The Art of Complaining About A Bad Review: Musicians and Critics

AKA YOU PROBABLY SHOULDN’T DO IT!

The Art of Complaining About A Bad Review: Musicians and CriticsMost of my friends are musicians and I tell them this stuff over and over and it never really seems to sink in. They almost never listen. When the bad review comes in, the knee-jerk complaint emails and snippy Facebook updates go out and if I slapped my forehead every time it happened, I’d have brain damage by now.

But let me explain it one more time, in writing, on the internet, so I can link people to this in future and just say, ‘Here, numb-nut!’ instead of wasting my breath.

WHY YOU THE MUSICIAN GENERALLY SHOULDN’T RESPOND TO CRITICISM

#1 It’s painfully uncool.

In a 1983 Art Forum article, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth described the live concert as:

‘People pay(ing) to see other people believe in themselves.’

Try as I might, I’ve never been able to fault the logic of that. Sounds gross sure, but it’s true. The only thing separating you from the non-musicians in your audience is that you have enough self-confidence (or neurosis) to get onstage. That’s it. It’s a weird dynamic but the people who listen to your music will think of you as being a little bit bigger (or weirder) than one person’s opinion (unless that person writes for Pitchfork). So responding is lame. It never reads as constructive or fair. It always reads as a whiney tantrum. And as such it always chips away at that part of you that other people are interested in.

#2 Your audience is not your support group.

There’s only one rule in music writing: entertain the reader. The whole point of the form is to draw readers to the author’s opinion. It’s often a very public performance. Music reviews are sent out into a world of countless unseen readers, usually in media vehicles that maintain some form of broader scope. The writer’s job is to present a very niche story (one particular band, one particular album, one particular event) to this broad readership.

Despite all the promises of Web 2.0, that’s very different from posting something to your blog or your Facebook profile or to your Twitter followers. It’s different in one key way: your social network is generally on your side. They might be a broad demographic but they all have one thing in common, they’ve chosen to interact with you. So raging about bad press to them is not ‘public’ in the same way. It’s preaching to the choir. It’s about seeking support and validation from people you deeply suspect are going to agree with you.

Now contrast the two positions.

This scenario makes the writer look brave and the musician look cowardly.

When has looking cowardly ever been enticing?

#3 Whatever They Said, It’s Not The Worst They Can Do

The worst thing a writer can say about your music is nothing and every single music writer of any experience knows this. We live in a hyper-mediated world with an intensely fast news cycle. In this environment, bands and albums and gigs get flushed down the internet every day, pre-judged and gone forever without a trace. So when a writer pans your work, they’re essentially saying, ‘This sucks but it’s at least worthy of my attention.’ And behind the writer, the editorial staff are saying, ‘This writer thinks this sucks but people will probably be interested in knowing that he/she thinks it sucks.’ That’s vastly different from the ice cold winter of neglect.

#4 You Can’t Win

Oh my god, SHUT UP, you can’t win. This is foundational. The writer is often better at writing than you. The writer often has better media contacts than you. The writer has at least one editor or content manager behind them, often a team of these people. Behind the editor and content manager is the publication itself, its brand and history. Even if you get reviewed by the intern and there’s grammatical or factual errors in the text, do you really think all that other stuff just falls away because you’re right?

99% of the time, the writer wins. It’s that simple. They win by…are you ready for it:

NOT RESPONDING TO YOUR RESPONSE.

How do they know to do this?

The game is always set in the writer’s home ground. So they know.

The writer gets paid to be use rhetoric and persuasion every day. They understand it.

You probably don’t have any of these advantages.

You writing to them (or about them) is like the writer penning a song about you.

Would you like to hear that song?

Didn’t think so.

WHY YOU SHOULD RESPOND TO CRITICISM

#1 You Shouldn’t. 

You obviously can’t even read. What makes you think writing about a writer is a good idea?

#2 You Might Know Enough About The Media To Get Some Benefit From It 

I didn’t even really know that Future of the Left had a new album out until Falco wrote a rebuttal of their Pitchfork review. He posted it to his blog. He writes well. He’s self-effacing. He acknowledges a few points from the above list, starting off with:

‘…rebuttals of unfavourable album reviews are lame, self-serving and immature – this one is no different.’

It works because his goals are well served: he got to vent and the piece went viral. It is – inadvertent or   not – great promo. But read it again. The best parts aren’t the bits where he’s arguing his points. That still reads as knit-picking and complaint. (Who honestly gives a shit about misinterpreted lyrics?) No, it works because it’s a good story. He’s saying: I’m funnier and more informed than this music writer who writes for a giant commercial music website. And then he states a pretty good case.

Except we all now know that Falco reads his own press and trawls message boards and Twitter for stuff about how that press is received:

‘I was browsing a forum I occasionally visit today, a one filled with gen-u-ine music fans, the kind who wouldn’t be easily swayed by invective, praise or otherwise, when I came upon the following quote in a discussion of this review.’

Just browsing huh?

So, it only almost works.

#3 You Hate Me And You Want To Hurt My Feelings

This is the only legitimate reason to respond to music criticism I can think of. Everyone wants to kill the messenger, I guess. So go right head.

Shoot your self in the foot if you must. You’re in pretty esteemed company.

Most of your audience will be confused by why you’d willingly shoot yourself.

But some will sympathise, in the short-term, ‘Oh you’re bleeding. Let me help.’

Others will be turned off by the sight of blood.

All the writers of the world will watch you dance around and either laugh or sigh.

And me, I’ll just stand there and say, ‘I told you not to do that. Here’s this link.’

– Ian Keith Rogers

Further Reading:

  • As one would expect, Axl Rose is wonderful with criticism. Read a fax he sent to a reviewer in full here.  
  • “I remember people like you laughing at me at the university, and now they are all eating off of my feet’ – MCA (RIP) of The Beastie Boys takes the bait

What I’m Reading:

  • The Secret Life of Transgender Rocker Tom Gabel’- A fascinating and candid feature on Tom Gabriel from Against Me! via Rolling Stone.
  • Long feature on the history of Wolf Eyes (via Pitchfork). They juggle it all: jobs, family, academia and harsh noise.
  • Epic interview of Greil Marcus by ‘Retromania’ author Simon Reynolds. 
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21 thoughts on “The Art of Complaining About A Bad Review: Musicians and Critics

  1. I remember PJ Harvey talking about Uh Huh Her on triple j. I was then, a massive PJ fan. I thought about 3 track on the album were pretty good and none of them great. In the interview, rather than defend it and the reviews it got… she agreed. She said it sounded better when she was writing and recording it alone, but that its’ really not great as an album but has figured out which tracks work and will probably just get rid of the rest. I respected her so much for that.

    Alone was the key word. She went out and made the next to albums by collaborating with John Parish… one of which is a masterpiece. In my opinion, the dodgy reviews are at least partially responsible for Let England Shake.

  2. good post! i only came across the falco rebuttal the other day by chance. instead of responding to criticism our policy is just to outlive the source. (it’s starting to happen haha).

    I’ve found that the public are smart and don’t necessarily believe a bad review. In that sense, when a writer writes their view, they are putting themselves and their knowledge and taste on the line. They will be judged on the back of their opinion which makes them quite vulnerable in a way.

    There have been certain reviewers, I have come to know, who’s views are so contrary to my own that I can almost look at the review in negative to approximate how i would feel about the show or album. I don’t necessarily need a good writer, just one that I know.

    • Yeah totally. A bad review is *almost* like that super-desired ‘call to arms’ that marketers look for in a campaign. These days you can stream/DL an artist so quickly and see for yourself. Then you can get online and tell all your friends that a negative review is rubbish. It’s just that when it comes straight from the band’s mouth it doesn’t chime the right way.

      • I would probably disagree with Adam about reviewers putting themselves on the line and being judged by the public. Most of the ones I know don’t really care what the public think about whether they are correct or not. Reviewing is an art, not objective journalism…in my view. Perhaps, I’m wrong but that’s how I think about it.

        To continue my ramble – a cursory glance at music press in Australia – there are a lot more bad albums than bad album reviews (bad in the sense of reviews that are negative, rather than badly written). Too many reviewers – and I have been guilty of this myself – are too positive.

        I love negative reviews. They’re always much more interesting.

  3. First up, great blog. You’ve got an interesting perspective on this crazy music biz.

    Secondly, I thought (as a music writer) I’d offer up something from the other side, and something I try and point out to musician friends and music fans who get worked up over bad reviews of their music or the music they love:

    Music, like all art, is subjective and so a review can only ever be one person’s opinion. If you get to know how a reviewer writes, or what they’re into, you can (like the comment above) make your own decision on whether to listen to something or not. I’ve often gone and listened to something I may never have bothered with, just because it got a bad review.

    And it also pays to remember that most reviews do get edited, often with no input or control from the original writer. I’ve had reviews edited to completely change the tone because editors thought it should be the opposite of what I wrote, or someone at the magazine/website/blog liked/disliked the band and wanted to have that show in the review.

    Enough of a rant from me though. Keep up the good work!

  4. Just Wondering
    Lets just say that you disagreed with a guy, lets call him Everest Truth, and this guy is constantly taking cheap smart ass (and just plain dumb) shots at people like The Beatles, Bob Dylan etc. And then on a social media site that allows for comments under statements such as these, you suggest that he maybe “Weigh his achievements against theirs and shut up”. If you were then told to “Fuck off, rude cunt” and deleted from that social media network?

    • (a) I would never do any of those things. (b) I had a nice chat with Everest Truth today at work. (c) I wouldn’t ask anyone to weigh their achievements against someone they didn’t like or respect. It seems kind of pointless to me. (d) Also, ET is a writer known for agitating people. (e) And you just agitated him enough to ban you from his Facebook profile. Which might be a technical win for you, if that’s what you were aiming for. Or were you hoping to convince ET of the quality of The Beatles and Bob Dylan’s music by making him feel bad about himself? (f) ET probably likes Bob Dylan and The Beatles. It’s just more fun to and annoying to other people to say otherwise. (g) So I suppose my answer is: I wouldn’t do anything. I might chuckle. Maybe.

      Good question though. You should consult me more often. I was thinking about you the other day when I read this thing about how controversy is actually the cheapest, most efficient type of promotion. I thought: ‘My friend Ben could probably be relied upon to say something controversial right before the next album comes out, I should tell him to do this.’ The only downside as far as I can see is that people hate you a bit after. So I’m still tweaking this obviously.

      • Is being “a writer known for agitating people” in anyway useful? Is he an occasional critic? I guess my biggest problem is that his shots at these artists are so cheap and overused its not even agitating anymore, it’s simply moronic.

        I should consult you way more often. I’m not good at dealing with assholes in print, you know this. I know I’m a constant source of you “smacking your forehead”. However in this case we both took a shot – so were both dumb right? Well obv he’s dumber but…
        This guy is 99% of the time on the same rung as a 16 year old Internet bully.

      • Also I’m trying to find the line between “writer who is known to agitate people” and (as I was described) “someone else who shouldn’t be on the Internet. Rude Cunt”

        Obv Everest Truth knows the difference? Does he come here. Can he perhaps explain what makes him a critic and me a “rude cunt”?

  5. I don’t think ET does come here. Although, you’ll probably summon him by talking about him on the internet. And I wouldn’t describe you as a ‘constant source’ of forehead smacking. You also use the internet really well with other things (i.e. releasing records, talking to audience, etc). You taught me how to understand Last.FM, after all.

    Also: I’m probably spoiling a future post by admitting this but there are no rules at all. Even my advice is cheap, in a way. With enough panache you could do the exact opposite of everything I write about here and still succeed. These are the challenges of writing about music, and part of why I do it. I’m here to have conversations like this essentially.

  6. Haha. Things just got REAL. Ben, I figure sometimes there is no point arguing. Thats about the time that I start judging. You know, when someone goes ‘azielia banks is a no-good foul mouthed slut’ I don’t try to argue the many different reasons why they are wrong. I just think to myself ‘boy, this dude is a real jerk, better remember not to wear my pants the same way he does, it will surely be a style that is already played out’

    One time though someone wrote about my band (or made reference to us – I can’t remember) in a review in a not very favourable way and I thought it didn’t bother me at all. Then one day he died and I realised I would never be able to convince them otherwise irl. Worse, I could never call them out on it. That would just be in bad taste. There is no moral to this particular story ( except, maybe, sometimes, when you think something is dragging you down, maybe all you have to do let go )

    • it IS terrible when reviewers die before you can take them out.

      The Kim Gordon quote is wonderful, and truly is at the heart of all of this.

      As a young lad I recall a girl saying on the night we met “Why do people sing and play music when they suck at it? Don’t they know?”. At that point I just laughed in faux agreement and silently vowed to never play any bedside songs to her. I was young and filled with the opposite of what Kim Gordon pays for. At that stage, any criticism had real teeth, and my skin was thin.

      It’s thickens over time though, doesn’t it? it should. It’s called fucking growing up! I would never address the source of a bad review. That’s probably because I feel my vanity shows itself enough without me parading it around in written form. Hopefully I’m getting close to the day where I don’t care at all what anyone says or writes about my band.

      Of course that would be tested if anyone wrote anything! (See point #3 above)

      Ben, regarding you and Everett… Please find a way to keep that battle going. While I don’t directly partake in net combat, I do find it highly enjoyable to watch.

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