You heard it here first
Jack White threw down a glove last week and ushered the music industry onto what duelers call the field of honor. A press release announced that “Consolers of the Lonely,” the new album from the Raconteurs, White’s band with songwriting pal Brendan Benson, would be issued in all formats a week later.
The quick turnaround was designed “to get this record to fans, the press, radio, etc., all at the EXACT SAME TIME so that no one has an upper hand on anyone else regarding its availability, reception or perception. . . .
“The Raconteurs would rather this release not be defined by its first week’s sales, pre-release promotion, or by someone defining it FOR YOU before you get to hear it,” the statement continued.
Always a control freak, White seems to view music culture’s current anarchistic drift as both a bane and an opportunity. His enemy, the statement suggests, is anyone who engages in hype: bloggers, radio programmers, directors of Apple commercials, the publicists supposedly at his service, and, of course, music critics. He can’t stop every leak, but he can try to throw the machine.
Some writers (including, most eloquently, Jason Gross at Popmatters.com) have wondered whether good criticism will get lost in the dismantling process. But what if players in the game of promoting and contextualizing music took Jack White at his word? What if critics got off the release-date train and imagined new ways of approaching recorded music?
There’s not a writer out there -- including myself -- who hasn’t put the thumbs-up-or-down rush to judgment before the need to gradually uncover a musical work’s nuances. Snap decisions are nothing new, nor is the compromised critical position. But the profession has become increasingly complicated by issues of access and the need for Web hit-generating scoops.
Over the years I’ve attended catered private listening sessions where label reps gently try to pull opinions from writers as they sit there formulating their reviews. The sound systems at such events can be great; the sushi is often better. At the other extreme, I once attempted to review an album played for me through a DVD player attached to a television. (Ultimately, I managed to score another few listens on my portable disc player.)
Denied advances, I’ve uncovered supposedly unavailable material via English fan sites and Italian blogs, hoping the track listings are correct and the mixes didn’t come from demos. Like my peers, I try to avoid such weird circumstances. But it’s not always possible, especially if the goal is a critical preemptive strike.
A war within
The Raconteurs and other recent cycle-breakers like Gnarls Barkley, Trent Reznor and Pennywise are messing with the formula to benefit themselves and their fans; perhaps unwittingly, they’re also giving writers permission to rebel against it. Can we afford to take the chance? The recording industry is structured around arbitrary release dates -- it determines marketing plans on the business side and defines “news” for journalists.
The moment that a release hits is ridiculously over-analyzed, partly because the dissolution of the music biz is such a hot story. When a buzzed-about release fails, things seem all the more dramatically desperate. Artists are now routinely discussed in terms of their “shelf life”; a few may have the supernatural endurance of Twinkies, but most are dumped out of the media’s display cases within a few weeks of hitting the shelves.
Besides, the flow of new music is so daunting that critics find themselves buried beneath piles of “important” new stuff. The channels that help determine which artists “matter” have multiplied as well. There’s no consensus. Established critics need to be knocked from their pedestals. (Go ahead, push me!) But the serious ones, whether they write for Stereogum or the Los Angeles Times, must also consider exactly what power games seduce us, and how hype may be affecting our reactions.
Even as I write this column centered around the Raconteurs, my attention is distracted by an e-mail about new British soul sensation Duffy -- I should be writing about her now, she’s the flavor of the moment. She’s good, too, I’ve even seen her live, I’d better not miss my chance. . . . Wait. Take a breath. Where is my mind, amid such a barrage of anxieties and impulses?
The need to be first, felt so acutely now, is further complicated by the crisis of access. For years, publicists promoting bestselling artists (as well as “prestige” acts like the Raconteurs) have been required to put up walls between journalists and new releases, holding back advance copies or staging those notorious listening sessions in executive suites.
Now everything leaks. Publicists are freaking out. Critics at established publications sweat the bloggers who beat them to the punch. Writers’ recommendations or pans seem irrelevant anyway, since advance streams and limited-time free downloads abound. Fans can parse the music on their own.
On this shifting ground, critics feel as insecure as everyone else. But we can -- we must -- view the Web’s interactive as a boon. Musical samples can help illustrate critical points. Dialogue with readers can illuminate our interpretations and make for interesting reassessments. (Speaking of which, dear readers, how do you think a critic should behave now? No epithets or epitaphs, please.)
It’s also fascinating to follow the path of a song or an album as it winds through the culture, influencing fans to create tributes and answer songs, gaining new meanings from reuse in a film or on TV, passing on its hooks in mash-ups and remixes and new artists’ borrowings. Music is most interesting after it’s sunk in some, joining the vocabulary we all share.
These different approaches to criticism don’t preclude good old-fashioned reviewing. I’m still curious to hear what the writers I respect think about a new release, even after I’ve heard it a dozen times -- even after I’ve reviewed it.
If, as Gross writes, meaningful criticism deepens the way we experience music, creating dialogue, then we should aim for a rich, deep conversation that lasts longer than a sound byte. A commenter on Idolator.com who goes by the name “SuperUnison” had a cute name for critics: “the context mafia.” That’s one family I’m proud to join.
The fact that it’s getting bigger is only good, too. The music-critical conversation is constantly unfolding across the Web, on bulletin boards and personal and group blogs as well as in more established avenues. Artists themselves are chiming in more than ever. Instead of obstructing critical reception, decisions like the one the Raconteurs made can push us to imagine new ways to talk to each other -- and new ways to listen to the artists who started the whole buzz in the first place.