Thursday, June 14, 2007

The bottom line

We probably can agree on the following: Print media sales and readership are down, coverage of classical music is being reduced, paid positions for classical music criticism and journalism in print media are being down-sized, or, in some cases eliminated.

But I don't believe that we can agree that this, on net, is altogether a bad thing. To my knowledge, no one has an accurate estimate of the size and nature of the readership for print criticism, let alone present evidence -- positive or negative -- of the impact of print coverage on audience development. To my knowledge, no contemporary print media environment has been able, in recent years, to guarantee blanket coverage of musical activity in a given community, let alone guarantee that a variety of critical voices be heard in the reception of musical activity. Examining the "newspaper of record" in any large community today will not yield an accurate portrait of the musicial life of that community. To my knowledge, no one has made a good argument concluding that the present format of print media criticism is an optimal form for either representing and analyzing works of music, their performances, and their context or for promotion and audience development.* Specifically, I don't believe that we can agree that the professional editing afforded by the traditional print system was inevitably a good thing: few editors have musical expertise, and it is far from clear that editing a piece of writing into the format of a given paper's style book will inevitably serve either the music or the readers best.

But may we agree that the criticism is not disappearing with its decline in print? The online alternative is emerging, however slowly, and it is emerging with both many clear benefits and a few substantial questions. The general parameters for the format of online music criticism have become reasonably clear, with the potential for better, wider, and in-depth coverage, illustrated with audio examples and external references, and including both comments from the readership and dialogue between artists, critics, and laypeople. However, what remains most unclear is also most telling about the present controversies: we have no idea of the size or nature of the present online audience**, let alone the potential audience, nor do we know if, when, or how online criticism will eventually, if ever, be a paid activity, i.e. "professional."

Pay close attention to the voices lamenting the present "crisis" in criticism. I believe that in most cases they are voices of professional print critics, and therefore are individuals with a personal interest in the transition from print, and in other cases they are the voices of artists and institutions who have been well-served by the traditional print practice. It would be useful to have a few dispassionate and disinterested voices speak about this.
* Indeed, one might reasonably conclude that in some enviroments, Los Angeles in the Martin Bernheimer years, for example, the omnipresence of a print critic soloist with an overwhelmingly negative disposition towards musical activities in the community led more to a substantial reduction in audiences and a general decline in player morale than to the improvements in music-making the critic was ostensibly encouraging. You tell musicians long enough that they play badly, then they will start playing to your expectations. You tell audiences long enough that the music making is bad, then they will stop coming to concerts. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the improvements in music-making and growth in audiences in Los Angeles in recent years were connected in some part to the retirement of one critic.
** "No idea" is an exaggeration; the present online audience is small and mostly insider/professional, still figuring out how, as I've put it here before, to generate public heat and light for the subject of our passions. The best that can be said for writing on music online is that it is still a new form. The worst
that can be said for writing on music online is that it is still a new form.

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