11 January 2012

Valueless criticism

What makes a good critic?  In the case of a music critic who is expected is to offer an informed opinion about a performance, the answer would seem to be pretty straightforward. 

To be able to offer an opinion in the first place, the music critic must be experienced in the art of listening.  Everyone can hear, but there is an art in listening which develops only with experience.  For the opinion to have any validity, the music critic needs to have an understanding of what the performer is setting out to achieve and what the expected standard is within the context of the performance.  And for the opinion to be informed, the music critic must have knowledge of the music performed or of the creator’s (rather than the performer’s) original intentions, as well as of the instrumental or vocal techniques expected of the performer. 
A music critic certainly does not need to be a trained musician; many respected critics are not practising musicians, and most would probably describe themselves more as writers than musicians.  I seem to be unusual in that I pursue a fairly active performing career alongside my writing one, but I regard my performances as a useful tool in my critic’s armoury rather than my critical work as having any bearing on my performances.  I know excellent critics who are politicians, doctors, school-teachers, train drivers and labourers, many of whom could never muster enough practical skill to perform any musical work in public.  What matters most is an ability to listen supported by a deep fund of associated experience and knowledge. 

No critic can offer any worthwhile comments from the basis of complete ignorance.  I know nothing about the game of golf so would not dare venture any sort of opinion about golfing matters.  I may watch golf on television and I may possess the gift of words to express what I see, but I have no knowledge of the necessary technical terms nor the breadth of experience which can judge what is good and what is bad (let alone the myriad shades of opinion in between) in the game.
When I was on the staff at Universiti Putra Malaysia I prepared a course on music criticism which covered these issues in greater detail, but the pressures of work with the opening of the concert hall in Kuala Lumpur meant that I never stayed at the university long enough to deliver the lectures; I live in hope that some other university or college might hire me to run this course – it was potentially a good one!  But the real reason I am pondering this matter now is because, holed up in a dire hotel in northern Thailand, I am acutely aware of the problems created by unreliable criticism.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s when I spent between 200 and 250 nights a year in hotels, I was invited to contribute to a leading annual hotel guide.  It was a painstaking process which involved a very comprehensive survey to be completed as a paying guest, the hotel had no idea I was doing such a thing and I was sworn to absolute secrecy.  My report was then followed up by a trained inspector, who, after checking out of the hotel announced his presence and then returned a few weeks later to check on certain specific facts with the full support of the hotel.  The Guide eventually went bust, pushed out of the market by the plethora of free online reviews on various travel and hotel sites.  The problem is that most of these review sites encourage readers to write the reviews and then post them, with no real attempt to verify their authenticity or, indeed, their independence – and it’s well known that hoteliers often swamp such sites with their own excessively generous reviews while disgruntled travellers expecting everything for nothing frequently offer powerful denunciations of good hotels simply because they didn’t get an upgrade or felt that they were, in some way, hard done by. 
So when I was told I had been booked into this particular hotel, I had no reliable way of checking quite what sort of hotel it was.  Trusting the people who booked the hotel to have found somewhere suitable, I was appalled at what I found.  Expressing my concerns, I was told that the hotel had scored a “Fantastic” 9/10 approval rating in its online reviews on agoda.com.  That really puzzled me and I wondered what I was missing.  But when I did a basic search I came up with very different views. Hotelclub.com offered it 0/10 while a reviewer on tripadvisor.co.uk wrote “Our room was very dark and the window looked out onto a brick wall. We were booked for 4 nights but checked out after the first night” while another commented “Staff is the worst I ever saw: no one at the reception desk, a boy helplessly running around”. 

Which of these can you believe?  In my opinion, none properly reflects the hotel, but they are all the prospective traveller has to go on since there are no published authoritative guides which include it in their pages.  So, in effect, the reviews are as good as useless, reflecting a diverse range of opinions with no evidence of supporting knowledge, experience or understanding.  Music critics frequently differ in their opinions quite widely too, but at least you can gauge from the reviewer’s easily-accessible track record how relevant what is written is to your circumstance.  With reviews contributed either anonymously or by people who have no easily-traceable record of reviews, there can be no way of assessing their quality.

You can argue that by using customers to write reviews you are actually cutting down costs and making reviews accessible to all.  I’m not at all sure that holds water; one magazine for which I have been writing for decades has not changed its fee for over 20 years, another hasn’t paid me for over five years and a third publication has never paid me a penny (despite requesting monthly invoices) since I started writing for them three years ago. But with this greater accessibility comes the sacrifice of the legitimacy and consistency which comes from having reviews written by those who know and understand the business and which are vetted and probed by an editorial team.  In the end, the value of such online hotel reviews is merely to fill space on a web-site.

Luckily we haven’t fully descended to those depths in the world of music criticism, and those who are stupid enough to click on the “customer reviews” section on sites like amazon.com have only themselves to blame if the reviews turn out to be utterly misleading.  But we should always be on the watch to ensure music criticism doesn’t go down the same plug hole as hotel criticism (and none of the hotel reviews point out that the sinks here have no plugs and the water from the taps is a mere dribble).

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