The Role of the Critic
Any person with responsibility for publishing a folk magazine will tell you that one of the most difficult issues they face concerns reviews, either recorded or live. It may be stating the obvious but reviews are 'opinions', individuals' opinions, and different people have their own point of view. I have personally witnessed two occasions when magazine editors have been verbally abused almost to the point of physical abuse, on the subject of particular reviews in their magazine, yet at the recent "Folk Music and the Media" forum, the general charge levelled was that reviews were too cosy and not critical enough.
I hope our general review policy is fairly clear. We genuinely find that the quality of music we get in to review is good. Of course there are differences between an album released by established musicians with the budget for adequate studio time and a producer and one which is put out by a new band, or one put out by a traditional musician or singer with no aspirations to fame and fortune but who people feel should be recorded. We hope that our reviews are sensitive to the different standards which need to be applied in each case.
We also have such a problem with space - there are a lot of albums being released - that we are unable to review every album sent in. If we feel that reviews are not going to be constructive, then in most cases we let them slip by. Again this involves opinions and we get it wrong at times. Sometimes there is also the presumption that because we haven't published a review, WE don't like the album. This is not usually the case as we still have more good reviews which we can't fit in, than those which we feel are not up to scratch. So far we have avoided a brief "and the rest" section as we feel that can be insulting in a different way.
However, there is a place for legitimate criticism. Most companies go to great lengths to research their customers' opinions, preferring to react to what their customers like rather than simply see them voting with their feet. A review should tell the prospective buyer something and may provide valuable feedback for the artiste.
Commercial success is not always an accurate reflection of quality but it is hard to argue with long term popularity - they must be doing something right. In some cases the "something right" is that they entertain an audience. At times this is a skill which we can ignore too much in search of "art".
What right have we to criticise? By the very act of going on stage and performing for a paying audience or releasing a commercial recording, artistes are seeking acclaim or criticism. They enjoy the applause and at times they may have to bear the rejection. However, destructive criticism is in no-one's interest.
People often view their favourite artiste on stage as a super-confident human being with no nerves and immune from criticism. Anybody who has ever performed in public will know different and stagefright does not necessarily go away in the face of abundant talent.
The folk scene is not primarily a commercial enterprise. It doesn't owe anybody a living but it does have a responsibility to treat musicians, who give us so much pleasure, properly. (At the moment we are researching some issues relating to health problems among performers, as for some there is a genuine fear that admitting to any weakness would result in work quickly disappearing).
Review issues are always of concern to us. What prompted this particular editorial was a realisation that in the case of one recent prominent review I feel that I made a mistake in publishing it. The review was of Dougie MacLean's "Riof" album. This fell into the category of "the reviewer didn't like the artiste's music" and to be fair the reviewer did make this point clearly. He also said that he could quite happily keep his opinion to himself until we sent him the album for review. I spoke to the writer about it and we agreed to stick by the review. There was an element of humour within the review which perhaps has been misunderstood. In this case I personally did not share Hector's opinion, but it is not my place to decide what our reviewers think. I consider Hector to be a perceptive reviewer who has opinions and is not afraid to air them. Hector for instance was a champion of Vin Garbutt's work when others criticised him for daring to take the Pro-Life stance in song on abortion issues.
Whatever the motives of the reviewer, the result was not constructive and so, with hindsight, I appreciate that I made a mistake in publishing it. Jenny and Dougie MacLean read the review shortly after Dougie's sell-out concert at Celtic Connections. It hurt Jenny particularly at a time when she was rightly proud of Dougie's achievement. For that I am genuinely sorry and unreservedly apologise.