Critics Need To Remember It's All About The Song

CRITICS CORNER (Hypebot) – GUEST POST by Ethan Stanislawski: Critics have always loved to focus on albums. Isn' that the Beatles greatest contribution to the music industry: m aking the album the center of the pop music world? Critics may see it this way, but fans have always placed more emphasis on the single, no matter what the genre or relatively popularity of a band. Rolling Stone published its 500 greatest songs list a year after it published its 500 greatest albums list, and even then there were many tracks included solely for their impact on album rock. This disparity has been going on for as long as there's been rock criticism.

The disparity is fine when critics have a larger than life status. But the heyday of Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau…is long gone, and as new media has empowered the opinion of the fan, it has simultaneously emphasized the single and devalued the album via the mp3 format. This is not a post about the death of rock criticism – expert, informed opinion will always have value – but in order for rock criticism to maintain its vitality, it will have to realign its priorities with that of its readers. It can start by correcting a decades-old problem and shifting its priorities to the song.

If editorial motivation isn't enough, try financial motivation. I've worked on music blogs for 2 years, and have put considerable toil into my music reviews and up-to-the-minute news posts. But very few of my posts have taken off as consistently as my posts of new audio tracks or video streams. This should be no surprise, as mp3 and video blog aggregators like the Hype Machine and el.bo.ws have gotten some of the best traffic on the web despite the relative paucity of their actual content. Here on Hypebot, Bruce recently reported on a study that says 80% of music fans don't read professional reviews. A significantly larger fraction, even as many as recommendations by friends, is turning to online recommendations from websites like Facebook and iLike. This is the area where music criticism has a lot of room to grow.

We're a long way from the days when there were only a handful of bands to consider, and when a handful of people could tell us if a certain band was cool or not. Nowadays, there are too many bands, and too many people judging them, for traditional methods of criticism to stay prominent. Combine that with fans who barely listen to whole albums anymore, and you can see how track reviews become more important. Of course, old-fashioned knowledge is still crucial for making a name for oneself. But in the future, maybe instead of saying this sounds like band X, critics will include a link to something by band X. Thus, the critic can use new media to inform fans in nontraditional ways. Rather than destroying the critic, new media has the power to make the critic a crucial, unprecedentedly effective educator.

Or they can stick to telling us why Tha Carter III is good or bad.

Ethan Stanislawski is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago who currently writes for Prefix Magazine.

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