The Democratization of Music Criticism
by Phil Maddox
I’ve been a huge music nerd for literally as long as I can remember. My parents and family played music constantly and I’ve always ravenously consumed as much music as I could. Ultimately, though, if you want to get into more music, recommendations from friends and family are only going to get you so far. You’ll eventually need to branch out and start finding stuff on your own. These days, this is mostly accomplished via YouTube, Spotify, and various other streaming services - learning about new music that you’re curious about is unbelievably easy. Back in the nineties, however, it was considerably more difficult. You largely had to depend on a combination of taking chances on stuff you heard on the radio, a small handful of blogs, and professional music critics.
Of all the ways to discover music, I always found the old guard of critics from magazines like Rolling Stone to be the least useful - I rarely, if ever, discovered any interesting music via their writings. Sure, they wrote good stuff from time to time, but I always found most professional rock music journalism to be rather aloof - especially the ones from the sixties and seventies. The writers made it very clear what types of music they considered to be “cool” or “uncool” and a great deal of the music I like falls firmly in the category of “uncool”. I remember clearly picking up an old Rolling Stone Album Guide when I was a kid and looking up The Moody Blues - one of my all time favorite bands - only to see them trash the band as essentially everything that was wrong with music. If they were going to trash a band I liked that much, what value could I find in taking blind recommendations from them? Our taste seemed to be irreconcilably at odds.
I found solace in finding tons of music blogs - Wilson And Alroy, Mark Prindle, and George Starostin to name just three. These were writers who unabashedly liked the things they liked, thought about music a great deal, and wanted to share their enthusiasm for music with the world. They would tackle the discographies of many bands that critics had long dismissed as terminally unhip - The Moody Blues, Yes, ABBA, etc - and really get into the nuts and bolts of their music. This struck me as a great deal more valuable than, say, Robert Christgau smugly dismissing David Crosby’s solo debut “If I Could Only Remember My Name” without even bothering to describe the music.
I discovered tons of music from these blogs and by writing in to them, made some lifelong friends (including the other hosts of this very podcast), but I always felt a bit bad for people who were trying to discover new music by grabbing stuff like the Rolling Stone Album Guide - their tastes would be driven largely by what a group of ten or so critics decided was “cool” decades prior. Why would they ever bother picking up a copy of a classic LP like Yes’s “Relayer” when seemingly every professional music publication slammed it?
While there are definitely a lot of cons to go along with it (such as declining music sales making it incredibly difficult to make a living in music), the overall wide availability of music these days is absolutely amazing. You don’t have to take some critic’s word for whether something is worth checking out anymore - nearly any music that you can think of is available at the mere press of a button. Copious amounts of online writing, combined with extreme ease of access, have resulted in a world where it’s incredibly easy to both hear about music and check it out - even if a critic slams an album, you can hear it for yourself for free within minutes if it intrigues you. This has taken power away from a handful of elites who dictate what music is “good” or “bad” and puts the power back squarely in the fans of music enthusiasts. What a time to be alive.