Are album reviews obsolete?

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I ask this because they perform so poorly on this site that I’m considering axing them altogether. For content in terms of pageviews and comments, they rank dead last. (Interviews are next to last.) The natural inference is that readers aren’t interested in album reviews.

But readers haven’t stopped being interested in music. It’s just clear that for presenting content, the album review is the worst form for doing so, in that the fewest people will read it. If I present the same information in other forms – album streams, track premieres, cheap circus tricks – more people will read it.

This reminds me of clothes. You can be the best person in the world, but people still judge you by the clothes you wear. It’s not fair, but it’s reality.

I can think of some reasons for the overwhelming unpopularity of album reviews.

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We’ve reached a saturation point for albums.

There are too many albums released. So most album reviews will be about albums unfamiliar to the reader. And most album reviews on the Internet aren’t written well-enough to be compelling despite unfamiliar subject matter. How many times have you seen a blog lined from top to bottom with album reviews, and just moved on?

Downloading and streaming make functional album reviews obsolete.

By “functional”, I mean reviews that describe what an album sounds like and recommend whether or not to buy it – the classic consumer product review. People don’t need reviews anymore to learn this information. They can just download and stream music and decide for themselves if it’s good or not.

People care more about bands than music.

I’ve come to the cynical conclusion that people are more interested in the soap opera aspects of life than its finer aspects. They care about artists, not art. Hence the noise around bands like Watain, Ghost, and Liturgy. Hence also people “hating” bands. (People who hate bands must live such privileged lives that they lack anything more worthy to hate.) People don’t discuss bands’ music; they discuss non-musical things like costumes, hairstyles, and personalities. This is like professional sports. People don’t watch MMA to see nuanced displays of fighting skill; they watch MMA to see personality A versus personality B. Metal is as much of a soap opera. Its Charlie Sheens and Lindsay Lohans just play in bands. Music is a circumstantial byproduct.

Most writers don’t write well enough to carry content solely through text.

Me included – hence shiny distractions like images, videos, and audio streams. Album reviews can serve a higher purpose beyond being consumer guides. They can actually make you think. They can use the album as grist for discussion. The “review” is a starting point for thought, not an endpoint for consumer-level behavior (buy/don’t buy). Few writers aspire to this, and fewer succeed. This is probably called “criticism”, though that word has such negative connotations that I avoid it. I prefer to call it “stimulation”. Very little music writing is stimulating.

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The result is a huge disconnect between what music industry types and music fans want. Bands, labels, and publicists flood my inbox daily requesting reviews of their wares. But fans don’t want to read reviews. They still want to hear music and find out about bands, though. So industry types should be seeking “coverage”, whatever that is, not reviews. There are a zillion albums out there, and few people have the time or inclination to sit through them in their entirety and pronounce judgment – especially when fans don’t need such mediation anymore.

I find a great lack of creativity amongst publicists, whose job is to market – yes, they are marketers – music. They ask for reviews and interviews, and those things are the musical equivalent of box office poison. For better or for worse, they need to find different ways to present music to people. I suppose this wouldn’t be necessary if writers could write. But that ain’t happening on the Internet. Bring on the album streams, track premieres, and cheap circus tricks.

— Cosmo Lee

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