14 February 2011

Who Needs Critics?

Quite a number of websites and blogs devoted to classical music have started up in the past few months many of which, I gather, have been created by music critics axed from their regular spots in the columns of newspapers in the US and UK.  When it comes to belt-tightening and making economies, classical music coverage, as a perceived niche interest, is an obvious target. 

When you have been used to churning out several hundred words a week about some musical topic or other, and spent countless hours sitting in concert halls one part of the brain on the music, the other on composing your review, you cannot easily break the habit.  So it's perfectly understandable that all these critics, denied their usual outlets for literary expression, have created their own.

There are, in fact, a great many benefits in running your own blog rather than supplying your copy to a newspaper.  You have none of the harsh limitations on words (something I have taken to heart as I pour out words by the thousand, gratefully released from the tyranny of "400 words max"), nor yet an obligation to fill space when you have nothing to say ("700 words please on new music for the clavichord" when I'm lucky if I can make 70).  There's no sub-editor around to annihilate your copy with random cuts, no arts editor with a hidden agenda wanting you to slant your copy this way or the other, and no restraints on what you say.  Nobody buys adverts on the blog, so you can be rude as you like to, say, Naxos, and not suffer the financial consequences, and you have a much better idea of your readership, and they have a better understanding of you, so you know exactly where to pitch your posts.

It all rather begs the question, why bother to maintain classical music criticism in newspapers? 

The critics who review recordings have an easy answer.  No matter what the Prophets of Doom tell us about the demise of the classical music recording industry, there are still far more new releases each month than any single human being can cope with (look at the back pages of Gramophone or International Record Review and you'll see exactly what I mean) and the job of the critic is to guide the public through that maze, pointing them in interesting directions and steering them away from the obvious dead ends, while providing enough information to let each individual form their own purchasing decisions.  At the same time, they feed back to the record companies a (relatively) disinterested opinion on the success or otherwise of their product.  The public may occasionally write to record companies when they have a particular axe to grind, but the critics are the only reliable source of audience feedback for them. 

It's much less easy to justify a review of a one-off, live concert in a non-specialist newspaper.  There are, as most would agree, two obvious functions to this.  Firstly, for the artist it offers valuable commentary on the success or otherwise of their performance.  In a critic you have someone who knows about music, who has a lot of concert-going experience, can compare like with like and whose opinion is clearly based on knowledge and experience.  You may fundamentally disagree with the critic, you may feel he has misunderstood your intentions, but at the end of the day, he is offering a listener's perspective on your work, and, as such, has to be taken seriously even if he is then ignored. 

Secondly, the critic presents a focus for the public who may wish to consolidate their own opinions by first reading someone else's.  We are all reticent about giving our opinion on something we know little about (although that doesn’t stop most), and it helps to have a solidly-based viewpoint to use as the foundation for a less confidently-held one.   Critics are well used to hearing their own views passed off by others; great society discussions are based on what someone else has said about something, and when you quote a critic, you are safe in the knowledge that the opinion holds water, even if others vehemently disagree with it.  It's an aspect of the newspaper critic's role which is often overlooked, but he undoubtedly enriches the fabric of society by providing an assertive opinion.

There is, however, one even more valuable role the critic in the newspaper industry plays.  The critic provides a very useful barometer to the cultural environment of the newspaper's home territory.  While the UK and US might be busily expunging all non-essential matter from their newspapers in an attempt to cut costs, they are also inadvertently painting a picture of an encroaching cultural desert afflicting those nations.  Those who might never go near a concert hall or recital studio, nevertheless are conscious that such things exist because they notice them as they scan through their daily newspapers on the commute into work.  Suddenly, they've disappeared, so the inference to be drawn is that classical music itself has been cut and the quality of life correspondingly diminished.

Compare that with the situation in Hong Kong and Singapore, where hardly a day goes by without either the South China Morning Post or the Straits Times reporting on a Classical music event.  Indeed, things have reached the stage at the Straits Times now that their esteemed music reviewer, Chang Tou Liang, is so overwhelmed by the classical music events he is called upon to cover for the paper that he's been obliged to call me in to help him out on occasions. 

It's certainly not just a case of editors wanting to fill column inches on broadsheet papers which take pride in their daily bulkiness.  I have never seen any figures or heard any statements to support this claim, but I would reckon that both papers are read by as many outside these two territories as by those who live in them.  Whenever I check into a Shangri-La Hotel anywhere in the world, they offer me a South China Morning Post, both newspapers are handed out free in hotels in Hong Kong and Singapore, and passengers on both Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines always find a copy of the carrier's respective national daily at their seat. I knew that both Hong Kong and Singapore has active classical music scenes long before I ever visited them, because I read about them in the papers I picked up on aircraft.  People who get on a plane in London expecting Singapore to be simply a four-hour transit are quickly disabused when they read in the "Life!" supplement of the Straits Times that, a couple of days before, there were concerts, recitals, operas and whatever else taking place.  By the time they arrive in Sydney, having had the following day's paper to digest, they realise that Singapore is not just a comfortable transit lounge, but a vibrant artistic hub too. 

The newspaper critic might not increase either the paper's circulation or audience numbers to concerts, but the role they perform in promoting a country's artistic environment is invaluable. Entertaining as they are, blogs can never perform this function (unless, of course, you check out Chang Tou Liang's Pianomania blog in which he posts all of his Straits Times reviews to provide an astonishing overview of Singapore's musical life over the past few years), so I say Long Live the Newspaper Music Critic; he's much more valuable to you than you realise.

And, as an afterthought, there is always G K Chesterton's neat definition; "The criminal is the creative artist; the detective only the critic".

1 comment:

  1. Saw your wonderful review of the Schumann-Heine Liederabend at the Conservatory last Friday. Totally infectious - that will bring more people to YST to attend concerts. Please write more!!!

    And many thanks again for your kind and encouraging words. More power to the Davidsbund of Singapore!