Money Where Their Mouths Are Critics Back Up Their Claims on MP3 Blogs

Money Where Their Mouths Are Critics Back Up Their Claims on MP3 Blogs
Operated by a fierce band of independent critics, weblogs have revitalised the critical discourse surrounding music, offering writers a collective soapbox from which to bare their unedited souls. Years in the making, the blogging phenomenon has become even more widespread this year, its growth undermining the longstanding hegemony of print-based music journalism.

But what's perhaps most fascinating about blogging right now is the proliferation of MP3 blogs, which are devoted to hosting songs annotated with contextual notes written by the site's host. If, as John Shaw (utopianturtletop.blogspot.com) has noted, blogs are "like notes passed back and forth at school that you want everybody to read," these MP3 sites are like humming the first few bars of a song, having the rest of class join in, and then settling down for a discussion once the song's over.

The development of MP3 blogs reminds us that in these days of fractionalised tastes, purveyors of cultural products are having to hone their pitch down to narrower target groups than ever before. In this environment, these sites play a central role in deciding how — and why — we listen to music.

With hundreds of new titles flooding the market every month, audio blogs provide crucial guidance to listeners, helping them skim the few releases worth rescuing. Find a site that suits your fancy — my favourites include Flux Blog (newflux.blogspot.com) and Gabba (www.gabba.cc) — and you'll have access to an infinitely renewable resource of new songs and insightful criticism, a concise one-two punch uniquely tailored to music appreciation.

In their deft merger of audio content and commentary, MP3 blogs resemble newsstand magazines sold with an accompanying CD sampler. To indie-minded readers, the best example of this format might be CMJ, the college-centric American glossy. CMJ's compilations are chockfull of obscure and independent artists, but much as these discs have helped form the tastes of young listeners, there's something suspicious about the magazine's half-hearted criticism. Because labels pay upwards of $1,500 to place their songs on the monthly compilation, CMJ's writers are toothless in their appraisal of said songs, a failing that has contributed to the publication's decline into irrelevance.

Given their comparatively smaller readership, MP3 blogs might be thought safe from such pitfalls, but as with all successful independent forms of communication, profit seekers have already started hunting down the trail. For example, the Warner label recently contacted several popular sites to see if they might like to host a new song by the Secret Machines, a corporate-rock act with indie instincts. Only one, Music For Robots (music.for-robots.com), accepted the song, posting it under the headline "Music For Robots Sells Out."

Insofar as labels view critics as mere cogs in the promotional machine, and insofar as that mentality has driven many fed-up critics to create their own blogs, the infiltration of corporate interests into this domain is distressing. Less pernicious, though, is the ability of unknown artists to publicise their wares through such channels, as evidenced by the Junior Boys, a Hamilton-based electronic pop trio that sent its music to influential critics like Simon Reynolds (www.blissout.blogspot.com), who in turn generated a huge swell of online interest in the group. Just over a year later, the Boys signed to Domino Records, which will release the band's debut album in late September.

The foremost example yet of blogging's impact on the music industry might have occurred earlier this year, when the site operated by Bay Area hip-hop critic Oliver Wang (www.o-dub.com/soulsides/index.html) premiered "Callin' Out (Remix)," a new track by Lyrics Born. This was no mere case of someone leaking a bootleg before release date; in fact, the exclusive posting was initiated by the rapper's own label, Quannum Records, which wanted to publicise the upcoming release on Wang's taste-making site. Alas, the tactic worked almost too well. Within weeks of the single's appearance, so many people had downloaded the track that Quannum asked the critic to pull it down. If you missed out on the song — and maybe even if you didn't — I guess you'll just have to buy the record.