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In Defense of Music Criticism [5/27/2008 12:49:00 AM]:
Fuck. It happens once or twice a year, these days, but it never gets a whole lot easier -- I guess I should be glad we're not Pitchfork, 'cause I'd imagine they get a shitload of hate mail, given their prominence & the volume of stuff they review. We here at SCR recently slammed a CD sent to us by a local band (not gonna name any names), and, well, it was pretty harsh. But I like the writer's style, and I thought he at least did a good job with the smackdown, so I let it run as-is.

Not even a day later, I got a bitterly angry, all-caps email from the band whose CD it was, somewhat understandably pissed at the negative review. And me being the relatively sensitive soul that I at least like to think I am, I got all second-guess-y and apologetic, kicking myself for not revising the review to make it lighter, kicking myself for running the damn thing at all, the whole deal.

I emailed the band back to apologize, in part, but also to say, "hey, this is how it goes, y'know?" Because as somebody who was once in a band, I know it sucks to get a bad review, but I also know it's not the end of the world (it wasn't for us, anyway). I told the band guy that I actually liked what I heard of the disc (which is true), but I can't review everything, and my pile of to-be-reviewed stuff is miles high, etc., etc., etc. The whole time I'm thinking to myself, "why in the hell did I even publish that review?"

We've held back reviews of local Houston-area bands before. That probably sounds cheesy, but yeah, we've done it. Back when I started this thing, I figured hey, Houston bands have it hard enough without me sucker-punching 'em, right? So we went by sort of a "Mom's rule" when it came to local bands: if you can't say anything nice, well...

Over time, though, that came to make less and less sense. We'd get in CDs by local bands and avoid reviewing 'em because we just plain didn't like the music, and so the CD would sit and sit and sit and get stale and old. It was a waste. And then there were the bands themselves. How do you tell somebody that's emailing you four times a week that you just don't care for what they sent, so you're not going to bother with it at all? Most of the time, we just wouldn't respond, and as somebody who's been on the receiving end of that myself, I can tell you that that sucks in itself.

Beyond that, we've had bands tell us we need to write negative reviews of local releases, that we shouldn't be afraid of it. We've gotten criticized ourselves for being too soft, too friendly-to-everybody, believe it or not. And I get that, especially these days, but that's getting ahead of the story a bit.

At any rate, the slighted band responded to my first apology email and said they wanted to get some good press but can't even use their very first review (ours) because it rips the disc apart. They went on to say that if that was how we treated "a hard working hometown houston band," then they wouldn't support our little site any longer and would warn off all the other bands that they're friends with. And yep, it sent me back into self-recriminating spirals of shame and regret, wishing again in my non-confrontational way that I'd never put the damn review up on the site.

As I thought more about it, though, my thinking shifted a bit. Should we be soft-pedaling on a band, just because they're local? What the hell good would that do? I can't speak for everybody, but if I read a magazine/blog/etc. that gave a blatant pass to every act from their hometown, I doubt I'd waste my time after the initial read. There'd be no fucking point. Why?

Because it's not honest. Music criticism only works when it's critical -- and that doesn't mean totally blasting every band we run across, no, but that it requires serious thought and a commitment to being truthful about what you like and dislike about something. Giving a pass to somebody just because they're part of the same scene you happen to be a part of is bullshit, and it's fake, and it does nobody any good except Band X, who gets a shiny-happy blurb for their press kit that is fake-fake-fake. And what good is that, really? Did they learn anything from the review, beyond that the writer's afraid of stepping on anybody's toes? Nope.

Negative reviews, even the brutal kind -- and yes, I've received plenty -- can be a lot more of a boost than positive ones, if taken in the right way. When I've been smacked down, it just made me even more determined to do what I was gonna do anyway, and fuck what The Man thinks. Anger can be a beautiful thing. When you get slammed by some writer, you have to learn to take it in stride, absorb it, and use it as a motivator. Anybody who gets a review, especially from us (and I'll get to that), and burns their guitar and swears never to write music again probably shouldn't have been doing it in the first place. The world isn't made for people that fragile, folks.

Plus, what happens to some reader -- who, frankly, are the audience and as such should be the most important people in this whole discussion, at least from my point of view -- who reads my lame-ass "give it to 'em 'cause they're local!" bullshit review, buys the CD, and realizes that it's awful? Not only will they blame me and the e-zine for leading 'em down the wrong road, but they'll have blown their money on something crappy when they could've bought, say, the Something Fierce CD. Think they're going to believe me the next time I tell them that Deathbed Repentance disc is really, really excellent? Nuh-uh -- I love, the reader loses, and any band I write about loses, too.

Which brings me to the other half of the equation. Saying, "oh, I'm not that keen on this, but since they're from Houston, they rock!," that does a disservice to all the bands we've reviewed that we have liked, both recently and in long-past Space City Rock history. I now get why band people have prodded us about not giving negative reviews in the past to fellow locals -- Good Band Y has worked their asses off as much as Crappy Band X, put out something infinitely better, and then gets basically the same amount of recognition from our site? Wow, how worthwhile...

I should point out, by the way, something I mentioned to the slighted band at the heart of this whole debacle: I have yet to meet a Houston band that doesn't work their asses off. Setting yourself up as a "hard-working band" doesn't really give you any kind of clout, in that respect, because not only does it not really matter when everybody gives their music everything they've got, but it also makes it sound like other bands don't work as hard. Which, obviously, is bunk.

So screw the "Mom's rule." All it does is create a false atmosphere of happy-feelgood-ness that's not useful to anybody -- us, the bands, or the readers. What put the final nail in the coffin, for me, was when I realized, halfway through writing my response to the band we collectively pimp-slapped, that I wouldn't even be writing it if they weren't from here. Seriously -- I don't bend over backwards justifying myself and my e-zine when some band from Dallas or NYC takes umbrage at a review we've published. The only reason I even answered this guy's emails was because, hey, he and his band are here in Houston and not in Seattle.

And that's not the way this should work. Part of the reason this site got started was to level the playing field for Houston bands, to put deserving, good bands from H-town on the same plane as good (and probably better-publicized) bands from places like Austin, Portland, SF, and NYC. If we're serious about getting some much-needed respect for Houston music, we have to treat it fairly and write about it critically, the same way we would the latest Sub Pop release or latest Canadian indie-import band.

Not that we take ourselves über-seriously or anything, mind you. Part of what always boggles my mind when I get mail like this is, well, that they seem to think we here at SCR are that big of a deal. Don't get me wrong -- I'm immensely proud of this site and everybody who writes and/or supports it. It's just that, all things considered, we ain't Pitchfork. Heck, we're not even Stereogum. We've got no pretensions of being the be-all and end-all of things musical, in Houston or anywhere. We're just a bunch of people who write reviews of stuff and upload 'em to a site, in the hopes that people will maybe read 'em & learn something they didn't know about music. Period.

So if you send us your CD and we hate it, trust me when I tell you that it's not the end of the musical world as you know it. There is a wide, wide world of sites, magazines, blogs, e-zines, and whatnot out there that do things kinda like we do. Get out there and hit them up, too -- not to slight our efforts here, but a negative review from us means a lot less than a positive review from either of the sites mentioned above. Hell, there're a ton of local outlets these days, too: Houston Calling does reviews sometimes; The Skyline Network only reviews local stuff; Free Press Houston reviews a bunch of stuff, local and otherwise; the Houston Press covers it all; the Chronic has some fine, dedicated local-music folks; the list goes on and on. If we don't like you, all is not lost, even within the confines of Harris County.

For the final bit from our slighted band, about how he (and the rest of the band, presumably) is no longer going to support Space City Rock, well, that's just how it goes, and we'll deal with it. I get why somebody we hand a thumbs-down to wouldn't want to read the site anymore; seriously, I do. He also said he'd be warning off friends who were in bands, and hey, that's thoroughly understandable, too.

In fact, maybe that's a good thing, both for the bands and for us. We get a ridiculous number of CDs to review, and a fair chunk of those are local. In spite of that local representation, though, we don't ever promise to give somebody a good review, local band or not; that's just not something we've ever, ever, ever done. I don't even promise folks who are close personal friends that we'll praise their CD to the skies, because y'know what? It might not be our writer's -- whoever gets the thing to review, that is -- cup of tea. We don't all always agree, not by a long shot.

And while we'd certainly love to have every band in town support us and tell all their buddies about us, we definitely don't want that support if it means we have to lie to ourselves and the world at large about somebody's music. If that's what it takes to get a band's support, then thanks, but we'll pass. We'd rather get that support honestly by doing what we do than whore ourselves any way we can to make people like us.

So, just to clear up any further problems, this is the way this thing works: if you are in a band and want us to review your CD, send it in and we will give you our honest opinion of it, good or bad. If we like it, we will say so, probably effusively. If we don't like it, we will most likely say that, too. We do try not to be assholes, but dammit, music is passionate stuff, and if we feel a certain way about something, we feel pretty much obligated to translate that feeling into words. Even if it hurts. If you don't want to read us ripping your hard work to pieces, do NOT send it to us. Seriously, don't do it.

'Cause it's a definite possibility, even if we like you as a person, respect your band, love what you do for The Scene, yadda, yadda. This is about the music, and that's it. If it flies, it flies; if it doesn't, it doesn't. That's what music criticism's about, really -- the take of one person or group of persons on somebody else's hard-fought attempt at art. And if you think that's a waste of time, hey, that's up to you. We think it's important and worthwhile and necessary to talk about these things. It's easy to sneer at music reviewers and deride what they do as meaningless, but like it or not, that's how human beings find out about things that are good or bad, from other people.

Okay, I'm gonna sign off now before I get really incoherent. Anybody who reads this & has an opinion, feel free to chime in.

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