What Good are CD Reviews Anyway?

I started writing record reviews for the No Treble website in October. Why? Well I love music and though I never saw myself as a writer, several paths led me to an increased confidence in writing and led me to feel it was worth having a go. I owe most of it to the web. It was writing lengthy posts in online forums that gave me the confidence to write blogposts. And these online writing experience (together with a couple of book magazine reviews I wrote) led me to feel it was worth having a go at writing reviews. Plus, as a musician and a bassist I felt I had something to offer to an audience in my writing.

No Treble is a website for bassplayers with videos, lessons, reviews, news and other resources. There is a strong sense of community about the site and they use social media wonderfully well to interact with their readers. There’s is no superficial auto-post type interaction; they are aware of the power of the dialogue available through the internet.

So what have I learned:

I am not a professional writer and would not pretend to be, but the modern age of the web and the mobile phone have proved that the amateur can potentially have an even greater effect.

With the collapse of an out-dated and inefficient music industry there is now more great music around that for many years. This appears to be because many musicians are making the music they love rather than what their record companies consider would appeal to a target audience.

There is so much music made and released every single day that no-one could keep track of any of it. We rely more and more on the personal nature of recommendation and if people are familiar with a particular reviewer and how his tastes match (or otherwise) those of the reader, the reader will have insight into the music and whether it is worth exploring further. Hence, reviewing or even recommending music raises my profile as a musician too.

When you hear about a new record, you have preconceptions about that music and the record itself often does not match those. It can take a few listens to hear the music at face value. What you have to be careful is that you are reviewing the music based on the music itself and not your reaction to preconceptions about what the music might be. At the same time, a reviewer has to give enough of a flavour to prospective listeners in order that their expectations might be more appropriate.

Honesty and integrity have an even higher value in a world where every one of your reviews stays ‘in print’ forever. They are hugely valuable and without them, any review is meaningless.

At the same time, negative reviews serve little purpose. Music is subjective and negative reviews are easier to write, can be fun to read, but often exist more for a reviewer to show off in than to serve a useful purpose. These days, also, publicity (good or bad) is oxygen and even a negative review is going to raise the profile of a record in a market flooded with product. There have been a couple of CDs I’ve received that I didn’t like; I haven’t reviewed them. I have written comments on my personal, negative reaction to certain aspects of CDs but I’ve learned to be careful with the wording often rewriting the next day) conscious that the music can be the result of a musician’s life’s work and philosophy but might only be a few hours’ work for a critic.

Fanboy type reviews are dull to read and what the reader seems to want is some kind of honest reaction to the music and some kind of description (about as easy as dancing to architecture) that will let a reader know if the CD is worth investigating.

Active listening is incredibly rewarding. OK, I knew that but I often spend as much time listening when I review something as when I learn a new tune by ear. How many times have you bought a new CD and not really listened to it for 6 months until you rediscovered it. That doesn’t happen with reviews. I await eagerly as they arrive, no idea what they will be, almost like Christmas presents and I listen to them over and over.

The modern musician is incredibly helpful and many have emailed me with added details about the musicians, tunes and recording process. Some have then responded personally to the reviews or even posted the entire review on their website! The reviews themselves have a wide audience on No Treble but are also then a weblink which can be retweeted and posted on Facebook ad infinitum and becomes an effective promotional tool. Not only that but they do tend to show up in web searches too!

OK, because I have a few classic reviews (not my own I hasten to add) that I go back to sometimes to listen to records alongside, I do enjoy writing reviews with track by track breakdowns. I do vary it a little as I know that’s not everyone’s taste so I make sure the first couple of paragraphs (in true journalist’s style) summarise the record and my reaction to it as succinctly as possible. I also try to make sure I add a few pertinent weblinks.

Many thanks to Peter Hum, Sebastian Scotney, Corey Brown, Tim Lefebvre, Seth Horan, Damian Erskine, Derek Frank, Stepan Crump, Thomson Kneeland, Evan Kepner, Fleming Doerken, Matt Stevens, Will Fugate, Neil Alexander and others for their support and encouragement.

You can read the reviews at the No Treble website and they are also linked to here.

Please let me know what you think!

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3 thoughts on “What Good are CD Reviews Anyway?

  1. I’m really enjoying your reviews at notreble.com. Even if you do not see yourself as a “professional” writer, you do have the writing chops, intelligence, and attention to detail that critical writing requires. Your inquisitive nature and honesty make your reviews real gems that I use to find new music that I might not otherwise hear. Thanks for that!

  2. This stood out today in an otherwise good review of Damian Erskine’s fabulous So to Speak by Dan Bilwasky in All About Jazz. In an otherwise glowing review, Bilawsky wrote that:

    “”American Gyro,” featuring some spacey sounds and straightforward delivery, tends to meander and lose focus…”

    Surely this kind of comment from reviewers is presumptuous: how could the critic presume to know what the musicians were trying to achieve with the track and where they were attempting to take it?

    Of course, he was right to voice an honest dissatisfaction but wording it like this implies a superiority to the musicians. Surely what he meant was that his attention meandered and lot focus and a more honest sentence would have read:

    “”American Gyro,” featuring some spacey sounds and straightforward delivery, struggled to hold my attention…” and the reader would have been wiser and the review more transparent.

    Or…even more accurately…”this is a jazz website and this track is clearly not jazz so you won’t like it – but the rest will be to your taste”

  3. Kudos, Phil. Your even-handedness and objectivity is completely refreshing. Had you come from some kind of formal journalistic training, they’d probably have ruined your perspective somehow, so you just go on being who you are and writing how you write. You’re lending credence to the world of bass music with every review, and a lot of reviewers out there could take a cue from you and your approach!

    Cheers,

    Seth :]

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