The whole structure of the music industry is in flux. Old news, right? Once music went digital and once that digital information starting becoming disseminated exponentially via interconnectivity, that was it. No more control and thus no more profit. The gatekeepers were out of work, though they might not know it. There’s got to be a good reason behind a record label busying itself with suing 7-year-old girl for allegedly downloading “Shake That Ass Bitch.”
This shift means new things ahead for critics, too. With the marketing structure out of whack, the role of the critic has been called into question. Think about it. New music is released on Tuesday. Historically, labels started up the marketing engines way before a release. Part of that engine included getting advance releases to critics prior. Timing was essential. Radio play, critical commentary, and record release — they’d all happen at the same time. Pow! Big sales.
But once the bottleneck was broken, that timing got all fucked up. So the role of the critic, in terms of having his or her say prior to a release and in terms of having an influence on popular culture — well, that got fucked up, too.
But maybe there’s an opportunity here, says Ann Powers of the Los Angeles Times. Music still has meaning, obviously, after it’s been released. The rush to be first is eroding, many would argue, the integrity of cultural journalism. Maybe blasting open the bottleneck is a good thing for everyone, including the critic. Here’s a same of Powers’ recent essay.
On this shifting ground, critics feel as insecure as everyone else. But we can — we must — view the Web’s interactive as a boon. Musical samples can help illustrate critical points. Dialogue with readers can illuminate our interpretations and make for interesting reassessments. (Speaking of which, dear readers, how do you think a critic should behave now? No epithets or epitaphs, please.)
It’s also fascinating to follow the path of a song or an album as it winds through the culture, influencing fans to create tributes and answer songs, gaining new meanings from reuse in a film or on TV, passing on its hooks in mash-ups and remixes and new artists’ borrowings. Music is most interesting after it’s sunk in some, joining the vocabulary we all share.
These different approaches to criticism don’t preclude good old-fashioned reviewing. I’m still curious to hear what the writers I respect think about a new release, even after I’ve heard it a dozen times — even after I’ve reviewed it.
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