Two recent topics of conversation have come together in my mind to prompt a question.
Topic 1: the number of classical concert reviews is shrinking rapidly. Everyone in the profession has noticed it. Many newspapers are reducing the number of classical reviews they print and the number of days a week on which they print them. Reviews are moved from the print edition to a web page. Critics are moved from salaries to free-lance arrangements, or are ‘let go’ altogether. Budgets are cut and papers don’t want to pay for critics to travel. Therefore many concerts come and go with no recognition in the press.
When I was a young professional musician, I used to go down to the newsagent on the day after a big concert and collect all the reviews. Often there were three or four on the same day, and magazine reviews followed later. I had ‘reviews’ folders bulging with newspaper pages.
But now, getting a review is an red-letter day. None of the old ways of guaranteeing a review – giving a debut recital, putting on a premiere, exploring unusual repertoire, including interesting guest artists – are guaranteed any more. Even printed reviews are often subjected to the sub-editor’s knife. Occasionally a well-disposed critic has found a way to let me know that they were actually at the concert and did actually write a review, but it was ‘spiked’ (meaning never printed). Once I asked, ‘Can I have a copy of it, to quote from?’ but the answer was no. If it wasn’t officially published, it isn’t officially a review. The critic said, ‘I could let you have it, but it would have no more force than a personal letter from a member of the audience.’
Topic 2: funding bodies, etc. When you apply for money, you have to submit ‘proof of critical esteem’, which basically means reviews. If you apply for a visa to perform in certain countries, you have to send ‘published reviews’ from reputable papers. In the past, you could simply photocopy some recent reviews and attach them to your application. But now things have changed. Often there is no recent review.
However, this does not mean that there have been no successful concerts. There may have been halls full of enthusiastic listeners, but how can musicians prove it? They can send programmes to prove that the concerts happened, but that is no ‘proof of esteem’ in the eyes of funding bodies or foreign immigration departments.
A friend of mine was struggling with this problem lately as he compiled a funding application for a festival. There had been lots of good concerts, but no reviews. So I asked whether he was allowed to quote Tweets, Facebook messages, ecstatic emails from members of the audience? He laughed heartily and said, ‘I hardly think so.’
But something has to change. If official bodies require ‘published proof of critical esteem’, but newspapers are getting rid of their critics, then something has to give. There must be other acceptable ways of proving that your concerts were well-received. I can see the problem: tweets, personal letters and ’emails from members of the public’ would be easy to fake, or at least easy to generate with the help of some sympathetic friends. That’s the whole problem with, say, Tripadvisor. I can appreciate why ‘a published review in a newspaper’ is regarded as a guarantee of impartiality.
But as these grandly impartial platforms fade away, we need other ways of ‘proving esteem’. So how are we to do it?