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Everyone really is a critic

by Merja Hottinen

"Traditional, academic criticism is giving way to a more collective and democratic form of criticism: we are today perhaps more interested than ever to learn what other people think of their musical experiences and how they choose to express their thoughts."
The media sector is in a state of flux, and music criticism is also seeking new guises to morph into. Traditional, academic criticism is giving way to a more collective and democratic form of criticism: we are today perhaps more interested than ever to learn what other people think of their musical experiences and how they choose to express their thoughts.

Music criticism is a tough sell. There is always something wrong with it: the opinions are wrong, they are expressed in a way that is too complicated or too simplistic, the review is too short or too long, or maybe it just misses the point altogether. By all accounts, music criticism has been going the way of the dodo for a long time now. Yet it refuses to die. Even though the entire media sector is in a state of flux, new openings for criticism are appearing all the time.

Social media has fundamentally changed the way we view critical writing. We expect very different things from a review now than we did a couple of decades ago. Many feel that the original job of the critic, mediating between performing artists and audiences, has become obscured by click-and-like journalism in an era where rapid response trumps analytic contemplation. Why do we need criticism in this day and age?


Time for a paradigm shift

The archetypical music review is a critical article published in a newspaper, specifically about classical concert music. Finnish music criticism followed this venerable model for more than 100 years since its emergence in the 1830s. In recent decades, it has undergone a substantial upheaval due to changes both in the media world and in music appreciation.

Today, the trend is towards pluralist and fast-moving journalism where news and phenomena outrun the aesthetic paradigm of arts appreciation. The number of music reviews in major newspapers has not necessarily decreased, but the reviews have become shorter and more concise, and their style now tends to be aimed at the general reader. Also, the largely unchanging number of music reviews is now occupied by an increasing number of musical genres, not to speak of the other branches of the arts, so the print exposure of any given genre of music is small in proportion.

This is particularly apparent in the coverage of classical music compared to other genres of music. A couple of decades ago it was a rarity to see a music review of anything other than classical music in the culture pages of a newspaper, but in the summer festival season in 2014, fewer than half of the music reviews in Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s largest daily newspaper, covered classical music.

An even better idea of how criticism is becoming more journalistic can be gained for instance from a study of the culture section of Helsingin Sanomat by Heikki Hellman – himself a former head of the Helsingin Sanomat culture department – and Maarit Jaakkola in 2009. According to this study, the average length of reviews decreased by almost 50% between 1978 and 2008. Their style also became more reader-friendly. This trend was propelled by structural changes in the newspaper that brought the culture section closer to the other sections of the newspaper in terms of journalistic values.

Such changes are not limited to individual newspapers. Throughout the Finnish press, structural changes have resulted in mergers of local papers, job losses and increasingly strict freelance agreements. For critics, this means reviews being syndicated in more newspapers and thereby, with fewer job opportunities, a thinning of the ranks of critics writing those reviews.

Consequently, the culture sector is deeply concerned about reviews becoming increasingly shallow. If newspapers, traditionally havens of cultural appreciation, now only publish notices of concerts, new recordings and new works, what will happen to the cultural mission of criticism – shaping a common understanding and sharing the meanings of music?


Elements for discussion

Despite their archetypal status, daily newspapers are only one channel among many for music criticism. In traditional media alone, there is a multitude of options: specialist magazines, general-interest magazines, radio and TV are also talking a lot about music these days. Even though the recording industry too is in a crisis, recording reviews take up a lot of space in magazines dedicated to music enthusiasts.

The new face of criticism can be seen above all in online media, blogs and social media. They represent new and rapid ways of finding recommendations or joining a discussion. An online search will quickly find reviews that interest me, the social media tells me what my friends are recommending, and blogs make reviews seem more personal. It is now literally true that everyone is a critic.

Philip Teir, former head of the culture department of Hufvudstadsbladet, Finland’s largest Swedish-language daily newspaper, predicted in an essay last year that these features will transcend the social media and affect criticism in newspapers too. The media are adopting a habit of publishing easily read lists of recommendations instead of reviews, and if one does write a review, the tendency is to focus on positive things. The more user-specific the field of music criticism becomes, the less likely it will be that we will stumble across things or viewpoints that are new or unexpected, Teir remarked. When we ourselves choose what to read among a multitude of possibilities, we skip over the unpleasant truths and anything that conflicts with our own opinions. We can remain safe and snug in our own little bubble with nothing but content chosen by ourselves for company.

Nevertheless, there are valuable social aspects to this phenomenon. Sini Mononen, Editor-in-Chief of the Finnish online culture magazine Mustekala (which means ‘octopus’, but that’s not important right now) notes in a recent issue of Kritiikin uutiset (Criticism news) that online criticism has a democratising effect. She describes online criticism as ‘fast’, as opposed to the traditional criticism that is ‘slow’ in its sociological aspects and media practices. ‘Fast’ criticism promotes the freedom of criticism and democracy, and helps dismantle the traditional elitist view of culture. It enables a multitude of forms in terms of content, free of the rigid publishing practices of the traditional media.

Reviews shared through social media have one unbeatable advantage compared to the traditional unidirectional mass media: they allow for discussion, in which the performer or critic can also participate. If one of the key purposes of criticism is to share meanings and convey experiences, what better way is there to share understanding than direct discussion?


Something to identify with

One of the goals of criticism becoming more journalistic is to bring the content of reviews closer to the lives of ordinary people. Easy readability, avoidance of specialist jargon, down-to-earth topics and clear-cut publication formats have helped dispel the spectre of elitism and extend the possibility of becoming an audience member to everyone. At the same time, criticism has retained the property of conveying a subjective experience without straying too far into the journalistic realm of hard facts.

The next step in the chain would be reviews written by audience members themselves. There are already many openings for such reviews online and on social media, but newspapers are still largely dominated by experts. In an interesting departure, the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival introduced a ‘chamber critic’ group a couple of years ago, meaning a group of music enthusiasts invited to the festival to write about their experiences of a selected handful of concerts. The texts are published in their entirety online and in edited form in the print edition of the local newspaper, Kainuun Sanomat.

This project points the way to one possible function of criticism in today’s world: not academic criticism and quality appraisal but a sharing of experiences and recommendations. There is rarely anything negative in the pieces written by these ‘vox populi’ critics; almost without exception, the writers are pleased with their experiences. These pieces dextrously combine mass communication with marketing in the guise of a music review, and they are without doubt of interest to peer readers thinking about whether to go to the festival or not.

But everyone can be a critic in the social media even if they never write a line of text themselves. We also create our online identity by sharing texts with which we wish to be associated. We compile lists and post links to things we want to recommend and tag ourselves in places where we like to be seen. Reviews become part of a lifestyle, a way of occupying the cultural environment.

Does criticism still have power?

The power of the mass media traditionally stemmed from its role as a gatekeeper of publicity. Writing as a critic for a major newspaper used to guarantee a large number of readers around breakfast tables all over the country, allowing the critic to influence the public at large in a substantial way.

This power structure has been much discussed with reference to criticism, especially in the case of Finland’s only really national newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, and its long-standing, seemingly omnipotent music critic, the late Seppo Heikinheimo (1938–1997). Heikinheimo had a sharp pen and was commonly assumed to wield a great deal of power, so much so that certain musicians were said to avoid performing in Helsinki altogether because of him.

It would be difficult to imagine any music critic, or music criticism in general, having such huge influence in this day and age. A character like Heikinheimo would no doubt have likers and sharers in the social media, but surely no one today would believe that such a person would have the power to make or break a performer’s career.

But does this mean that criticism has become irrelevant? The major media are still followed with interest, and even isolated instances such as the international attention gained by Mirel Wagner’s new album or the recent praise lavished on the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival by the Financial Times were conscientiously quoted in several Finnish media.

Today’s media environment allows content to spread like wildfire and to influence the opinions of an increasingly large number of people concerning any particular phenomenon. But such phenomena are also quickly forgotten. Perhaps the power of criticism manifests itself in the invisible structures of a phenomenon. After all, the ultimate purpose of criticism is to verbalise and shape meanings, to create connections between things and people, and to give us tools for interpreting the musical environment in which we live.


Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Photo: Mirel Wagner’s new record for Sub Pop received rave reviews at home and abroad in the summer of 2014. Photo: Tomi Palsa.