferian Towers” feels safe and predictable in the context of “F♯ A♯ ∞” – the shock of the new of the 1997 release being reduced to a pallid copy in the 2017 – a balanced critique demonstrates that point but it still gets into a chart of one of the best releases of the year.  Play it alongside the aforementioned Drink and Drive album and you can see the marked difference between what feels like cosy conformity with a model that works and sold units and the righteous anger of something like “Itch Scratch Cycle”.

So what does the subjective part of my brain scream at me while I am reviewing the best of the year lists for 2017? Here are a few thoughts……….

Current darlings Public Sector Broadcasting appear to be on a revolving carousel of producing the same thing album by album, yes they are good but where is the progression and doesn’t it all sound a bit like Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds or Rick Wakemans Journey to the Centre of the Earth?  Hergist Ridge was no Tubular Bells. Why does the industry allow musicians to repeat/xerox themselves?  Do Sleaford Mods really need to be encouraged to continue to  produce the same formula each year? Can I really be bothered to wade through all this stuff when our record label is putting out stuff which I believe is more challenging and ground breaking – m.t. scott, Moff Skellington The Screaming Love Collective, Cannonball Statman, Issac Navaro and Four Candles to me seem more interesting than established bands that repeat themselves. But I would say that wouldn’t I?

Not to come over as too negative 2017 has been a genuinely great year for music, even beyond the boundaries of German Shepherd records, with new bands emerging, and material from the past being discovered from the first time. So I do move into 2018 with a degree of optimism. One goal. or resolution if you will, should be to ensure that any blogs or radio shows don’t slip into a tired recycling of bands that should be stretching themselves when they are treading water.

Ian Moss’s Manchester Meltdown at the Peer Hat in January will set a benchmark for the year — with a manifesto to expose genuine talent to audience that needs to be refreshed,  – Different Music For Your Ears – if you are willing to listen?

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all……

 

 

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