If reviews are worthless, why quote them?

If reviews are worthless, why quote them?


norman lebrecht

October 26, 2011

Dozens of artists have written in, denouncing the continued practice at Fanfare magazine of pedding advertising space in exchange for a favourable review.

Fanfare is not the only classical outlet to practise such bribery, though others are perhaps less brash.

What perplexes me – and I have been discussing this with several artists – is why, knowing a rave review to be valueless, many artists, labels and managements still post it on their websites.

If Fanfare is fraudulent, don’t quote it. Otherwise you become party to the fraud.



  • Tony says:

    Why quote reviews? Historically it is because third party endorsement is seen traditionally as part of the way artists are promoted by their labels, their managements and by themselves. It ‘sort of’ worked in past times when a label or management promoted a great artist by telling the world about them more credibly by using other people’s words rather than their own. Today we are all bombarded with marketingspeak left, right and centre all the time, so I think it runs the risk of being a lame duck exercise unless the promo. has something unique and very important to communicate.

    A bigger question has to be if the recorded performances are themselves less than inspiring and unlikely to sell more than a few hundred copies only to friends and extended family, then why is it worth recording and releasing them commercially in the first place let alone paying people to review them? In a way we are asking the wrong question and reaching an irrelevant answer when it comes to buying good reviews. The pressures on record producers now are often to minimise costs and to maximise the sanitization of performances in post-production. Neither motivates the pursuit of excellence in terms of communicating the experience of a great inspired performance – everything ends up sounding the same – kerzillions of right notes, more or less in the right order, dowsed in anonymous digital reverb. applied universally like cheap perfume. We have a form of vanity publishing, and there are several labels mining this market successfully. Their success does not depend on revenue from sales, it depends on the front-end funding from the artists or from their sponsors. “Nice” reviews are part of this enterprise.

    • Dr. Marc Villeger says:

      Tony you confuse quality and quantity. It is not because a CD sells that the performance is necessarily outstanding. In return, poor sales may not be an indicator of performance quality, only that the artist may be unknown to the masses. Vanity publishing might not be where you expect it…
      Case in point, a recent CD promotion of a star pianist induced potential buyers and reviewers alike to believe the recording was of a single, special concert. Yet slyly the label never printed anywhere it was a “live” recording. Careful audition revealed that indeed far from cosmetic touch ups, the assemblage comprised about 50% of studio rehearsal versus live performance. Yet applauses were included at the end of the concerto –in fact identifying the sound character of a full concert hall versus an empty one!
      I have yet to read anywhere, an apology and retraction from any critic or reviewer who highlighted the “live” aspect of this “thing” in their texts. Only mild disclaimers have popped up since, quickly drowned in the flow of praise. Who’s party to the deception here?

      • Tony says:

        Hello Marc,

        Agreed. Quantity of sales does not equate with quality; however poor quantity of sales does not equate with quality either and would be the objective neither of the artist nor of his/her label. It was wrong of me to make too heavy a point of this. Still: putting out a commercial CD costs thousands and one would not normally choose to lose money based on selling two, three or even four hundred copies.

        I fell out with a major client over the release of a so-called “Live” CD of a star pianist. The CD had less than two minutes of playing from the concert and the result was constructed (by me, so this is no coffee-bar third hand anecdote) from rehearsal and patching with no audience present – and the label had the cheek to call it “live”. I was instructed to remove as much as possible of the hall’s natural acoustic and to add artificial reverberation. The applause was added from another performer’s recital. When I protested to management that this was dodgy I was told to “go away, shut up, and do as you are told”. The CD did not get particularly rapturous reviews.

        You will never read any apology or retraction of any of this sort of thing. It is nothing the business considers at all a priority.

  • Had a wonderful reviews from ‘Fanfare’ in the past – never paid a dime for advertising space!

  • Tony, I think you hit the nail on the head. This is all part of what I have termed “classical music with a pop sensibility”. I think what has been missing is intelligent music criticism. It is that that will cut through the BS. We really need knowledgeable writers on music who are not afraid to gore a few sacred cows. Actually, that is pretty much what I try to do on my website. I’m a performer, composer and musicologist, so I can knock ’em down in several different ways. My basic interest is in the music itself, so my criticism starts with the composer. I have written things critical of, among others, Bartok, Schumann and John Cage. I have written quite a bit about performers as well. One of the most enlightening exercises was comparing a lot of different violinists playing Bach. That was in this post: http://themusicsalon.blogspot.com/2011/08/nigel-kennedy-and-bach.html

    I just did six posts on Shostakovich talking about the string quartets: http://themusicsalon.blogspot.com/#uds-search-results

    • Doug says:

      I agree with you about what you term ‘classical music with a pop sensibility’ and that there are no scared cows in any artistic field, but I disagree with your assessment of violinists playing Bach.

      You talk about poise, tempo and dynamic but I once never read the words, color, intensity, phrasing…but then again, what could a guitarist possibly know of these things?

      • Heh, heh, heh!

        Hi Doug,

        I’ve heard about phrasing… but when I see a lot of sixteenth notes, it just goes clean out of my head.

        But seriously, as a performer, my specialty is timbre, voicing and phrasing. Not sure what you mean by intensity.

        I would love to hear how you disagree with my assessments of violinists playing Bach. Why don’t you go drop a comment on the post? Nothing like a good discussion…

    • ariel says:

      As an “equally self appointed authority on violinists playing Bach” I do find Bryan Townsend’s
      “enlightening ” study so completely flawed as to be laughable . One should give
      the exercise a look if only as an” enlightened” study in unintelligent music criticism .

  • Chuck Stark says:

    Fanfare’s review-for-advertisement policy is nothing new, and has been widely known and commented on for years. See, e.g., the thread at http://artsblog.ocregister.com/2006/07/19/fanfare-quid-pro-quo/501/. I have no connection with Fanfare other than as a reader (still), and I have to say that when I first learned of this policy I too thought it was outrageous and considered ending my subscription. But I didn’t, and don’t plan to, and, as a music lover and collector, still consider Fanfare to be great value. Here are some of the reasons why:

    (1) The magazine’s policy is at least up-front and clear (though it would be more forthcoming if it were laid out in the magazine itself), and if one wants to discount and ignore the advertiser-related content it’s easy enough to identify. For myself, I often find it interesting and useful and it does sometimes steer me to music, artists, and recordings I enjoy and of which I’d otherwise have been unaware.

    (2) If I understand the policy correctly, based on posts by various of Fanfare’s reviewers, reviewers are not asked or instructed to write positive reviews of stuff they dislike; rather, the review will be assigned to someone who does, in fact, like the stuff, and if it’s disliked by all the magazine’s reviewers the magazine will publish either a negative review or no review. So even if an advertiser’s recording is likelier than otherwise to get a favorable review, the review itself is likelier to be an honest evaluation than a puff piece.

    (3) Similarly, there’s no evidence and no reason to believe that recordings are reviewed negatively because of a refusal to advertise. Those non-advertisers whose recordings weren’t favorably reviewed may, understandably, believe otherwise, but that’s understandable. The magazine’s reviewers, a famously outspoken group, have consistently denied ever being asked to dump on a non-advertiser’s recording.

    (4) Even if you subtract all the advertiser-related content, Fanfare publishes a huge number of lengthy reviews – including some pretty obscure recordings — usually informative, thoughtful and helpfully evaluative, as likely to be negative as positive.

    OK, enough. I have no axe to grind, but having initially shared Lebrecht’s outrage and having come around on reflection to being a fan of Fanfare, thought it might be useful to explain why.

    • Dr. Marc Villeger says:

      In the end, regardless of artists’ fame, sound extracts and YouTube videos do much more to inform one’s opinion and comparison with the written words often provides a good laugh!

  • rudolf grainger says:

    re: John Humphreys — the problem is not (nor was there ever a serious accusation afaik) that Fanfare doesn’t dole out fair or positive (as merited) criticism if it isn’t paid. The problem is (or would be) if it doled out unmerited positive criticism for pay. Are reviewers asked to write positive reviews? I’ve not heard that accusation made… but what lines are crossed when reviewers interview the artist before writing up the CD review? And where’s the line in sending out a recording to enough reviewers (without their knowledge) until one is found who (honestly) likes what he heard?

  • Re: Norman’s comments at the top: The few sentences above are filled with inaccurate assumptions based on inaccurate information. The reviews are neither valueless nor fraudulent, because there is no dishonesty involved. As a writer for Fanfare for more than 30 years, I can state that I have never altered the content of any review in response to advertising–nor have I ever been asked to do so, nor am I concerned in the slightest whether a performer advertises or not. The reason why Fanfare’s reviews are quoted widely and taken seriously by the music-loving public is that those with actual first-hand experience with the magazine–such as Chuck Stark above–know that the reviews are written by knowledgable specialists with too much integrity to indulge in the kinds of practices noted by Norman Lebrecht, who clearly has only remote familiarity with the magazine, its contents, and its writers.

    • However, Walter, you will have been chosen – perhaps without your knowledge – as a reviewer who will be sympathetic to the content and performers of the record under review if that record had been advertised in the magazine. That much is made abundantly clear in the editor’s letter. That, in my professional experience, is considered unprofessional. It unbalances the review process.

      • Herbert Pauls says:

        I have read hundreds of Simmon’s reviews over the years. It is abundantly clear to me that he is chosen for his lifelong acquaintance with a certain body of repertoire, not if he will like the particular disc. If I see a certain composer in the index, I can often predict that it will be Simmons doing the review, not a specialist in the more self-consciously modernist side of 20th C music. I recommend that you read his valuable books Voices in the Wilderness and Voices of Stone and Steel. Simmons is rapidly proving to be of inestimable importance in laying out a new framework for how we approach 20th C historiography. There is total congruence between his academic and commercial work (if you can call writing reviews for Fanfare commercial. They cannot afford to pay a lot). He most certainly does not always give good reviews, and will not simply push his favored repertoire just because it finally has a commercial recording.

        Gramophone also has their specialists. If a new Romantic Piano Concerto release comes out, it will go to someone like Bryce Morrison or Jeremy Nicholas (both of whom, incidentally, also academic authorities on the piano repertoire). The fact that at least thirty of the composers in the series are contemporaries of Schoenberg and Stravinsky (that is to say, 20th C figures) does not mean that the disc will ever go to Arnold Whittall, a specialist in a very different stream of 20th C music. Whittall can barely stand Rachmaninoff (see his 1999 book Musical Composition in the Twentieth Century). He would most likely have even less good to say about Stojowski, Marx, Medtner, Bowen, Dohnanyi, all passionate opponents of atonality. What would be the virtue in giving Whittall these discs? Is Gramophone pandering to Hyperion advertising by giving their discs to the wrong 20th C specialist?

      • In response to Norman’s comment above, let me point out that if I have a particular interest and expertise in an area of the repertoire, that is naturally the domain I’ll be called upon to write about. But that doesn’t mean that I will give a rubber-stamp approval to everything that appears within that area of the repertoire–that’s what a “fan” does, not a musicologist or serious critic. What it means is that I have the necessary background to review the item in question from the perspective of a thorough awareness of the context in which it appears. If Bach recordings are sent to someone who has spent his career studying and writing about Bach, do you expect that his perceptions are biased or, rather, informed? Do you think objectivity would be improved if he were expected to review Szymanowski? And as for whether or not the recording in question has been advertised, why on earth would I care? Do you think we critics get a percentage of the advertising revenue? Maybe that’s what you think, in which case I should inform you that that is most definitely not the case.
        As for the comments of Herbert Pauls, of whom I have no prior acquaintance, I am grateful that he has chosen to speak up. It is extremely reassuring to see that there are people out there who “get it” despite the trumped-up efforts of others at scandal-mongering, classical music style.