Thursday, July 10, 2008

Music Critics (continued)...take a hint from Justin Davidson

In this heated conversation with myself regarding the current distress among classical music critics at their rapid loss of print jobs, I somehow didn't read Justin Davidson's remarks until now, which I have to say are completely right on. I especially like his point that a paper trying to alter its content under the old business model in order to increase readership is about as productive as spitting into an active volcano. Instead of bemoaning the current state of his branch of journalism, he proves that this is the same condition that the entire field of print media is in today, differentiates between sectors of journalism and their respective paths of access to important information, and proposes new fixes to the perceived problem. I'm highly impressed.

I also just read this "plea" that the Music Critics Association of North America sent to a number of newspapers. In their plea, which could maybe have been eloquent and poignant if written by someone like Davidson but instead is dry and hardly justifies its claim to more jobs, they make this presumptuous statement: "What happens culturally says as much about a community as what happens in sports, government and business." This is something I think about every day. And I've never come to this conclusion (in terms of government, and business, which of course is intimately linked with government) with any conviction because maybe it's not true. Davidson writes about freedom of the press, and how newspapers, while firing arts writers, are also downsizing their other departments and squandering America's First Amendment: "Why would the government bother abridging the freedom of the press, when the press is doing such an efficient job of abridging itself?" Americans can go hear concerts for themselves (and blog about it if they so choose), but journalists can't go to Afghanistan or Iraq and effectively cover the news there without the resources of a major news network.

As far as the "arts = government" question, it's probably something that many of us will grapple with our whole lives, and I'm currently not making much headway. I certainly value the arts, as I'm devoting my life to composition, but I can't come up with one solid reason why they are equally as important as our government to the general populace. What I do know is that many music critics, like the newspapers themselves, need to move on from the old business model if they truly want to help their field.

Check out blogger Marc Geelhoed's pro-Bernheimer thoughts from yesterday about the blogosphere's negative effects on music criticism. He's a smart guy and went to great lengths to justify his claims. But, in disagreement with Marc as usual, I have a few questions for him (which I write here because he doesn't allow reader comments on his blog, which are one of the most appealing features of blogs in general):

a) Don't you think many people want the opportunity to choose which critics/bloggers/fans/non-music-educated people/turkeys/etc. they read instead of having to consult the same few critics from a couple newspapers, considering today's increased desire for personal agency and self-efficacy? (See my previous post for more on agency.) And don't you think we should give readers a little credit to critique the critics themselves? Can someone who doesn't have a Master's in Musicology really not discern an idiot from a genius?

b) Marc argues that it's pretty hard to find good classical music criticism on the web, and shows a few Google, Technorati, and Google blogsearch searches. He doesn't like the results. But he does mention blogs linking to other blogs, and how if you don't come across Alex Ross's blog, you're probably not going to find other good ones. But Ross's links, and his, are limited, and most likely reflect their own ideological preferences. I know for a fact that Marc has read my blog and has not put a link to it on his site (and it's mutual, so maybe I'll reconsider). I think this is because he doesn't like my ideas, not because I'm only a Ph.D. student and not a pro music critic, or because I write about uninteresting things, or because I write poorly. And I'm never going to get a link from Alex Ross unless I become the next Nico Muhly first. So those who complain about access should up the ante and provide better access themselves. Readers find a blogger they like and then check out his or her links. It's just like Myspace, when you find a band you like and then check out their "Top Friends." I've discovered hundreds of interesting musicians that way.

Marc does not mention the primary way I've found good blogs: comprehensive, focused blog reader sites like the New Music reblog or Blognoggle. These are way better than a Google search because real people manage the posts; Jeff Harrington and Joseph Drew sift through many, many blogs and post the entries to the reblog. It's a great way to find out what's going on.


Marc Geelhoed said...

A) Yes, I do think readers want that. My point was that it isn't easy to find those good critics, whether their professionals, performers, or students.

B) What is the second question?

C) You prove my point in a roundabout fashion. You're obviously very dedicated to music and passionate about it. But suppose that you weren't, and didn't know who Thierry Pecou was, and were simply puzzled about the local music world. How are you going to find Blognoggle?

D) No insult was implied or intended by not linking to you. I don't update the blogroll nearly as often as I should.

Mr. Bacon said...

Thanks for the quick response, Marc. I guess I just have more faith in the average person's ability to sort through the thousands of pages they'll come across and bookmark/rss what they want to keep reading - not necessarily an easy task, but one I think people are ready for and are eager to do. If you go to a show that some critic recommends, and it sucks, then screw it! Don't read his/her posts any more. And people also want to comment on what they read! It's impossible to publish your own thoughts with the Sunday Times, but you can do this on their website...just another example of the human agency thing. The net has made this type of thing possible, and I believe it's opened up a better dialogue between all kinds of people, and positively changed our expectations for what we want out of journalism.

An example of 1990s journalistic entrapment was the movie criticism in my local paper. It was hilarious--all foreign and art films go 3 or 4 stars and great reviews, while no Hollywood flick could make it past 2.5 stars. So I started reversing their ratings; going to the movies they didn't like, and avoiding those they did like. Now I don't have to deal with those folks any more. (And because I'm not forced to encounter such predictable reviews every week, I end up watching a lot more foreign and art films, which I generally much prefer to their canned Hollywood alternatives.)

My second question turned into more of a lengthy statement, and just a general call for more links...this blog doesn't get a lot of hits right now--it's fairly new and I'm a nobody--but I wish I could get linked by more popular blogs, especially those whose authors do consult my posts from time to time, or at least subscribe to my feed. So I also need to expand my link list a great deal and will do that soon. I think links really are the best way for people to find the good writing out there. You spend a little time searching, and when you find someone you like, you check their links.
Blognoggle is good but of course is very restricted: only the "100 Top ... Blogs," which puts ones like mine at a disadvantage for publicity.

Again, thanks for reading and commenting, Marc.