I meant to respond a few weeks ago to Matthew Yglesias’s complaints about Pitchfork Media and never got around to it thanks to work obligations and the nine month old. But since it’s not a time sensitive topic, here goes.
Last night I went to another Rainer Maria show at the Black Cat only to discover another pathetically small audience for the once-popular band. The tragedy of it is that their latest album, Catastrophe Keeps Us Together is every bit as good as their earlier work. The problem is it just got a terrible review from Pitchfork Media, written by Rob Mitchum. Mitchum also gave their previous album, Long Knives Drawn a very poor review … The panner, in other words, didn’t even not like the album. Rather, he was mocked by his colleagues for liking earlier albums, and decided in advance to make amends by henceforth trashing the band and making it clear that the issue here wasn’t just that people might disagree about the quality of an album, but that liking this band just made you terribly lame and uncool. … What’s interesting beyond the career of one band, though, is how in the realm of indie rock the internet, which usually prompts media fragmentation, has had the reverse effect of causing a quasi-monopoly to emerge. … we’ve seen the emergence of a single website with enormous market power—Pitchfork. … The barriers to entry, of course, are still low. But to prevent a rival from emerging, Pitchfork doesn’t need to be perfect—it just needs to be good enough. Which it is. Their taste is generally reliable.
Now I’m a bit allergic to emo myself, but I think that this is a real problem. However I don’t think that it’s necessarily a problem of monopoly. Certainly, I remember the same sort of stuff happening in the early 1990’s, when there was a proliferation of critical outlets – for example, every pop reviewer seemed to decide overnight that The House of Love, which had previously been critical darlings, sucked, just at the same moment as they released their best album evah.
So I think there’s a structural problem here, that goes deeper than monopoly – that critics have an incentive for some reason or another to sometimes throw out judgements that they know are unreliable, even in conditions where monopoly doesn’t obtain. And my best guess as to what’s going on borrows from Diego Gambetta’s work on the Sicilian Mafia (his key short piece on this is conveniently available here in PDF form). Gambetta’s thesis is that the Mafia are badly understood – they are often less in the business of supplying heroin etc themselves, than in acting as brokers/extortioners, guaranteeing a variety of transactions, many of them more or less illegal, in exchange for a cut of the proceeds. Mafiosi act in order to protect clients who are buying or selling goods from being ripped off by the other side. However, the Mafia have an incentive occasionally themselves to broker bad transactions.
the mafioso, by ‘guaranteeing’ the sale of a blind horse to a victim who for whatever reason is not under his protection (or indeed under that of any more powerful mafioso), is performing a demonstrative action: reminding everyone that without his protection it is not just likely but ‘guaranteed’ that cheating will occur. The mafioso himself has an interest in regulated injections of distrust into the market to increase the demand for the product he sells – that is, protection. If agents could trust each other independently of his intervention he would, on this score at least, be idle. The income he receives and the power he enjoys are the benefits to him of distrust.
I think that there’s a similar problem in the relationship between music artists and music consumers, in which critics play a key brokerage role, just as the Mafia does in a rather different sphere of commercial relations. Critics serve to guarantee to the public that certain artists, certain music, is ‘good’ (there are a whole bunch of sociological questions about what constitutes ‘good’ in this sense that I don’t want to get into). But they also want to preserve their own role as critical intermediaries and arbiters of taste – in other words, they don’t want consumers to feel sufficiently secure in their own tastes that they can bypass the critic and formulate their own tastes about artists. Therefore, one could make a plausible case that critics have an incentive to inject certain amounts of aesthetic uncertainty into the marketplace, by deliberately writing reviews which suggest that bad artists are good, or that good artists are bad, so as to screw with the heads of the listening public. This ensures that the Plain Music-Punters of Ireland remain unsure of their own ability successfully to gauge artistic quality, and don’t start ignoring what pop critics say in favor of following their own aesthetic judgements.
I don’t know how to test this argument to tell if it actually describes what happens – but I will note that there are certain features of pop criticism in particular (and art criticism more generally) that seem to correspond with predictions that this theory might make. Thus, for example, we see a pretty consistent gap between the tastes of critics and the tastes of the general public, in which critics prefer more ‘difficult’ music (some of which is excellent; some of which godawful), perhaps as a means to assert their aesthetic superiority and to undermine ordinary punters’ confidence in their own tastes. We also see a high degree of unpredictable change in critics’ tastes – erstwhile critical favourites ruthlessly written out of history, for no apparent reason other than a decision that they aren’t fashionable any more. I’m sure there are other correspondences, none of which constitute smoking gun evidence, but all at least suggesting that applying Gambetta to pop criticism is prima facie plausible.