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In future, will critics be paid by promoters?

June 20, 2015 by norman lebrecht

18 comments.


John Terauds on MusicalToronto touches on one of the great music industry anxieties: what will happen when newspapers stop publishing reviews?

Is there mileage in the new model of venues paying critics to attend and review on their own websites?

We happen to think that independent, credible sites like Chicago Classical Review, written by trusted critics, are an important addition to the musical ecology.

John T seems to think the same. Read his think-piece here.

music critic cartoon


Comments (18)

  1. HERRERA says:

    Newspaper reviews are already being paid for by the promoters.

    1) Take the example of the Cleveland Plains Dealer and one of its biggest advertiser, the Cleveland Orchestra. About a decade ago (google it), its chief classical music critic was very negative on Franz Welser-Möst (was he the critic who gave FWM the nickname “Frankly Worse than Most”?) and the Cleveland Orchestra took exception and threatened to pull all advertisement, so the Cleveland Plains Dealer replaced their classical music critic.

    2) Have you ever noticed that the hometown newspaper of every orchestra is the most enthusiastic cheerleader of its hometown orchestra? Reading the reviews, every home town critic has said at least once that their hometown orchestra sounded just like the Berlin Philharmonic at least on one occasion. Is it possible that every American city has a Berlin Philharmonic in its midst?

    I am not saying every newspaper critic is afraid of saying anything bad about their newspaper’s major advertisers, but I am saying these critics are part of the small classical musical circle and they don’t want to disparage their home orchestra lest it disappears all together. In other words, classical music critics’ jobs are on the line if the orchestra or the opera house disappears.

    In these times of massive cuts in the arts, you’s better be singing the praises of the hometown arts organization, if you want to still have a job. You can’t be a critic if there is nothing to review.

    1. Halldor says:

      Nothing on with critics believing that they are – fundamentally – on the same side as their local live performers, as long as they reserve the right to be negative when justified (and I’ve never met one, however small the town, whose opinion could be ‘bought’).

      No critic is in the business to belittle serious musicians; unless something grossly dishonest and inartistic is happening on the concert platform, critics have a moral obligation to be broadly supportive of live music-making. Most classical music lovers will never get to hear the Berlin Philharmonic live. If we’re not all simply going to retreat into darkened rooms with our Karajan remasters, living music in our own communities absolutely has to be given sincere (if not necessarily uncritical) support.

      And yes, I’ve heard even amateur and youth orchestras give performances which, at moments, in artistic truth, insight, sincerity and even beauty of sound, have surpassed things I’ve heard done live by the Berlin Phil. That’s the whole thing with live performances: miracles happen at the most unexpected places and times, and good critics are constantly alert to them. Any musician has the potential to do something great. But better even a scrappy, undernourished but sincere live performance than all the recordings in the world.

      1. William Safford says:

        I disagree with your assertion that: “No critic is in the business to belittle serious musicians.”

        Perhaps most critics are as you say. Many certainly are.

        That said, I have encountered critics — one in particular — who have poison pens. This one critic in particular has attempted to undermine and destroy careers, and sometimes succeeded at it; played favorites based on politics; colluded with other players to do mischief rather than give disinterested reviews based on the quality of performances; etc.

        Just one example: this critic demanded that one particular performer be fired from her orchestra due to her incompetence in a particular performance. I attended that performance, and thereby heard for myself the lies and slander being spread by the critic. The performance was fine. Moreover, most of her colleagues agreed with my ears. The exception? The colleague who wanted her fired.

        That critic should have been fired years ago.

        (Since his name has been mentioned in this thread, I’ll state that I am not talking about Donald Rosenberg.)

    2. william osborne says:

      Your description of the problem is excellent. The symbiotic relationships between regular newspaper critics and local arts institutions are so deep that one has to assume bias from the outset. This generally makes for dull and predictable reading – and often from critics who are sated, jaded, and bored from being obligated to see too much in what is already close to being a dead art form. After a while, informed people no longer bother even reading the stuff. Websites with a wide range of reviews from local citizens would probably be more useful – something along the lines of book and product reviews on Amazon which are often very helpful.

      The problems actually go much deeper. The larger social issues surrounding the arts are also often overlooked. These include the problems with our private funding system, the interference and biases of private funders, and the moral issues surrounding conveyor-belt music schools that charge students high tuition for an almost absent job market, the narrow demographics of classical music, the high cost of tickets in the USA, etc. This is related to the larger biases of the US media. I hope that informed non-journalists writing on the web might eventually become a solution.

    3. John Borstlap says:

      Good points. But what is exatly the function of ‘the music critic’? That is not so clear. Maybe best would be if there are numerous music critics in every town, in different newspapers/magazines, and on different websites, to spread responsibilities. Writing-up local classical music ensembles then merely looks as a preparatory stage.

      1. Musicmatters says:

        Well, in Manhattan at least, the function of a music critic is to ridicule and humiliate any artist or ensemble that doesn’t program music of living composers.

        1. Mikey says:

          And to ridicule and humiliate any living composer whose music doesn’t fit into whatever orthodoxy that critic happens to espouse.

    4. Petros LInardos says:

      “Frankly Worse than Most” is attributed London critics who came in the early 1990s, when Welser-Möst headed the London Philharmonic.

  2. James McCarty says:

    The largest American classical record review magazine (Fanfare) is largely supported by performers who pay for interviews with the magazine’s critics. Another questionable trend is the distribution of albums to the critics by MP3 download rather than a physical CD or SACD. I wouldn’t mind so much if it were a high res download, but MP3 is just not adequate. Even Apple Lossless would be better. At least Joel Flegler isn’t reviewing Bollywood music any more.

  3. David Rowe says:

    Very interesting. But Norman, I think the rub is in your “trusted critics” designation. We don’t have much trouble agreeing on who those are today – they are writers who were (still sometimes are) employed at the very newspapers which are cutting coverage. So they earned their credibility the “old fashioned” way. In the egalitarian internet age, how will a blogger/critic be able to carve out a reputation as a credible, independent voice, especially if their primary source of income derives from the promoters of the events they are covering? The path to this profile is not at all clear to me.
    It is largely the same problem classical music performers face in light of the collapse of major record labels. What is the path – today – to reach a high profile career? Many have pontificated that the internet allows for wider/easier global reach, and I agree in principle. But in practice, can anyone point to a single “name brand” classical music performer who has not enjoyed the backing of one of the majors for at least a substantial period in his/her career, even today?
    These will be interesting trends to watch over the coming years and decades!

    1. Robin D Bermanseder says:

      Re: Can anyone point to a single “name brand” classical music performer who has not enjoyed the backing of one of the majors for at least a substantial period in his/her career?

      How about Lindsey Sterling?

      1. Stephen Limbaugh says:

        “How about Lindsey Sterling?”

        Lindsey Sterling was a contestant on America’s Got Talent, and shortly after was signed by Troy Carter (former manager of Lady Gaga).

        She had a platform in America to self-release, because she already had the exposure though AGT. Troy used that as leverage to sign the album over for world-wide distro through Decca/Universal which supports her abroad.

        Sure, she currently doesn’t have one in the USA, but she definitely had backing from top management, television, and being one of the first to market instrumentalists on Youtube.

  4. Geoff Radnor: says:

    On a slightly different perspective of reviews, there are companies and individuals who offer their ‘reviews’ on anything you wish. Guaranteed to look genuine and not to be caught out as Fakes. Hotel and restaurant, electronics, travel, books, music and so on. Everything is ***** for your payment. Will this be the eventual replacement of real ‘hand written’ reviews?

  5. Rob Maynard says:

    I thought that it was the UK satirical magazine Private Eye that coined the name “Frankly Worst-than-Most” when F W-M was associated with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

  6. Cross-Eyed Pianist says:

    I do hope not – it will almost certainly lead to biased reviews.

    1. Mikey says:

      By their very nature reviews ARE biased. They are the bias of the reviewer. No matter how impartial a reviewer may believe himself, his personal bias will come through. It’s the nature of the beast.

  7. SVM says:

    No need to imagine it — although cold, hard cash may not change hands just yet, it is not uncommon for orchestras to put on lavish receptions for critics (the number of times I see a ‘press area’ encroaching upon some of the best spots at which to sit down during the interval, as though to say “so much for ‘accessibility’; the ‘critics’ are a superior race who must not be permitted to mingle with other audience-members”) and even offer exclusive interviews/inside access, well beyond the scope of what can be reasonably deemed as necessary for a critic to do his/her job effectively. More importantly, such an approach fatally compromises the disinterest that a critic ought to possess. When I am interested to find a review for a concert — usually because I could not make it there myself but wished I could have gone — I look to the weblogs of professional musicians and musicologists (or, in the case of the BBC Proms, I might ask other people in the Arena day-queue, some of whom are very knowledgable and insightful), not professional music-critics.

  8. MacroV says:

    I understand the financial concerns, but if you pay for reviews, it’s not journalism, it’s PR. And while newspapers may be increasingly reviewing only big-time performers/ensembles because of limited space, paying for reviews will only exacerbate that. Unless you could find an arms-length system – say Wigmore Hall or New York’s Town Hall pays an annual fee to a newspaper to have its performers reviewed; in that case the PR is for the venue, but the venue doesn’t necessarily have an interest in whether an individual performer gets a good review or not.

    It might be tougher for an orchestra. I can’t see how it would be a good, credible thing if the New York Philharmonic paid the Times an annual retainer to have its concerts reviewed. And as others pointed out, even without paying the newspaper, the Cleveland Orchestra was able to get Donald Rosenberg removed from reviewing its concerts. Which certainly raises questions about the Plain Dealer’s credibility.


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