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Jun 00

Reviewmania!

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Reviewmania!: us against them comments on the scepticism surrounding Signal Drench‘s decision to move to what has – perhaps unfairly but I think not – become known as ‘Pitchfork format’, i.e. come rain, snow or shine the reviews will get through. It also linked to this site and pointed out that “indie rock” contains a multitude of subgenres, though quite how pop, folk, punk, jazz and hip-hop are better served by being umbrella’ed into “indie rock” rather than allowed to keep their own names escapes me. It is certainly true to point out that indie rock bands exist who have absorbed styles and influences from these types of music and many more, but indie rock, considered as a genre, doesn’t seem more broad than any other.

But there certainly is a lot of it out there, and that’s why I’ve returned to this storm in a music-zine teacup. Looking down the links on Us Vs Them a theme begins to emerge – this site has updated with four new reviews, but this one has five, and that one can’t even manage a measly two a day! Following one of the links we come to a site update promising a glorious ten new reviews! The endless production of reviews is clearly something a music zine is meant to aspire to. But the casual observer is in severe danger of getting review-ed out. I can look down the list of new and recent reviews at Adequacy and find myself completely lost – where to even begin to explore this critical jungle?

This is no reflection on the quality of these zines, or the committment they show to the music they love – any half-decent online zine (and these are among the cream!) tends to be more useful than print media, offer more heartfelt opinions, and does it all free to boot. It’s also not a reflection on the music they cover – my aesthetics are obviously more ‘mainstream’ than the Us Vs Them or Westernhomes people, but the ever-spiralling glut of reviewable product affects the mainstream too, and any genre you could possibly care to mention. No, I suppose my problem is with putting reviews so much at the centre of music writing.

Most of these online reviews are pretty rigidly formatted, no matter how baroque the turns and twists a writer like Brent D. manages to come up with. 3-600 words, and at their core a single record and an ultimate recommendation of whether or not it’s worth listening to. But music writing can be so much more than that! Any of the really good music journalists did a lot of their best stuff in big, sprawling, multi-referential thinkpieces, which may have spun out of a single review but ended up being fantastic documents of how a passion for music can inspire you and more importantly inspire readers too. And even better, the best pieces by Eddy or Reynolds, Marcus or Bangs, Morley or Cohn or Eshun make you think, too, draw new connections and make you listen to your music in completely fresh ways. That kind of insight is a lot harder to come by if you see your writing mission in life to pump out n reviews a day, like clockwork.

Of course reviewing things is important, not least to some of the small bands and labels for whom dedicated online review-troopers are the only means of getting publicity in a sewn-up business. But music is as much about the people who listen to it as the people who make it – limiting your content to review-review-review-show review-interview-review, and the occasional snidey list, is reducing music to product at worst, tally stick at best, as surely as any other marketing strategy is. Why not get four or five records and ram all your reviews together in one big piece which is really going to excite readers, make them draw lines they hadn’t before? Why not spend 3,000 words on one unbelievable record, and pull in the whole damn history of pop too while you’re at it? Why not come up with big ideas about why all this music is doing what it does and then try to prove it? Why not argue, pick fights, rant if you want to call it ranting, anything other than just rubber-stamp another four records and think “Well, that’s Thursday over”.

I can get passionate about this because the people working on some of these zines are plainly brilliant writers, and in my very personal opinion they’re hobbling themselves by sticking to this format. That’s why a zine like kempa.com is so refreshing, because it does start putting together longer pieces (and by the way good unformatted pieces don’t have to be longer – check out josh blog for quality insights on a near-daily basis, with hardly a review in sight). Even if you think reviews are essential – and I don’t, in fact I find writing album reviews deathly boring in comparison to writing anything else – their tyranny still needs to be broken. Music is about more than whether a record is good or not, it’s about the conversations those records have with each other and with the people who listen to them. Why restrict yourselves?

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