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.
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.