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The Critic Is Dead, Long Live The Critic

Katy Sharp-Watson reviews the near-demise of film criticism, hoping it will soon be revitalised. Chiino Stoppard looks for a similar upturn on behalf of music journalism.

Ideas Matter To The Making Of Film

Katy Sharp-Watson  

Back in 2008, film magazine Sight and Sound ran a front cover emblazoned with the words: ‘Who needs critics?’ The answer: they do, clearly; but not everyone feels the same way. The job losses of critics have been a symptom of steadily declining print sales. Since the digital revolution no group of people has been as desperate to defend and define their profession as film critics. A great deal of debate has since taken place that discusses the future of film criticism and what the critics can do to keep their profession alive. But how did we get to this point? Why do the public need critics? Why do films need critics? How successfully has film journalism migrated to the web? And fundamentally, how can film criticism sustain a vibrant future?

I want to address the current controversies that engulf film criticism and put my case for its future role.

A History of Crisis

Firstly, it’s wrong to assume that the crisis of film criticism corresponds to the rise in use of the Internet. Film critics have long endured allegations of elitism and snobbery that they have been unable to shake. If opinions are just mere opinions then how can a small select group of people hold an opinion of more worth over the everyday consumer of film? Rather, the Internet has enabled a backlash which had been quietly brewing for some time. By looking at publications from the 1980s and 1990s, we can see how critics have long been paranoid about the fragile state of their profession. For example, Terry Eagleton’s The Function of Criticism from 1984 argues that the public sphere is disintegrating and critics must take urgent action to re-assess their role.

It is also no co-incidence that the same year in which Sight and Sound published the ‘Who needs critics?’ cover, the world economy was undergoing a financial crisis that would result in major loss of earnings and job losses across most industries and professions. Film critics were not immune to this trend. Match this with the rise of the Internet and its sudden provision of an abundance of amateur film enthusiasts and bloggers prepared to undertake the job of the critic for free, and it is clear how and why professional film critics’ jobs were at high risk.

A number of high profile film critics have reflected on significant changes in their profession in recent years – changes that have resulted in fear and tension amongst their ranks. Mark Kermode’s Hatchet Job published in 2013, identified a trend that saw film marketers moving away from using the opinion of the critic to promote their film, and utilising the paying public instead. Taking the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’s promotional campaign as an example, he notes how the film’s distributors chose to cover the film’s poster with quotes from random people on Twitter instead of respected national critics. Chief film critic of The Telegraph, Robbie Collin lashed out against this practice when The Impossible was released in 2012 – a film that had gained high critical acclaim and was not short of five stars and glowing quotes.  Kermode also draws attention to other indications that suggest the end may be nigh for film critics, such as the tendency for distributors not to hold a national press screening for a film, seemingly deeming the critic’s role as redundant. Pairing this with the rise of sites such as IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes and Amazon, all of which offer users an opportunity to write their own reviews, the status of the traditional critic has been further undermined. It is not just keen amateur bloggers that pose a threat to the status quo, but the ordinary film viewing public, or ‘citizen journalists’.

Why does the public need critics and why do films need critics?

There is no question that critics are in trouble; but the question remains – do we need them, anyway? And who cares if their profession is over? Before jumping to the conclusion that the only people to lose out are critics themselves, please consider the following.

Firstly, the professional film critic has gained that position purely based on their life-long dedication to watching and writing about cinema. This may seem obvious, but it is too-often forgotten. The best critics are those who take their jobs immensely seriously and watch all films from all genres and countries. This dedication places them in a far better position from which to engage in criticism and their opinion ought to be thoroughly considered, drawing on comparisons from a wide history of film knowledge. A good film critic will also know his readership as people turn to a certain critic because they trust his opinion over another. A critic should do his best not to pre-judge a film, and begin the viewing process with an open mind, free from bias.

Once in a long while, a film will appear that makes a strong impact upon the viewer, prompting a sense of bewilderment and confusion but also a desire to keep thinking and keep searching for answers. Film criticism provides a way to look further and make sense of what you have seen. Decent film critics will have devoted their lives to seeking out these answers.

As mentioned previously, there is a growing trend for film promoters to bypass press screenings, not because they know the film is so bad that no review is better than a damning review, but because the critics’ input is simply arbitrary and will make no convincing impact on the film’s success. High profile critics such as Kermode have also suggested that their opinions have no bearing on the box office of a film. This can imply that film critics have the freedom to write as they please, for no bad review has the ability to cause a crushingly negative affect. But this standpoint ignores the needs of smaller independent films that lack the vast marketing budgets enjoyed by Hollywood studio productions. For many low-budget films, the review written by a high profile critic in a national newspaper or large-circulation magazine is a lifeline to at least some level of promotion. For these films, the critic’s role is vital. But critics are not there only for promotional purposes; film criticism has done more for cinema than many filmmakers would care to imagine.

In the 1950s, French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema changed the way we think about film. Founded by respected scholar Andre Bazin, the magazine sought to establish film as a legitimate art form, with close analysis of a film’s mise-en-scene – now a regular part of academic film studies, but also built into the fabric of how we all look at film, whether or not we are aware of it. Furthermore, Cahiers championed the ‘auteur’ theory – the idea that the director is not just a journeyman but an author exercising full artistic control over his film. By establishing the director in such high esteem, and by advocating filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray and Jean Renoir, Cahiers du Cinema re-invented quality cinema for the better. The concept of director-as-artistic-creator is now so commonplace in cinema that it is hard to imagine how it could ever have been any other way.  As demonstrated by Cahiers, quality criticism, discussion and debates together create an environment in which serious film making is encouraged to flourish. Conversely, to give up on criticism is to give up on film itself.

Film criticism in the digital age

There is the familiar notion of the Internet acting as a platform of democracy, a revolution that can be deemed positive or negative, depending on which side you choose to take. Mattias Frey calls this into question by taking Rotten Tomatoes, (one of the major Internet film review site successes) as a case study. He suggests that far from democratising opinion, Rotten Tomatoes actually re-enforces the critic’s dominant position:

Rotten Tomatoes is a celebration of criticism and actually validates the basic tenet of the critical project: that critics’ judgement can and should matter to the reception and consumption of film and other cultural products’ (Frey, 2015: 86).

It does this by installing algorithms that favour ‘top critics’ first and foremost, down to bloggers and finally, audiences last. The criteria for a ‘top critic’ is strict and only those at major publications with a wealth of experience are included. Rotten Tomatoes acts as a useful tool in which to compare the opinions of the most renowned critics, and dip into the views of the public to see if they follow the general consensus.

Not all critics are worried about their profession, however. Filmmaker and critic Mark Cousins has stressed that the so-called film criticism revolution has been widely over-stated. He notes: ‘the Internet doesn’t lead dreams, fear, invention, poetry or protest. It follows them. It serves them’. For Cousins, the Internet is simply the medium and not the message. He also stresses how the art of criticism is not exclusive to the written word, as demonstrated through his documentaries that examine films which have been forgotten or overlooked. But does Cousins’ understanding of criticism differ from the common perception? Defining the role of the critic, Cousins states: ‘the critic looks at the text, compares it to the world and then, out of this comparison, makes the criticism. She says the text is a good one because it relates to the world well and is also somehow – because of its wit, or speed, or slowness or interiority, or surprise or sorrow – beautiful in itself.’

But does this definition really describe what critics do? A common misconception of the job of the critic is that she is simply a guide to whether a film is ‘good’ or ‘bad’; in other words – a reviewer. Many publications perpetuate this mistake by including a star system guide that enables readers to bypass the written review altogether, and choose a film based on a simplistic out-of-five basis. But there is a clear difference between reviewer and critic.

From the beginning of the twentieth century, the growth of cultural products on offer to the public has resulted in the need for consumer guides. This is what film critics have come to provide, especially in the national press and in lifestyle magazines. We often ask ourselves, ‘will this film be worth my time, and worth my money?’ Reasonable questions requiring a decent answer – but that’s not the same as the work of a critic.

Cultural criticism, rather, is in-depth analysis and exploration. It digs deep beneath the surface of a film; it seeks to expose its influences, its codes and its beauty. This type of criticism is likely to be of interest to those who have seen the film that is being discussed – the kind of writing which is better read after viewing, in order to illuminate the film. As Sight and Sound editor Nick James wrote this March in an editorial, this sort of film analysis and discussion will inevitably lead to spoilers, but it’s a price worth paying for quality film journalism.

Onto the Future…

It is by making this important distinction between review and critique that we can begin to see how film criticism may survive in the digital age. Far from signalling the demise of quality criticism, the Internet actually provides the ideal platform for active debate and discussion. The relationship between critic and public has changed enormously, but this should not signal the end of critical integrity. Those that have acknowledged the distinction have been the most successful in the transition from print to online. The late, highly respected film critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times has been a prime example: instead of fearing the Internet, Ebert embraced the change. He identified the need for film analysis to become a conversation and so actively blogged on his website and encouraged comments and discussion from his users. People visited his website because they trusted him and respected him, but they stayed because they felt included in the debate. After his death in 2013, Ebert’s site lives on and its content is now produced by an array of amateur film bloggers following in his giant footsteps.

Proclaiming that a film is ‘bad’ or ‘good’ can be undertaken by anyone. Whilst we may still wish to turn to a critic for a round up of the week’s releases, we are just as likely to take viewing tips from friends, family, Twitter, Facebook and IMDB. But the Internet has demonstrated that the appetite for thorough, critical discussion is larger than ever. Message boards, forums, below the line comments and blogs should not indicate the end of criticism – rather they highlight the desire for discussion. Possibilities for discussion have been opened up by the digital revolution, and such possibilities are not limited to the written word. Podcasts and radio shows, for example, have proven how popular critical discussions on new forms of media really are.

Taking Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode’s weekly Radio 5 Live film review show as an example, we can see how this is true. Since its inception in 2001, the show has grown enormously in popularity, and the extended podcast version has been downloaded over 50 million times since 2005. Its success is based on a combination of accessibility and inclusivity with a high level of knowledge and understanding. Whilst the debate and critique of films is thorough and considered, it has a light-hearted tone and speaks to its audience by not talking down to them. Listeners are encouraged to Tweet and email the show, and much of the airtime is dedicated to reading these messages. Furthermore, its listeners are not the die-hard cinephiles that make up Sight and Sound’s readership, but everyday consumers of film and those who just appreciate good discussion. This model of film criticism on a digital platform is leading the way for film journalism in the twenty-first century.

There is a place for well-educated film critics in the digital future, but they will only continue to exist if they adapt to the changing landscape of film journalism. There is a clear disparity between what the public and the critics deem ‘quality cinema’. Sight and Sound’s best films of all time list – chosen by critics – does not match that of IMDB’s top 250 films, chosen by its users. But this does not mean that critics are out of touch. The films that make up the list on IMDB are all commercially successful and Hollywood studio-backed: they are the films that the masses watch; just as their makers intended. But quality should never be defined by commerciality. Critics are important because without them, what other basis do we have to define quality? Without them, there is no voice to champion independent cinema, for example.

On the other hand, film is too important for be left to the elitists. The critics’ verdict must never be the be all and end all; there must be a platform for response. We should be striving for high-quality debate and analysis whilst simultaneously creating spaces for an inclusive discussion with wide-appeal.

Rescue The Review….And The Reviewer

Chiino Stoppard

Introduction: what’s wrong with the music industry and music journalism?

The steep decline of newspaper and physical album sales happened almost in tandem. The UK’s top 11 paid-for daily newspapers had a collective circulation of around 12.8 million in 2004, according to The Guardian (2004, using ABC data). In 2012, even with the addition of i, the UK’s 12 top paid-for dailies had a circulation closer to 7.7 million (Guardian, 2014). In more dramatic fashion, according to BPI (2014), the UK music industry’s income from album sales in 2003 was £1.1 billion (from an industry generating £1.2 billion). In 2013, it was £3.4 million (from a sector that made £0.7 billion).

More comparisons can be made concerning corporate restructuring. News media ownership has been further concentrated over this time period, in the same way that major labels have gone from the ‘Big Six’ in 1999 to the ‘Big Three’ from 2012 onwards.

In response to the changing landscape and the decline in traditional UK music sales, the Official Charts Company now counts online album streaming as paid-for consumption. This is similar to the way that subscriptions to tablet-optimised digital versions of newspapers are now tracked.

The changes have been so significant that the two fields have lost their once-tight bond. The established media’s ability to inform the public of the merits of music has been diminished. The reasons for this (in various degrees, at differing levels) include: decreasing need to purchase music, lessened authority for traditional publications as ‘gatekeepers’, and the rise of ‘surprise’ albums being released without prior promotion (Forbes, 2015).

Why buy, when you can get it for free? For the price of a single LP, music fans can stream any album they want for a month on Spotify. Many know how to download songs without paying too. On release, most albums are streamable on SoundCloud, VEVO or a number of other platforms, fee-free. Fewer physical sales on new music mean a decreased demand for any CD or vinyl versions. This shortens the time between post-production and release. Physical versions may actually come some time after the digital version. Collectively, these elements paint a picture of music sales that is a world away from what it was 15 years ago.

As a result of these tech-led advancements in the music industry, the perception of professional album reviews has changed. Once viewed with prestige and honour, the value of these has been on the decline. They simply are not viewed as important any more. The once-standard three-month advances on albums for publications have gone. Album reviews, as an element of music journalism, are losing their curating role to consumers. The audience now has the Internet to do it for them. Does an album review have a place, in a time like this?

Where is the Authority?

Assuming the answer is ‘no’ means failing to appreciate that reviews do not just act as a way for consumers to decide whether to buy or not. When someone with cultural authority states that a particular album has a certain significance, it can guide wider cultural discourse too. This is something that will not change, just because fewer people are buying. It is for this reason that album reviews published in notable media outlets need to be done well, and by specialists. If they are not undertaken in this careful manner, who will be there to verify a ‘classic’?

At a time when the voice of the public is amplified so greatly, and Internet publishing is a rush to be first to write about something (Green, 2010), so much frantic activity can seem to undermine the value of the critics’ output. It devalues the review, and essentially puts it at the same level as all of the other opinions online. But just as critics need to be able to distinguish themselves from the ‘noise’, so we need them to be able to do it.

In the past, this could be achieved by becoming part of the established media. With the likes of The Independent cutting back on its arts reviews (Guardian, 2013), the BBC discontinuing the album review section of its website in 2013, and once-critical ratings from specialist titles now coming under question (UpRoxx, 2011), there are doubts about the traditional stomping ground of the music critic. But that doesn’t mean that the overall role of the critic has suddenly become doubtful.

Today, some music critics are able to bypass this conventional route, by creating brands themselves. By nurturing their audiences (which could be through social media accounts, or YouTube) with unique content, they can create establish a thought-leader reputation in a specific field. The authority has transitioned from traditional media to newer forms, but may yet find a happy medium where the true experts can distinguish themselves from everyday consumers and be rewarded on their considerable merit.

What is the Role of the Critic?

In The Function of Criticism (Eliot, 2014, originally writing in 1919), T.S. Eliot defines the critic’s crucial ‘task’ as ‘the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste’. Criticism offers the framework from which ‘imposters can be readily rejected’ – a form of gatekeeping. Considering that barriers to the consumption of content have largely dissolved, and that Eliot was talking from a time prior to the birth of the LP, it is difficult to establish whether his definition still holds the same weight.

True, ‘tastemakers’ of some description still curate content to filter out the bad, but the voice of a critic does not have the same authority to banish ‘imposters’ as might have been the case in the past. For example, a feature on The Concurse (2015), that questioned the role of music curators in allowing an out-and-out copycat artist to gain significant recognition, was met with misdirected anti-critic sentiment, rather than meaningful discourse about the topic that was brought up.

Marinetti’s oft-quoted line: ‘regard all art critics as useless and dangerous’ (Meggs and Purvis, 2011, originally writing in 1909) will come up time and again, but some kind of cultural analysis is still vital. Marinetti’s thoughts were anti-establishment, i.e. against what was previously established, having faith in the future instead. However, this line of thought does not apply across all cultures and at all times. Being able to decipher the meaning, inspiration, purpose and execution of artistic ideas enables the critic to guide us through a cultural discourse.

Some may feel as though the concept of ‘correcting taste’ is outdated in an age where the world’s cultures are more interconnected and accessible. However, without critics at all, it still leaves us in a state where no one can declare something as culturally significant – unless they have the money to back it up. Better to have people who are trained to exercise judgement, I suggest.

Unlike in other arts, such as theatre and film, where critics can massively dictate the success and consumption, the same is not true of music albums. They are not giving ‘buyer’s guides’; potential listeners would not necessarily need to consult a review, as many will not need to buy in order to access it. (In fact, only concert reviews serve this purpose today). However, what really good album reviews do achieve is to identify, as Friskics-Warren (2006) puts it, whether musicians are able to achieve the state of transcendence that all arts strive for.

Opinion Oversaturation

Telling the public to ‘judge for yourself’ can be used too easily with music output now. If you want to hear an album, you can probably find it on YouTube and decide whether you like it for yourself. The same is true for concerts. Most of them are filmed and uploaded to YouTube. Does a consumer need to read up on their critiques of the performance if they can see if for themselves for free? In theory, no. In reality, the video is likely an optimised version of the best parts. Even if multiple crowd sourced uploads show a few viewpoints of the concert, they probably still lack context about what happened beforehand, audience mood and other things that you would only experience if you were truly there. Critical write-ups can cover this.

The same goes for the average consumer listening to an album and commenting on it. Yes, it is all based on individual taste and perception. However, those with the loudest voice online may distort reality. A young listener may not pick up on samples, cadences and sounds borrowed from older musicians. More mature listeners may not notice popular culture references in the work. It is the job of someone equipped with the right skills and knowledge to lead the conversation, and be given the correct platform to express it, before it is drowned out by whoever gets in there fastest.

Churnalism is usually discussed in a news writing context (Johnson, 2011), but it is just as damaging when applied to music criticism. This is why many ‘reviews’ of albums are simply top-level descriptions of the music. Even websites that specialise on curating content (so want to just highlight the best) will touch on bad popular music, simply in order to fulfil search engine optimisation and click-bait objectives. The more areas an editorial website can cover, the more chance that people will click a link (from either Google or a social media platform) to view it, which in turn, could mean more advertising revenue. Publishing music criticism for this reason completely undermines its purpose, and its importance.

There are fewer quality reviews of albums today. Online, consumers essentially have a Pitchfork opinion, a Guardian one, or nothing. The only other hope is the specialist magazines. If your favourite music does not fit into specific box, it will be left behind. Blogs can help to fill in the gaps, but they are inconsistent and face the issue of potentially being written by misinformed ‘have-a-go’ experts that mistakenly steer discourse off-track. The public needs to be able to have multiple resources that they can rely on. Sometimes, these will actually be blogs, but we should not have to rely on hobbyist writers for this content.

How Will It Pay Its Way?

These days, individual musicians often fund their craft through corporate sponsorships and live shows, rather than the sale of their actual songs. Could this aspect of the industry hold the answer of how to fund music journalism, moving forward? CRWN was launched in 2013, seeing a range of big-name musicians being interviewed about their art (exclusively) before a paying live audience. Once uploaded to YouTube, it could then be monetised further. For reviews, this is unlikely to work, as the draw of CRWN is that the artist is actually there. If the artist was present before the critics, it could compromise their responses. As far as corporate sponsorship goes, these often favour pop musicians, and it would be in the sponsors’ interest to support criticism that shared a similar sentiment. This clearly undermines the purpose of the reviews.

The value of a review from a well-established music journalist (Simon Reynolds, Nick Kent, Paul Lester) is that they can bring out elements of the music that the average consumer may have otherwise missed. They are expected to put music into cultural context, comment on its merits, offer critique and present this with personality and literary skill. Would the public be willing to pay for an enhanced listening experience? They do when they buy luxury headphones or opt to see an act live. It is not a stretch to believe that there is a demand for this.

The Needle Drop is a YouTube channel where music critic Anthony Fantano conducts reviews of current releases in a video format. With over 400,000 subscribers, 80,000 Twitter followers, and a thriving forum on his blog, he shows that there is a demand for the music review. He does not disclose how he goes about monetising this. No ads run on the videos, and the display placements on his blog are only likely to earn him around $18,000 per year (Stat Tools, 2015), yet he does this full-time, so presumably there are other revenue streams.

What can be learned from Anthony Fantano’s output is that the public has a desire to consume music reviews, and that it is not an outdated convention of music journalism. Much like the major labels’ shift towards streaming albums, he recognises that the public is more willing to consume the content if they do not have to dig into their own pockets (or even be exposed to adverts) to get to it. Product placements and outsider corporate funds contribute towards the incomes of many other vloggers, so it can be assumed that something along these lines is taking place here too. Perhaps independent, DIY reviews are the way forward, rather than through established journalistic brands. Perhaps the public can ‘buy into’ a personality they relate to more than a music magazine.

How Do We Move Forward?

For music journalism to progress, it needs quality album reviews from well-informed specialists to have more prominence. While vloggers such as Fantano may not fit Eliot’s idea of ‘the commentation and exposition of works of art by means of written words,’ (Eliot, 2014), he could not have foreseen the current landscape of the arts at the time. The future of music criticism needs to be just as receptive to adaptions in media consumption, as the presentation of news has, for example. As long as the content is of a high standard, it can be moulded into a number of forms. Written reviews still have their place, but so do podcasts, videos, Tweets, and so on.

As well as the adaptions that need to be made to the presentation of music critiques, so does the content. Filtering out the noise is a problem, in an age where the rate of music production has increased, and the price to distribute it is next to nothing. There is a need to rescue the review, despite what critics of critiques may think. The public might not need to have their tastes ‘corrected’ in the way that T.S. Eliot once suggested, but in a time when everyone’s viewpoint can be amplified, there needs to be a way to distinguish those with an informed perspective from those with just another opinion.

Music reviews will always be subjective, and varying interpretations on the music can add to the listening experience. This is why review platforms on Pitchfork still carry weight, but a decreasing number of platforms wish to explore this aspect of music journalism. The simplicity of musician and song aggregation is favoured, as it cuts out the bad, but it loses the discourse. These discussions are what is missing, and why it has come down to the-end consumers to take the critic’s place.

Critics earn their reputation by offering considered opinions, and these cannot be gauged through a single listen to an album, upon release (unlike how Twitter tends to respond). If we give specialists the resources and the platforms to get their voices across, it may improve the output. Music journalism cannot hope to do its job properly, until it gets to grips with the album review. This is still one of the most essential elements, so it is time we recognised it as such, and started treating it accordingly.

These are revised versions of papers presented by their authors to the student-led Future of Journalism conference at UEL Knowledge Dock, May 2015.

Bibliography

Collin, R. (2013). Who cares what Twitter critics think? Available: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/film-blog/9810807/Who-cares-what-Twitter-critics-think.html. Last accessed 20.5.2015.

Cousins, M. (2014). Situation Critical. Available: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/comment/dispatches-situation-critical. Last accessed 20.5.2015.

Eagleton, T. (1984) The Function of Criticism. London: Verso Press

James, N. (2008, October) ‘Who Needs Critics?’ Sight and Sound

Kermode (2013) Hatchet Job. London: Picador

Mattias, F. & Sayad, C. (2015) Film Criticism in the Digital Age. London: Rutgers University Press

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