Honesty is such a lonely word

Last updated 09:30 13/12/2012

The inmates are running the asylum this week - once again. You'll remember I asked you to Right This Blog! With that in mind please welcome I'm An Alligator

"Rock journalism is people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read." Frank Zappa

Blog on the Tracks readers will be familiar with the surge of complaints whenever Mr Sweetman presents a differing opinion or openly criticises bands, music or events without offering some sort of "balance". In some ways these reactions are kinda funny, part of the show, like Jerry Springer. But you sometimes wish they'd understand it's just a blog and that balance has therefore nothing to do with it.

This guest blog will attempt to unravel the reasons for the misunderstanding and subsequent reactions, especially in a forum where you have to actually choose to participate.

First up, let's get the definition straight. I'll be kinder than Zappa and say that a blog is a forum in which anybody can provide a personal, subjective opinion on a musical experience to a reading audience. That much we could probably all agree on. What we probably don't all agree on is how much liberty the bloggers should have with their subjectivity.

I've come to believe that bloggers should have all the liberty they care to exercise in expressing their opinions, short of breaking the law and in context of whatever their culture defines as basic decency (racism and personal abuse, for example, wouldn't and shouldn't be tolerated). But aside from these protocols, bloggers should be able to say whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want and for whatever reason they can think of. They are free to have an agenda, be positive or negative, and objective or subjective. Whatever, it doesn't matter.

That's what blogging is - using the instant, free and disposable nature of the internet to dump your thoughts for those who choose to click their mouse (or touch their screen) and read it. You don't even need to be a writer, let alone a good one. Hands up who reads Blog on the Tracks, or any blog for that matter, for its literary value? However good or otherwise the author is perceived to be, it's not a requirement nor necessarily relevant.

It often gets missed that blogs are not reviews. Unlike reviews, they are personal musings that require no objectivity (if reviews ever do) and aren't meant to justify or support emotional attachments to b(r)ands. And this is where people confuse negativity for maliciousness (or ignorance) due to their emotional attachments not being supported. What tends to get missed is that negativity is just a part of honesty, as is positivity, neutrality and anywhere in between.

I no longer bother reading three-star album reviews, because I've concluded they reflect forced diplomacy or objectivity above honesty. One-star or two-star reviews are rare for probably the same reason. Whereas four or five stars means their appreciation is probably genuine. So the overall result is compromised honesty due to forced positivity.

I believe it's symptomatic of cultural expectations that determine the arts to be such a difficult enterprise, so fragile, that any negative criticism will destroy it. The result is that reviewers who show any negativity, however deserved, must shut up because they're ruining it for the artists and their industry. (Though oddly, nobody has a problem criticising, say, a political party or a poor sporting performance. You're not a hater in this context but you are when it comes to music or the arts.) I disagree with this cultural expectation because I want to hear the truth, however subjective, which is the main reason that I follow Blog on the Tracks.

Following on from my point about three-star syndrome, until around the 1990s the New Zealand-based music industry barely had a pulse due to low corporate radio airplay, no mainstream acceptance, low gig attendances, few venues and no protection from powerful international market forces. There were exceptions, of course, but that's all what they were. (I'm deliberately not calling it "New Zealand music" because I believe it's a meaningless phrase. It would be like going to a music shop and finding all American bands listed under "American music".) So music writers and their publishers' editorial policies compelled themselves to help by in effect acting as surrogate promoters, which at the time was probably the right thing to do given the difficult circumstances the Zealand-based music industry was in.

But the situation has fortunately changed. The New Zealand-based music industry has since been transformed to include a more established market presence, with commercial radio support, more bands being more successful across the underground and mainstream, and a proliferation of venues. It's still by no means easy but bands have more reason to pursue their business than ever before.

That's all very well and good. But this change has not been reflected in music journalism because it's still, on the whole, serving to promote and protect the interests of bands and musicians. And audiences are no better - one need only read the surge of histrionic comments on Blog on the Tracks to a blog that criticises a band. What's more, bands and record labels continue to believe they are still owed this promotion by demanding a compliant music press. And why would they want to lose this privilege when it operates in their favour?

It's certainly tough for bands or labels to see their thankless slog, their never-ending, never-enough promotional work being countered and compromised by bad reviews. So yes, some bands' frustration leads to banning non-compliant reviewers or bloggers from their gigs. Or record labels refusing to send them CDs for fear they will compromise their investment. Understandable but ethically wrong.

Look at it this way. What the band or record label are essentially saying is: "Look music writer, here is the CD product, now let's collude together to sell it by you fooling the consumer as best you can of its consumeability, regardless of your personal opinions on the music, in order to maximise our return on the investment." It's essentially insider trading.

And what's really odd is the cheerleading consumer saying: "Look music writer, whatever you do, don't write anything negative about this band because you should be colluding together to sell their product by fooling consumers as best you can of its consumability, regardless of your personal opinions on the music, in order to maximise the return on their investment."

That's when propaganda is at its most effective - not when people fall for it, and not even when they take ownership of it and onsell it, but when they start to demand it. And it happens all the time, not just in music. Consider, for example, newscasts that take the angle of only reporting on a corporation's damaged reputation and how it now has a task on its hands to fix it, rather than on the damage the corporation caused to compromise its reputation in the first place.

Then there's the "but the band is a bunch of nice guys trying really hard to be successful" argument. To answer this, picture the following example:

Student: "Hey lecturer, why did you give me a fail mark on this essay?"

Lecturer: "Because it wasn't good."

Student: "But why are you being so negative? Why are you being such a hater?"

Lecturer: "I'm not being negative or hateful. My role is to function as an honest feedback mechanism in order to point out what is good and bad in your work for you to be able to develop. Without honest feedback your academic career can't develop and your qualification will be meaningless."

Student: "But I'm a really nice person and I tried really hard."

Lecturer: "Oh sorry, right you are. Silly me for not realising. Here, regardless of your talent, ability or what I really think of your effort, you're a really nice person who tried really hard, so I'll give you an A."

If honest and robust feedback is never given, how can any endeavour truly develop, artistic or otherwise? If it's good enough in other mediums (such as politics or sport), why isn't it good enough for music? Imagine if heart surgeons or pilots, for example, graduated on the basis only that they were nice people who tried really hard; that it was deemed inappropriate to fail their assignments and refuse them a qualification.

If an industry has worked hard to succeed, then there comes a point when protectionism needs to be phased out and eventually removed. The training wheels need to come off and it needs to begin to prove itself on its own merits. If musicians are only exposed to yes men giving them positive feedback, then how can they develop - just like a student who would get straight As and graduate for no other reason than being a nice person who tried really hard. Being nice and trying really hard isn't enough. If critics dismiss you and audiences avoid you, then that's the reality. Accept it, get over it and move on because nobody owes you anything.

What about the comments that bloggers don't have the right to criticise a band when they couldn't do what the band does? Or are seemingly compromised on YouTube playing percussion in some tedious noise situation? (This was actually used as an argument by a certain musician who received a bad review from Mr Sweetman.) Then consider this - is the world's No 1 golfer unable to have a coach because how could the coach possibly give critical training feedback to the world's best golfer if they're not as good themselves? It's an argument that doesn't stack up.

Frank Zappa also said: "One of my favourite philosophical tenets is that people will agree with you only if they already agree with you. You do not change people's minds."

Bands shouldn't panic so much. Negative reviews won't always work against them as much they might fear and in case they haven't noticed, a compliant press doesn't guarantee success either (it doesn't even guarantee a single person turning up to your gig). If someone is predisposed to disliking watered-down dub reggae, then no amount of compliant reporting or blogging will change their minds. And if someone loves that music, then an avalanche of negative reviews probably won't change their mind either. You should be able to say what you believe and respect people's intelligence to be able to make up their own minds.

It's not ethical, I believe, to collude to fool people to change their minds. You can't control bad reviews and trying to control them will only make you look as though you've missed the point. You should by all means critique the critics, but not to the level of expecting them to choose between shutting up or colluding to sell your product.

There's no Hippocratic Oath in publishing that says journalism must be fair and unbiased. Since when has journalism ever been fair or unbiased? Journalists are essentially employees of privately owned media companies (such as newspapers, magazines, TV, radio or websites). Like any other company, their purpose is to provide maximum financial return to shareholders. That's the bottom line. The only forces that companies are ultimately accountable to are their shareholders, consumer spend and the laws of the land. Fairness, truth and objectivity are not the bottom line, regardless of individual journalists' best ethical intentions.

By hiring bloggers like Mr Sweetman they're not concerned with upsetting anyone, because controversy equals audience equals profit. It's what the classic "shock jock" model is based on. It's why every newspaper's leading headline has a shock value. And the more commenters who say that Stuff should find a "reviewer" who knows how to write because they disagree with his level of honesty, the more they're playing into that model. Do you think it's a coincidence he gets sent to gigs he will obviously dislike? Ben Harper. Hot Chelle Rae. Controversy sells.

I'm amused by his reputation that he's some evil, mean-spirited hater who hates music so much that why does he write about it anyway. And because he's so negative, what can he possibly know about music? Do these commenters actually read his blogs? Have they even thought it through? Or are they blinded by the irrationality of emotional attachments.

I'm not being promotional here, but it's clearly obvious he's obsessed with music, has an encyclopaedic musical knowledge and writes as much about what he likes as dislikes. That's the point of a blog. Just have a read of random old posts. Negativity and positivity have nothing to do with it - he's just being honest about something he clearly cares too much about (it even says so on the top of the homepage - "He cares far too much about music, and the list of bands he loves is far longer than the list of groups he has shown no love").

Because after all it's only a blog. It's not law, it's not fundamentalism forcing you to into an opinion and it's not compulsory reading. It's just an honest opinion. I only read his reviews in the papers because they're the only ones with the honesty and integrity to give something one star (or five stars) and explain why with straight talk. I know I'm not being patronised with the three-star syndrome in an attempt to fool me into supporting something just because it's local, by a band of nice guys who are trying really hard. It's why I can't read New Zealand music magazines - they don't critique, they flog protectionist-style advertorials.

Let's think it through a bit further and explore the fear of honesty and why it's often confused with negativity. I suggest the answer lies in understanding human emotion and social dynamics. Picture this - you're in a circle in a room with a bunch of singer/songwriters. Each has to perform a song and then the circle must provide feedback. Do you think anyone would dare say something like "stop killing music because you can't write songs"? Because under such close proximity a supportive atmosphere is expected, with honesty discouraged lest anybody upset the group. This is also known as group-think.

Also, close proximity to somebody else's creativity can even enhance your appreciation of it. You're hanging out with a musician who is playing you their music. It probably sounds a lot better (or you're at least more tolerant of it) than if it were some random song you heard on the radio. Is this ever questioned? This is why I believe people demand positive reviews and misjudge negativity for mean-spiritedness.

If you disagree, then consider this - you're asked to listen, in its entirety, to a triple CD of Celine Dion duetting with Michael Bolton on Xmas pan flute hits, with a Chipmunk-style choir, and then discuss it with your mates at the pub on a Saturday night, while saying nothing negative about it. Do those who complain about negative blogs never say a bad word about music they dislike? Do they dislike no music? Are they positive and supportive of everything at all times?

Another protection mechanism is the result of emotional (or tribal-like) alliances being formed with favourite b(r)ands, which I referred to earlier. Teenagers are most susceptible to this. It's the classic case of, say, the punks hating the hippies or metalheads hating rap (or any other culturally opposing genres). I once read of fans upset about a parody of the Linkin Park songwriting model. This reaction is not uncommon and is almost like religion, where criticism can't be tolerated. There's even a word for it - blasphemy. Maybe we should have a competition in the comments section to create a new word for musical blasphemy. How about musphemy for starters? Mr Sweetman can choose the winner.

If bands don't want to risk humiliation by review or blog, then they should think twice about releasing their music. They should learn that if they are prepared to enjoy the benefits of good reviews, they must in turn accept all the bad ones. You can't have it both ways. You can't have everyone in the world saying only good things about your art. It doesn't work that way. That's what the game is all about - you put your art out there, on the line, there's no safety net. There should be no collusion between artist/label/reviewer to trick the consumer. That's unethical and dishonest.

I probably haven't changed anyone's mind and nor has that been my intention, which probably proves that no matter what a blogger writes they won't change anyone's mind - people are already predisposed to their beliefs. But I've at least provided you with something to think about.

Now's your turn to tell me you agree or disagree. Maybe you have some insight to add that I haven't thought of. Have a giggle that I take it too seriously and should get out more. Tell me I can't write so I therefore must be wrong. Tell me you were hoping for a more random-style guest blog, a semi-ironic open love letter to some band like Reef, but got this instead. Or that I provided only three web links and one of them was for Reef!

I would also like to hear from those who choose to enter and read websites even though they know they will get offended - maybe you can enlighten us why you do so.

You can keep up with Blog on the Tracks on Facebook and follow on Twitter. You can also check out Off the Tracks for The Vinyl Countdown, reviews and other posts...Off the Tracks is back on track. 

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