The Disappearing Advance Copy
and Other Assorted Mysteries

By Beppe Colli
May 1, 2008

Sometimes, once in a while, I happen to receive a message from one of the people from the USA I correspond with, for one reason or another, where I'm asked about the reason(s) why I read Bob Lefsetz's blog. Nothing wrong with it, by the way: Lefsetz is an attorney whose main field of expertise is (since time immemorial, I think) the Entertainment field in all its various shapes and sizes, including today's most complex - both commercial and technical - implications. It has to be said that most of the time Lefsetz looks to me as a strange mix, half baby-boomer, half (impossible) information-age prophet, who has - maybe - some old reasons to hold a grudge against this or that man, and whose real interests are not always so easy to spot. But the fact remains, that Lefsetz's blog is also an important source of information, and of links to facts. And since for this writer the Web is still above all a comfortable point of entry to content of a conceptual and verbal nature (in opposition to what is its main use today, i.e.: a practical, and "extremely cheap", way to download all the music and movies the whole world has ever produced)...

A good recent example of this is the post dated March, 26. Titled Long Road Out Of Eden, the piece (also) deals with the new album by the Eagles, but all at once we are confronted with this: "In today's Los Angeles Times, Ann Powers debates the role of the critic. I'd say the critic is dead". Which is obviously not such an original thought anymore, but one that I still find stimulating when it comes to the way it was "killed". So, after I knotted my handkerchief in order to remember to read Ann Powers's piece, I went on reading.

"I'm not going to say no one reads the newspaper. But the people the critics are trying to influence are not reading, certainly not the masses. Music is something you hear, why would you want to read about it and then fire up your computer to hear it when you can hear it instantly (...). "There's been an incredible democratization of the music world. Mainstream critics mean less than your buddy. Just like word of mouth is more important than movie reviews. The buzz rules. And the buzz rules in music." (...) "The truth is Ann Powers no longer matters. Nor do Jon Pareles and Kelefa Sanneh."

Having placed a second knot in my handkerchief in order to remind myself to investigate the matter (provided I remember correctly, Jon Pareles is the "Pop" critic from the New York Times, but who the hell is Kelefa Sanneh?), I tried to think about the whole thing. That the critic's primary function is that of influencing people I'm not so convinced, even if it's a point I've seen argued by many (especially those who earn their living trying to influence people). But here there are many points that can be discussed. Is it a "reading" problem, such as: people can't really read anymore, so they don't ever bother reading (in this case having them listen to a spoken word program would suffice)? Or, are critics not thought of as being credible anymore (for being "insincere", in so being different than one's friends)? Or, does one think that nothing but what can be experienced by an act of "pure" listening (which leaves out "hearing" Curtis Mayfield's chords inside a Jimi Hendrix track, an obvious impossibility, provided one has not been alerted of this fact, or one being already familiar with Curtis Mayfield) does, indeed, matter? Or, has the critic's work become (for one, or more reasons) so shoddy as to become of no more value (meaning what? as a "friendly listening suggestion", or as a way or enriching one's personal listening?) than a friend's suggestion?

It was time to read Ann Powers's article.

The title of the piece by Ann Powers was Can controlling how and when music is released backfire on artists and fans? Which was a very different title than the one I was expecting to read. The first name that was known to me that I saw was Jack White: it had been his decision, I appeared to understand, to release the new album by Raconteurs making it be available in all formats to fan, press and radio precisely at the same moment, "so that no one has an upper hand on anyone else regarding its availability, reception or perception". It was a story that somehow I had missed, which, I now saw, came after similar decisions on the part of Trent Reznor/Nine Inch Nails and Gnarls Barkley. Among the many stimulating things I read, this stroke me as especially relevant: "Some writers (including, most eloquently, Jason Gross at have wondered whether good criticism will get lost in the dismantling process" (so I knotted my handkerchief once again in order to remind myself to read the piece by Jason Gross).

Having understood by now (or, at least, so I hoped) the framework of the present problem, the rest was quite interesting and intriguing, starting from this: "There's not a writer out there - including myself - who hasn't put the thumbs-up-or-down rush to judgment before the need to gradually uncover a musical work's nuances. Snap decisions are nothing new, nor is the compromised critical position. But the profession has become increasingly complicated by issues of access and the need for Web hit-generating scoops." (...) "Denied advances, I've uncovered supposedly unavailable material via English fan sites and Italian blogs, hoping the track listings are correct and the mixes didn't come from demos. Like my peers, I try to avoid such weird circumstances. But it's not always possible, especially if the goal is a critical preemptive strike."

(...) "Besides (...) The channels that help determine which artists "matter" have multiplied as well. There's no consensus." (...) "The need to be first, felt so acutely now, is further complicated by the crisis of access." (...) "Now everything leaks." (...) "Critics at established publications sweat the bloggers who beat them to the punch. Writers' recommendations or pans seem irrelevant anyway, since advance streams and limited-time free downloads abound. Fans can parse the music on their own."

Powers appeared to still believe in the importance of comparing opinions: "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." But a lot less hopeful, obviously, that this kind of attitude was shared by the proverbial "average listener". It was at this point that I remembered I had still to read the article by Jason Gross.

Titled Reviewers no more? The disappearing advance copy, the piece by Jason Gross appeared in PopMatters, March 20. One of Gross's starting points was the decision by Nine Inch Nails, Raconteurs and Gnarls Barkley to anticipate the release date of their new albums as a potential way to minimize "illegal disappearing", but he went on stressing the fact that those albums went on sale without reviewers getting their usual advance copies. "In the Net/download age where everything seems to be instantly available, having fans wait weeks or months ahead for an item that's already making the rounds in critical circles seems like pre-digital-age dead-weight that needs to die", Gross wrote. "As a fan, I understand that thinking - I want the music NOW and not wait for the damn stuff while a select few at national mags get to chew over the tunes."

But after stating that while reviewing music "I rarely like to spill my thoughts without taking some time to think it over first", Gross had a serious point that had him worried: "The other thing that concerns me about the quick release schedules is that it might make criticism less important. I know, I know - some music journalism is indeed crapola (...). But (...) The best music writing doesn't just give a thumbs up or down but also creates dialog, ideas and context for the music we love."

Gross ended his piece by quoting from an article by Adrian Serle titled Critical Condition, originally published in The Guardian on 18 March 2008, and I have to say that, having read this article, I have to completely agree with Gross in suggesting it to readers.

That the by-now quite long series of articles about the "death of criticism" has made the whole topic quite boring to many is an undisputed truth. This was confirmed by the post titled The Death of Criticism Warmed Over, Yet Again, uploaded by A.C. Rhodes on April 9, 2008 on the by now classic site A brief discussion (quite tired, I think) followed about an article by Patrick Goldstein which appeared on April 8, 2008 in the Los Angeles Times under the title The end of the critic? There was a time when they were our arbiters of culture. Those days are gone. An interesting addendum was the one posted on April 11 by bflaska (who I supposed to be famous music critic Barbara Flaska), who wrote: "As to music blogging, I agree the well is drying up (...). Fun for awhile, yeah?".

The article by Patrick Goldstein had the no little merit of making us remember about the economic base of a lot of things we usually consider only in a cultural light: "Critics are being downsized all over the place, whether it's in classical music, dance, theater or other areas in the arts. While economics are clearly at work here - seeing their business model crumble, many newspapers simply have decided they can't afford a full range of critics anymore - it seems clear that we're in an age with a very different approach to the role of criticism".

Goldstein then proceeded to quote the opinion of Leah Rozen, movie critic for People: "Editors everywhere have been affected by the influence of service journalism to the point where you find them asking why critics are going on at such length when all the readers really want to know is - should they go to the movie or not?" "Rozen says every time there's a redesign at People, the pictures get bigger and the text hole gets smaller".

Provided that what has been said up to now can be considered as sufficient, as a first approximation, in order to have a first draft; a model, and the various variables entailed by it (yes, I know it's a lot) has yet to be detailed.

But this we know: more and more, audiences avoid verbal expression, and increasingly choose a direct approach "without mediators"; "the Press" increasingly choose a "tactile" kind of content (what was yesterday a Podcast with some "new releases" is today videos and the "exclusive content" made possible by the ever-increasing availability of cheap broadband) instead of verbal; record companies find critics to be of ever-decreasing use, preferring instead to address, maybe even "in disguise" (who's really the "gentleman thief, lover of freedom" who uploaded that tasty unreleased song on the Web?), the fan community whose enthusiasm - and potential for buzz factor - are so hard to beat.

It's not too hard to imagine record companies willing to play one magazine against another at the time of each "important release" (by the way: who will have the guts to pan an important album when its presence on the mag is a sign of goodwill that can be declared voided at any moment?). While it's quite common, today, to see music coverage being reduced to a few colourful notes about a character; hence, the possibility - something that was impossible in the past, with just a few notable exceptions - to promote most names on "general interest" magazines, mainly those about fashion and "lifestyle".

The discussion is now declared open. With "how we have come to this?" as one of the questions being asked first. To be frank, there are many who think that things have always been "this way", meaning that criticism has always had no real effect on the majority of people, at least when compared to such factors as word of mouth and the group of one's peers. And memory doesn't always tell the whole story, since it's quite possible to discover - ex post - that one lived in a context that at the time one thought to be "absolutely typical" but whose quality of being "absolutely uncommon" is nowadays quite easy to perceive.

What I'd like to stress right now is that, when confronted with the lack of any real information that was quite common in the Sixties and the early Seventies, one made miracles thanks to one's strong "desire to know". It happened quite often that, upon knowing that one of those who were in the same room had a passable knowledge of the English language, an album cover immediately appeared, spread open, showing the lyrics (it was often 4 Way Street by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young). So, all other things being equal, given the amount of information that's today potentially available to all those who own a computer and a web connection, fans of music are in a position to know all (which doesn't mean possessing many hard disks overflowing with files).

It goes without saying that those who care about "our kind" of music (a mysterious entity that's absolutely impossible to define, but for once let's pretend otherwise, OK?) and about those musicians who invent it and play it, ask themselves what could be possibly done in order to alleviate the present state of things.

There's no consensus about this, either. There are those who consider today's releases by many illustrious names as being nice and satisfactory (even without the need of an escape clause such as  "under the present conditions"). There are also those who consider the concerts by those glorious line-ups, now back together again, as being a source of unlimited enthusiasm (here opinions differ: there are those who attend because they are "long-time fans", and those who don't... precisely for the same reason).

Realism makes one careful. A "real" group needs to rehearse continuously before it can play well and with agility, so as to sound credible, a repertory of a certain difficulty. Quite a few albums today sound like they were built "piecemeal", with each musician recording his/her own parts separately, at a different time, in a different location. A "strong" aesthetic, when reconstructed "from memory" on stage by musicians who have not seen each other from the time of their last (quite brief) tour together, can turn into a cage.

Things don't get better if one turns one's attention towards the audience. Already "videomusic" had stripped the live concert of all its content, except for the smoke, the screens, and the choreography of the richest. Now the fact of one being used at "multitasking" appears to have made the point of view of those attending a live concert a "floating" one: when every member of the audience considers all others who attend (nowadays a notion that's quite subject to change, given the constant use of the cell phone as a "mobile transmitter") at least as important as the group that's on stage, that gets to be looked at in the spirit of "entertain me, if you can".

Hence, two important consequences. First, a lot of those who can, seek refuge inside Academia, a place they had often made fun of, if not openly ridiculed, when in their youth. Here one can't be too harsh: after all, one has to eat. But one has to say that it's quite often (too often to be a coincidence) that academic work appears to encourage those self-referential tendencies, such as "studying the tiny" and "propension to experiment", that don't appear as being the best remedy to a faulty communication with "mere mortals". Meanwhile, the fact of having to play on subsidized stages where musical result is quite secondary to the "singularity of the event" as it appears on the program pushes musicians inside a merciless inflationary spiral where, year after year, the firm name has to be more and more "unique" in order to justify the expenditure of capital. It goes without saying that here the critic's role is that of a partner-in-crime who writes doggerel on a piece of paper, but this is a very well-known fact, so I'll stop here.

Since we're getting near to the conclusion, I'll tell a little tale, born out of personal experience. A few years ago I was invited to have a little chat with some university students about stuff such as the work of the critic, and so on. After just a few minutes I became aware of those wide-open eyes as proof of amazement and puzzlement. I immediately decided to lower my aim, throwing away the plan to engage them in the hoped manner.

The by now simplified discussion went as smooth as the breeze, until the moment when, totally by chance, I happened to mention that a reviewer who writes negative reviews, even when truthful, seriously runs the risk of running out of promo CDs to review. It was precisely at this moment that I heard somebody say "Good, he'll have to buy them". Right then and there, I thought I had misheard those words: incompetence aside, it's the mercenary review (for whatever reasons - money, friendship, whatever) that's the worst possible sin for a critic; so it was absolutely paradoxical to perceive the gladness of somebody who considered this punishment as par for the course for a writer with the readers' best interest in mind.

It was just like this. No objections, please. What came to the surface was the hate for "the critic" who - sporting no merit - received free CDs and attended concerts without having to pay. In vain, I tried to explain that when it comes to the proliferation of incompetent, dishonest critics, the remedy consists in modifying the rules of the game (OK, I'm dreaming; but here we're talking "in theory"), so as to make wrong behaviour quite difficult, if not impossible. But, no: critics have to pay with their own money.

There was never (and could it ever have been?) a clear formulation, but I think I can describe this attitude as such: either a critic is nothing more than a mere mortal, so he has to pay; or s/he pretends to know about things which are not accessible to anybody's first-hand experience - and what could these things be? Therefore, this line of reasoning combines the refusal of the existence of an "expert" system of knowledge, and the existence of a "different" sphere that's accessible to all, "provided one so wants". So, blogging in a peer group is all one needs.

This is a line of reasoning that's nowadays quite common, according to which any intellectual result can be conquered with no effort at all, and where everything beyond an "average" degree of difficulty doesn't really exist. So, all those who want to persuade us of the complexity of things are only crooks, to be mistrusted.

Beppe Colli 2008 | May 1, 2008