In the age of the internet, the saying “everybody’s a critic” holds true more than ever. Listeners have unprecedented access to music through streaming services, and they can more readily express their opinions through social media.
So why should paid critics matter?
“You want to know what they think. You don’t want to just know, ‘Should I go see this or not,’” said Will Robin, an assistant professor of musicology at the University of Maryland, at the “Music Critics in the Media” panel at MilkBoy ArtHouse on Monday night.
The panel discussion, was co-sponsored by the Maryland Music Business Society, Terrapin Record Label, MIlkBoy ArtHouse, as well as sponsored and funded by The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. It covered a wide range of topics related to music criticism. Among the words of advice offered by the panelists: Consume everything, or consume one thing; look for moments; and try not to read the comments.
Robin, a contributor on classical music for The New York Times, usually writes for members of the classical music community. He said it’s rewarding when “you feel like your work is being really read and understood,” although it can be frustrating when that’s not the case.
By contrast, Chris Richards, a pop music critic at The Washington Post, listens to what’s popular: rap, country, rock. One recent article — a review of Shy Glizzy’s new album Fully Loaded — may not appeal to everyone, but he tries to make his writing palatable for both the teenagers and the grandparents who read The Post.
“Can you say something that might resonate with all of their lives? That’s very high-minded, but that’s the goal,” Richards said.
The consensus among the panel, though, was that there’s room for everyone to share their opinions.
Both Richards and Robin advised that, whatever you decide to criticize, you should hone in on it and become a student of the subject matter. Treat your writing as a muscle and train it by writing often. Get out and look for things. Become a master observer.
“Listening is not just a forward motion and keeping up with what’s happening,” Richards said. “We go back and we try to find the roots of where music comes from, the traditions it belongs to, and it’s easier than ever to do that.”
Richards cautioned that if your listening experience is broad, it’s important to be careful with how you analyze someone’s work. He calls this concept “punching up” and “punching down.”
Writing a bad review of someone powerful like Kanye West or Taylor Swift is “punching up,” as it won’t impact them that harshly. To write the same negative review about a developing local band that doesn’t have as much exposure would be “punching down.”
The panelists pointed out that criticism can easily venture into being overly judgmental and nitpicky. When asked if there are any trolls in the world of classical music, Robin joked, “I’m one of them.”
“One of the points of all this creation of art is that people can discuss it,” Robin said. “[People] have really engaged and interesting conversations, including a strong valued judgement, which is often how those conversations begin.”