Music Criticism Goes Digital

With the decline of print and the rise of digital media, the role of music criticism has changed. Veteran journalists share their thoughts on what the new landscape means for critics – and choruses.

Here’s a scene that’s as quaint as rotary dial telephones: the cast of a Broadway show gathered at Sardi’s after opening night, waiting for the newspapers to arrive with the reviews. Today, those reviews are out as soon as the curtain falls—and they are likely to include embedded video clips. Assessments by critics associated with standard media outlets are joined by those of bloggers and other independent audience members, and spread via Facebook and Twitter. Anyone with a digital device can access any of those opinions, and anyone with a view on the subject can weigh in as the conversation continues in cyberspace. 

This is the flip side of the dismal economics of print news. Daily newspapers have indeed suffered a downward slide, losing print space for arts criticism and paying jobs for arts critics, particularly in regional markets. But the critics are still out there, and they are operating in a very different, some might even say livelier, universe than in the old days. 

Multimedia Skills for a New Media World

Nancy Malitz

Nancy Malitz, a veteran arts critic, has been a player in the transition from print to digital, creating early websites for the Detroit News and working on strategic planning for media change for Gannett’s publications. She is now publisher of Chicago on the Aisle, a Chicago arts website, and is helping to spearhead Classical Voice North America, the new online journal of criticism and commentary published by the Music Critics Association of North America. For her, the burgeoning of new media means more writing about the arts, not less. “Arts writers had been squeezed for space for decades,” she says. “They were writing smaller reviews and fewer previews. When writers are only giving a grade, or just saying what happened on Tuesday night, they don’t feel fulfilled, and the audience gets less. With digital media, space is not an issue, and writers communicate better.”

Print critics have had to learn to change how they communicate in the digital world, Malitz says. “Lots of people who used to write in traditional media were accustomed to being part of a large organization. It was someone else’s job to get the pictures, write the headlines, do the editing, and get them paid.” In the digital realm, the writer may be responsible for all those tasks. “If you are writing about a new work, and you are not thinking, ‘is there audio available?’ you are behind the curve,” she says. “It’s a lot to think about, and if a writer is expert in doing it the old way, just using words, it can be unsettling to feel like a beginner.” 

Johanna Keller

Johanna Keller, director of the Goldring Arts Journalism Program at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, is training critics for that new world. They don’t just have to be able to write well. “Young journalists are trained to be multi-platform,” she says. “They take photos and write the captions. They build websites, function in social media, shoot video, and edit it. They create infographics. That skill set is expected for the new kinds of jobs in media.” Every year, Keller takes her students to the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina, where, hosted by the local newspaper, they become the city’s critical cadre, covering the three weeks of the festival in every conceivable medium. The students help cover a range of events that no single newspaper critic could ever hope to encompass.

The Growth of Online Outlets

With all this multimedia potential, arts criticism is in an in-between phase. Big newspapers in major markets, some of which still have a few staff critics, have of necessity embraced the digital medium. Some have given their arts critics blogs, or at least the opportunity to get reader comments on what they write. Influential critics like Alex Ross of The New Yorker have launched independent blogs. National niche publications like Musical America have gone entirely online (except for its annual directory) enabling them to be far more nimble in covering breaking news and performance reviews. 

Some regions that have lost their print criticism altogether have gotten new online substitutes. Lawrence A. Johnson, the former classical music critic of the Miami Herald, started the South Florida Classical Review in 2008 to fill the void resulting from newspaper cutbacks. The site provides coverage for ensembles like the New World Symphony and the Master Chorale of South Florida. Johnson has since launched Classical Review sites for Boston, Chicago, and New York. One of the most established sites, the 15-year-old San Francisco Classical Voice, was also launched in response to a loss of print space covering the Bay Area. It previews and covers a wide range of performances and maintains extensive concert listings, which are searchable by genre. Some independent arts sites have turned into critical powerhouses: Parterre.com, a snarky but extremely well informed site, is a prime go-to place for news and opinion in the opera world. 

This burgeoning of online outlets offers arts groups and presenters in smaller markets opportunities for coverage that may otherwise have disappeared with the downsizing of newspaper staffs in their communities. Johanna Keller, who was a classical music publicist earlier in her career, points out, “If the local newspaper has no music critic, a chorus might suggest someone, like a local choral teacher, who could write up your concert for the online version. Editors are looking for content all the time. Also, there are tons of blogs – the Music Critics Association of North America alone lists 35 of them. Wherever you are, you can find someone who is near you, who can travel to your concert or assign someone.”  

Nancy Malitz says that one of the original goals of the MCANA web journal was “to have more news and criticism of national interest emerging from those regions that have lost outlets for their print writers.” She reports that the site is already getting numerous queries from writers in smaller markets. “Regional writers are grateful for the opportunity to begin to explore some of these new skills, and use audio, video, and photos to help tell their stories.” 

The Critic as the Center of the Conversation

With so many voices readily available thanks to the digital revolution, readers are now required to make their own determinations about who has authority and who can viably challenge it, rather than relying solely on the critic of the established newspaper. At the same time, critics at established media outlets are more open than ever to audience response through comments pages and social media, making a review or story often just a starting point for debate. 

Anne Midgette (Photo Credit: Courtesy of The Washington Post)

Music critic Anne Midgette was eager to have a blog when she joined The Washington Post in 2008. She got one in early 2009, and it turned out to be a fortunate move for the paper’s arts coverage. “In January 2009, we lost a lot of space in the Style section, and I was told I had to cut back on reviews, particularly from stringers,” she says. “When I got the blog a month later, it gave me the wherewithal to cover what was happening, but online.” Reviews are now being put back into the paper. “The blog meant that the cutback was not as drastic, and it enabled the creep back into paper to go better,” Midgette says.

Midgette’s Post blog, The Classical Beat, has provided more than just space. Its manifesto states, “It’s everyone’s right to have an opinion about classical music.” “I want to be the center of the community, not the pronouncer,” she says. “My word is one among many. I’ll link to every other review of a Metropolitan Opera performance that I can find.” Midgette wants her readers to talk back. “I have readers who say, I don’t really know anything, I’m just a lay person,” she says. “I want to get rid of that apology.” And while she doesn’t write just to provoke a response, she is glad to get one. “Arguing about things is one of the great joys of life,” she says. Many of those debates have now moved to Facebook, where Midgette links to her blog pieces and reviews, and to some degree on Twitter, where she has 11,000 followers. 

Midgette thinks that her Post platform has a lot to do with the number of Twitter followers she has – “a sign that old media does make a difference in the new media world.” New media has also been a plus for the old. “The blog draws advertisers, such as presenters. It’s not as expensive as print, and everyone who reads the blog is going to be interested in the performance they are advertising.” This is, no doubt, a reason that when the Post cut its blogs from 120 to 40 last year, Midgette’s was kept. “It’s gratifying that a classical music blog is drawing enough traffic to get the interest of people at the paper. Here is a niche readership that should be paid attention to.”

The web also means that critics not associated with established media outlets can develop a following, though it is a harder job. Simply getting access to performances can be a challenge: there are institutions that do not provide bloggers with press tickets, for example. Midgette thinks that’s absurd. “The Baltimore Symphony did a dedicated blogger event, with a reception,” she says. “That’s smart. If you want coverage, what do you get by being exclusionary?”

The proliferation of voices makes it more difficult for any single one to stand out. Keller feels that the Internet has given more people the tools to do the necessary research for quality arts journalism. “In the old days, you had to have your file of playbills and index cards to have that historical memory and perspective,” she says. “What has not gone up is depth of experience. We’re so inundated with information that a really strong voice is rarer than it was when there were gatekeepers.” Trying to create that strong voice can be problematic as well. Keller says, “You have to create your own brand on the web, to be known for something. The negative side of that is, sometimes the brand can overcome the work itself.”

Midgette does not feel that the gatekeepers are necessarily any great loss. While an apprenticeship on a newspaper can help writers learn to avoid making egregious errors in journalistic ethics, Midgette thinks that there’s plenty of good work in the blogosphere. “I wouldn’t say that the staff critics I know are universally better trained than bloggers,” she says. “Is the reporter at the Podunk News better than James Jorden [of Parterre.com]? The cream rises to the top; it’s an improvement over reviews on the order of ‘Last night the orchestra played, the horns were beautiful.’” 

Challenges and Potential

Chloe Veltman (Photo Credit: Liz Caruna)

Chloe Veltman, an arts journalist and blogger, as well as a choral singer, recently joined Colorado Public Radio as its arts editor charged with creating a multimedia culture bureau. Now 39, she started her career in print but is a child of the digital age. “I think print is more or less out of the equation at this point,” she says. “I don’t think most people under the age of 50 are reading things in print these days.” The issue is dead trees rather than disdain for traditional media outlets: Veltman prefers to read The New Yorker on her iPad, which has handsome graphics and musical links, while the print magazine gathers dust. 

She believes that the switch to digital has changed criticism. “In my experience as a journalist, to fulfill demands of the new media, and because of economics, I was asked for reviews that were shorter in length, more attuned to Facebook and Twitter, thumbs up or down,” she says. “That’s the way it’s heading. No one can afford to pay for in depth journalism, and everything seems to be a soundbite. There’s a loss in standards.” 

Veltman also found that the firewall between editorial and advertising was less clear on the web than had been her experience in print journalism. “I was hired to do online CD reviews for a prominent news organization, but it became clear that they didn’t want reviews, they wanted promotional pieces,” she says. “If I wrote something negative, the editor would say that if I didn’t like the CD, I should tell them, they would assign it to someone else. What does this mean about the state of critical discourse, that you only write about something if you like it?”

However, she believes that there is “an art to communicating in the small, digestible format. Wouldn’t it be amazing to find a way to start a conversation about a work of art with, say, 30 seconds of video, 300 words of text, and some descriptive audio clips, using social media to solicit responses?  If it is done well, it has the potential to convey the kind of information and insights that would once have been conveyed through writing.”  

Observers agree that the field is still wide open, its potential and pitfalls as yet unplumbed. However, its opportunities for the arts are enormous. “There are studies that say people don’t want to read things that are more than a few hundred words on the web, but I contest that. There will always be someone who wants to read thousands of words about the ‘Ring,’” Veltman says. “There is room for well-written criticism, at length, by critics with in-depth knowledge, on the web.” And as Nancy Malitz points out, “There is nothing better than a really narrow niche for building a worldwide audience. If you are a specialist, whether in collectible Mercedes cars or the music of Bellini, your audience is likelier to be bigger on the web than in your town.”

Johanna Keller recommends that choruses use the same web tools critics have at their disposal to gain visibility on their own terms. “Build your own space in social media,” she says. “Invite commentators, give audience members freedom to talk about what they think of your performances. This is ideal for a chorus—a chorus is a social medium. A chorus of 50 people, with 200 friends each on Facebook—you instantly have an audience of 10,000, and you can create a huge network of awareness and feedback. A chorus is also ripe for visual and auditory media. You can upload commentary, sound files, and photos.” She thinks that many performing arts groups have “a knee jerk reaction about critics. They think that if they can get a review, all their problems are solved, and they spend a lot of resources chasing after reviews.” Using the web strategically, she says, can be just as effective.

“The potential is huge,” Malitz says. “And these days, what you put on the web can stay there forever. The story in the newspaper was under a birdcage in a week.”


Heidi Waleson writes about the performing arts and is the opera critic for the Wall Street Journal.
 

This article is adapted from The Voice, Winter 2013/2014.

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