The blog Aritsts Paid posted up a video of Rolling Stone and Village Voice music critic Christopher R. Weingarten, speaking at a web/twitter conference in New York this past June. He argues that crowdsourcing and amateur music blogging has killed popular music:
(Not suitable for work, or for the kiddies.)
With the obvious grain-of-salt caution that this is a Rolling Stone writer complaining about how amateur reviewing has undercut his professional usefulness, Weingarten raises an interesting point. Before the Internet, music reviewers would dish out opinions from up on high. Their opinions were respected (if not agreed to). When the Internet first began to spread, music websites kept up this tradition of, as he puts it, separating wheat from the chaff. But with the advent of the amateur music blog (*ahem*) we switched from parting the waters in music to opening the firehoses. As Weingarten puts it, it was like a sprinkler, with opinions and MP3s flying everywhere.
On top of this, the one edge “professional” reviewers had for years was the coveted “advance” copy of records: even if consumers didn’t care what people like Weingarten were saying about bands, at least they could scoop us bloggers out here. Nowadays record labels seem to run their organizations about as watertight as a swiss-cheese submarine, and albums are leaked well in advance of promotional distribution.
At the meat of his speech – around the 7-minute mark – he argues “crowd sourcing killed music” because “people have terrible taste,” and, “if you let people decide what good music is, nothing different or adventurous gets out.” Weingarten says this trend lead to professional music critics being forced to review bands that are popular instead of bands that are “good,” and a close-minded online listening world (“I only listen to X music and thus I have no idea about Y”). His solution: spend less time saying online that “I like this music” and start saying why you like different music. In other words, don’t get so caught up in consensus. Advocate for the bands you love, and disagree about it. Practicing what he preaches, his uses his Twitter account to review albums at a breakneck rate, injecting a great deal of “why” into his reviews and keeping pace with the amateur reviewers.
He spends a while complaining that music is “rising to the middle” and popular interest leads to an overabundance of mediocre, mass-appeal bands (citing the current indie rock world as his major case study), which the music world is compelled to review to feed the “click-economy” and get the all-important hits. While I agree that there are far too many mediocre bands out there, I don’t think that’s the online music world is as dire as he claims. While Weingarten spends some time talking about the stratification of music consumption (people getting more narrow and closed-minded about listening), he neglects to mention is a duplet characteristic of online music writing: (1) there are a lot of music blogs/twitters/online sources that write about different music online, and (2) many people are diverse in reading blogs. It doesn’t follow that because music websites are narrow music listeners are too. Sure, there are blogs like Detailed Twang which focus heavily on a specific genre (to wit, bluesy garage rock and proto-punk), and I read that Detailed Twang for that purpose, but that’s just one music blog in a personal arsenal that I use to keep up with music. Speaking from anecdotal evidence, people tend to diversify their niche sources.
Some people will be closed-minded about music, but that’s no different than listening to Top-40 radio for one’s entire life. (And I never subscribed to this axiomatic inquiry the because you don’t listen to weird music you are less of a music. I respect objective music fandom above any subjective taste.) While Weingarten is right about there being a lot of derivative, Pixies-meets-Death-Cab-at-a-party-for-Pinback bands out there, there are also troves of unique and interesting music blogs talking about quality artists. Save for maybe the late 1960s, I don’t think fringe music fans like us have ever been happy with what’s in the mainstream, be it on radio or in major music blogs.
There’s a certain degree of “physician, heal thyself” sentiment I feel towards Weingarten, but that’s likely misplaced. I know that he’s not the one that selects which bands to review in Rolling Stone, and I know that precious few places can afford a good music critic (and he is a good critic). The belt-tightening and corner-cutting of the industry forces most national music magazines to go for quantity of sales over quality of writing. What we have here is the cost of national distribution. If Rolling Stone plans to be a magazine with broad appeal, its writers can’t act surprised when they focus on music with broad appeal, “crowdsourced” from the Internet. While I wholeheartedly share in his dismay of writers being replaced by blogs, there’s an inherent circularity to Weingarten’s central argument about crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing by definition seeks information mass of people; the bands that someone finds from such a search will almost by definition mass-appeal.
Critique aside, I do sympathize with Weingarten and other experienced, professional music reviewers. Were there a place (online or offline) where we congregated and compiled our Lester Bangs protégés I would certainly open my wallet to it. For now, I suppose the best we can do is promise to each other that we’ll argue viciously over bands and strive not for consensus, but diversity.