Why are music reviews so positive?

by on November 23, 2008 at 7:13 am in Books, Music | Permalink

The perspicacious Peter Suderman writes:

…the critical medium that suffers most [from overly positive reviews] is pop music criticism, which
skews toward generally positive reviews of most everything, no matter
how bland or terrible. Scan the sidebar of Metacritic’s music page.
Nearly all of the review averages are positive or very positive, and
almost none of them are straightforward pans. In fact, right now I
don’t see a single album with a review average that gets a score
categorized "generally negative reviews." Contrast this with the movies page,
which contains more than a dozen films with low averages. Even the
limited release indies – the "artsy" films – are often given low marks.

But why?  When it comes to a movie, you might actually go see the movie if you read a good review.  Therefore the newspaper must be careful not to mislead you too many times and that implies a certain amount of criticism.  But even a well-reviewed CD you are unlikely to buy, if only because there are so many CDs out there and there are so many well-defined genre preferences.  So the MSM source courts many good music reviews, to give readers a sense that they are learning about "interesting product"; in any case only the fans will buy the stuff.

One testable prediction of this hypothesis is the following: when musical taste was less fragmented, and a review was more likely to influence buying decisions, music reviews would have been more critical.  Similarly, if the outlet is pure niche, and thus being read by potential buyers only, the reviews should be more critical as well.

In the comments on Suderman, William Brafford comes close to this view.

I might add that Washington Post restaurant reviews are far too positive.  If WP readers were simply told "There are hardly any good restaurants in your crummy little city," this wouldn’t do much for WP circulation or advertising revenue.

The less that people buy books, the more positive book reviews should become.

Slocum November 23, 2008 at 7:56 am

I might add that Washington Post restaurant reviews are far too positive. If WP readers were simply told “There are hardly any good restaurants in your crummy little city,” this wouldn’t do much for WP circulation or advertising revenue.

Well, it also wouldn’t be of any use for readers, who have little choice but to make distinctions between the ghastly and the mediocre. “They all suck” wouldn’t be useful information.

meter November 23, 2008 at 10:05 am

The market in which nothing but positive reviews is most glaring is in sports.

Listen to any game on TV or radio and the commentators gush over every player. By sportscaster math, every league has 2,000 MVPs.

tom s. November 23, 2008 at 10:15 am

Book reviews are generally positive because reviewers frequently have a choice of which book of several to review, and choose to read books they expect to like, and then to give publicity to ones they enjoyed (knowing that there’s no such thing as bad publicity). It seems like there is a three-step process:
1. Is this book likely to be worth my time?
2. Read it. Is this book worth writing about?
3. Write a review.
(Witness – my impression is that children’s books (short) are generally even more positively reviewed)

Movie reviews basically have to cover all releases in a week, so there is no such filtering out of bad products.

I would guess music reviews would come under the book review model.

Alex P November 23, 2008 at 11:38 am

I agree that it has to do with how many CDs there are, but I disagree with Tyler’s explanation of why that matters. Arguably, pans are even more interesting to read than good reviews — why not just pan some album that nobody is going to buy anyway? I think the real reason is this: there are not that many movies in wide release, and a large portion of them get reviewed by any outlet that reviews movies. On the other hand, there are so many CDs that even pitchfork can only cover a small fraction of them. Therefore, an album has to make a “splash” of some kind to even get reviewed. Often, that “splash” has to do with the album being good.

Anonymous November 23, 2008 at 12:24 pm

Interesting topic. Music critics who write about pop music (meaning top 40 music) are far less common and certainly less influential than those (e.g. Alex Ross, Sasha Frere Jones, Nate Chinen) who write about music that sells poorly. The latter are effectively mapping out subcultures and music is really incidental, or only one component. They are writing a different type of review than the ones designed to answer the question “should I buy it?” and I suppose this has a long history (see Adorno, Samuel Lipman, etc). It’s culturally prescriptive, top-down stuff. Are movie reviewers more likely to keep their jobs if their reviews conform to the opinions of most people? That’s a different ballgame.

Sean November 23, 2008 at 12:53 pm

Music reviews are like restaurant reviews in that they serve to get you interested in something with which you are unfamiliar. A pan is useful only in situations where there is some preexisting interest in the album, and reading a pan of a completely unknown band is about as exciting as hearing somebody complain about a teriyaki joint two towns over.

Movie reviews serve to inform your decisions about something with which you are likely familiar already. Whereas a music review usually tells me that if I like X then I should check out Y, a movie review usually tells me whether or not my interest in Y is warranted.

dj superflat November 23, 2008 at 1:51 pm

jonm nails it: music reviewers are generally trying to be part of the scene, even if not actually in a band, and you don’t get far dissing the people you’re trying to hang with. but DC had one of the best examples of a music critic who generally pulled no punches (even if he had no objectivity as to dischord bands (that was his scene)) and would seriously pan bands (mark jenkins).

Steve November 23, 2008 at 5:25 pm

Do you think this is the case with wine reviews as well? Not all are highly positive, but they are dominant. And there are so many different wine, that the odds of finding and buying a particular one seems somewhat low.

Phil November 23, 2008 at 5:51 pm

Isn’t it just that music reviewers are likely to only review music they think they’ll like, while movie reviewers review almost every movie that comes out?

Another thought: most of my amazon.com reviews are positive, partly because if I don’t like a book, I won’t bother to finish reading it. So the only books I’m competent to review are the ones I like.

Anonymous November 23, 2008 at 7:53 pm

video games

Gene Callahan November 23, 2008 at 9:36 pm

“The simple answer is music is easy.”

Yes, simple… and ridiculous.

antipode November 24, 2008 at 6:30 pm

Funny – I was reading Metacritic and was thinking about the exact same thing.

“anon/portly” is on it: it’s a bureaucracy and budgetary thing.

Films have big budgets and big expectations, and thus, big suits making big decisions. Suits don’t make good films.

Bands have smaller budgets and more freedom. What’s the start-up cost for a band: $100000? $50,000? You won’t have David Geffen playing guitar for that price.

Actually, there is correlation between the industries: the “big budget” musical acts generally are poop. Same with film. Which films have consistently high ratings? lower budget indies. (And, kids’ flicks, which is a whole other story…)

Marley November 25, 2008 at 6:58 pm

Sorry inform you but I disagree with this topic. Not all pop music receives reasonably high reviews. If you go back to the website originally posted in this blog, “Playing with Fire† by Kevin Federline only received a pathetic (yet well-deserved) score of 15 on a 100 scale. Anyways, if there were to be a skewed number in the averages I would have to guess that this would be due to the fact that music critics have many more reasons to be discouraged from bashing on a music artist. When a critic give a movie a bad review, he sees far less consequences than if he were to give an individual a bad review, which I could see deriving an ungodly amount of law-suits.

Peter November 27, 2008 at 7:13 pm

I’ll speak less of the national music review scene, and focus more locally. One of the reasons music reviews on a local level are so glowingly positive, especially in major cities, is because you just don’t bother reviewing the bad bands. You just ignore their requests to get written up in your pages, and spend your time writing about the hundreds of good bands that exist. And in major cities in particular, there are likely thousands of bands worth hearing, so why waste time talking about what to not listen to when there is such a massive backlog of bands worth hearing?

Recording studios Los Aneles March 29, 2009 at 3:30 am

@Marley
What you said is exactly correct. We can’t say all music reviews are positive. There are many reviews which scores average. Even making bad review will make a bad opinion on the artist, if someone reads the review. So i think bad reviews are not wise irrespective of the quality of the album.

metin2 yang April 1, 2010 at 11:06 pm

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web sms spider October 21, 2010 at 10:10 am

It depends on who’s making the review, whether he/she is biased and last but not least whose review is made – Madonna’s or Marry the peasant’s.

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