For the Indian music scene, concert and album reviews are not only important — they’re also necessary
Both album and concert reviews are rarely seen in Indian magazines, newspapers and websites that otherwise publish stories about culture.
Some months ago, I wrote about how Indian music magazines are fast becoming extinct. There’s another endangered species: the music review. Both album and concert reviews are rarely seen in Indian magazines, newspapers and websites that otherwise publish stories about culture.
The only place you might find them with regularity is on a music website or blog. (The exception of course is Hindi film soundtracks, because they get categorised as coverage about Bollywood.) To me, this is strange because this is not the case with foreign publications, quite a few of which, such as The New York Times and The Guardian, are renowned for the quality of their music reviews.
I immensely enjoy both reading and writing reviews. As a reader, they give me an opportunity to learn about different perspectives and gain insight into an artist’s work that might otherwise be missing in a news piece about them. As a writer, reviews give me a chance to analyse, and take a long view.
In India, whenever a local act releases a new album or an international one tours the country, we get a series of previews, interviews and profiles about the subject, but barely any reviews of them. Why? The simple answer is that reviews don’t get as many hits. Perhaps most people want to know about what’s happening rather than somebody’s opinion about it. In the age of social media, everybody is a self-proclaimed expert who expresses and swaps his or her thoughts on Facebook or Twitter.
The inherent risk of the crowd-sourced review is that it lacks the expertise of an experienced hand. Sure if a lot of people rate something low, it’s very likely to be avoidable (though the reverse isn’t always true). Even with a multiplicity of voices, you’re unlikely to find out why something is good or bad. Too often, crowd-sourced reviews are a series of adjectives sans context.
I’ve never been a fan of album reviews that are just a collection of sentences describing each track. I also skip self-indulgent think pieces masquerading as reviews, which have clearly been written to profess the writer’s superfandom. They might work for other superfans but not for me. And maybe because I’m not a musician myself, I don’t care too much for reviews that are filled with technical details. A band should be tight but beyond that I want to know whether the music moves the listener.
Writers would do well however to realise that the purpose of the review has changed over time and therefore so should the style. Unlike the old days, fans can get access to an album as soon as it’s released. When you can stream everything at a click, hearing an album doesn’t require the same investment of time, money and effort it did in the era of physical formats.
So what makes a good review? To me, a great review, like any good article, is all about context. I’ll often read reviews of albums I have no plans of listening to, or gigs I had no intention of attending, because they tell me something new about an artist, a genre or a scene. They tell me what that piece of work or performance represents for that kind of music in that particular time. If the review is praiseworthy, ideally, it should intrigue me enough and make me want to leave aside everything else I have to do, to listen to the music.
As a critic covering the Indian independent scene, I’ve grappled over the years with whether there’s any point in running a bad review. If the purpose is to encourage then why tell a band something they’re already likely to know? Isn’t it better to use that space to write about an act with true potential, to encourage rather than dishearten? Some might disagree.
Concert reviews are easier to write because most often, the music is familiar. Festivals, which are about more than just the music, are easier to critique. Yet reviews of the country’s biggest fests, which draw thousands of attendees and are therefore of interest to more than just a niche audience, are limited. Good gig reviews transport the reader to the stadium or the hall. Too often, the handfuls of them published are PR-driven recaps of what happened instead of what it felt like to be there.
I asked the folks behind year-old Indian music website A Humming Heart about why they decided to include a fairly extensive album reviews section for Hindi and Tamil film soundtracks and Indian independent releases. “For international reviews, there are several websites we could go to read reviews,” said co-founders Aakriti Mehrotra and Sukanya Agrawal, in an email interview they answered jointly.
“But we soon realised there were very few places to go to in order to learn about Indian music of different genres and regions. In the case of indie music, we don’t just want to let people know about the existence of these artists, but also that there is this huge pool of music that deserves to be scrutinised the same way Bollywood or other mainstream content does.” The scrutiny they refer to is crucial for any scene to grow. In other words, for the independent music scene in particular, reviews are not only important, they’re necessary.
Amit Gurbaxani is a Mumbai-based journalist who has been writing about music, specifically the country's independent scene, for nearly two decades. He tweets @TheGroovebox
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