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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 Stephen HumphriesStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 30, 2008

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

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Scan just about any album page on iTunes or 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.

"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.