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"Only a Website" - reflections on prejudice and discrimination *

"I still think that websites are far more relevant than press at the moment - I don't know ANY musicians my age that read concert reviews in the national press" Aleks Szram 2008

In summer 2000 we made the journey to Porvoo, a picturesque little town three hours by sea from Helsinki, the only foreign journalists to report at length and in depth upon the annual Avanti! summer festival held there by Esa-Pekka Salonen and his chamber orchestra.

Oliver Knussen and Magnus Lindberg were featured guests of honour there, both of them accessible and easy to talk with. But when after the opening event we introduced ourselves to Salonen, as visitors from London representing Seen & Heard, he responded with three words, "only a website", as he turned away to talk to more interesting people.

That brief meeting impressed itself upon us, and the phrase has continued to haunt us. We will never discover whether Esa-Pekka Salonen read online our appreciation of his unique festival, a report of which we were proud. *

* Meeting Esa-Pekka Salonen again, October 2010, and reminding him of his disinterest in 2000, he conceded that internet reviewing had become important in the last decade...

The words "only a website" have imprinted themselves on our consciousness, and their implications continue to dog internet reviewers, with not infrequent reminders that we are considered second class critical citizens.

Some record companies and concert/opera promoters - including two of the major opera houses in UK - practise discrimination in favour of paper publications when allocating press tickets and CDs for review. A pianist instructed his agent that his early evening recital of contemporary music should be reviewed only by the national press - none obliged! Most recently, the organisers of this year's International Society of Contemporary Music Music Days in Switzerland opined that "it would not be important to have a foreign critic publish a review only on a website".

The problem confronts us less often abroad, where we find ourselves welcomed and appreciated; indeed many of our fully illustrated reports of European festivals and competitions have been reprinted in specialist journals and in collected reports produced by the organisers, our comprehensiveness highlighting the selectivity and compression which space constraints, and the priorities of arts editors, impose upon newspaper critics.

It was that increasing problem, and the demise of a succession of paper outlets, which fuelled the creation of Seen&Heard and MusicalPointers, with their unassailable advantages of cost-effective production costs, relative permanence and flexible accessibility (enhanced by the miracles of hyperlinks and search engines) to a gratifyingly large readership of contemporary music enthusiasts throughout the world-wide web - a coverage which national press coverage cannot emulate.

We need to cooperate to heighten realisation that for arts coverage, particularly those of minority interest, the future lies with us.

Peter Grahame Woolf
Founder Musical Pointers; Founder/Editor Emeritus Seen&Heard

Your responses and comments, please?

Responses received to "Only a Website":

Excellent article. "Only a Website" will remain as a classic for our times. The arrogance, the petty pedantry of EPS  is characteristic of so many contemporary 'performers' and, some composers.   I don't know whether it is venality or bumbling mediocrity.  

This needed saying and I'm so glad you said it with such elegance. As a fellow reviewer I can endorse the experience of prejudice and the fact that 'European' and American organizations are more welcoming. - - Richard Morrison (The Times 20 April) quoted Tony Hall enthusing about the ROH £10 Mondays scheme as a huge success even though out of the 24,000 who wanted them, only 1,000 actually got tickets ""What's essential is that we then know the online whereabouts of 20,000 new people. That transforms marketing."

The prejudice against non-paper reviewers has, I think, a great deal to do with - - a general perception that newspaper writers have had to acquire some sort of training and are somehow 'experts' - true, of course, of the most eminent, but hardly so of most of the 'critics' we read in the national press. In reality, it is Internet writing which depends far more upon talent and skill, and newspaper writing which is largely done by the well-connected - - epitomized  recently, when a 'journalist' son of a very well known writer wrote about how he still managed to get a newspaper job despite having made an ass of himself at the interview: honey, one just wanted to say - you didn't somehow get into lucrative national newspapers because of any talent or skill, you got there because your father is who he is!

So what's the way forward? We continue to write detailed, knowledgeable reviews, and serve our many readers and the artists who value what we write: those who reject us now are going to have to enter the 21st century sooner or later, and one can see and sense the fear of that  in what many paper critics write - after all, the first reaction of the threatened is attack, and we've already been there, I think, with articles about how 'Web writing cannot be real criticism because it's not subject to the control of an editor' - -
Melanie Eskenazi (Specialist writer on singers and opera)

As one of the busiest concert promoters around the country, I regard your type of site to be the future of concert reviewing, and to be taken very seriously - - I was surprised to discover the high proportion of internet bookings that are made by audience members at the South Bank. The SBC website is the primary source of information and bookings for over 80% of their audience....the "silver surfer" phenomenon. (Indeed, the Philharmonia orchestra sells 90% of its tickets for sbc concerts themselves, through their website.)

Thus, I would suggest that online reviewing is just as important as the national newspapers. After all, an audience member is unlikely to buy more than one newspaper, but may be interested to read many reviews online. Very best of luck, and congratulations.
Justin Pearson (Concert Promoter)

"Only a website" is such a cutting, nasty putdown, yet probably said with little thought at all for what those three words mean.

Only a website, or only a newspaper? I know which I would choose. An outlet which can be freely accessed for an indefinite period of time - years in the case of the MusicWeb sites - from anywhere in the world, or in the case of a newspaper review, something available for about 18 hours, read by a few thousand, forgotten and thrown in the bin. If anyone wants to read that newspaper review even a day or so later, well their best bet would be on a website.

I've written many film reviews for my local paper, and they are all history, never to be read or seen again, but the earliest pieces I've written for the likes of MusicWeb and Amazon have now been in continuous world wide publication for over five years. Even a magazine article only has a life span of 31 days before being confided to library archives. As for magazine reviews. I used to buy DVD magazines, but found the coverage ill informed, shallow and often infantile. There are several websites which provide the level of detail and insight in DVD reviewing no magazine I have read can yet emulate. Web publishing is as big a revolution as the introduction of the printing press was - and I mean no exaggeration. Particularly for short pieces, articles, reviews, news and material which needs quick distribution, it is a major paradigm shift, and those who chose to ignore it will be left behind. They will be history, overlooked and forgotten, like yesterday's newspaper

Gary Dalkin (Editor Film Music on the Web)

Newspapers are an established source of criticism, review, and commentary. They thus enjoy considerable symbolic power that confers legitimacy on those employed and reviewed by them. It is this that Salonen and others of his ilk seek to purchase by submitting their activities to the authority of the established press.

Clearly, there is no guarantee that the internet medium will offer greater quality. But what it does offer - in addition to certain technological possibilities - is an opportunity to dismantle and challenge the monopoly of opinion that established forms of criticism undeservedly enjoy.

What Salonen should do is to examine critically the intellectual and discursive substance of this criticism. If this were done, it would be quickly apparent that established journalism and criticism frequently lacks those tools of analysis and critical penetration that are presumed to be theirs. This requires from readers a more critical engagement in processes of criticism, in order to properly evaluate the credentials of the critical community. Indeed, surveying critically the product of many reviewers raises serious questions concerning their qualifications to make critical judgement. It is thus the quality of the journalism and the quality of the criticism that should interest us, not its source.
Gordon Downie (composer)

The extent of snobbery and condescension that exists in the classical music world never ceases to amaze me, to the extent that I wonder if the primary appeal of such an aesthetic sphere is, for many protagonists, intrinsically linked to such qualities of aloofness and superiority? The internet, for all its problems, has so far proved something of a democratising force in many fields of life, enabling the widest range of information and opinion to be made available to a wide range of people all over the world. Reviews on websites have a durability that generally exceeds that of those in national newspapers, and as websites gain reputations many interested parties regularly click onto them to read with interest about recent concerts and recordings, some of which don't receive coverage elsewhere.

Some might suggest that there does not exist such a level of 'quality control' in the field of website criticism as is the case in the commercial press. I am by no means convinced that the press evinces such a consistently high level of quality either. Websites allow many possibilities that are not available to newspapers and periodicals; the pressure for snappy sentences and trite metaphors is much reduced, a practically unlimited amount of space which allows for reproduction of score excerpts, programme notes, any number of photographs, and potentially audio (or even video) excerpts as well, not to mention links to other related websites.

I obviously have to declare an interest here, as a great many of my own concerts and CDs have been reviewed Musical Pointers. Nonetheless, I continue to find immensely impressive the extent to which you will take the trouble to seek out concerts that aren't just put on at the most prestigious venues, and take an interest in younger or less-established performers and composers, not to mention unusual and innovative programming. Many arts editors and critics turn their noses up at these things, drawn as they are as much to the aura of the 'star' performers and the rarefied atmosphere of the most plush established venues where they can hob-nob with those 'in the know'.

I think there is another agenda involved with respect to Salonen's comments, or the refusal of one pianist to grant complementary tickets as you were reviewing for a website. These people think of themselves as part of some privileged elite of specialists, including a few hallowed critics who have been bestowed with prestige by virtue of their position. To them, the views and opinions of those outside this elite sphere don't count. This point of view is arrogant in the extreme, and only contributes to the increasing marginalisation of classical music in the wider world.

I don't think these people have or should have a monopoly on musical opinion, nor do I find a lot of their self-serving and navel-gazing style of writing (often consciously designed to exclude non-specialists) does much to help convey classical music to a wider public. The alternative does not have to be some sort of dumbed-down 'with it' style of discourse that concentrates mostly on the ephemeral aspects of music-making (image, hype, etc.). It is possible, I believe, to convey the very impact of compositions and performances, their emotional import, meaning and relevance in terms of people's lives and broader cultural concerns, in a manner which will resonate with non-specialists but goes beyond flowery description. It would be rash to make exalted claims for the role of websites in being able to achieve such an end, but they can certainly play a part in this respect. Those who choose to ignore this will inevitably find themselves left behind.
Ian Pace (pianist, contemporary music specialist)

I'm moving away from the view that websites are necessarily seen as 'second class' - - read many of the online music groups and you will often find that web journalists are more highly regarded than their paper equivalents - - In some ways, what you say about overseas organizations being more responsive is true - - (more responsive to requests than UK/US organizations because they want English language reviews). It is also a fallacy to suggest that web reviews have limited exposure: they don't - - at ENO the person behind me was quoting to his neighbour at some length a review on S&H - - it is, of course, difficult to persuade some arts organizations that this is true.

- - one of the problems websites pose - - is that what is published is theoretically there for eternity. A bad review on the web can often be more damaging than a bad review in a paper because not only can the review be read everywhere, as opposed to the geographical isolation of a paper review, it is also more widely accessible because of more widespread use of linking and search programmes such as Google - - some artists are too sensitive to criticism - - because of their own vulnerabilities and insecurities. Some artists are clearly less worried about negative reviews: Maxim Vengerov makes a point of publishing negative reviews on his website; others have built their reputation on positive web reviews - - contrary to widespread opinion I think the situation for website journals is improving. Yes, there are still bad writers out there, but there are good and knowledgeable ones too. There isn't enough space in newspapers for all of us. [See also Freedom of speech, or a license to censor?] Marc Bridle (Editor Seen&Heard)

- - Mine appeared in print today, cut, alas, with the result that the section on Francesca da Rimini reads differently from my intensions - such, I'm afraid, is the nature of print journalism as opposed to websites. (TA re The Guardian 12/06)

The Times was unable to cover this pianist's London re-appearance; Musical Pointers was there!

See also re The Observer's coverage of Prom 5, 2007:

The Observer's review of this concert is interesting in the context of the ongoing debate about paper v. web reviewing.
Stephen Pritchard totally ignores the Ives symphony - or perhaps his Arts Editor cut out that bit...?
- - Modern music can sometimes struggle to raise much interest. - - the audience was thin for the first outing of Sam Hayden's Substratum which was in any case played incomplete - - huge blocks of dense sound with some interjections from the woodwind and brass buried deep in the mix. Hardly inspiring, and given an unusually mute reception by the prommers.Things were altogether more sprightly in Bernstein's second symphony, 'The Age of Anxiety'. It's not a piano concerto, but Orli Shaham played the prominent keyboard part - Bernstein's own response to the Auden poem of the title - with great panache in the jazzy passages, which came complete with authentic slap bass. Gorgeous. and there it stops!! PGW

Proms 2010

Jiri Belohlavek - Photograph: BBC

Mahler's Eighth - 1959 & 2010

The BBC, in its wisdom, has reacted to the "problem" of multiplying "blogs and websites" on the Internet by excluding Musical Pointers from the Proms this year; at the same time, the "dailies" are drastically reducing even further the space for classical music reviewing...

Occupied elsewhere that First Night, we listened to the Mahler 8 on Radio 3 Listen Again and will continue to do so from time to time through the season.

It sounded magnificent on new earphones, indeed my best experience of it since 1959, when I was present for Horenstein's legendary performance in the Albert Hall, which latterly has surfaced on CD, to exceptional praise; click onto the link to hear samples and read rave reviews.

Many hearings of the 8th since then (on CD and live) have been disappointing to the extent that I had come to rate it lower than most of Mahler's other symphonies.**

This Jiri Belohlavek/BBC performance renewed my faith in it.

I have sampled the performance also on the BBC's TV recording but, after having taken in the scene and seen how the massed musicians and soloists look (not all of them photogenic in close-up), I found the experience better on sound only, taken in three parts, and outdoors in the summer sunshine...

Heresy? Well, times change, and the BBC imposes its own decisions on the media. Fewer live concerts for Musical Pointers to attend in the summer will spare more time for the proliferation of discs to be considered for review...


the feeling of a special occasion - - it wasn't enough to change my mind about a work which I still believe is fatally flawed [Musical Criticism]