Tuesday, October 08, 2019

RIP the classical music critic


That atmospheric photograph shows Edward Greenfield surrounded by the tools of his trade as a classical music critic*. Ted Greenfield died in 2015 and he was one of a select group who defined the Indian Summer of classical criticism. He retired as chief music critic of the Guardian in 1993. Just one year later the first embryonic blogs appeared and the subsequent rapid growth of citizen journalism and even more meteoric rise of its bastard offspring social media turned that Indian Summer into a brief harsh autumn and a long bleak winter. Readers will know of my belief that classical music can learn much from other music genres. The recently published Secret DJ contains punchy home truths about the music industry and also this wisdom about the impact of the Internet:
The post-truth age is merely an extension of the belief that our own tastes, thoughts and opinions are the only valid ones... The common denominator that runs through all this is the Internet. By democratising everything from music to information and making it available to all, we've destabilised the expert and enabled the amateur. For good and for ill.
The disruptive impact of the Internet must take much of the blame for the demise of the expert critic and the parallel rise of the amateur pundit. Tenured salaried posts for critics with national newspapers have virtually disappeared, resulting in a reliance on the gig economy for income. Which means Universal Music's Udiscovermusic website and their classical brands of Deutsche Grammophon and Decca - home of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, Sheku Kanneh-Mason and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra - have become vital sources of income for non-tenured critics.

Of course critics need to earn a living in the post-truth age and Ted Greenfield also freelanced. But, unlike today, freelancing simply provided bonus income for him. Universal Music controls 58% of the global classical market, and the labels making up the other 42% don't have the corporate behemoth's substantial commissioning budget. Which means that no matter how impartial a music journalist is, the prospect of future commissions will never be completely out of their mind. Music journalism is now an extension of the corporate PR machine, and every piece of online writing needs to be scrutinised closely for partisan sub-agendas. This blurring of the division between editorial and advertisement recently prompted the UK's Advertising Standards Authority's to publish guidelines on how social media 'influencers' must make it clear when editorial copy is actually advertising in disguise.

Critics are now between a rock and a hard place and it is partly of their own making. Claimed reader numbers are far more important than quality of writing, and some critics are responding by moving from clickbait to twit bait. The recent storm in a tea cup over the English National Opera's withdrawal of second complimentary tickets for critics was widely interpreted as foolishness on the part of the opera house. But it could also be interpreted as recognition of the diminished status of established critics, particularly as the second tickets are being reallocated to young bloggers. It doesn't matter if you blame the disruptive impact of the Internet, the hegemony of the major record labels, or the critics themselves. Music writing may be alive and kicking, but the nonaligned classical critic as portrayed in that wonderful photograph is, sadly, most definitely dead. For good and for ill.

* The photo comes from a 'must read' article about Ted Greenfield in Spitalfields Life.
New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

No comments: