During lockdown I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about music blogging, which seems to be very much in decline.
Looking back, the most memorable music reviews from the heyday of the music weeklies (Sounds/Melody Maker/NME) were the over-the-top ones that proclaimed a band to be the saviours of rock and roll, and the ones where they ripped a band mercilessly. Any “On-the-fence reviews” are long since forgotten.
When you read the negative ones, you’d either nod your head, muttering about how it’s exactly what you’d been thinking, or you’d be seething with anger, ready to put your fist through the magazine, ranting about how the writer was probably a bitter, failed musician now a failed journalist, because they were slagging-off a band you liked.
But what I never did, and I suspect nobody else did either, was to throw out my records or stop liking a band, or indeed stop buying the magazine just because a writer hated a band I liked.
Indeed, when the things we like are under attack, it galvanises your support. Would the Blur and Oasis singles sold as many copies without the hyped up battle of the charts? Would the re-issue of Rage against the Machine have done quite so well if it weren’t sending a message to the televised karaoke of X-Factor?
When established print magazines such as “Q” go bust, most people make the assumption that it’s simply the inevitable decline of print media against the convenience of getting your music news fix, often for free, online.
But take a look at any of the bigger blogs, find a music review, particularly one of an up-and-coming band, and you’ll more than likely find 0 comments either on the blog or on Facebook, and no more than about half a dozen reactions (including writer, page, band, manager, PR…). Even when the blog has in excess of 70,000 followers on FB.
I used to put it down to Facebook algorithms not letting people see the posts – but then you stumble across something like Bobbie Gillespie refusing to dance on the Andrew Neil show, and it has over 100 comments, reactions, shares and so on, on the same blog where a popular up-and-coming band’s debut album gets 2 likes.
I know from my own blog stats that zero comments and reactions doesn’t necessarily mean that nobody is reading it. Even allowing for bots that automate real web browsers so look like real traffic but human eyes never see it, there are still real people reading it.
But in a way, that makes it worse.
Music is a passion – if people read your review and don’t react/comment or engage in any way, was it even worth writing? Even trolls don’t bother commenting any more!
In the late 80s I used to buy an Indie magazine called Underground, which had a very comprehensive reviews section. Aside from “The Macc Lads” I don’t remember ever seeing a negative review in it. As an example, they had a review of Jason Donovan’s debut album (Pete Waterman’s label was technically independent) and the review ran something like “If you buy this magazine, this obviously isn’t going to be for you, but if you have a little brother or sister who likes chart pop, it would make an excellent Christmas present”.
In real life I genuinely admire that kind of constructive thinking. Life’s too short to be worrying about what other people are listening to and enjoying.
But in music writing, everything being great becomes dull very quickly. I stopped buying it after a few issues, and it went bust after issue 13.
Most music blogs including this one, inadvertently fall into that mould. We only write about the music we love.
If I see a band that I don’t personally enjoy, but the audience seem to be enjoying it, I write about their reaction.
It’s who I am, and it’s a personal blog. I’m not going to turn into “Mr Angry” writing about the music I hate, I’ll save that for private chats with friends, but then I’ve no real ambition or pretensions of becoming some kind of major influencer.
I do what I do. As long as I continue to periodically get messages such as “your page as introduced me to Skating Polly – thank you!!!” and “Hi John. Just wanted to thank you for turning me on to Emika’s music. Rich and diverse, deep and emotional. Hope to see a performance one day!” I’ll carry on doing what I’m doing – photographing bands I like (covid permitting) and writing anecdotes about their gigs.
Not because these messages somehow vindicate my taste in music, they don’t, but because these artists have given me a lot of pleasure it’s good to know that my efforts have helped someone else discover and appreciate them, plus it gives something back to the band in the form a new fan.
But for more ambitious, multi-contributor blogs perhaps it’s time to stop turning a blind-eye to audience apathy, and start trying to re-connect and engage with their audiences?
For example, The Quietus review of the new Idles album “Ultra Mono” got a lot of people talking last week. JR Moores doesn’t pull any punches in their assertion that the new album isn’t very good. It certainly divided opinion and got people talking, which to my mind can only be a good thing.
At time of writing, the post on Facebook has had 170 reactions, 84 comments and 7 shares. Compare that with the 2 music reviews directly below it – 7 likes, no comments no shares on each (admittedly, these artists are less well known).
I’m not suggesting for one minute that blogs should cynically manufacture criticism to help their stats, that’s not what it’s about.
Hits are meaningless on their own and too many blogs I fear focus on raw stats that leads them to generate bland clickbait rubbish in an effort purely to gain hits.
What I am saying is simply that by giving an honest opinion and not holding back about the bands they don’t like, it gets people talking about music, and most importantly caring about it.
I haven’t heard of any fans burning their Idles records yet – and lets face it, if a review makes them stop liking a band they liked, they must be a bit of a plonker?
They used to say that all publicity is good publicity, I’m not so sure that Gerald Ratner would agree, but I still think there is a lot of truth in it.
I remember way back when a friend was raging because The Darkness had been included in the BBC’s “Sound Of” list for that year. I’d never heard of them, but I had a listen to see what he was going on about. I didn’t like them either (nice guys by all accounts, but their music is not for me) but the point is that his anger made me curious enough to listen to them. I could have been someone who liked them. On the other hand, I see people raving about bands every other day, and it’s so commonplace I very rarely click to listen to them.
Of course, negative reviews should be honest and about the music. A review that had me hopping mad for very different reasons was the one and only negative review I’ve found of Skating Polly. The fact that it was negative didn’t bother me – I realise that there are still some poor deluded fools who haven’t yet accepted that Skating Polly are the greatest band ever, and really we should feel sorry for these people because they are missing out! What annoyed me in this review was the reviewer seems to be complaining because their outfits don’t coordinate… I suspect they wouldn’t have made this comment were it an all-male band, and what they really didn’t like was “The guitar player wore a modest tee shirt that read, “More Feminism, Less B—s—,”. He didn’t even take the time to find out their names, and guitar player? Peyton (who often wears that tee shirt) takes vocal duties on at least a couple of songs in the set, was he even watching the band?
Clearly, merely criticising a band won’t salvage sloppy journalism with nothing to say.
The future is impossible to predict, trends are often counter-intuitive.
For example, back in the late 70s I saw a TV program about the demise of cinemas. They charted how every major milestone in television had a corresponding downturn in cinema attendances and rise in closures. With VCRs starting to make their way into normal people’s living rooms and video rental libraries popping up on every high st, the show’s prediction that the remaining cinemas would all close within a few years seemed sound.
Yet, about a decade later I saw another TV show about the rise of the multiplex. What actually happened with VCRs and Video Rental was that it rekindled people’s love of movies, and they saw trailers for movies you could only see at the cinema – so whilst the days of the single screen flea pit were numbered, the new multiplexes thrived.
Anyone in the late 70s arguing that what cinema needed was more competition from television would have probably been carted off!
Likewise, suggesting that what new music needs is more criticism may sound bonkers, but time will tell.
Perhaps music writing has had it’s day, maybe us oldies are just clinging on to our youths. After all, back in the day, reviewers got to listen to the albums that we had to spend money to listen to (or find a friend who would tape it for us) so their opinions influenced our buying decisions. Now with streaming, we can just listen to music and make up our own minds, and ignore what anybody else thinks.
But I still maintain that finding out other people’s opinions and why they like or dislike a band can be really interesting and enlightening.
Of course one reason we don’t like to be negative about music in our blogs is because with the internet there’s a very real chance the singer will read the review. I can’t stand Coldplay for example, I’ve tried to watch them at Glasto a few times and not managed more than 2 or 3 songs, yet I did feel sorry for Chris Martin when he said he wasn’t going to play at Glasto’s 50th after he read someone’s post on twitter saying you can always depend on Chris Martin to ruin things. You’d think someone who’d sold that many records would be immune to criticism, but they are all human at the end of the day.
But then maybe if more people had told Bono that U2 aren’t the best band in the world (that’d be Skating Polly, trust me on this 😉 ) and some of their records are a bit rubbish, maybe they’d still be a good band?
At the other end of the spectrum, I saw a small indie label posting last week that they received 526 submissions in a single week. That’s just one label in one week – there are a lot of hopeful bands out there who sadly will never make it, beyond playing a few pub gigs at best.
People who won’t be happy until they make it in music, chances are will never be happy. It’s good to have ambitious goals, but only if they are realistic.
In any case, aside from talent, the ones who make it will be the ones that respond to negative criticism in a positive way and improve to the point where people notice them. Even in Liverpool there are people who hate The Beatles – yet they did alright for themselves! There’s no such thing as a universally liked band – it’s one of the things that makes music interesting.
Writing a glowing review of your mates band because you are mates rather than because you like the music isn’t really doing them any favours. If people trust your review and listen to them, they aren’t going to be so kind.
There’s a LOT of new music being created out there, I receive more press releases than I have time to listen to, and there’s lots of great stuff I believe deserves a wider audience.
In response, I created a website called NewMusic.Online which is kind of like a YouTube playlist, but instead of playing the videos in full, it jumps straight to the chorus/hooky bit (technical term) with buttons geared towards “flicking” through to see if anything jumps out at you for further investigation.
I’m quietly happy with the results – my blog posts about relatively unknown bands typically got 3-30 hits including PR, band, bots etc, and not all of them click to listen to the song. Whereas when I update the New Releases playlist (which is slightly overdue at the moment due to day job commitments) it typical gets between 500-1,000 people listening to the videos. A result!
On the other hand… the posts typically get 2 or 3 likes from people I know and from the bands featured. So whilst it’s a step in the right direction, I feel I’ve still got some way to go to engage the audience. I have some ideas… watch this space!
I put together a playlist featuring 100 current new bands I’ve either seen or was going to see before covid struck who I either love or felt that others might like, as a response to all these people who say “there’s no decent music being made any more” it’s called 100 Contenders For Your New Favourite Band. If you can’t find anything you like on that playlist then each to their own and all that, but I don’t think you really like music at all!
What I found interesting was that several people got back to me and each found a handful of bands they hadn’t heard before who they really liked. Whilst there were common themes – Skating Polly (I should mention them more often) and Kaelan Mikla proving particularly popular, everybody who got back to me discovered at least one band that nobody else mentioned.
There are obviously lots of bands out there who lots of people would enjoy if only they knew about them. A resurgent blogging community that better engages with it’s audience could really help put these bands on more people’s radars, and help fill grassroots venues.
Incidentally, in case you made it this far and were wondering the significance of the cover photo of my Baguettes that I made during lockdown, well they got 81 likes and dozens of comments on Facebook. Very few new music reviews get anything like that kind of engagement, even from the big established blogs.
Food for thought?