Are professional music critics losing their clout?

Amateur online reviews are creating competition and democracy in the race to have the first word on new albums.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As difficult as it is to use words to describe notes, an awful lot of people seem to want to do just that.

Scan just about any album page on iTunes or Amazon.com and you'll find dozens of music reviews written by customers. The blogosphere and chat forums, meanwhile, have spawned the garage-band equivalent of music reviewers as thousands of fans express their opinions. Call it the era of vox pop music critiques.

With all those voices, are professional music critics still relevant? As consumers become more attuned to the wisdom of the masses, a once-elite cadre of professional music writers is facing a new reality: They aren't as influential as they once were.

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"Social networking, blogs, and the vast amount of information available via search engines on the Internet have definitely shifted the weight of critics," says Chuck Taylor, single reviews editor at Billboard magazine, in an e-mail.

Back in the days when cutting-edge music technology meant Dire Straits on compact disc, music critics had the advantage of receiving copies of new albums in advance of the public. Record buyers would read reviews before going to a record store (remember those?) to listen to an album.

Now artists such as Coldplay, Madonna, R.E.M., and Portishead have streamed albums online weeks in advance of their sale, allowing fans to formulate their own reviews. Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, and The Raconteurs have gone one step further and made new albums instantly available online. "We wanted to get this record to fans, the press, radio, etc., all at the exact same time, so that no one has an upper hand on anyone else regarding its availability, reception, or perception," declared The Raconteurs ahead of March's "Consolers of the Lonely."

Greg Kot, music writer for the Chicago Tribune, applauds the concept: "I always hated the idea of the critic as being this oracle from on high delivering the last word on a subject." The multitude of voices online is exciting, he says, and the competition forces everyone to be better.

But critics are being squeezed out. Over the past year, dozens of newspapers and news magazines have laid off movie, TV, book, food, and music reviewers. Zagat-style criticism gives ordinary readers an alternative to the musings of ordained connoisseurs.

Professional critics say they add particular value: cultural and musical context. For instance, a buzz band such as The Kooks might sound like innovators to an 18-year-old. A seasoned critic can point out that only a few chords, and a few vowels, separate The Kooks from The Kinks.

Music writers say that newspapers still have a role to play in reaching out to people in their 40s who are curious about their world – and what their teens are listening to.

But the future is still online, where a younger generation clusters around music blogs such as Stereogum and Brooklyn Vegan and discovers artists such as Colbie Caillat, Ingrid Michaelson, and Sara Bareilles through MySpace rather than radio or reviews.

To thrive in this medium, traditional media outlets may host online communities that create a dialogue between critic and reader. "I feel like I'm almost more part of a conversation than I am a tastemaker, and that's the way I like it," says Joan Anderman, music writer for The Boston Globe. "I also write a lot of feature stories and concert reviews, so we do a lot more than just pay attention to new product coming out."

That's just as well. The sheer number of new releases makes it impossible for regular critics to stay abreast – let alone discover the next big thing. It's also daunting to cover a landscape ranging from hip-hop to country to heavy metal to world music to jazz. Here, once again, the Internet has yielded specialist voices for different genres.

Still, some print outlets do have one advantage: their geographical settings, and the opportunities to spot local newcomers. "There is nothing more niche-oriented than covering your hometown," says Mr. Kot.

Fighting words. Yet many critics are resigned to the fact that a younger generation may never see value in what professional critics offer. "They're not really interested," sighs Ms. Anderman. "You do it anyway. You write about it and maybe 10 people discover it."

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