Where are the best reviews?

16th March 2009 | Daily Life, Reviews | 0 comments

My trio’s latest record came out recently. Friends were soon sending us reviews they’d found, in newspapers and magazines as well as on the web. I read them all and I started to realise something interesting: the best writing was often found in amateur publications, such as websites run by musical enthusiasts. Admittedly the worst writing crops up in these places too. But on this occasion it seemed that the professionals were no match for the best of the amateurs. In the writing of the professional critics there was a distinct flavour of stale cliché, whereas some of the amateurs had clearly spent a lot of time trying to put their insights into words, with good effect.

A few years ago, a musician could not quote a web review in any official capacity because web reviews were not considered ‘bona fide’. However, things are changing, and of course they’re likely to change further as the print editions of newspapers surrender to the huge appetite for internet news. Recently someone at The Guardian remarked to me that it’s almost a misnomer to call it ‘a newspaper’ first and foremost, because the web audience is so much bigger than the print audience, and far more international. Of course the news usually breaks on the website first. Sometimes, when there isn’t space for many arts reviews in the print edition, extra reviews are published on the newspaper’s website. So I think it won’t be for much longer that promoters and embassies and visa issuers can insist on being sent only hard copies of published reviews.

Other forms of arts and leisure activities have already developed extensive ‘user reviews’ which must be far more widely consulted than official guidebooks. If I want to go out for dinner, I look at a customer review site like London Eating to see what recent diners have said about the restaurant. Similarly with hotels: I consult a site like TripAdvisor and am happy to be guided by other visitors, particularly if they happen to mention the kind of things that are important to me. One great advantage of such customer review websites is that they can be far more up-to-date than a book which was handed in to the editor a year before it was printed, and has been on the shelves for another six months since then. Naturally the author cannot know that in the interim, the chef has resigned and the drains have begun to smell, but yesterday’s customer knows.

My guess is that many new kinds of music review sites will come to be taken seriously, not only the ones attached to prestigious newspapers. Of course a newspaper can only support a tiny number of critics, far fewer than the number of well-informed enthusiasts who have something to say but nowhere to say it. Now that it’s so easy to type in to the search box, for example, ‘Florestan Trio Schubert’ and be presented with a whole range of responses, readers will gradually notice where insightful writing is to be found.


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