Producing content in written form is a part of everyday life for a fair amount of people these days – be it at work, university, or for leisure, I’m sure that most of us are familiar with the process of composing texts at (semi-)regular intervals. By implication, that means most of us have also experienced troubles with finding new and interesting ways to approach the writing process, to keep things fresh and worthwhile for ourselves. This is hard enough a task when dealing with essays, progress reports et cetera; now imagine having to work within the confines of a creative, yet relatively self-contained medium like a review, where trying to constantly find new angles from which to shed some light on a piece of music becomes an almost Herculean trial, since there’s only so much you can effectively write about in a review – or so you’d think
You see, what ultimately pushed me to put my thoughts on the topic of ‘repetitive reviewing’ into writing was, and the irony of it is not lost on me, that I too was riddled with this blasted journalistic inconvenience over the past couple of months. So much so, in fact, that I had to up and abandon several reviews just because I couldn’t meet the requirements of trying to make every single one of my reviews as unique as the music demands I set out for myself. Call it excessive perfectionism or blind idealism, but I simply couldn’t bring myself to turn in a text that I felt was lackluster and didn’t do the record in question justice.
Needless to say, this ordeal got me thinking about my own philosophy as a writer, as well as the whole narrative surrounding reviews in the sometimes intertwining worlds of music business and online music journalism. ‘What circumstances led to this flood of samey, unoriginal reviews we have been experiencing all over the Internet, and what can be done to help the writers expand their repertoire to ensure a reviewing culture that’s more rewarding for everyone involved?’, I wondered.
Well, those are the questions I’d like to offer my two cents on today. As with everything, there isn’t one comprehensive answer to solve this, but rather a set of general observations, advices, and strategies that, when viewed as a whole, might give you an impression of what it takes to wrest you from the joyless fangs of routine and repetition.
What bands and PR agencies can do for the reviewers…
To start this piece in earnest, I would like to comment on the possibilities that exist on the end of the ones who sit directly at the source: the bands and PR agencies themselves. After all, it’s them that can influence the discourse surrounding the music the most by providing interesting, engaging works of art and corresponding auxiliary information like no other party entangled in this web of interdependency. So how exactly can a band and their PR agency, respectively, shape the way reviewers engage with/write about their ‘product’, in this case – a new release?
First of all, they have to realize that a review, in and of itself, isn’t just a piece of unpaid promotion. While it definitely can be, depending on the respective philosophies of the individual publications and the relationship maintained to them, it doesn’t have to be. When handled diligently in a thoughtful and nurturing environment, it can be a vibrant, creative companion piece to the actual release itself. Think about it: not only does a well-executed review give the reader an idea of whether or not the recording in question is worth their time and money, but also discusses adjacent topics, ideally shaping the way the record is re- and perceived by the public, and broadening the context of the discussions surrounding it.
Why is it, then, that writers partaking in this important cultural service are faced with the problem of how/what to write about individual releases? One reason might be that in today’s Internet-dominated age, total transparency has become a straining, stressful factor in the lives of artists. As a result, lots of bands/solo musicians and their business representatives alike seem to think it’s a cool, edgy unique feature to shut off completely and not give out any information about themselves and their art other than the bare minimum. While I can definitely relate to that line of reasoning – I loathe the all but omnipotent magnetic pull social media has on society these days – they don’t realize that they don’t do anyone any favors with this behavior, least of all themselves.
Let me put it this way: an extraordinary meal isn’t cooked from the most basic ingredients available. Similarly, you can’t reasonably expect a writer to extract a compelling, thought-provoking outlook on your work from only the most minute amount of intel you are willing to lay bare. A review’s quality stands and falls with the quality and diversity of the sources its writer can pull from besides the actual music. So, if you aren’t overly stingy with details from your creative process, interesting facts about yourselves and your everyday lives et cetera in interviews and on social media, you will likely be rewarded with reviews that portray you, and your music, in a way that stands out from the mass of uninspired and uninspiring by-the-books products.
Moral of the story: give the reviewers something to work with! This doesn’t pertain only to band-related trivia and similar background info, though – it reaches a bit deeper than that. Aside from the actual objects of scrutiny (read: the records) themselves, there is nothing more crucial coming from the hands of a PR agency than a well-compiled EPK (Electronic Press Kit). Here’s where, ideally, we should be able to find everything we couldn’t glean from other, less direct sources. Official band pictures and album artwork, a serviceably extensive biography, maybe a snappy quote or two – this is what most EPKs thankfully provide. One thing is oftentimes neglected, however, and one that could make all the difference for a paragraph or two of any given review no less.
By that I mean a lyrics sheet, of course! Either that or a full discussion of the record’s lyrical content provided by the band/artist if they are feeling especially generous on the day before the EPK’s due. This might be but a minor demand, but one that exists – I know for a fact that I’m not the only one who wishes that this was a common practice – and therefore one that should be met in order to assure adequate analyses of the lyrical content.
Finally, and I cannot stress this enough: encourage the writers! What do I mean by that? If you stumble upon an especially interesting, unique, or well-written review, go and share it on your social media pages, leave a like or comment (or both) on the original post, or reach out to its author directly to let them know that you enjoy and value their work. I can’t tell you how rewarding it is for a reviewer to realize that an artist, whose record you wrote about, appreciates your opinion and what you had to say about their art; even after years of doing this job, it makes my heart beat a little faster every single time. We are all unpaid volunteers, at least for the most part, so seeing that our efforts don’t go unnoticed is a considerable source of motivation.
I would like all members of bands and employees PR agencies reading this to take a moment of introspection right now, and ask themselves the following question: ‘What do we want out of a review?’ If bland, unexciting advertising spaces are what you’re looking for, then by all means, knock yourself out. There’s plenty of opportunities for that out there, and you don’t have to put any effort into creating that kind of media response. You probably won’t help yourself stand out from the crowd either by following this route, though. But if you want to nurture a review culture that goes the extra mile, to capture an audience by compellingly critiquing you and your artistic output, you’ve got to contribute your part as well. Nothing comes from nothing.
…and what the reviewers can do for themselves
Now that we’ve discussed the ways in which bands and their PR agencies can help reviewers create more unique and engaging content, we’ll get into what the reviewers can do (for) themselves – we’re going straight from the source to the mouth, so to speak. Over the years, I’ve noticed that there’s a lot of complacency going on in the review portion of online music journalism, with many writers sticking to certain formulaic structures for their pieces. This has always left a nasty taste in my mouth, especially given that there are so many different things you can do in and with a review, if you just free yourself from preconceived notions of what a review should be.
The first advice I’d like to give in this segment is fairly straight-forward: do your research, and do it properly. It’s imperative that you, as a reviewer, have at least a basic understanding of who and what you’re writing about. Try to find out what the band/artist in question stands for (musically and otherwise), what circumstances and life events informed the creation of their new release, and so on and so forth. Chances are that you, while sifting through interviews and examining press materials provided to you, will stumble across a good way to frame your review, or at the very least a good amount of background information with which to augment it, to ensure an informative and appealing experience for your readership.
A rigorous research routine will open up a wealth of topics to address within your texts. In turn, that means that there is no point in categorically sticking to the music itself as the main catalyst of your narrative. Sure, a review is meant to give the reader an idea of what they can expect from a given recording, but that doesn’t mean you have to go through its tracklist song by song and neglect the endless possibilities sprawled out before you. You could, for instance, make a statement about the general atmosphere and feel of the music presented to you, and leave it up to the listener to discover the individual tracks for themselves. In the meantime, you can use the space allotted to you to talk about a great many things surrounding the object of your review – including, but certainly not limited to, personal doings.
Look, I’m not telling anyone to give out their mother’s maiden name, their social security number, or their home address (although the latter would make for interesting mail after a particularly scathing review). All I’m saying is that integrating bits and pieces from your personal experience can make for a pleasant read, and a valuable change of pace for you as a writer. For example, if you listen to the record while taking a walk, write about it. If the record makes you think about an anecdote from your past, share it in the review. Hell, I would even argue that you can write about your damn breakfast if you can find a thematic spin which connects it to your other thoughts.
Ultimately, a review is only as creative and imaginative as you allow it to be, so why not use your own imagination to give the reader a glimpse of how the music affected you as a listener? I’d wager that it’s much more interesting for them to find out more about the mental images it conjured up in your head, or the elaborate metaphors it made you come up with, than to be fed the same trite litany about the individual tracks and what their defining characteristics are in detail for the umpteenth time. Let your imagination spark and intrigue theirs!
Flexibility is key, not only while considering the content you want to fill your reviews with, but also regarding the language and (sentence) structure you have in mind for them. You’re doing yourself a huge disservice if you allow yourself to get stuck with only a handful of repetitive ways to approach a review’s layout out of laziness or disinterest; it can give your reviews more than a touch of monotony, even against all your potential efforts to change things up in the actual body of the text.
Likewise, you should avoid relying on the same expressions and turns of phrase for describing music too much. The way I see it, the English language is a rather forgiving tool for expressing thoughts and ideas, as it allows for a great deal of gleeful experimentation with its vocabulary and syntax. There are so many ways in which you can artfully twist and contort your sentences and phrasing to make your writing worth your and the readers’ while, and I encourage everyone to make use of them to the best of their ability.
Language can indubitably look nice on a computer screen or printed on paper, but it truly comes to life when it’s being spoken. That’s a given. Please don’t ever let that make you treat the written work like it’s a dead, rigid medium relegated only to the unadorned passing on of information, though; us writers, we can use the spoken word to our own advantage as well. What I mean by that is: read your texts back out loud! Seriously, it’s incredibly useful in helping you accurately detect even the smallest of flaws and repetitions in the vocabulary, grammar, flow, and general content of your material that you might not even notice when proof-reading your material in silence.
I’m a firm believer in the journalistic and artistic merit of the music review as a format, I really am. My conviction is that in the hands of passionate journalists, who take pride in their work, and nurtured by a culture of helpfulness and respect for the craft, even a piece like this that’s primarily meant to be informative, can become a vibrant and colorful piece of prose. To get to that point, though, each player in this game has to contribute their mite, be it through the continuous honing of writing/editing skills, or through the provisioning of diverse, engaging, and readily accessible sources. All of this should, ideally, have become abundantly clear reading the above deliberations.
This is me talking to myself as much as to everyone else, by the way. It’s not my intention to depreciate or downplay anyone’s efforts in any way, shape, or form. That would be downright counter-productive, not to mention egregiously arrogant. Rather, I’m trying to help lift up a journalistic medium of expression I feel passionate about. When I say that everyone should do their utmost, I mean everyone, myself very much included. I sincerely hope that this piece offers a few solid pieces of advice for anyone who might read it today or in the future – at the very least, it inspired me to keep reaching for greatness after my recent stagnation.