Alex Ross: Music criticism must not be measured in clicks

Alex Ross: Music criticism must not be measured in clicks


norman lebrecht

March 13, 2017

The New Yorker critic has launched a vigorous and thoughtful defence of his craft, which is under severe pressure at cost-cutting newspapers. Just today it was learned that the Guardian has cut back the contract of an essential theatre columnist.

Alex Ross acknowledges that ‘Criticism of any kind is increasingly unwelcome at the digital-age paper’. He reports mounting pressure on critics to make their reviews ‘more topical, more digestible.’

He adds: ‘Once you accept the proposition that popularity corresponds to value, the game is over for the performing arts.’

There is, however, a glimpse of hope: ‘In the wake of the 2016 Presidential campaign, with its catastrophic feedback loop of fake news and clickbait, people have subscribed in surging numbers to so-called legacy publications. Do these chastened content-consumers really want culture pages dominated by trending topics? Or do they expect papers to decide for themselves what merits attention? One lesson to be learned from the rise of Donald Trump is that the media should not bind themselves blindly to whatever moves the needle.’

This is a serious argument, one which should give encouragement to cultural readers and a moment’s pause to editorial axe wielders. Will it? Let’s hope so.

Read the full New Yorker essay here.



  • Ungeheuer says:


    • Lynn says:

      If all professional music critics were to vanish tomorrow would it have even the slightest impact on our ability to appreciate and profoundly love music? I ignore music critics because humouring them means sacrificing valuable time that should be spent listening to, and studying, the music.

      ALL forms of musical performance would exist very nicely if we had no public criticism at all.

      Does Mr. Ross understand this?

      • RW2013 says:

        Whoever didn’t go to the concert, doesn’t deserve to know how it was.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Announcing concerts and reporting about them afterwards, is part of classical music’s presence in public space, it is a public art form. So, both information and criticism underline the importance of music. If there were more attention in the media – including TV and websites – more audiences would be reached. In Belgium, a small country, new opera productions are an item on prime TV, and their national competition: the Queen Elisabeth Competition, is widely reported in the media, with extensive TV programs. All this stimulates concert attendance.

          That there is always much in music criticism to be criticized, does not diminish its role in the whole of concert life. Music journalism is part of the complex context of classical music in which performers, composers, agents, donors, governments and yes, critics, play their part. Music critics should in general be more informed, but to reject their role goes much too far.

          Alex Ross’ book ‘The Rest is Noise’ is brilliant and a compelling read. But he sometimes misses the point entirely, as any human being. Therefore, the more critics there are, the more diverse the reviews, which adds to the interest.

          • anmarie says:

            Thank you, as always, for your wisdom.

          • NYMike says:


          • David Osborne says:

            Stop please people, you’ll only encourage him!

          • Daniel F. says:

            Ross, himself, is a very uneven critic with taste so inclusively catholic that it seems to deny the meaning of the word, but his point and that of John Borstlap above are VERY well taken this time! Historically and for somewhat complicated reasons, music criticism, with very few e+ceptions, has never been as good or as important as criticism in art and literature, but that circumstance does not at all warrant the consigning of it either to trivia or the dust-bin.

  • J. says:

    “This is a serious argument, one which should give encouragement to cultural readers and a moment’s pause to editorial axe wielders. Will it? Let’s hope so.”

    Wait: no more clickbaits headlines in this blog, then? Good news.

  • Sue says:

    “The Guardian” is losing money hand over fist and this doesn’t surprise me. It panders to the regressive Left and disseminates the same ideology, over and over. It emotes rather than analyses and thinks, and it has a reading age of about 13. Any wonder things have turned sour? That media outlet has never told me anything I didn’t already know.

  • John says:

    I live in Colorado. Over the past ten or more years, the Denver Post systematically got rid of all its local reporters, investigative reporters, columnists, AND arts critics. In other words, firing everyone who covered anything that was happening in Denver. Subscribers (me included) left in droves, and now the Post wonders why it’s on the verge of going out of business. The arts are a part of the fabric of a community, and for local news organizations not to cover them seems suicidal.

  • Alexander says:

    …. sometimes music criticism is measured in those notoriously famed clicks …. criticism is not every time the synonym for analytics … period

  • David Osborne says:

    He’s a great critic Alex Ross, perhaps the best classical music critic of all time (albeit that bar is set pretty low). Problem is that like every critic going back at least to the time of Hanslick if not before, he writes as a defender of the old and established. This article is a perfect example of that. Someone like Alex Ross might see himself as a proponent of the ‘new’, problem is that paradoxically what he advocates for is an old idea of what ‘new’ should be. Once you take your seat at the establishment table, these things become by definition, what you think they’re not.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Who was it again, who said that never a statue has been erected for a critic?

      • David Osborne says:

        Sibelius apparently. Britten said something like “The problem with critics is that even when they like you, they get it wrong”…

        • John Borstlap says:

          Professional critics – so, not the hacks who are carelessly dumped on the job because nobody else in the office wanted to go to that damned concert – face the challenge that they have prepared themselves, during their study, with received wisdom and established values. Reviewing a concert and assessing what really happens in terms of performance, is hard enough, let alone reacting to a new work which sometimes comes along. The unexpected and / or the unusual invites the ciritic to lay his head on the line so to speak, and often being negative is safer than being positive – the job is called ‘criticism’ after all. It is very difficult for critics to get it right… so they do deserve some license. But how to deal with it on the receiving end?

  • herrera says:

    Ross makes no sense in this digital age: no one is stopping any critic from creating a blog and posting all the criticism he or she wants, as many pieces he wants, as frequently as he wants, on whatever topic he wants.

    For that matter, the New Yorker and the NYT could even provide free web space if critics must publish under the imprimatur of a well-known publication.

    What Ross wants is to be PAID for his criticism; now that becomes a market issue not a intellectual or social issue.

    If any critic thinks that his opinion is so damn important, he could charge subscribers for accessing his blog, he could charge for advertising. All those admirers of Ross could pay him $19.95 for a monthly subscription to his blog.

    But why does any publication or society in general have any moral obligation to finance the career of a critic?

    My mother thinks I am a brilliant critic and has told me so. Now, New Yorker, hire me, damn it, or American democracy will suffer.

    • OperaGene says:

      Interesting point. I would pay for blog subscriptions to read reviews by Washington Post classical music critic Anne Midgette and arts and architecture critic Philip Kennicott, even if I had to drop my subscription to the Post to afford it. I consider these two arts critics to be national treasures.