Every artist who gains some traction in a professional field will come under scrutiny.
It’s the self-improving nature of a game that’s fun to watch and listen to for all involved, and one that generates artistry through experience.
But to be the person scrutinising, seeking a conclusion to the set that had the occasional mishit but commanded the crowd with zeal, or that suffered a wrong note but redeemed with passion, is to find compromise in a form that allows for any taste or style imaginable.
Any journalism lecturer will tell you that your duty as a writer is to your readers, but also to yourself. Find a niche that you fit into, a genre that you know enough to reference.
Get as much out of a review as your subject does, and above all, enjoy the experience: Even the worst performance or album will serve as a point of interest for readers, and can used as a point of reflection for the artist.
Read other reviews when possible, and expand your knowledge of writing almost as much as your knowledge of music, you never know when you might need it.
Also, bring a pen.
To help, we’ve asked some industry professionals to give their own tips and hints on reviewing, from both side of the fence.
Meet Steve Bell, Editor at theMusic and veteran music reviewer.
In what frame of mind you would enter a gig, or album sitting, and what are your initial main aims to achieve?
Steve: There’s no right or wrong when it comes to reviewing, and it’s up to each writer to find his/her own voice. With both live and album reviews the main aim is to let the reader know how you as a music fan have enjoyed the music/experience given your own personal musical predilections – it’s just not feasible to be entirely and unequivocally objective and take your own tastes out of the equation, art doesn’t work like that.
It’s also important to find a balance between critique and reportage – for instance with live reviews as a reader I like to find out what songs a favourite artist played on a given night, so when writing live reviews I find it’s useful to mention as many songs as possible to colour the review (without regurgitating the entire set-list).
Who would your review be aimed at, and what purpose would it serve them? And is it important to retain an open perspective on acts you traditionally don’t enjoy?
Steve: This is one of the main conundrums facing a reviewer – who are you writing for?
Do you assume that the reader is a fan of the artist in question and take the basics as a given, or do you pander to newcomers and take nothing for granted and assume they have no background knowledge? It’s never black or white, so again the aim is to find a balance where your review hopefully straddles this divide and offers something to all comers. If you’re reviewing online and have no word limit this is often easier than writing for print where you have space restrictions and usually a word limit, but fortunately again this task becomes easier with experience.
The beauty of art is that everyone has different tastes, so if you’re covering something that you traditionally don’t enjoy (and you are aware of this fact) the trick is then to be objective as possible – you don’t have to be positive about it, just take your own self/taste out of the equation as much as is possible in the circumstances. In this case self-awareness becomes the key.
> Keeping an engaging voice can mean the difference between a reader getting to the very bottom of a review or clicking away at the first opportunity.
It’s important not to remain overly nasty, but a little sass never hurt anyone, right?
We’ll come back to Steve, but for now meet Everett True, fiery reviewer at The Guardian and Collapse Board, who has offered a slightly more punchy format in his email titled ‘Live Reviewing.’
- Have an idea what you’re going to write. Don’t trust writers who don’t have an agenda.
- Be direct. Say what you have to say, try to be interesting, move on.
- Don’t slow yourself down. You can correct spelling or punctuation mistakes later. As Ernest Hemingway said, “Write drunk, edit sober”.
- Usually journalism rules apply. Start with the most interesting fact/anecdote/observation, and work backwards. You have been given a soapbox, an opportunity to put your views across. You have five seconds to make it count. Don’t waste them.
- Include detail. Include factual detail if you want to assume authority. Can’t make authority? Fake it. List band-members and instruments played (but don’t go overboard). Reference song titles, lyrics, ad libs between songs, slightly odd occurrences. Watch the audience, look at the audience’s shoes, look at the butt of the boy next to you. Debate atmosphere. Focus on feelings. Give the reader every chance to realise you were at the show.
- Quote the press release by all means, but be aware press agents lie, like everyone else. Want to go a little further? Do some research that goes beyond the press release, Wikipedia and Pitchfork. Thirty other music critics are already doing that as we type – you want to stand out, don’t you?
> Everett’s reviews don’t always keep him out of trouble, but they always make for interesting reading.
Know what you’re writing, prioritise events, draw from the atmosphere around you, and do your research.
- Don’t be scared of your own opinion, but be prepared to argue it.
- Take inspiration from wherever you can grab it. The weather, the splash of coffee on your computer screen, the music pumping through your veins. Don’t be too proud to admit you could always need help.
- Identify the points of difference so the experience of reading your review feels unique. Identify what the show has in common with other bands and artists – no music exists in a vacuum. Mention a few other similar acts, but don’t go overboard. No Beatles, Nirvana, Joy Division, Prince, Madonna (et al) either.
- Don’t be scared of background detail and context, but don’t begin your review with it unless (see point 1).
- 800 words good, 300 words better.
We’ll take a brief break from the writers side of things, to see what reviews look like from the perspective of someone who has to keep a close ear to the ground in terms of artist popularity.
Meet Zac Fahey from the Brisbane label Footstomp Music , whose musical knowledge stems from stints as a booking agent, publicist, and artists manager.
What effect can reviews have on you?
Zac: As a publicist it can effect the attitude of my client towards that particular media outlet. I find that in most cases an album/single/EP will be reviewed because the reviewer of publication is a fan of the music. Negative review are less common that positive ones…I think if someone doesn’t like the music they usually won’t listen to it or review it.
Can you tell us about a time you sent out press releases and as a result, read a review that you were extremely satisfied with? What made it so great?
Zac: If the music is good or connects with someone in the media they’ll pick it up straight from the press release and review it. I find that taking the time to write a good press release and sending it to the right people is the most effective way to get results, great reviews are usually written by people who have vast knowledge of the particular genre. The best reviews always make reference other musicians and use this to explains why the album under review is good or bad.
In your opinion, what are three things all reviewers should do?
Zac: Read the bio to get an understanding of artist.
Make reference to other music when explaining why the album is good or bad.
If you give a bad review make sure you’ve done your research and really listened to the album, as your review will be picked apart by fans.
> As a reviewer, you take part in building the public image of acts who are supported by networks of varying size, and fan bases.
If you’re going to criticise, make sure you have good grounds for doing so.
We return now to Steve Bell, who offers a pointer on how to be critical during the review process.
What is the best thing a performer could get out of a good/bad review?
Steve: I don’t think anyone likes getting bad reviews, but if a negative critique is well-conceived and executed then it’s entirely possible for an artist to learn something about themselves and their craft from such a write up.
As long as it’s objective and not a personal attack I don’t think any artist should get too precious or upset about a bad review because at the end of the day it’s just one person’s opinion, which is also why artists shouldn’t get too ahead of themselves about good reviews either.
Any Tips for Fresh Faced Reviewers?
Steve: Just because you like something doesn’t mean it’s good, and just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s bad. The beauty of art (and in particular music) is that we all have different tastes and like different things, and it’s imperative to remember that (especially to temper your most extreme impulses when reviewing). And with live reviews I can’t stress enough the importance of taking thorough notes – even if you’ve never seen/heard of a band before if you take good notes you can later search for song names etc and write a balanced and thorough critique. Asking sound guys for set-lists (or taking them from the stage) is also a good aid in this regard, but don’t take them as gospel because bands often deviate from the set-list on a given night and it’s no good reviewing what was planned to happen rather than what actually transpired.
And some lasting punch from Everett True:
- Don’t be scared of getting another opinion. Read the review out to a friend or lover (if it makes no sense read aloud, it will make no sense printed). Sleep on it. Or, if you don’t have the time for that, make yourself a cup of tea and then read it again.
- Save your words as you type. (This is the second version of this article.)
- DESCRIBE DESCRIBE DESCRIBE – but don’t bother trying to describe the music, you won’t be able to. Describe everything around the music. If you find yourself in a position where describing the music is unavoidable, keep it succinct. Be direct, but not cliched. Try a few sharp similes. Pull out a few quotes. Don’t panic. Far more successful writers than you have got by on far less vocabulary.
- Remember the golden rule. Folk are reading your words to find out about the show. They want to be informed, they want to be entertained.
- Don’t be cowed into thinking you have less worth than what you’re reviewing, or flattered into believing your worth is greater. Your writing compliments the music: it enhances it. One may exist without the other, but both should feel incomplete apart.
- Make your reader feel special.
- Don’t forget to throw in a few critical observations, if that is what’s called for. (Often, it isn’t.) And make sure they’re justified… or at least funny.
- Have a mental – or physical – checklist that you can tick off as the review progresses. Band, venue, zingy introduction, song titles (four or five is normally all you need), lyrics, stage banter, audience, mention of music and instruments playing same, critical observation, musicians’ names, some contextual detail, points of difference, points of similarity, similar bands, the shape of the boy’s butt next to you… How many or few you use is entirely down to the situation. And…
We hope this has been helpful to anyone looking to review in future, and if you’re a member, you head over to the forums for further discussion.
Big thanks to Steve, Everett, Zac for their help.