Twisted City by Chris Singleton - album sleeve

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Entries in rock critics (3)


On rock critics

For musicians, facing the rock critics is always one of the most daunting and perplexing aspects of putting out an album. Daunting because of the fear of rejection; perplexing because of the multiple responses from critics to the same music.

It was a particularly baffling experience encountering the reaction to my current album, Lady Gasoline. A critic from The Irish Times thought the album was rubbish, focusing as much on my hearing problem (or as she put it, ‘angle’), hyperacusis, as the music; two days later the Sunday Business Post critic remarked that my hearing condition was completely irrelevant and the album was a complete triumph. Q Magazine applauded the record's stylistic diversity at the same time that Gaydar Nation bemoaned its wearing of copious influences on its sleeve; industry bible Music Week approved of the album's production values while some at BBC Radio 2 found fault with them. Dubliner Magazine loved the ELO references that pop up on the record; certain hip music bloggers definitely didn't, being far too cool (or perhaps young) to appreciate anything to do with Mr Jeff Lynne. And some of the lazier critics or bloggers just printed my press release verbatim (in which case the album was naturally the greatest thing since sliced bread – result!).

Whilst I obviously cut out all the positive reviews – to show our soon-to-arrive baby how fantastic a musician his/her father was when he still had time to do that sort of thing – and consigned the poor ones to the dustbin of rock history, I couldn't really ascertain from either set of reviews how good or bad the album was. I was left with the sense that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, one man's meat is another man's poison, it’s a very postmodern world we live in and so on.

Reading all the reviews got me thinking about rock criticism though, and the relationship between those who produce music and those who write about it. This relationship is a fascinating, symbiotic, love-hate affair.

It’s symbiotic because both groups currently rely heavily on each other for their jobs. A simple take on the situation is this: with no music produced, the critics have nothing to review (and no music magazine/supplement sales); with no reviews, the artists have no exposure (and no album sales). It’s a love-hate affair because critics love or hate the output of musicians, and musicians love or hate the reaction of the critics.

It gets more fun than this though, because another layer of criticism can also kick in – when the musicians start to become critics of the critics. From my scouring of the rock press for reviews of Twisted City and Lady Gasoline, I’ve noticed that some music critics can simply write better prose than others; some have a greater knowledge of rock history than others; some are more familiar with how recording works than others; some only like stuff that sounds like Radiohead’s Kid A; some are clearly straight out of college. You can spot the more informed critics from the charlatans a mile off, and you start to judge their output accordingly. In the circle of musicians I move in, conversations about the quality of the various rock critics’ output crop up time and again. It sounds daft, doesn’t it: musicians hanging around rehearsal studios, engaging in metacritcism.

The other thing I’ve noticed about rock critics is that just like the musicians they review, they jostle and compete with each other for attention. At best, this leads to some hilarious crimes against the English language being committed; at worst, it leads to some critics being cruelly dismissive of albums just to make a name for themselves. There is a constant – albeit understandable – struggle going on amongst rock critics to establish themselves as the most acerbic / wittiest / able-to-use-flowery-words scribe on the block; but we musicians are sometimes the unwitting casualty of this. The battle for rock critic supremacy and reputation means that music is often not judged on its own terms but on the basis of how cool the critic will look if s/he gives it a thumbs up or not.

For me, the best rock critics are the ones who invest energy in understanding how music is made and explaining this to readers. The late Ian MacDonald – who penned the authoritative Revolution in the Head tome about the Beatles – was particularly good at this. He was meticulous in explaining how melody structures, chord selections, key changes and close or open harmonies affect emotional responses to music; he also brought explanations of production techniques into his reviews, showing how compression or equalisation bring tracks to life – or not.  Most critics can impart opinions, and some do so very clearly and wittily, but very few seem to want to go near the actual nuts and bolts of how the music is actually made and operates on listeners – possibly because they simply don’t understand this area. A shame, since it’s the combination of all these nuts and bolts which ultimately make a listener fall in love with music.

Whatever about musicians’ views on critics and critics’ views on music, the relationship that I’ve described above between both groups is going to change massively; and predictably, this is down to the internet. On one level, thanks to digital technology, there is now far more content to review (recording and distributing music is now easier than ever) and far more people to review it (in the form of online journalists, bloggers and armchair critics). However, due to the web’s decimation of both newspaper and album sales, we may in time see the end of both professional recording musicians and reviewers – or at the very least, a massive decline in their numbers. This will mean that the relationship between both groups becomes less symbiotic, as recorded music and reviews of it cease to be mutually essential for income generation.

Perhaps this lack of reliance on critics for (non-existent) album sales will lead to more outspoken attacks by musicians on their reviews – such as the hilarious (but in some respects, arguably justified) reaction by Chris de Burgh to a dismissive Irish Times write-up. And maybe rock critics will become even more honest about musicians’ output, not having to worry about keeping (non-existent) record labels and advertisers sweet.

Either way, we musicians will no doubt continue to dismiss rock critics as irrelevant and say it’s the audience's views that matters. Unless, of course, it’s a good review we’re talking about, in which case we’ll slap a nice juicy quote from you on the next press release, thank you very much.

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The charts they are a-changing

Traditionally, music charts have been all about music sales. You sell records, you get in the charts; you don't, and you spin yourself as an serious, tortured act with a cult following who wouldn't be seen dead on a hit parade. Frankly, I know which camp I'd rather be in.

The UK (and other) charts have undergone a number of changes over the past few years. As physical cd sales declined, the chart rules were modified so that MP3 sales on iTunes and other digital retailers were taken into account. This led to some interesting effects: popular album tracks started entering the single charts; and obscure songs that had not been released as physical singles started to make surprise appearances, due to positive word of mouth and "grassroots" followings of underground acts.

The charts may be about to undergo another profound change. This is because I think that conventional sales - upon which charts are built - are on the way out. It seems increasingly likely (thanks to services such as Spotify) that people soon won't buy MP3s or cds any more, but will stream whatever songs they like over the internet (either on a subscription basis or by agreeing to hear adverts between tracks).

If this happens, the focus of charts is inevitably going to switch away from sales to the number of plays of particular songs. To a certain extent, this is already happening. The music social network Last FM currently tracks what its users are playing (see for what's currently hot) and Spotify also shows you how popular tracks are as you play them.

In many ways, this emphasis on how many times songs are played is a more accurate reflection of the popularity of music than music sales. After all, a lot of people may buy a track - say, a novelty or charity single like Mr Blobby - only to rarely play it. Equally, a great album, released by an independent artist, may not sell many copies but get repeated plays by a dedicated, small following.

Interestingly, what all this raises is the possibility that some sort of 'song quality' indicator may emerge - something that goes beyond telling us how many people own a song, and lets us know how many people actually like a song. We could arrive at this indicator by dividing the number of plays of a track by the number of people playing it; for example, if 10 unique Spotify users play a song 100 times, you could give the song a popularity rating of 10 (100 divided by 10). But if the same 10 users played another song 1000 times, that track would have a popularity rating of 100 (1000 divided by 10).

Listening to music has traditionally been viewed as an intensely subjective experience, but what examples like the above point to is that maybe beauty does not entirely lie in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps certain songs have intrinsically good qualities that charts have not, hitherto, been able to highlight accurately. Online data could change all that, and start to highlight the fact that some songs have inherent and enduring appeal.

As with so many other things right now, the internet is allowing us to measure our behaviour in entirely new ways - and leading us to make remarkable conclusions about things. I wasn't really expecting the net to tell me how well-written a song is; but it's now looking like a distinct possibility. To conclude, the internet will become a rock critic.


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The difficult second album

I always laughed at the hoary old phrase 'the difficult second album' which is routinely wheeled out by those reviewers who are reviewing well, a difficult second album. Now I'm not laughing. It's bloody difficult.

I'm currently working on said difficult second album. Well actually it's my fourth, but I'm rather particular about which of my albums I release.

Anyway, the point is, it's proving difficult to finish. Why? I've boiled it down to three issues.

The first is lack of time - living in London seems to do weird things to your diary and keep you away from the studio.

The second is lack of energy: I'm cagey about my age, as once you pass the grand old age of 10 the music industry doesn't seem to want to know about you...but lets just say that when you pass the fucking awful age of 30 (damn!) you lose a bit of your mojo. It's like a musical biological clock starts ticking or something - you want to make records more, but you seem less able to do so. I stress that this isn't equivalent to losing talent - at least I hope not - but it's hard to go at making records hammer and tongs the way I used to when I was a pain-in-the-ass 21 year old (reminds me of Pink Floyd: "and then one day you find...ten years have got behind you". Yuck.).

The third is fussiness: because I mainly produce my own stuff, I am all too aware of my deficiencies behind the desk. Bizarrely I can make everybody else who comes into my studio sound great in 5 minutes, but it takes me bloody ages to feel satisfied with my own music.

But I'm finally getting to that stage where I feel the pieces are falling into place. There are two songs in particular that are turning out very well - 'Lose it' and 'Lou Reed'. The latter was a throwaway song, but it's now actually one of my favourites. But a load of my record still sounds crap. I'm going to be working on this difficult album for quite a while I reckon.

In other news I am currently watching the "top 50 most embarrassing pop moments ever" on BBC 3. Not sure it's the best use of license fee-payers' money, but it's pretty entertaining.

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