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September 1, 2008 | by  | in Music | [ssba]

Is music criticism morally justified?

In the last issue of Salient, my co-editor Chris wrote a somewhat controversial piece about the multi-faceted music promotional behemoth that is A Low Hum, and enraged legions of indie fans. The number of (largely anti-Chris) comments on the Salient website numbers 140, and counting. While many are fairly inane, a few are relatively well considered and got me thinking.

Like this one from ‘josh’: “in a place as small as new zealand, you should be nurturing any ’scene’, not slagging it off as soon as it starts to flourish… nz is small enough that everyone should be helping each other out, not making it difficult for people to do things.”

Or this, from ‘stenhouse’: “This article is a disgusting example of tall poppy syndrome. There is little wonder why so many New Zealanders leave the country when at home they can only expect insult and criticism for being successful.” People seem to be suggesting that the music world in New Zealand, particularly the indie scene, just isn’t big enough to support criticism.

Is this true? Should we at Salient, and for that matter Magneto, Bandwagon, Groove Guide, Critic, Real Groove et al., refrain from saying anything less than complimentary about local bands, for fear of ruining their careers? Does the need to foster a greater sense of community and involvement in local music outweigh the value of a balanced yet critical opinion?

Should local artists be exempt from the kinds of judgments we apply to more famous or international acts?

Certainly, much music criticism is unjustified. Online music reviewers Pitchfork Media have a habit of ripping into music for no apparent reason other than making themselves look cool. Unfortunately, it’s always tempting to focus on the negative aspects of music, because for some lame reason they’re just a lot easier to write about. A negative album review glides off the tongue and on to the page, a positive one can take hours of nutting out. Yet taking the piss out of an artist for shits and giggles is not constructive.

But when we stop criticizing entirely, quality control goes out the window. Remember the first time someone dared to say something bad about Wellington dub – and the backlash against the ‘haters’? Before then, everything that came out of our city that involved horn sections and guitar strokes on the up-beat was praised indiscriminately. An atmosphere of preciousness and back-slapping prevailed, we forgot that denouncing one act or an aspect of their music didn’t automatically mean denouncing the entire Wellington scene, and the result was a growing trash heap of mediocrity.

Music criticism does good shit for the music world. Fact. Media critique can provoke bands to evaluate themselves, and drive up the overall quality of music being produced. A review of a show or CD can not only give readers an idea of whether they should bother to listen to the artist, it can also prompt thought about what makes good music and help people define their own tastes better. Fair and level-headed criticism is undoubtedly an important part of any healthy musical community.

As music critics, we are keenly aware that giving in to bitchiness is harmful for the music scene (and our souls). We’re also aware, however, that no one trusts a music reviewer who only ever says nice things, and a magazine that is wholly complimentary does nothing for anyone apart from getting them ignored.

The fact that local bands now get to enjoy a presence in the media is ultimately beneficial to the scene as a whole. Being written about, in whatever capacity, makes the bands more accessible. It helps people realise that they exist, that they don’t just play for the exclusive enjoyment of their scenester friends, and helps highlight the ones that deserve extra credit.

The argument that New Zealand’s indie scene is too small for harsh criticism doesn’t stand up. Local bands are not woodlice – all the wonderful artists that have come out of the woodwork in the last few years are not going to retreat back just because people aren’t saying exclusively nice things about them. The indie scene isn’t ‘small’ anyways, it’s entirely in proportion to this country’s population.

Okay, so maybe sometimes music reviewers get carried away with the bad stuff, and the bands being criticised feel unjustly attacked, and their fans write angry comments on a web page… But in the bigger picture, the scene comes out on top. Music media puts bands on the radar.

Sweet, now that I’ve justified my presence in this magazine, let’s get on with the rest of this week’s music pages…


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