This has already been quite a year for quick releases. A few weeks ago, it was Nine Inch Nails’ Ghosts I-IV and then soon after, it was the Raconteurs and Gnarls Barkley who decided to rush their latest albums on to the market. What’s significant isn’t just the speed that these are coming out (no doubt to try to thwart downloads) but also that they were sprung on the marketplace without giving reviewers an early start. Bad movies are usually released without any critic previews because they already know that they’re gonna get panned with what’s with these albums? Rest assured, it’s not because the artists think they’re gonna get panned.
With the advent of online zines, blogs and in some cases, built in fan bases, some artists figure that the critics just shouldn’t be a consideration in their release schedule. In the Net/download age where everything seems to be instantly available, having fans wait weeks or months ahead for an item that’s already making the rounds in critical circles seems like pre-digital-age dead-weight that needs to die. As a fan, I understand that thinking—I want the music NOW and not wait for the damn stuff while a select few at national mags get to chew over the tunes.
But I’m a writer too and I worry about this trend. I have no problem with launching tunes as soon as they’re ready but I also know that when I write (even this blog), I rarely like to spill my thoughts without taking some time to think it over first—what I’m writing in this post right now has been fermenting in my brain over the last few days. As such, I’d hope that musicians would do the same thing sometimes and make sure that they’re really happy with what they’re putting out. Sometimes, doing and redoing only waters down and dilutes good music but other times, some perspective can tell you that all of your work ain’t genius and maybe it’s not something you wanna release with your name attached to it.
The other thing that concerns me about the quick release schedules is that it might make criticism less important. I know, I know- some music journalism is indeed crapola and deserves to be taken out back and shot. But for all the good writing that does exist out there, having it mean less makes the whole music community a poorer place. The best music writing doesn’t just give a thumbs up or down but also creates dialog, ideas and context for the music we love. It can deepen our appreciation of it or make us see it in a new way. If that becomes less important as a result of the quick releases, then I think all of us suffer in the end.
With that in mind, check out Adrian Serle: “Critical Condition” (The Guardian, 18 March 2008). It’s yet another ‘death of criticism’ article but also one that makes a good case about why the average reader should be concerned as well as a warning to scribes about what their mission should be.
Being iconoclastic, slagging off artists and institutions, gets a critic noticed. Anger, undeniably, is also a good motive for writing in the first place. Controversy, the smell of blood, the whiff of scandal—this makes careers. It also sells newspapers and magazines. Of course it is the duty of the critic to be iconoclastic, and to be reckless; but critical terrorism is no good as a long-term strategy. It becomes predictable, and the adrenaline buzz soon wears off. It is also disingenuous, and ultimately a false position. There is such a thing as bad faith, and lousy opinions.