No More ‘Rage and Fury’: How Music Criticism has Changed

Music criticism has changed hugely in the past decade: the demise of specialist music publications (and their professional rates for writers). The decline of the ‘long-form takedown’, in favour of positive press. The growing influence of public relations in a cash-strapped media landscape.

At the Melbourne Writers Festival last month, three music critics talked about the changes they’ve seen and experienced during their working lives.

Chris Ruen: 'At some point it became uncool to complain about mass culture.'

Chris Ruen: 'At some point it became uncool to complain about mass culture.'

‘A good critic’s job in any field is to try to further the conversation the work has started,’ said Andrew Mueller, former reviews editor at iconic (now gone) UK rock weekly Melody Maker. ‘It’s now become a consumer guide; there are few good music reviews out there now.’

Ironically, the stakes for readers of music reviews have plummeted. Once, music fans would read reviews with a view to deciding what to spend their limited money on; now most consumers get their music for free online. So that ‘consumer guide’ function is now less important.

‘If it’s all available and free, you don’t really need to think about whether you want it or not,’ said Chris Ruen, a freelance music writer who began his career with influential music websites like Tiny Mix Tapes (and author of Freeloading).

The most interesting and best criticism isn’t a value judgement, it engages with themes and ideas.'

Elmo Keep

Elmo Keep, a freelance music writer and veteran of Triple J’s J Mag, said that she doesn’t ‘mourn the death of the gatekeeper critic’. She says that these days, the ‘careerists’ in music journalism have gone – only people who are ‘really, really passionate about it’ are left.

‘The most interesting and best criticism isn’t a value judgement, it engages with themes and ideas,’ she said.

The writers agreed that music writing has become more focused on the positive – praising what writers like, rather than criticising what they don’t. Andrew Mueller believes this is partly because of the broadening of the audience for music writing, beyond the passionate fans who would pay money for music magazines that they trusted to help define their tastes.

'Long-form takedowns of popular music are now a dead art.'

Andrew Mueller

‘People who spend money to read the music press define themselves as much by what they don’t like as what they do,’ he said. ‘So much great music writing has been written in opposition to other music. Rage and fury are an important thing driving people who read music magazines.’

Mueller mourned the fact that ‘long-form takedowns of popular music are now a dead art’.

Ruen agreed that ‘at some point it became uncool to complain about mass culture’. He said that the reluctance to publish negative writing is directly linked to advertising dollars – which come from the labels who publish the music that’s being reviewed. ‘If you’re desperate for advertising dollars, as most websites are, will you say what you really think?’

Mueller observed that the power balance in the equation has changed. ‘Melody Maker would print anything they liked – there was nowhere else for labels to advertise to their audience.’ These days, the situation is reversed, with lots of music websites competing for reduced advertising budgets.

Ruen believes that social media is also influencing the form of criticism, and the importance attached to it. While platforms like Twitter make it easy to share articles and opinions with a broader audience than ever before, they also flood readers with more noise than ever before.

‘If you’re on Twitter and you want to stay in touch with what’s going on, you don’t linger and reflect on the last piece. You move on to the next thing.’

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