Onlinus Criticus:
A New (and Increasingly Rare) Breed
 
By Julene Snyder


In the beginning, there was Crawdaddy, Creem and Rolling Stone. Then,
before you could hum the chorus to "Let it Bleed," rock critics were
everywhere. There were the academics (Robert Christgau, Eric
Weisbard), the wunderkind-turned-moguls (Cameron Crowe), the madmen
(Lester Bangs, Richard Metzger), the cultural chroniclers (Ann
Powers), the fan-focused (Gina Arnold), the semi-notorious (Jim
DeRogatis) and the label-friendly hacks (you'd didn't really think I'd
put a name here, did you?).

You'd think that Web journalism's explosion would bring a new crop of
influential music journalists. It hasn't. Instead, it's brought
hundreds of music Web sites pumping out hundreds of thousands of words
- mostly mediocre words. The question: Is anyone paying attention? The
new Madonna record saw reviews everywhere from Wall of Sound to
Sonicnet.com. But did all those online record reviews have a thing to
do with the album's success?

There are signs that the industry has begun to wonder if the world
really needs dozens of Madonna reviews. Last week, MTVi - the online
division of Viacom's MTV Networks and parent of Sonicnet - laid off
more than 100 employees in a major reorganization. (Full disclosure:
I've written record reviews for Sonicnet.) According to a recent
Industry Standard article, those layoffs were due to the company's
plans to "consolidate its editorial and technology staffs into one
division. One staff essentially will create editorial for MTV.com,
VH1.com and Sonicnet." MTV.com's group president, Judy McGrath, told
Inside.com's Craig Marks (formerly an editor at Spin) that one result
of the reorganization will be the centralization of music reviews,
remarking that, "There's really no reason to have four separate Nelly
reviews."

Not surprisingly, critics themselves aren't as matter-of-fact. "As the
business itself consolidates, the media is also consolidating," says
New York Times pop music critic Ann Powers. The Times writer also
thinks that the sites' existence as part of the industry they cover
leads to a lack of dissenting opinions.

Powers says she's distressed because much of the discussion about the
role of music criticism is strictly about filtering and taste-making:
"(There is an) extreme focus on consumerism online, on buying and
selling. Well, it's not that easy to monetize commentary and social
context. It's much easier to monetize a guide that's going to say,
'This is good, and this is bad.' I'm sorry to see so little interest
among people who are really invested in the online world in the side
of criticism and journalism that I think is more interesting."

But the issue might not lie with a dimunition of content but with a
shift in who's creating it. Marc Schiller, CEO and co-founder of the
marketing firm ElectricArtists, thinks that the most important reviews
these days are coming from the fans themselves in places like mailing
lists, message boards and chat rooms - the places where fans talk to
one another in communities that they've created themselves. "These
communities can create a buzz in velocity that's incredible," he says.

"For the first time, there's a layer that the labels have to take into
account early - the fans."

If so, it's a sea change from the way things have worked for years in
the music industry. The relationship between writer, publicist and
record label has always been a symbiotic one: The writer needs access
to the artist, the artist presumably wants to be famous, and the
publicist is supposed to rack up as many positive reviews as possible
so that lots of records are sold and everybody can make a lot of
money.

But hey, none of this is rocket science; putting the fans at the
front-end of the process might turn out to be the best thing that's
ever happened to the business. In the immortal words of the late,
lamented Frank Zappa, "Most rock journalism is people who can't write,
interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read."
 
 

03 Oct 2000 BEAT SHEET: Who Needs Music Critics (on the Web)?

THE INDUSTRY STANDARD'S B E A T S H E E T
 http://www.thestandard.com