star ratings in music reviews (0/*****)

daniel

I was sent the following questions from a music journalism student at Huddersfield Uni. I thought I would share my answers with you.

1. Do you like the use of star ratings in Music Journalism? Are there any particular publications that you think use them well?

They are clear, punchy, incisive, to the point and absolutely meaningless. Here is a Angus Batey quote taken from my PhD thesis.

The problem is that ratings give readers an excuse not to read reviews. I admit that this may account for part of their popularity, but it also helps underline a small part of the reason why the publishing industry is in so much trouble. In the same way the record business has contrived to drive the perceived value of its products down to zero, by allowing music to be something you get free with a newspaper or a soft drink, so the publishing industry has spent years telling its customers that the words it publishes in its magazines and newspapers really aren’t worth wasting your time and mental energy on reading. Why bother with [writing a review], when the red blobs at the bottom convey the information you’ve come for in a much more convenient package? (Batey, 2009)

2. Do you think the use of a star rating detracts from the actual review? (often people just glance at the stars given and often don’t bother to read the actual review)

You have answered your own question. You can quote me as saying your words, if you want to. Here is my (reprinted) advice for aspiring readers of music criticism:

1. It’s  just one person’s opinion.

2. There is no right or wrong way to write a review (similar to playing guitar).

3. Star ratings mean shit. What, exactly, is being awarded a mark?

4. You might not agree with the writer.

5. Which part of ‘music critic’ don’t you understand?

6. Yes, they probably were at the same show as you.

7. Trust the critic, not the magazine.

8. You don’t have to read it.

9. Authority is gained, not conferred.

10. Bloggers aren’t critics. Not automatically.

3. The majority or reviews are either given a 3 or 4 star rating. Why do you think journalists tend to sit on the fence and give an average amount of stars? Does this mean that reviews are becoming generic and journalists are afraid to award the extremities?

Music journalism is not a highly paid craft – even at the top end of the field. Mostly, people write about music because they love music. So when it comes to reviewing music, why would you ask to review music that you know you don’t like? Most music is average bordering on shit – or average bordering on good, depending on your perspective. Alternately, there is no such thing as good or bad music only good and bad listeners. You hear what you want to hear in a piece of music. Also, most music journalists don’t have a fucking clue and so give an average mark rather than commit themselves.

4. Star ratings have been used for the last 30 years – do you think they will continue to be used in Music Journalism for the next 30? If so will it be in the same way that they are used now? Or will reviews go back to how they used to be as long lengthy pieces, or will they continue to get more concise, potentially leading to just a star review?

The illusion of authority is what is important, not the authority itself. The argument runs thus: Without star ratings, it is impossible to a) get advertising, b) be used in promotional material by the record industry (most importantly), c) be linked to on Metacritic and have your words reduced to a meaningless symbol, d) be considered authoritative, or e)… I forget what e) was for. Differing approaches to music criticism will continue to exist, the same way differing approaches to music will continue to exist. Personally I find the approach of music writing sites such as Pitchfork abhorrent, with regards anonymising their writers and making THE GRADE all-important but there again they do commission the longer piece as well.

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