Classical music critics and the blogosphere

Yesterday on BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters programme host Tom Service and a panel of invited guests, including the acclaimed concert pianist Peter Donohoe, discussed the future of music criticism. I listened with particular interest, since I have, through my blogging, joined the ranks of “music critic” (though I would never describe myself as a “music journalist”). The discussion was interesting and wide-ranging and some pertinent observations were made regarding the relationship between critics/reviewers and artists (as Peter Donohoe said “we should all be on the same side, that of the music”), the importance of music journalism in supporting and promoting (in a non-commercial sense) classical music, and the effect of the blogosphere and online review sites on music journalism. This last point was of particular interest to me, especially in the light of a rather unfair article by the Telegraph’s Arts Editor in Chief, Sarah Crompton, in which she describes people like me as “citizen critics” and suggests that we have no place in the ranks of “qualified” journalists. I was also rather put out by comments from members of the Music Matters panel who suggested that because bloggers are (generally) not paid, they must be on some kind of agenda or in the pay of someone else. This has moved me, along with several other blogging colleagues and fellow online reviewers, to offer an explanation as to why we blog.

I started this blog in 2010, initially as a means of writing down my personal thoughts on playing the piano, repertoire, concerts I have enjoyed, and various other music- or piano-related topics. In 2011 I was invited to join the team of reviewers for Bachtrack.com, an international concert and opera listings site. The people who write for Bachtrack are, in general, not professional journalists, merely people who care passionately about live classical music and who are able to convey that passion in engaging and intelligent reviews. At the beginning of this year, I was also invited to write for CultureVulture.net, a US-based arts and culture website which offers intelligent, quality arts journalism and covers a wide remit, from exhibitions and music to tv and DVD reviews. I have also recently set up a sister blog to this one, MusArtLondon, as a home for all my reviews, and those of my CultureVulture London colleagues, Nick Marlowe and ‘Erato’. (Find more here….).

I am not a “professional” writer any more than I am a “professional” pianist, for I receive no payment for my writing nor my piano playing. However, I do not believe that my lack of “professional” credentials makes my ability to express my views in writing any less valid than those of a trained journalist writing for one of the broadsheet newspapers or music magazines such as Gramophone. Indeed, a number of broadsheet music journalists are not musicians nor have any kind of musical background other than a declared “interest” in the subject; and yet some of these people can be seen as the ultimate arbiters of taste and quality. It must be said at this point that there are also a number of music journalists who have had a full musical training and are active as composers and musicians themselves.

In her article, Sarah Crompton states that “a critic is someone who devotes their time to the pursuit of cultural judgement”, and suggests that a journalistic training better equips her and her colleagues on other newspapers and journals for this task than my passion and enthusiasm for the subject (and maybe the fact that I am both a classically-trained pianist and someone who has enjoyed a lifetime of attending concerts). She also suggests that people like me don’t do our homework, that we simply rock up to a concert and toss off a few unconsidered paragraphs after the event. Not true: ahead of a concert I spend time researching the music and performer I am going to hear. One of the best classical music blogs which I read regularly is Boulezian, which is both well-informed and erudite. Its author is a professor at Royal Holloway, and an avid concert and opera goer. My particular grouch with Sarah Crompton’s point of view is the inference that because she writes for a broadsheet newspaper and is a “professional journalist”, her opinions and judgement are somehow “better” or more valid than mine.

I suspect that much of her anxiety is founded on the uncomfortable knowledge that the blogosphere is partly responsible for the slow death of traditional print journalism. I don’t applaud this: in fact, it saddens me. I used to work in old-fashioned book publishing and the thought of a world without books, journals and other printed matter appalls me. But the rise of the blogger and online reviewer/critic has, in my humble opinion, opened up the world of opinion-making and debate, and has created a vast and wonderful forum for the exchange of ideas. Criticism and reviewing has become more democratic and some fantastic blogs have emerged as a result, offering extremely intelligent and high-quality writing (see my personal picks below).

As a keen concert-goer and regular reviewer, I have never set myself up as the arbiter of taste and quality. I write about classical music because I care passionately about it, and I love live music. I am always happy to enter into a debate with people about the merits, or otherwise, of a particular concert or performer. I want this blog to be a place for discussion, and I am always happy to respond to comments. It cheers me enormously when people write to tell me how much they have enjoyed one of my reviews: indeed, the best compliments are comments such as “you brought the music to life in your writing” or “you made me feel I was right there with you at the concert”.

The debate about music critics and music criticism is nothing new, and is one that is likely to run and run, never more so now in our social media obsessed world, where everyone can, in effect, be a critic by simply “liking” a post on Facebook, Google+ or Instagram, or retweeting a link on Twitter. Traditional print journalists need to accept that the blogosphere is part of 21st century life and makes an important and valid contribution to our rich and varied cultural landscape.

Fellow blogger and Bachtrack reviewer Jane Shuttleworth offers her views on this issue

A riposte to Sarah Crompton’s article by a music blogger

A handful of music blogs I admire and follow:

Boulezian

Orpheus Complex

On An Overgrown Path

LietoFineLondon

Musical Toronto

7 thoughts on “Classical music critics and the blogosphere”

  1. Well done, Fran. I agree with your comments. There is an unfortunate tendency for some journalist critics to veer towards arrogance and cruelty. It’s possible – and mandatory – to write reviews with kindness and humility. And I do think that it helps if a critic has done at least some performing themselves, to gain a personal insight into the problems of performance.

  2. Hmm – well, you may not be a professional writer or journalist in the sense that you don’t get paid for your blogging, Fran, but as far as I’m concerned you are the equal of any of the other staff or freelance music critics and commentators: you know your subject, you write beautifully about it and you write regularly. That takes a lot of commitment and energy – I do admire you for it. I suppose the other thing that is missing is the editorial process of commissioning and copy-editing, but people like you and Jessica Duchen are so disciplined in your choice of subjects and your self-editing that I don’t think that’s a problem. (In fact given the quality of some editing it may well be an asset!) In any case, arts editors and their bosses have only themselves to blame for the rise of popularity of the blogosphere, as it’s the reduction in coverage of the arts in the broadsheets that is driving writers and readers online.

    1. Thank you very much for your supportive comments, Clare. As you might have gathered from my FB posts and this article, I have felt bloggers are being unfairly criticised by traditional print journalists. We all have a place in the great debate/discussion on classical music. I am not trying to compete with the writers on broadsheets such as the Telegraph and the Guardian, merely sharing my interest and enthusiasm.

      1. Hi Fran, the fact that you maintain a regular blog and that you can self-edit/publish, is an asset for yourself as well as a great contribution to the world; it means you have the freedom to write whatever you wish, without being chained to big organizations’ rules and adhering to their own views and whatnot.

  3. Journalists and other “specialists”, especially politicians, seem to believe that no ordinary citizen should dare to express an opinion on what they regard jealously as their private preserve. It is very small minded. Surely everyone is entitled to an opinion and to express it and any judgement on whether or not it has merit should be based upon its substance, not the status of the writer. Ignore Sarah Crompton. You are doing more for music than she has ever done.
    There is an old saying “those who can do, those who can’t teach.” I like to add, “those who do neither, just write or talk about it.” Well, you not only do, that is you perform, but you also teach and write about. Very well done. Keep up the good work

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