Local Music and the Role of Critique
An analysis of why we can’t have nice things
By David Bernabo
In September 2015, I wrote about the role of critique in local music on my blog. This article, along with other projects, led to my involvement in The Glassblock, a web magazine that Eat That, Read This’s Adam Shuck and I co-founded in April 2016. One of my goals with The Glassblock was to introduce an element of honest and constructive critique when discussing locally-released albums, songs, and music videos. It would be difficult to say that we were successful. We did publish two album reviews and partnered with the New Hazlett Theater to craft five critical reviews— beautifully refined and mostly penned by Adam Shuck —of their CSA performance series shows, but in the end, challenges to sustaining that critical approach arose.
What follows is an update of the original article — essentially, why Pittsburgh lacks a critical voice in our publications— with new thoughts on the type of platform that is needed to foster deeper understanding of our local arts scene.
There’s a variation of a conversation that has been floating around for ages. It deals with local music and what’s missing. There’s a version that talks about a lack of quality in various musics and another version that deals with lack of infrastructure to support “creative music.” Recently, there is also talk of a lack of audience. I’m more interested in the infrastructure discussion since it feels more actionable.
I have these conversations way too often, and it feels like it is time to document them. To this end, 34 people completed a survey with questions surrounding the role of critique, success, definitions of creative music, and local record labels. The survey-answering audience is admittedly mostly rock or indie-focused, mostly white, and mostly male, but there is representation from jazz, experimental, electronic, and classical scenes and many of the answers are similar across genre lines. Reminder: All quotes are from late summer 2015.
When I say infrastructure, I referring to tools that can aid the creation and distribution of music: venues, promoters, distribution channels for recordings, critique of performance or recordings, rehearsal space, record labels, managers, PR groups. There is much to discuss here, but I would like to start with the concept of critique. Critique is not an inherently negative term. Critique is not pointing out the flaws and the dislikes. A critique is a detailed analysis and assessment of something. The good and the bad.
There’s a premise that critique can shape music in a positive way if the recipient is open to it and the source is reliable. We’ll take a look at where critique exists, where it can exist, the barriers, the utility, and potential impact.
Is music criticism actually needed for a healthy music scene? Let’s look to restaurants and dining reviews for an example.
Pittsburgh’s food scene has expanded in the past ten years. That expansion includes both an increase in the number of restaurants, an increase in the audience for restaurants, and an increase in the publications that are writing about food. New restaurants are popping up every month, and serious discussions are starting to happen in and outside of the press about whether Pittsburgh can sustain the customer base, the employee base, and the quality of food when new options are straining focus. In recent history, restaurant reviews have been a staple in the dailies — I was able to locate them back to the 50s/60s in the Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Press — but now there is a critical eye that is catching up with the rise in quality and number of differentiated restaurants. It can be assumed that an expanding scene requires discerning taste buds to provide reflection and critique of the changes — hopefully, critique keeps the hype in check. It also makes for a healthy ecosystem of creators, reviewers, and consumers.
Can critique exist in local press?
In the local press — the dailies, weeklies, and blogs — the presentation of music is often treated differently than other arts and crafts. For art, film, and food, there are avenues for criticism. Film and food press are generally presented as a review of the product, where art is a mix of preview or review of an exhibit that contains art works. When looking at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Tribune Review, Pittsburgh City Paper, and many transitory blogs, music is written about as a preview for a concert. The preview is essential to alert the audience to an event, but the preview has a limited ability to pass judgement on the future event. Music is often described by comparison to other artists, reference to genre, maybe a lyric or two, and words that describe the tone or mood of a song. Background history is provided, but an in-depth critique cannot be accommodated by a preview.
Occasionally, a local music act warrants a feature article, which exists as a longer piece that combines the author’s thoughts, background information, and an interview. These types of articles provide a better context for the environment that exists around the artist’s work, but often these types of articles are reserved for national acts with a larger audience.
Album reviews are published, but the dailies and weeklies lack either the audience, the time, the scope, or possibly the funding and page count to print in-depth album reviews. Note: an extremely valuable role is fulfilled by the preview-based culture of the dailies and weeklies and that shouldn’t go away. There are arguments that the dailies and weeklies should take a more critical approach, but with the current climate of print media, it is an unrealistic expectation.
“but that doesn’t mean they’re not trying.” — tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE
With the rise of blog culture, there were spurts of review-heavy locally-minded blogs like Draw Us Lines and the initial iteration of Burghsounds.com. These sites focused on indie rock, folk, and rock. Burghsounds also provided a data-driven platform for all types of music to be cataloged and dispersed through automated social media inputs and feeds. Neither site is currently maintained. More often, the internet is a place for lists and pooled resources, which are beneficial like Nelson Harrison’s Pittsburgh Jazz Network e-mail list and website. Hughshows, which along with PJN and NakYouOut (which also covers non-music events), has been one of the most consistent presences. In the case of HughShows, the site has accumulated thousands of short-form interviews and live show photography posts. Pittsburgh New Music Net has consistently previewed classical/new music concerts, but contains generally listings rather than new content. Sound Scene Express fulfills a number of functions — concert calendar, previews, album reviews, show reviews, but in my mind, the site does not publish a comprehensive critique with the exception of Melanie Stangl’s album reviews, which are quite lengthy and very considerate. There are resources for local music out there, but none of the existing platforms provide an in-depth analysis of the musical content, the context for the music, histories of scenes, and artist intent.
This is not a condemnation. Many of these sites are based on the passion of one person or a small team, much like daily and weekly papers at this point. With slim resources, written focus needs to cater, to some degree, to the market. Since many of these blogs are passion projects, there is little to no funding, which also makes justification of the endeavor difficult. But that isn’t to say that the audience for music is not interested in critical music writing.
“I think that a more active documentation of local music would be fantastic; not just little reviews in the City Paper but thoughtful, articulate critiques, interviews, artful music videos, etc.” — Anonymous
“I think it would encourage a different kind of thoughtfulness about how we listen to things and a greater awareness of what exists and in what context it exists in.” — Anonymous
The utility of critique
Given the lack of options for local music discourse, the questions are — Do musicians want critique? Would an audience read music critique? Would it make any difference to the music being made?
Impact on the music
“I think the lack of critical review in the press probably has the biggest impact on the music being made here. Not because other people’s opinions are always what count or are the most important thing, but because a total lack of any real criticism tends to result in complacency on the part of the artist, and that is creative poison. The Pittsburgh music scene is great and I have always been proud to be a part of it, but I do feel as though people sometimes have a bit of a skewed perception of it due to the absence of critique. It would force people to gain a bit of third-party perspective, which is an extremely important thing (whether they agree with that perspective or not). If someone is constantly being told that everything they do is great and flawless, they’ll eventually just get lazy and stop really pushing themselves because they assume there are no areas that need improvement. Critique is crucial in any creative process because it makes people second guess themselves and ask themselves if they can do better work (and if the answer is yes, then it has served as the catalyst for that better work).” — Matt Ceraso
“Ideally, it would raise the level of awareness and performance. If people felt like the work they did would actually be seen and contemplated maybe each show would become a more special thing. Maybe people would see playing, and even attending shows, as a unique opportunity instead of a mostly forgettable option of how to spend a Thursday evening.” — Anonymous
“Increased critique on local music would mean people would have to push themselves to create better quality and put more polish on their work and performances, like in New York. It would also drive more of the industry and industry standards here. In terms of sound, sometimes we end up playing shows in spaces that can’t hold us, or don’t want to deal with our sound or events that don’t even pay. So increasing the quality, professionalism and competition would help all other elements in the local music scene to develop. Such as more music specific venues, etc.” — Bethany Berkstresser
“[Critique] could create avenues for recognition or creative competition. I’d be more motivated to participate if there was something obviously available with clear benefits.” — Paul Zito
“People would create in less of a vacuum and honestly learn from the others in the community.” — Alexis Icon
“I mean, it is nerve wracking a little bit to think about people potentially being very critical of something that feels so important to you. Ultimately critique is about the craft and not a reflection of the person, however intertwined those feel sometimes.” — Anonymous
“Like a Behaviorist, I’d like to see reinforcement given to people I think are truly imaginative & hard-working. Unlike a Behaviorist, I don’t want to generate any punishment for people whose work I don’t like.” — tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE
“I don’t think criticism will make any difference, and that’s how it should be. Criticism is post hoc, after the fact. There’s very, very little of that. And does a review serve much purpose? I don’t even know.” — Anonymous
“Concerning print media, I think the City Paper does a good job of providing local music coverage, as well as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Several blogs fill this role, as well. I think we are adequately-serviced for a city of our size. I don’t see how an increase of criticism at this low level will affect the quality or the quantity of local music.” — Jeff Betten
Impact to the audience
“More words mean more people reading which MIGHT lead to more people listening.” — Hugh Twyman
“I think critical thinking and writing would be beneficial in that it would reify the work of Pittsburgh musicians and composers as meaningful and worthy of discussion as viewed through a wider national and international lens.” — Edgar Um Bucholtz
“Pittsburgh could definitely benefit from more local, artisanal, delicious, smart critical writing about Pittsburgh music-makers and concert-events. People are not encouraged to think nor write. They are encouraged to consume. There is a multi-national corporate war waged against the local. This includes local entertainment/music-making. Anything we can do to ourselves resist and encourage others to resist the multi-national corporate pull is for the better. Resist the giant sucking corporate cloud. It wants all our brains and bank accounts.” — Edgar Um Bucholtz
There is a spectrum for the value of critique, but the overwhelming response was that additional avenues of critique will push artists to evaluate their craft, potentially generate a bigger audience through increased exposure for bands and context for local music, or at the very least provide more things to read about local makers. This is consistent with conversations that I have had for the past 10 years, so what are the barriers to implementing a consistent place for discourse?
Available writers, time, money, interest, Pittsburgh. These are the barriers to creating a healthy published source for critique. Let’s start with Pittsburgh, the city.
Post-steel bust, Pittsburgh has tried a number of things to get back on its feet. Healthcare, education, and finance have become big business. Before Pittsburgh was the “most livable city,” there was a mindset that “any activity is good activity” and “any work is good work.” We were a city that was proud of itself or at the very least, forcing a sense of pride despite economic hammer blows. In that atmosphere, it was counterproductive to discourage any of the products of our collective creation. Opportunities (grants, private support, etc.) have not been shared equally, but I would argue that a mentality of politeness remains and contributes to the lack of critique in Pittsburgh.
“The great thing about Pittsburgh is that anyone is willing to try anything because they’re pretty much shielded from negative criticism, so there’s a freedom there, but it’s what also cripples Pittsburgh and prevents the sort of dialogue that we need to have in order to help bands prosper creatively and financially.” — Joe Mruk
“It is less competitive and there is this blue collar aspect of Pittsburgh rock n’ roll that generally gives the music a free pass to be what it is.” — Anonymous
Pittsburgh is a small town. Everyone knows each other. That is great, but it also makes it hard to say anything negative about someone’s work since your comment could bite you later when you are promoting your own work. There are certainly examples of retaliation and modest blacklisting in the history of local music scenes here.
Many of the scenes that have enjoyed sustained longevity have a strong community at their root. Take the scene that rose up around the first Mr. Roboto Project location. Shared interests — politics, music, lifestyle — bonded a group of people. In the beginning of Roboto, the bookings were diverse with a reasonable focus on punk and hardcore. There was discourse, but those discussions often surrounded political ideas, ideas of how a community functions, what the community promotes, and what the community rejects. But even then, I do not recall much formal discussion about the actual music, outside of the always-present interpersonal exchanges. Communities do not need critique to thrive, but I am curious how critique would impact a community.
Many of the community-driven music scenes since have appeared friend-based, many call them clique-y. Inside the clique, it would be a faux-paux to criticize one’s creative output since so much emphasis is directed toward the promotion of a whole. This was especially the case in certain scenes that aimed for higher exposure inside and outside of Pittsburgh.
“In my experience, many of the sub-scenes suffer fear of offense at the expense of community building and expansion. Certainly criticism will always be floating in the air, but many times it serves little purpose.”— Kevin Bednar
“Everyone’s band is the best band ever or else they don’t exist. You can’t criticize a band without making enemies, having entire swaths of people hate you, and not give your own music a chance. If you’re in a band, no matter if you like another band or not, you want to be nice, because you really want them to put you on a show and have some of their fans hear you and like you.” — Jeremy Zerbe
“With the consolidation of media over the years, the talent pool for writers gets smaller and smaller and the workload gets bigger and bigger. I have seen concert and record reviews that make musical references that are WAY off base in Pittsburgh publications.” — Anonymous
“I never really got down with reviews that much, and I used to write them for a bunch of websites. Previews are good for promotion and reviews are good for criticism, but unless you’re dedicating yourself to the local scene, you’re just writing a shittier, smaller version of Pitchfork / Stereogum / Consequence of Sound / etc. I used to run the Pittsburgh Trestle and had people do previews, simply because no one ever was willing to say anything critical about bands for a review.” — Jeremy Zerbe
From time to time, wonderful pieces have appeared in the local press that really dig into a band’s music. So, let’s assume that there are interested writers, how can we discuss music in a productive way? Can music be discussed objectively?
“Music writing is not easy. The key is to know the field of music, have a grasp of the English language, and be generous and encouraging but also honest.” — Edgar Um Bucholtz
“You can discuss harmonic complexity. You can talk intonation and expression. You can discuss rhythm (either being good or creatively flexible). But quality does not and should not dictate taste. You can like bad and dislike good music, while still recognizing their objective quality.” — Josh Loughrey
“There’re many different types of music & many different ways of appraising them. Critiques can be based around skill of player, intensity of player, sincerity of player feeling, originality of composition, authenticity of tradition, even tune catchiness, etc.” — tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE
“We’d really have to have people hone their criticism to something useful, and living in a world where criticism has never really existed, that would be hard. Just like anything else, the only criticism that is good is when someone comes at it with context. You wouldn’t want someone who hates horror movies to review the latest Rob Zombie flick. I think certain aspects are objective. Some production doesn’t fit some bands (and that’s not to say everything has to sound produced to the nines, just that it has to sound like the band sounds). I think some lyrics are objectively bad. I think some chord progressions and orchestration choices are objectively tired, unless they’re being used to a certain end (be it irony, an homage, etc). But I don’t think that objectivity is what we need, because that can bland everything out. What we need is CONTEXT.” — Jeremy Zerbe
As discussed earlier, one of the downfalls of these types of endeavors — blogs, discussion meetups, print journals — is funding. Since many blogs start as passion projects or a desire to connect to a community, the perceived benefit of churning out review after review has diminishing returns. Being paid for what you do can sustain that waning enthusiasm. Despite best wishes, we live in a culture where art is dependent upon charity, grants, or a primary job. Local films generally loose money, the lack of a local art market means few artists make their living from their work, and while bands can make money playing a show, bands cannot play enough shows or play enough profitable shows to sustain a living (cover bands aside). Art is rarely financially sustainable.
Likewise, establishment of a trusted source of music critique would require funding to avoid demise. This is why many people suggest the dailies and weeklies as the source of critique — those entities are funded and, more importantly, are consistent. Every day/week, they deliver what they promised — continuing coverage of music, national and local. If a platform for discourse is built, it will need funding to hope for a sustained presence.
University publications, where funded by the school, meet parts of this criteria, but the writers sometimes lack the historical context needed to adequately analyze a city’s music. It does not help that CMU and Pitt, as institutions, are very successful at insulating students from the city. Port Authority’s continual budget crises and route cuts also do not help.
If we are looking for funding to encourage writing, we need to look at who benefits from a larger audience for local music. Certainly, musicians — increased audience for shows, increased album purchases, more integrated community — but in this scenario, musician presumably have little money or at least need to spend the money on improving their craft. The public, but here we are assuming that the public is unaware of much local music. Venues. Increased audience for local music concerts would lead to increased alcohol sales for bars that present music. Bigger audiences would mean more ticket sales.
At this point in the original article, I veered off to discuss the feasibility of music venues funding a web magazine dedicated to Pittsburgh music. I asked around — there was some interest — but then The Glassblock idea took hold, and we ran with that.
After writing about a variety of topics for The Glassblock — including my lightly-read critique of IQ Escape — I may have changed my mind a bit. Personally, I’m at a strange intersection of thoughts —
- I’m not convinced that Pittsburgh’s music scene has enough interest in sustaining a website dedicated wholly or partially to music critique.
- I’m not convinced that placing a centralized resource in a market-based economy can be sustainable while meeting its full potential.
- I’m less interested in thoughts about music and more interested in the thoughts that were put into music.
- The faltering status of the “full album” and physical packaging seems to equate to fewer local releases. (Am I wrong? I might be.)
I still truly think this city needs a resource for critique. The original intention of this article was to stimulate conversation about how to make the many Pittsburgh music scenes better — the assumption being honest and constructive critique is useful and will improv one’s craft. My current answer is Recital. Beyond being the web mag that you are currently reading, Recital is a platform for musicians to discuss their music. It will be more than that — art, food, film. Some weeks, it may be less than that.
But the purpose of re-publishing this updated essay is to continue the conversation. If you have thoughts or want to publish something along these lines, write to me here.