What We Talk About When We Talk About Reviewing


First, a few assumptions.

1.  The previous idea of reviewing a record was tied to the idea of buying a record.  We read reviews to see what we should buy.  And (often) to say that what we were buying was worthwhile.  See:  "It got really great reviews."

2.  We no longer buy albums.  Or at least we don't at the rate or the way that we once did.  Our mentality if we buy records now are as collectors rather than listeners.  Collectors can be counted on; listeners are more fickle.
            a.  Leaks are increasingly irrelevant.  To be the first to hear something still has a unique experiential quality.  However, if streaming means that we will all undoubtedly hear the album anyway, then to have a leak is only to one-up those who don't.  This is a game between friends (and Twitter followers) and does not merit actual substantial discussion.  
            b.  To wit, hearing something first does not mean owning the listening experience.  A first listen, like a first read, is usually for summary and content.  Therefore, being the first to review something means that you are the first tastemaker, but it does not qualify your opinion as correct.

3.  Streaming music (or even downloading) requires little work.  Collectors are equally archivists as they are consumers.  They perform upkeep.  They categorize (see obligatory High Fidelity image).  These activities require physical space as well as consistent activity.  Now, what we worry about is internet connection and space on the hard drive.  Neither concerns what is being listened to.

4.  Everyone is a blogger.  Through blogs, Tumblr, social media, Twitter, etc. opinions proliferate.  It is  easier to find out what is good or bad (see validation from point one) from these arenas as we do not have to search out an opinion rather we let one come to us thru newsfeeds, RSS, and subscriptions.

Given that these assumptions are true (wholly or mostly), don't reviewers who consider themselves serious need to change their conception of a review?

In short, yes.

In long:
Access to music is changing the way that we think about music.  With Spotify and other services, the role of the reviewer as the one who determines the consumption of the album in terms of commercial services is given a lower priority.  However, this means that the reviewers role as determiner of consumptive properties must move to the fore.  A reviewer should now focus more on the intrinsic qualities of an album as related to the extrinsic, ie putting that record into a larger context either of the artist or what is going on in music and culture right now.  A reviewer's opinion still matters in as much she is known to have mastery of knowledge above the average listener.  This knowledge ties directly to how the reviewer is able to hear and how through this they can contextualize what they hear.

A case in point:  my Cloud Nothings review from a few weeks ago generated a bit of rankling from many (which Zach has to field b/c I don't do Twitter).  The contention I made with this review was that the album was largely not breaking any new ground and was a sort of rehash of played 90s mentality which was being repackaged and promulgated again.  Whether or not you agree with this is ultimately inconsequential.  A review isn't measured by whether or not people agree with it mostly it's the other way around (see pt. 1 on validation).  Rightly or wrongly (again in your mind), I was attempting to put Cloud Nothings' record into a greater cultural context than it was being given.  The intrinsic values of the record, or as one comment put it "the record rocks," were less concerning to me than what the record was intending.  I don't think that the record rocked.  But, as a reviewer this is only the most superficial part of my job.  The bigger part and more difficult one is to tell you why and base my opinion in a reasoned way.  This is what separates a serious reviewer from everyone else:  depth of thought, self-knowledge, and communication.

These three things are in surprisingly short supply on the internet.  We've noticed on this blog a number of people who seem to not understand what we are writing.  This is the fault of the reader.  Any self-respecting person, when they make a mistake, they own it.  However, to throw your hands up about something that you consider confusion is on you.  Reviewers regularly use language, metaphor, irony, etc. to make their point.  If we take this only at face value then the meaning is lost and thus so is the review.  So, as we must strive to make better reviews, we must also read better and remember that reviews are only a take on something.  This is their power:  the power of persuasion and opinion.

Some rough proposals:

1.  Take longer to "review" a record.  Your audience has already heard it.  We can begin to pare away the descriptions.  We're not writing for someone else to understand what it sounds like (insert quote about writing about music is like dancing about architecture), we're writing for more personal and contextual reasons.  Approach it that way.

2.  Place a greater significance on what people haven't heard.  Make them want to hear it.  Find new bands.  Or make them hear other bands in new ways.

3.  A reviewer creates experience.  A great review is tied to a record.  Take this as a blessing and a curse.  How can you help your audience experience something to the best ability?

4.  Write better, longer, more in depth.  This will help us read better, too.


  1. That the assured and inevitable free availability of any given record eliminates any urgency whatsoever to hear said record is a really, really excellent observation.

    I take issue with some of Hank's later points; I generally have the view that if the reader fails to understand, it's on the writer. If the reader missed the irony or didn't grasp the inside baseball, it was a bad time for irony or the inside baseball should have been explained.

    And I suggest that the what, the content, is all that matters, and that if assured and inevitable availability renders the record review obsolete, maybe record reviews don't need to evolve so much as they need to go extinct. (The musicians cheer! Nigh-unlimited access to content, double-sided blade is thy name!)

    Differences notwithstanding, I really loved this post.

  2. Mouse: I'd totally agree that reader inability to understand is generally on the writer, but that also presupposes that a reader has taken time with something. While both time that writers are taking and time readers are taking have shortened, too often readers seem to dismiss things b/c they don't validate opinions or don't want to take the time to understand. Ask anyone who writes ironically without giant quotes around it anymore.

    And I totally agree about content, though I suggest thinking about the ties between content and experience more thoroughly than just "making content" which often seems like a daunting task.


  3. Great write-up Hank. I agree with all of your proposals. I want to most notably recognize point 2.

    "Place a greater significance on what people haven't heard. Make them want to hear it. Find new bands. Or make them hear other bands in new ways."

    This should be a core component adopted by all music bloggers. Good blogs stand out because of the introductions that they can provide for new music. I wish more blogs would take a regional approach with the music they write about rather than re-posting what everyone else is talking about. Thank you for writing this article. Nice to see fellow bloggers taking a step in the right direction.

  4. I like this post a lot, but it almost seems to be more of a call for thinkpieces than reviews (Or maybe thinkpieces based around albums instead of reviews)with the whole "cultural context" argument.

  5. I kinda cringe at the idea that we need the term "thinkpeice." As it implies that a review or a critique doesn't need thought or that thought is somehow contained elsewhere. What I'm arguing for here is an older concept that needs to be reapplied. The idea of the critic or the reviewer as a storyteller of sorts hence the emphasis on experience.

  6. I used the term 'thinkpiece' mainly because to me it carries with it a connotation of a different kind of thought more akin to what you're calling for (I agree that it sucks as a term), one more based on the extrinsic aspects of a record, whereas a review connotates thought that lies much more strongly in the intrinsic qualities of a record. The latter term has a certain ceiling to it in terms of how extrinsic you can get--before it stops being a review and is just an expose on a cultural moment--and the former has a limit in how in-depth with an album it can get. Certainly, the two are related, but the placement of the focus of thought is what differentiates a review from a "thinkpiece." Critique, though, strikes me as a having a good middle ground between the two terms.

    (And I apologize if I'm failing to understand as a reader. But I hope you see what I'm trying to get at.)

  7. Totally agree with Brett. I'm not too, too interested in hearing everyone's take on the same quasi-buzzy bands, and would love for more blogs to focus on their local scene. This could make music blogs regional outposts. If I want to know about what's coming out of xxxxx-ville, I'll go to xxxxx-blog, you know? I guess the point of the internet these days is that anyone can find anything, but seeing as how there is still a huge component of a *local* scene in cities/towns (barroom shows, bands that don't tour, word of mouth, friends of friends, etc.) it's nice to know that certain blogs have their ears to the *ground* instead of just everyone tuning into the same digital *wires*.

    That said, I will go read anywhere from 3 to 10 reviews of the same record/band on different sites if I really really dig that record/band, so it's nice to have some diversity. But in those cases, it's usually a "bigger" record and I can find words about it on AV Club, P4k, and some other big blogs.