Reviews- do they matter?




I once asked a record label owner whether reviews made a difference in sales. He replied it was hard to tell. I wondered why so many musicians request reviews, so I put out an open question asking musicians, labels, and venues to respond.

I asked: What is the value of reviews, if any? Do they help? If so, how, if not, why? Before I share responses, it is worth explaining the difference between a critic and a reviewer.

For most people, 'reviewer' covers both critic and reviewer. A reviewer writes about the music they hear, concerts they attend, performance, style, artistry, and so on; they write descriptively. A critic will also place the music in a historical timeline, compare it to similar recordings if there are any and contextualize the work.

Reviews are generally aimed at listeners and potential purchasers. The consensus is that reviews acknowledge work and show it was good enough for someone to take time to listen to it and write about it, especially if the reviewer is respected. When you are deeply involved in a project, it can be useful to find out how the music affected those listening, the great things, and anything noticed like a flat note (unintentional) in the second chorus the musician somehow missed.

The key points made by musicians were:

  • Reviews add to the buzz around a release. They direct people to all the hard work the musician has put into their release. The artists will often have videos, and interviews, and announce new collaborations in the press or social media. Reviews add to this general noise made concerning a release.

  • They help get bookings. One agent told me when she is looking to book a band for a tour or residence, she checks out their reviews to understand the audience a band may appeal to (and if they are any good). Reviews are essential for agencies and PR companies taking on new artists because they want to see if their potential clients are likely to succeed.

  • A festival curator told me, "Reviews matter for bands I can't go and see but have heard great things about. I can check them out, get information like their agent, website and see what a reviewer thought.

  • The publication and reviewer are important. Most musicians prefer reviews on respected columns (for example, Platinum Mind, Something Else Reviews, Free Jazz Collective, All About Jazz, Jazz Views) written by reviewers who are widely read over reviewers who publish individual sites because the former usually gets a lot more readers. You get a broader set of opinions with more columnists.

Reviews provide artists with quotes they can use on their press pages. They can share good reviews on social media, directing their followers to them and keeping them in touch with how they are performing.

For most musicians, making music is their top priority. Next comes admin for their band and business, but reviews are an essential part of the package. Of course, this does not apply to everyone. One musician told me he places no value on reviews at all.

For those who buy and listen to jazz, reviews can be a barometer to focus their attention. The reviewer can convey the feeling of a piece of work, whether an artist is performing well, and so on to help people navigate the good stuff.

However, don't assume it is always without bias when you read a review. Not all reviews are what they seem. Online magazines and websites have costs. They have staff to pay in some cases, a website to maintain, and other expenses, so unless someone with bottomless pockets runs them, it is unlikely they will be publishing reviews without charging someone (with apologies to those I know are run entirely at the owner's cost, but they are in the minority). Most sites take adverts from artists promoting their music, PR companies, or venues.

This potentially creates a conflict of interest. If a label pays for adverts, will a site publish negative reviews of their artists? If a PR company advertises its services on a site, will the site post a negative review of one of its artists? If people pay for reviews and they are all positive, does this dilute their value?

Tricky questions and hard to fathom the answers because sites need to finance themselves, and there is nothing wrong with this in principle. Most are fair and allow their reviewers to write the review they feel is appropriate. As a reader, though, it is important to be aware that reviews may not be unbiased.

Many online columnists have professional writing work and also contribute to online columns because they are passionate about music. Online columns afford them greater freedom than editorial constraints might place on them otherwise. For example, a review for a magazine might have a word count limit of 550 words. In contrast, for an online column, the writer might have more freedom of style and be able to include additional detail for readers that they cannot include in limited word counts. The sites with good editors enjoy the services of a large pool of contributors who produce high-quality reviews and interviews. For writers, having material online means more people have access to it than if you write for a paper magazine. You can go 'niche' and write about music that inspires you. Reviews in a column can also lead to paid work, which is a win-win. However, writers need to be aware of some potential dangers too. Some online magazines exploit naïve contributors by offering them "exposure" for their work, which does not always lead to paid commissions. When I started writing, I came across several ways online magazines obtain articles for free. One offered me a "transfer to our paid site" once I wrote three free articles for their online magazine. Of course, they never approved the third free article (which was subsequently published by another magazine). Shortly afterward, another writer contacted me to say the same magazine had offered her paid work once she had written three free articles as a 'trial.' Hmmm.

Another said they would begin to pay their contributors "soon." They gave me the title of 'Senior Writer' but gave this to everyone, it turns out. Of course, "soon" never came. Still, we live and learn. As writers, we write for the love of jazz, and without volunteer writers, many artists would never get reviewed. It is also lovely if, as a columnist, you help an up-and-coming writer to edit their work so they can place a review or article on one of the prestigious columns. They get recognition, giving them something to direct editors to if they seek professional work. For the readers of the top online sites, the benefits are good quality reviews on well-edited and professional-looking pages. Just beware they may not all be as unbiased as you might hope.

For musicians, it can be difficult getting a review in the first place. Reviewers can only review so many releases, and online columnists may have paid work too, which is demanding. As ever, people are willing to exploit the desire to get a review. There are "reviewers" who will offer to review for a fee. The higher the price, the better the review will be. These services are offered before the "reviewer" even knows what the music is like, which might tell you something about their dedication to listening and reviewing fairly. Many people are not aware of this practice, but it happens.

Agencies like this create an unfair marketplace. You can be "brilliant," "5 stars," and "a great new find"—if you can afford it. If a new artist cannot afford to pay for reviews, they may get lost in the vast number of releases each month. The advice is to seek a good reviewer for a well-read column and approach them politely to see if they have time to review your music. Ensure everything is up to date, all the information they need is to hand, and don't send massive mailshots to hundreds of potential reviewers. Instead, use their name and perhaps refer to a piece you read that you found interesting and say why. New talent is emerging all the time, and many musicians cannot afford an agent at first, so getting your first review with a reputable reviewer can be crucial. And for the reviewer, it is beautiful to see new artists soar on the back of your review.

Remember, anyone can write a review—your mate can put a review on their blog, and it might be a review that is insightful and articulate, but it is unlikely to help raise your profile as an artist unless they are well known. Certain reviewers, magazine columnists, and bloggers carry more weight than others because of their knowledge of the music they review and the time they give. Some lazy reviewers basically rehash an artist's PR notes or EPK and publish this as a "review." This might be fine for a listing service but not a review.

The material costs of creating a CD plus postage can add up. It costs musicians and labels money to send copies out for review. Using a professional writer to create the sleeve and liner notes (which they should) also costs. Musicians, therefore, often select reviewers carefully.

Do reviews affect sales?

Some people believe reviews are crucial to increasing sales, while others believe they make a negligible difference. A jazz fan told me, "As a music lover, first and foremost, I have bought many albums after reading reviews. Sometimes musicians/bands don't tour or gig locally, so a review will often lead me to discover music I may not have. If the reviewer shows objectiveness, it is a useful guide for new listeners or music buyers to get the essence of a musician/album/track."

Another musician told me, "I have a love/hate relationship with critics. I don't put any stock in their opinions, but I realize a good review can keep my band working."

Mind you, another said, "Reviews mean nothing. They got me gigs early in my career, but now I never read them. It does not matter who writes them; they do nothing to help me get work or support my family. Would that make it a positive review if I paid a journalist for a review? Would it be positive if I paid a magazine for a review or placed an advertisement with them for a review? And if I openly support a journalist, would that mean they would give positive reviews?"

There are anomalies too. One musician told me she got terrible reviews for an album, yet it sold well, and for another, she got terrific reviews, but it hardly sold. As a buyer, she told me she relies on reviews. She listens to tracks on streaming platforms before buying but dislikes being directed to particular music by algorithms based on the music they think "she might like." She goes to specific sites and reviewers and reads what they think.

A crucial point is reviews are permanent. A bad online review can be found years after it was written, so someone looking up your band might come across a bad review. On the other hand, a good review is also there forever, so putting these on your websites and directing people to go and read them is important. The algorithms of the internet search engines mean the more people read the good reviews, the higher up the search lists they go, so people googling your band see the good reviews first.

Reviews are essential in keeping the release alive—sharing them and using other people's descriptions of your music, not always your own. Many musicians say they see small spikes in sales after a good review and also after radio play. Several musicians have told me they meet people at gigs who came because they read a review.

Even for major stars, reviews are considered more trustworthy than adverts and press releases because reviews are, in theory, objective. Knowledgeable and well-informed reviewers can introduce new listeners to more experimental music, for example, more meaningfully.

The irony is that even the musicians who say they put no value on reviews ask to be reviewed when they have new music out, which leads me to believe documentation and having the work acknowledged are important.

It must also be remembered that a review is a reaction of one person at that time, just an opinion, and you can ignore it if you want to.

It is important to note, too, that the role of reviews has changed in recent years. At one time, listeners found out more about a musician or band through magazines or mainstream media. Musicians made money from selling recordings. Now it is different. Some people have told me they never pay for music because it is shared, which is a problem for musicians trying to make a living. Less money is made from recordings unless you are a megastar selling zillions of tracks online. Some musicians rely more on money from gigs and merchandise sold at gigs. Reviewers have a changed role; they are not the only way people can get to know about a band. For example, people can see reviews and comments left on media and video sites. They can see reactions on social media. So, is the role of the reviewer less important? For most musicians, it seems not.

So how then do you take a bad review? Even the most successful musicians have had a bad review. Reviewers are people; they are opinionated people, so you will get good and not-so-good reviews. Most musicians say a lousy review hurts, and it can temporarily put them off their game or make them doubt their worth, but others say poor reviews make them stronger. They can learn and benefit from a less than ecstatic review if it is well written. An honest review with positive, instructive critique can help a musician understand how an outsider hears their music. Only once have I had a musician ask a piece to be changed when I (gently) pointed out she was flat for a phrase (because she was, and it detracted from an otherwise gorgeous number) but generally, musicians understand that different people hear things differently and a review acts as feedback. Criticism can also be positive if it is constructive. For example, saying the artist has more to come, is evolving, and so on with backed-up reasoning is good for a musician (remembering this is just opinion).

So, it seems the jury is split regarding musicians, though more are in favour of reviews than not.

At the end of the day, a review is an expression of opinion. It is a review, a reaction at that time; it is not the divine finger pointing and picking fault. We are reviewers, not God. Just a review, just an opinion and you can ignore it if you want to.

Knowledgeable and well-informed reviewers can perhaps introduce new listeners to more experimental music in a more meaningful way. One reader told me that they would not have got into jazz if it were not for reviews.

Because it was raised more than once ( and with passion in two cases), it is also worth including the sexism which still prevails in music and is encouraged by musicians who mine the erotic seam. It is still true that females who sit half-naked at a piano playing crap will get more attention and, therefore potentially, reviews than a male player who is a rework of Ellington. A glance at some pinned pictures on Twitter will give you some idea of those still plying this ancient method to get attention. It works to some extent, but readers need to discern, as do reviewers, the talent behind the pictures and the longevity of both. It is aimed at men, just half of the potential audience. Talent, on the other hand, aims at everyone. Just putting that out there because it came up.

So why do writers review?

The reasons include that it is about documenting the music. It is also about sharing the music a reviewer is passionate about and allowing others to understand the feelings it brings about. Many reviewers get a kick out of watching an artist they gave a platform to and seeing them soar - watching what they can do given that chance. Having someone believe in you can make such a difference for an artist.

It is also amusing to hear musicians describe writers. Generally, if things go well, the writer is a reviewer. If not, they are a critic, but reviews are essential components in an artist's toolbox.