Editorial: On bass music blogs, integrity, and negativity
Words by Matthew Scott
On Twitter a couple of days ago, a tweet by TMSV caused a little bit of debate (see below). TMSV asked whether bass music blogs ever publish bad reviews, and it’s a question that I think needs some discussion and reflection. So this is a discussion and reflection both in general terms, and on how we do things at OHOD.
Do bass music blogs ever give bad reviews? Honest question.
— TMSV *HunterEPOutNow (@TMSVmusic) April 26, 2016
So, do we never do bad reviews? On the whole, yes. I think it’s fair to say bass music blogs, or at least the DnB ones that I know, follow, and admire, publish overwhelmingly positive reviews or commentaries on the music they listen to. We definitely do. There are a number of reasons for this, but it’s first important to recognise that there’s a couple of distinct kinds of blog. The first is that ran by an individual, or couple of individuals, who are so passionate about the music they love they create a blog and write about it on their own. The second is that ran by an editor, but with a team of writers who all contribute words to the blog itself. This matters. It matters because the first tends to be the voice of one individual’s thoughts on music, but the second tends to be an amalgamation of voices – each one with different musical preferences, styles of writing, and so on – that are all published on the same website and can thus sometimes erroneously be thought of the same voice, if that makes sense. This means more content, but inevitable inconsistency across the overall cohort of reviews.
Beyond that, there are a couple of basic reasons why the reviews are overwhelmingly positive. The first is because, in general, you would only choose to write about music you like. Some of my favourite reviews I’ve ever written are the ones where I’ve listened to a tune and liked it so much that I’ve felt compelled to write about it. You tend not to get those urges with stuff you find a bit dull or forgettable. A second reason is that you want to support the scene that you love. DnB is a canny small scene, at least compared to house/techno, and as a result everyone tends to know everyone else and want to support everyone else. Why would you bother being negative about the music that you ultimately want to see thrive? Arguably, the place for this negativity – or at least constructive negative feedback – is in the feedback sections that accompany promos, not published and publicised online. A third reason, and this is where things get a bit thorny, is the relationship between blogs and PRs. PRs wield enormous power over the small, independent, non-profit blogs like ours. They are the gatekeepers between you and getting music ahead of release date to write about. Write positively, the PR is happy, the label is happy, the artist is happy, and you get sent more music. Write critically, and the PR may turn their backs, close the gate, and stop communicating with you. There is thus a logical need to maintain good relationships with PRs in order to get continue getting sent music, and publishing bad reviews is potentially a way to sour those relationships. It’s arguable as to how much this impacts upon the actual content published by blogs, but I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that it influences what is written about music in some degree, at least on smaller blogs.
Those are the three reasons I would point out, although there are doubtless more, as to why reviews tend to be positive. However, in practice we don’t really have any editorial rules on this sort of thing. We are the second kind of blog I was on about before, with an editor (me), my long-suffering tech-wizard and friend Steve who does the programming and other bits and pieces, and then a team of around 15 writers. The writers all write purely voluntarily, and as such there is never any coercion on my part for anyone to write about anything. If I’m not paying people, I can’t – and won’t – force anyone to write about anything. Instead, we have a hidden Facebook group for managing the site, and when we receive a new promo we post in the group asking if anyone would like to review it, and giving a provisional deadline. If a writer is interested, they agree, a deadline is set, and the music is sent. The review is then delivered, I normally do a brief edit to bring it in line with the ‘house style’, if you like, and then it goes online. And that’s it.
So, if this is the case, why are the majority of the reviews positive? Essentially it’s for the first of the three reasons I’ve discussed above. Our writers are knowledgeable about DnB, and so I presume appraise these promos looking for names and labels they know they like or at least recognise, or find interesting or alluring in some way, and pass over the others without much interest. This is standardly commonsensical: if one hates jump up, for instance, one is probably not going to choose to review a jump up release. For this reason, in the majority of cases our writers take on a review with a prior inkling that the music will be something they will like, and in most cases it is. This is the reason why the majority of reviews we publish are positive, although I like to stress to the team that they are not hagiographers, and must therefore appraise music objectively and clearly. There is nothing really to say about this, other than that the voluntary nature of how almost all independent blogs work mean that the writers choose the music they write about, and not me. Believe me, I would massively enjoy sending a jump up release to someone who hates jump up, but it’s just not possible unless you’re RA, or Mixmag, or whoever, and can offer some sort of payment. Financial reasons prevent the commissioning of reviews that have more potential to be negative, in simple terms.
On occasion, of course, one of the writers will take something on that they dislike. Usually this is unexpected. Just recently, for instance, one of our team took on a new EP from one of the most consistent DnB artists from the last 15 years, released on one of the most consistent DnB labels from the last 15 years, and decided that while it had its merits it was ultimately incoherent and certainly not up to the standard he was used to expecting from said artist and label. The resultant review, while in my opinion argued and written in a fair and balanced manner, caused me some difficulty. The PR who sent us this particular EP is, let’s just say, a gatekeeper for many other labels who we write about, and the concern was therefore that publishing this negative-ish review would essentially upset this gatekeeper and potentially result in the severing of ties with him, and by extension, the labels he works with. I can’t speak for anyone else here, but my position on this is that objectivity, integrity, and independence must come before any PR/label relationships. You’re being dishonest to yourself and, moreover, to your readership (if you have one that is). Your readership relies on your honest and independent advice on the music you write about. This particular EP review therefore went online the same day I received it, and with minimal editing. Because at the end of the day, if we censor ourselves to maintain good relationships with PRs we essentially become PR mouthpieces and might as well just publish the press releases we get sent instead of actual reviews. The whole idea of writing and reviewing becomes pointless if your opinion of music is editorially restricted to different shades of awesome.
That said, there are rules; the site is not completely anarchist in nature. Here, we have only two, the first genuine and the second a bit more allegorical. The first is that reviews must be written in a way that is neither overly flattering and glowing, nor lambasting and scolding. Bluntly, that means positive reviews must not be written in an arselicking way, even if the reviewer thinks the music is staggeringly brilliant. On the other hand, if a reviewer doesn’t like a release, s/he must not be unnecessarily nasty about it. I like to think of this – and this is the second rule – in a slightly odd way, via a Polish science fiction author called Stanislaw Lem. Aside from writing amazing novels, he wrote a lot of literary criticism, and one particular thing he wrote about reviewing novels permanently sticks in my head. Lem said that the reviewer takes the position of a defence lawyer in a court of law. This means the reviewer cannot lie, he cannot be dishonest or untruthful with the material he has at hand. This then means that, when listening to music, I tell all of the team they must be honest about what they think, whether they love it, hate it, or are ambivalent towards it. But, crucially, the second job of the defence lawyer is that he must present the material he has at hand in the most favourable light. This means, in the context of negative reviews, that even if the reviewer does not like the release s/he must endeavour to present it in the best possible light, to give the reader (in place of the jury for Lem) the best indication of what the music sounds like and an opportunity to judge, based on the reviewer’s words, whether or not they might actually like it even if the reviewer does not. Negative reviews must therefore be balanced, fair, considered, and above all not presented in a way that is dismissive, lambasting, or downright mean. For me, this sort of lawyer like judgement is the bedrock to all good reviewing, whether music, art, literature, or whatever, and especially when the negative points outweigh the positive in the mind of the reviewer.
I like to think this works well. We’ve published a fair few mixed-to-negative reviews over the last couple of years, and the response from artists/labels is usually overwhelmingly gracious and understanding, appreciating the constructive criticism and thanking us for taking the time to consider their music. There’s only one case I can think of where someone has got pissy about a review we’ve published, in what was – to say the least – a seriously childlike case of ‘Miss miss he said my painting of the sunflowers looked like poo’. Toys out of pram business. But apart from that, the ‘Lem’ approach to music reviewing tends to work. Nonetheless, if you were to ask me directly why bass music blogs don’t really publish negative reviews, my answer is that it’s an agglomeration of the three reasons I discussed earlier. Wanting to write about music you like, wanting to support the scene you love, and the thorny PR-blog relationship. In my opinion, it’s the last of these that needs a bit of openness and discussion. For the record, I actually don’t think PRs are like that at all: we’ve certainly never been ostracised by a PR for a negative review, and the PR who dealt with the above anonymous EP review did so very graciously and continues to work with us. The issue, maybe, is simple fear on the part of blogs; an unspoken fear based on an assumption that PRs are paid to get good press, and that if they don’t get good press from a given blog they’ll stop working with it. So maybe some clarity on that from PRs would help, I don’t know, any PRs out there who want to write a response to this? I’d happily publish it. But on the whole, blogs should have the integrity to rise above that fear. It’s that fear that I think we need a discussion about.