Music criticism in the digital age

Including a case study on the (pop) music magazine OOR

16 minutes to read
Paper
Sam Branten
01/09/2016

 

During the past decades much has changed in the music industry and much will probably change in the future years. The state of affairs is continuously influenced by the increasing digitalisation of culture and society. This paper discusses the implications of digitalisation for music criticism.

 

Introduction

The music industry is, so to speak, a tremendous pipeline: an extensive distribution channel that brings music from the creator to the listener. Bookers, agents, managers, record companies, music publishers, distributors, podia, retailers, marketers, journalists and many other parties are involved in this network. The contemporary digitalisation has a major impact on that so-called pipeline. The added value of some links is under threat, and other links disappear completely (Aalberts, 2011). For example, the role of the record companies is significantly changing due to the development of the digital format of music, and consequently the role of retailers becomes notably smaller because of the online availability of the majority of the music. Another link under threat is the music criticism, on which this paper focuses.

The music industry is, so to speak, a tremendous pipeline: an extensive distribution channel that brings music from the creator to the listener.

Firstly, the terms ‘music criticism’ and ‘digitalisation’ are specified in this paper. Next, it is explained why and how music criticism is threatened by the ongoing digitalisation. In order to obtain a good overview of the act of music, several editions of the renowned Dutch (pop) music magazine OOR are analysed. Then the influence of digitalisation on music criticism is examined, followed by an attempt to define the role of music criticism nowadays, in a digital age. Finally, a brief recapitulation is given in the conclusion.

 

Music criticism

In The Oxford Companion to Music, ‘music criticism’ is defined as “the intellectual activity of formulating judgements on the value and degree of excellence of individual works of music, or whole groups or genres” (Bujic, 2002). In this regard it is a branch of musical aesthetics. Music is one of the most difficult forms of art to criticize, because it is recreated at every performance. Criticism may therefore be directed at the musical score (rhythm, chords, melody and lyrics) as well as the musical performance (Dean, 1980). This makes it difficult to determine what does and does not belong to the musical performance to assess (think of the stage decor and backdrop, light effects, clothing and dance moves). 

In addition, as is the case with all artistic expression, the perception and evaluation of music is intrinsically linked to personal experiences and impressions from the past and therefore cannot be deprived of some subjectivity. The same experience of sound can have a different meaning for each individual. Besides, everyone simply has certain tastes and preferences which vary and are subject to change. Consequently, persons will evaluate music in various and dissimilar ways (Dean, 1980; Fenster, 2002). Thus, the lack of consensus on the quality standards and classification of music makes music criticism a subjective matter, although objectivity is one of the core values of journalism (Nederlandse Vereniging van Journalisten [The Dutch Journalists’ Association], 2013). Therefore, music criticism is about an ongoing search for balance between objectivity and subjectivity in order to offer a well-balanced review.

Most of the activities of music critics take the form of reviews of newly released records and/or concerts which have recently taken place . Those reviews are usually found in general newspapers and magazines as well as more specialized ones. Music critics can be regarded as specialized journalists. For many years the music critics have been unavoidable gatekeepers in reaching the public (Aalberts, 2011). The success of a particular album, or the career of an artist in general, was to a large extent determined by the music critics, barring some exceptions. Not so long ago, music was not freely available online yet. One could not listen attentively to a new release before deciding whether to buy the physical album. Music critics thus played an important role in the allocation of quality. 

Music journalists were essential for marketers in their attempt to create a so-called ‘momentum’ around a musical product in order to gain the full attention of potential buyers. A positive review in a leading newspaper or magazine close to the release date of a new album assured high sales figures. The amount of attention paid to an artist by music critics and their degree of appreciation were considered important by many people when determining whether or not to listen to or buy an album or attend a concert. Hence, music criticism used to be a key link in the music industry for the distribution from the creator to the listener.

 

Digitalisation

‘Digitisation’ refers to “the action or process of digitizing; the conversion of analogue data (e.g. text, images, video, etc.) into digital form”, due to the rapid developments in information and communication technology (ICT). ‘Digitalisation’ then indicates “the adoption or increase in use of digital technology by an organization, industry or the entire population” (Brennen & Kreis, 2014). In other words, digitalisation is the increasing integration of digital technologies into everyday life by the digitization of everything that can be digitized. Digitalisation is thus a much broader phenomenon than the applications of the ICT sector. It is not only about the process of converting analogue information to binary or electronic form (i.e. digitisation), but also about all changes taking place in society due to the impact of information and communication technology. Digitalisation affects all areas of society.

Digitalisation affects all areas of society.

According to Vincent Miller, the author of the comprehensive handbook Understanding Digital Culture (2011), ‘convergence’ is a significant phenomenon related to digitalisation. Considering that music criticism is a branch of journalism and therefore strongly connected with the media landscape, it is of importance to briefly discuss the convergence culture and the new media experience. Miller explains that 'technological convergence' implies that all forms of media communication and information are made up of the same (digital) format, and thus have become interchangeable across several different devices and distribution systems. 

Due to the technological convergence, the former differences between distinctive industries start to erode, resulting in 'media industry convergence'. Large media corporations expand both vertically within their own industry and horizontally across other media sectors. This generates a concentration of media resources in the hands of a small number of very large global media corporations, which can release and promote their products in many ways across different types of media (Miller, 2011). Newspapers, magazines, books, music, films, radio, television, Internet and mobile communications are becoming more and more intertwined, both technically and in substance. The content is separated from the carrier and the World Wide Web is a vast, daily growing database of on-demand content.

Henry Jenkins, an American professor of communication and journalism, argues that convergence has thrown the media into ‘a state of flux’ (Miller, 2011). The media have moved away from static models of production and consumption of distinct media objects. They became more participatory and linked to cross-media experiences. According to Jenkins, there are two trends: a concentration of the media power (ever larger media companies seek to extend their reach and profitability) and a democratization of the media use (consumer power). 

Jenkins also argues that there are three basic elements at play in the emerging convergence culture. Firstly, cross-media consumption and experiences of cultural objects; secondly, a participatory media culture; and finally, the collective or collaborative intelligence in the media experience (Miller, 2011). The first two elements stated by Jenkins are important with regard to the topic of this paper and will be discussed sequentially.

  1. The first fundamental characteristic of convergence culture is ‘cross-medialisation’, which refers to the integration of the worlds of press, broadcasters and digital platforms, resulting in a move towards cultural objects and information being increasingly consumed or experienced across several forms of media, and on a variety of devices (Miller, 2011). Not only do e.g. traditional media companies merge with Internet companies or vice versa, the content integrates as well. At present, it is also possible to watch television on the Internet. All these facilities are available on the contemporary smartphones as well. Due to the ever increasing speed of mobile communications, 4G and Wi-Fi networks, the possibilities continue to expand (Huysmans, 2014).  
  2. Secondly, the digitalisation and corresponding convergence have ensured that consumers themselves are more and more in control of the selection and the contribution to news, programs and other content. In this regard, Henry Jenkins refers to the ‘participatory culture’ (Miller, 2011). This development in the digital age, influencing music criticism, is connected with the Internet as well, in particular with Web 2.0. The concept refers to the contemporary social and participatory phase of the Web, in which the input of user is fundamental (O’Reilly, 2005). Blogs, social network sites, wikis, RSS feeds and so on are specific to the Web 2.0 phase. 

Since the emergence of Web 2.0, it has become very easy and common for anyone to put ‘information’ online and express their opinion on all sorts of matters, including music. By this social and participatory phase of the Web, the ability to produce information is no longer in the hands of a small minority; the means of producing and distributing information have become much more democratized, resulting in a blurred distinction between the producer and the consumer. Those who used to be the ‘consumers’ (e.g. of music criticism) are now able to produce themselves as well (Miller, 2011).

 

Record player

 

Influence of digitalisation on music criticism

As described in the introduction, the function and process of music reviewing are considerably changing as a result of the increasing digitalisation of culture and society. In the previous section, the phenomenon of digitalisation, the related convergence and its impact on the media field were elaborated on. In this section, the influence of digitalisation on music criticism will be discussed.

Firstly, it can be argued that in the contemporary participatory media culture everyone on the Web (2.0) is a reporter. The changing dynamic between producers and consumers in new media convergence culture has radically changed the professional identity of journalists in general and music critics in particular.

The changing dynamic between producers and consumers in new media convergence culture has radically changed the professional identity of journalists in general and music critics in particular.

Nowadays, music is ‘dematerialized’ from the physical entity of records. Musical experience becomes increasingly fragmented and dispersed across different media and networks (‘cross-medialisation’). One can listen via diverse devices (e.g. smartphone, tablet, laptop and computer) and through various streaming services (e.g. Spotify and Deezer) the newest musical releases before one decides to actually buy the album, whether physically or digitally (if one even buys music at all). The expanding online accessibility of music reduces the role of music criticism. In addition, due to the extensive availability of information and opinions of many ordinary people online, professional music criticism becomes less visible, and it can even be argued that less value is attached to it. .

Nevertheless, both general and specialized printed newspapers and magazines still provide readers with reviews of records and concerts. However, many newspapers and magazines face difficulties in today’s digitized culture. They are in trouble due to both the declining number of subscribers and declining advertising revenue as a result of the digitalisation (and partly the economic conditions). Advertisements in printed newspapers and magazines largely compete with advertisements in other media, like television, radio, and, most importantly, the Internet. 

The Internet is not only an advertising medium, but it also provides large amounts  of information. A rapidly increasing number of people obtain their information solely from the Internet: from general news to more specialized information. It is therefore not surprising that a Dutch study shows that people in the Netherlands are spending more and more time on the Internet and less on listening to the radio, watching television and reading newspapers and magazines (De Haan & Adolfsen, 2008). 

In addition, mobile devices such as the laptop, smartphone and tablet are far more popular than ‘fixed’ appliances for reception and transmission (Huysmans, 2014). The changing demands of users due to the advent of the Internet suppresses newspapers and magazines, leading to a declining subscriber base and a shift from subscribers of paper editions to digital subscribers. This is strengthened by the so-called ‘generation effect’, i.e. the dropping out of mostly young people as newspaper or magazine readers (Van de Donk, Broeder & Hoefnagel, 2005). 

The youth of today matures with the idea that information is freely available, anytime and anywhere. Hence, newspapers and magazines have investigated different ways to commit (new) readers in the increasingly digital society, for example by offering additional online content. For the posting and distribution of such online content, the interactive social media networks (e.g. Twitter and Facebook) have become increasingly important, especially for reaching young people. Through this media the content is distributed from the newspaper or magazine, but also new content can be added: A process which can be described as 'cross-medialisation'.  

It can be concluded that the Internet is one of the greatest threats to the traditional music criticism because it generates a large and ready availability of music, information and opinions.Furthermore, it negatively affects both the revenues of subscribers and advertisements of newspapers and magazines, in which music criticism is to be commonly found. In the next section, these findings shall be discussed by means of a case study.

 

A glance at the field: (pop) music magazine OOR

The music magazine OOR has long been highly reputed in the Dutch music criticism scene. It is the oldest existing (pop) music magazine in the Netherlands, offering a wide selection of reviews of recently released albums, concert discussions, interviews, background stories and editorials. It was founded in April 1971 and until 1984, it was published as 'Muziekkrant (music newspaper) OOR'. 

Bert van de Kamp, who was a journalist at OOR from the very beginning, argued that they were the first generation of music journalists who actually gave pop music criticism. “There was literary criticism and even jazz criticism, but pop criticism barely existed” (Boelhouwer, 2010, p. 28).  Wim Verbei, another journalist who was involved with the magazine in the early years, explained that they wanted to talk about music on an intellectual level and take artists seriously: “We wanted to enthuse people for music, but not as a fan. Actually a kind of missionary work: ‘Listen now how good it is’ and especially substantiate with facts and knowledge” (Boelhouwer, 2010, p. 28). Van de Kamp continued: “We wanted to provide information and offer a platform. But what I found very important was the missionary function: to bring good music to the people” (Boelhouwer, 2010, p. 28).

There was literary criticism and even jazz criticism, but pop criticism barely existed

In order to obtain a good overview of the influence of digitalisation on the act of music reviewing, a range of editions of the (pop) music magazine OOR are examined, from the '80s and '90s of the previous century to the newer editions of the current century. From each decade two issues are taken into account. This is therefore a very global case study and the findings will probably not be representative for all the editions of each decade, but they can be considered indicative. Note that all the quotations from the magazine are translated from Dutch to English.

There is an obvious trend when comparing the various issues of the (pop) music magazine OOR over the years. In the '80s of the previous century, the reviews were very personal with clear value judgements and sharp criticism. The reviewers openly expressed their (sometimes offensive) opinions (De Winter, 1982, 1983). For example, Deep Purple was accused of snitching and the reviewer wished he had never heard their record at all: “I have heard them better and would rather have kept that memory intact” (1982, p. 35). In response to the new record of AC/DC, a reviewer stated that the rock band was in a ‘creative impasse’: “Along this way I wish strength to the men, and improvement” (1983, p. 35). It is remarkable that the I-form was frequently used in the reviews. The same applies to the '90s. The reviews were highly critical, quite personal listening experiences were shared openly and the I-form was regularly used as well (Van Schaick, 1993, 1997). 

However, in the '00s of the current century, there have been some considerable changes in the act of music criticism. The pronoun ‘I’ was no longer used, barring a few rare exceptions. A clear judgment was still given, although it seemed more censured and less oppressive than in the '80s and '90s. The criticism was more general and less personal. The reviewers offered the readers general information about the genre, the kind of songs on the record (up-tempo, ballad, etc.), the timbre (instrumentation) et cetera, as well as more specific background information which can be interesting with regard to the new release (e.g. a link with previously released albums). 

In overall, the reviewer of the '00s was informing more and reviewing less (Van den Berg & Koks, 2001; Van Schaick & Koks, 2003). This trend has continued in subsequent years. In the first part of the '10s of the current century, the reviews became a bit more evaluative again, but the personal opinion of the reviewer was certainly not as evident and sharp as was typical in the '80s and '90s. However, it is notable that the reviews are written in a more personal writing style again and the I-form is more regularly used as well (Van den Berg, 2014, 2015).

The difference between the '90s and '00s can be attributed to the rise of the Internet and the related participatory culture, allowing anyone to express one's opinion about artists and records online. As described above, the extensive participation opportunities of Web 2.0 have ensured that the boundary between professional and amateur journalists has faded, which radically changed the dynamic between producers and consumers and the professional identity of journalists. Probably OOR reacted to this by writing much more formal reviews (no longer the use of the pronoun ‘I’, more informing, less criticising) in order to separate their professional music criticism from the amateurish reviews online. 

The softer tone in the reviews might be explained by the fact that OOR, like most magazines, is in a difficult period due to the digitalisation of society.

However, in the '10s, the personal writing style returns, although the reviews do not re-become as extremely critical and sharp as in the '80s and '90s. The softer tone might be explained by the fact that OOR, like most magazines, is in a difficult period due to the digitalisation of society. It is possible that OOR cannot simply afford to be very critical about a specific artist, album or concert, with the risk of losing (potential) readers/subscribers (because they may feel hurt or not taken seriously). Repetitive negative and offensive reviews of a given artist is not something the editors would be thanked for by the fans of that particular artist. 

The return of the personal writing style is notable. Probably the OOR editors realized that the role of music criticism in the digital age has become anything but irrelevant. Rather, it can be argued that music criticism plays a major role in the music industry again, despite the difficulties it faces in the digital age. The (online) overload of both information and music provided to us by the new media may not lead to the demise of professional music criticism and music critics. Instead, there may be a growing demand for professional music criticism due to the plethora of information through a wide variety of media channels.

On the basis of the analysis of the influence of digitalisation on music criticism and the case study of the (pop) music magazine OOR, it can be argued that since the advent of the Internet there is an overall tendency in music criticism: the act of music criticism is more about selecting and less about reviewing. This distinction between the two main functions of music criticism is important to make with regard to the influence of digitalisation on music criticism. Prior to the review, the selection takes place in order to determine which records and concerts are to be assessed and thus paid attention to and which are not. Furthermore, some newspapers and magazines offer only a selection of new releases which according to them are ‘worthwhile’, without giving a comprehensive evaluation. 

The demand for the selective function of music criticism has strongly increased in the digital age. It is getting much harder for people to work their way through the vast and still increasing amount of information and music that the Web provides them. Therefore, music critics remain very important to the public, because they bring music that is worthwhile to the consumers, who, as it were, lost themselves in the vast offer of music via the various services and devices. Furthermore, it could be argued that due to the participatory culture in which anyone can give their opinion, people have begun to appreciate the professional music critics even more. At present, the music critics help the consumers to navigate their way through the vast array of musical options available, steering them to (new) music choices they would possibly enjoy.

Conclusion     

The music industry is continuously influenced by the increasing digitalisation of society. Among other things, music criticism is influenced by the contemporary digitalisation, primarily due to the advent and infinite possibilities of the Internet. This has led to a rapidly expanding accessibility of music, and, as a result of the emergence of the participatory phase of the Internet (Web 2.0), a highly increased availability of information and opinions. It has resulted in a blurred distinction between the professional music critics and amateurish critics and the importance of music criticism seems to be diminished. In addition, the newspapers and magazines have faced difficulties in the ever more digitalised society. 

Still, does this mean that the music criticism is no longer relevant or that it has been replaced by the amateurish criticism from the consumers themselves? In this paper, it is argued that this is not the case. The development of new media such as the Internet, in particular the Web 2.0 phase, has ensured that the support and acceptance of the critical discourse has actually become wider. 

In the digital age of nearly infinite choices and ubiquitous accessibility for the consumer, it can be stated that the role of music criticism is still of a major importance and the influence of music criticism remains substantial. The function and meaning of music criticism have not been lost, but have changed (more selecting, less reviewing). It has also partially been moved to the Internet (cross-medialisation). At present, the music criticism occurs in new configurations of (limitless) time and (boundless) space in the digital age of today.

 

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