shock discovery: no audience underground immune to criticism!

April 19, 2012 at 7:40 am | Posted in blog info, musings, no audience underground | 14 Comments
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Two weeks ago, a chain of thought I will partly explain below led me to buying a copy of The Wire magazine.  This may surprise regular readers as me whaling on this publication is almost a running joke here at RFM.  Wasn’t always thus.  From the early 90s, and for over a decade, I never missed an issue.  From discovering its existence I earnestly supported the only champion of ‘our’ music on the newsstand.  The full realisation that I had been duped by this nonsense was a long time coming but a blessed relief when it did.  I binned my final subscription copy with the same relish with which I extinguished my final cigarette.

However, since my return to music in 2009 I have felt the occasional twinge in the direction of The Wire.  “What is it like now?” I would wonder occasionally.  The omens weren’t good: a lot of interesting people I know dismiss it out of hand, the dull and unfinished ‘Splazsh‘ by Actress got 2010 album of the year and I was shown a review which asserted that Neil Campbell was the best solo improv guitarist since Derek Bailey.  Now my admiration for Neil as a musician and a human being is second to none, but this hilarious comment shows a woeful ignorance of at least three key things: a) Neil’s music, b) Bailey’s music and c) music in general.  Oh dear.

Despite all that, I intended to start this piece by talking about The Wire so I thought I should at least read it again and bought the April issue.  A photo of some dude who looks like a young Dave Grohl was on the cover, as was a CD affixed with the plastic snot that all magazines use for the purpose nowadays.

Alas, it is actually worse than I remember.  The layout is dismal, almost wilfully alienating.  A tiny unreadable font is surrounded by white space like a medieval book of days.  In ye olde dayes when paper (vellum?) was expensive leaving wide empty margins served a twofold purpose: it gave the text a gravity and importance and it indicated the wealth of the owner.  Interesting to see The Wire using the same technique to signify a not-too-different snobbery.

The content is awful.  So much for ‘our’ music.  Aside from a track by Neil Campbell & Robert Horton on the CD, none of the dozens of people I know making terrific music on the fringes are mentioned.  The magazine is as in thrall to ‘big’ names and respected labels as the most infuriating hipster.  Advertised on the cover is ‘We are all David Toop now’ an eight page (including dull photographic illustrations) article by Simon Reynolds on David Toop which begins:

The names of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari barely feature in David Toop’s writing…

Christ on a bike, eh?  This stuff is beyond parody.  Scything out the cultural studies (im)posturing you are left with a basic overview of (the admittedly interesting) Toop’s writing and an argument from Reynolds that seems to point to the conclusion that actually no-one is like David Toop nowadays.  Eight bloody pages.  The review section is similarly dispiriting.  Reams of forgettable writing so airless, claustrophobic and undifferentiated it makes me want to shred the magazine and throw open a window.

It pains me to write this – it does – as I want my blog to be as positive as possible, but I’m struggling here.  Think of the hundreds of hours and thousands of pounds that go into The Wire’s production every month.  It would be interesting to compare the latter figure with the combined total of all the extra ticket/album/download sales that positive coverage in this magazine generates.  I know from personal experience that it is virtually nil (or less-than-nil once you count in the cost of sending review copies).  I would bet, with confidence, that the two or three sales occasioned by the joyful wordsmithery you find on this humble blog beats the total for many of the reviews The Wire publishes to no avail each month.

I could go on but I don’t want to lend it too much importance.  Like the city in Christopher Priest’s Inverted World, The Wire grabs and distorts whatever is unlucky enough to get too close. Fortunately its reach is poor and is easily avoided.  The reason I mention it is that The Wire is the biggest, dumbest-whilst-it-thinks-it-is-being-clever example of the problem of criticism which I shall now elaborate on.

First, I need to make a face-saving distinction between reviewing and criticism.  Writing reviews is what I do here, most of which follow a similar template: the spec of the release (format, length, some pictures etc.) followed by an account of what it brought to mind, sometimes illustrated with anecdote or flights of fancy that I hope you find charming and not too self-indulgent, followed by details of where to get hold of it.  My humble desire is to bring stuff I like to your attention in the hope that you’ll check it out.  I am, of course, aware that there is such a thing as a bad review, and that bad reviews can be entertaining to read, but I am uninterested in writing such things myself for reasons that will become evident.  For me the essence of reviewing is positive and unapologetically subjective.

What I don’t do is criticism*.  Yes I know this is not necessarily a value-laden term – it can refer simply to the act of discussing or forming a judgement on the qualities of an endeavour.  However, I think that in common parlance it carries unavoidable connotations of disapproval and, interestingly, objectivity.  Roll the two terms around your brain for a moment and you’ll see what I mean: the reviewer is offering an opinion, the critic is pronouncing from a position of expertise.  Whether you’d prefer your work to be reviewed or criticised, you have to admit that the latter term implies a rigour that the former doesn’t.  Criticism, as commonly understood, involves finding fault, ‘constructive’ criticism implies advice on how to correct those faults, or how to otherwise better your work.  At its most daunting this is analysis, criticism with a university educated vocabulary, at its most positive and friendly this is criticism’s hyperactive cousin feedback.

And here is where the problem starts.  In two words: why bother?  We are undoubtedly as vain and needy as any bunch of artists and will lap up praise and validation with an obscene eagerness.  However, that said, the huge majority of the music I listen to was obviously produced mainly to please the producer.  I may consider myself something of an expert on these things (I’ve certainly put the hours in – see my imagined rejoinder ‘quoted’ in the Spoils & Relics piece) but am I really justified in saying that a piece is unforgivably meandering?  Or that the high pitched sounds are grating and would be better lower in the mix?  Or that the promise shown on their genius early recordings has yet to be fulfilled?  This is not music to be marketed via focus group.  It is profoundly personal, verging on solipsistic sometimes, and this needs to be respected for two reasons.

Firstly, people’s feelings are at stake.  To criticize their offerings is like telling a new mum that her baby is ugly.  ‘Awww… diddums,’ the hard-hearted amongst you might be thinking but I’m serious.  This is a small scene and the unit of currency is goodwill.  To strut about the changing room thrusting your ‘opinions’ into the face of other team members is childish and inappropriate.  Secondly, this is someone’s vision we’re talking about here.  The stuff I’m presented with is finished, complete – not just in the sense that a physical object, or even a download to a lesser extent, is immutable, but also in that the creative process has led to this concluding point.

This is why The Wire is such a flat, dry, saddening read.  It is full of critics who cover their shaming lack of knowledge with daft pronouncements.  They are determined to use the chops they’ve learnt in critic school no matter how inappropriate, detrimental or uninformative, no matter how forced the contextualisation, no matter how bogus the conclusion.  Perhaps what is most depressing is the thought of how much fun, how joyful it could be instead.

So, to conclude: shamelessly subjective reviews, ideally positive = good, criticism and analysis = dull and quite possibly pointless.  So there.  Anyone want to offer some feedback?  Just a little comment?  C’mon, man, I need some FEEDBACK!!

Heh, heh.


*That said, I will pull people up on two things.  Firstly, pretentiousness.  I am aware it is a fault of mine so I am hypocritically hyper-critical when I see it in others.  Secondly, easily solvable technical issues with the recording – unbalanced channels and the like.  Sort it out kids, you’re mugging yourself.  And works in progress are a different story: take it to Soundcloud and do what thou wilt.


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  1. HERE HERE !!!

  2. Yeah, it lost me a while back too. It doesn’t represent the ‘underground’ that I know and see. Fuck it.

  3. Yeah it lost me a while ago too. It doesnt represent the ‘underground’ that I see and support.

  4. I don’t disagree… entirely. I feel conflicted about The Wire. On the one hand its general writing style is gratingly high-brow and smug, and irritatingly so. I also think that pretentiousness is not always… pretentious. I think that such a dense and academic style of writing demands a sort of suspension, where common parlance (i.e. pub chat) is temporarily kept at a distance. I don’t have a problem with this by its very nature.

    There’s no doubt that the anorak nature of The Wire has the risk of transforming me into a trembling mess. I can’t read it when feeling insecure about my own noise-making projects. It makes you feel like you might be mercilessly pinned-down and classified like some helpless bug.

    But I’ve discovered a fair bit of music through The Wire – it has one undeniably brilliant function of being an archive of potentially interesting artists.

  5. I flipped through a copy of The Wire once during the mid-nineties and was pleased to see a review of an album on Chain Reaction. Evidently I wasn’t pleased enough to invest any more time in future perusals…

    To be honest, there hasn’t been a mass produced printed publication, of any worth, that has focussed on a subject I’m interested in, since Crash.

    And, Rob, this post has reminded me of a post on ‘Golden Pigsy’s Guilded Trough’ – – which is a pretty enjoyable and amusing read…

  6. Like every major publication once they become corporate they fall into the game of trying to put on our faces the “next big thing” and really only care about the releases that PAY for space on their magazines and put down below any effort that does not have the tendency towards the the flavor of the moment. It always have been and it always been the same in any genre. Just take a look in the metal scene and the fanzine sub-world and what happened when many of those zines became major publications? The gave a big middle finger to the underground and got big money from the MAJOR independent labels to play into their game. The only good thing I read on the wire recentkt was a passing by covering of VOMIR (of course, not his fault) and that’s because they THOUGHT that HNW it was going to be the NEXT NEW BIG TREND in noise making after the Wolfs Eyes phenomena….like the corporate vampires they are they sucked the little blood they could find there and moved on……who needs that?

  7. Cheers for the comments (and emails) comrades. The Wire has now now been officially DESTROYED and will relaunch as a four page cut-and-paste zine full of effusive reviews containing references to giant robots tap-dancing. Sweet. If anyone is feeling my distinction between reviews and criticism and my worries about the latter then I’d be interested in yr thoughts. Otherwise I’m all feedbacked up. Lovely.

  8. FFS, it’s a bloody glossy mag you can buy at any train station – what the hell are you all EXPECTING??? i don’t think they ever purported to be some “voice of the underground” either … it was a jazz mag (!) that broadened its horizons a fair bit in the 90s … but what bores me w/ much of the wire is now UNcritical it is – i desire more disses, less respect for artist’s feelings, more engagement, more ooomph in general … i quite enjoy some of nick cain’s reviews whenever i read it, as he seems to engage w/ things a little more … byron coley, who was once great, should retire – it’s embarassing reading his column … most of the stuff they cover i have no interst in … they’re sometimes nice (but i wdn’t mind it if they weren’t nice) about some of the music i’ve been involved in … i’ve met a few of their journos + they all seem v nice + all that (apart from that miserable turd edwin pouncey) … that invisible jukebox thing is often worth reading … don’t think you can go getting upset cuz it doesn’t have all yr mates in it, or that they have popular artists in it – it’s a train station mag, remember?
    as for criticism in general? well, if anyone sends out copies for review, then i’d guess they shouldn’t be crying into their pint if + when they get a slagging … gotta love Idwal Fisher when he gets a monk on over something, for instance … i like enthusiasm, but also vitriol … the stuff in between is pretty worthless to me

    • Ahh… you’re just narked ‘cos you reckon you *are* the best solo improv guitarist since Derek Bailey…

      • i think the quote i really desired was “the most exciting solo guitar act since Coits”

      • “Neil Campbell is the most exciting solo guitar act since Coits” – Rob Hayler, radiofreemidwich

    • “i don’t think they ever purported to be some “voice of the underground” either”

      Yeah, they do:

      “don’t think you can go getting upset cuz it doesn’t have all yr mates in it”

      Why not? You’re in it.

      “it’s a train station mag, remember?”

      One reason why the pretentiousness is so ridiculous.

  9. I bet the Wire doesn’t copy and paste that one into their deadly dull letters column.

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