Don’t Like That Record Review? Head For The Courts

Jun 25th, 2007 // 6 Comments

An Australian case in which a restaurant won damages from a newspaper that gave it a bad review has inspired pianist (and author) Susan Tomes, who took to the Guardian to pontificate on whether these suits would work in the music world:

If someone does a hatchet job on a solo pianist, his or her personal reputation and business interests are both damaged. The pianist is the business. His playing cannot be spruced up overnight. If he could prove that bookings had fallen through, or were likely to, because concert promoters had lost confidence in him after reading a negative review, surely he could sue for damage to his business interests.

Musicians often wonder what authority critics have to publish their opinions in the national press. This is not to say that there are no committed and knowledgeable critics out there – there are. But an arts critic needs no training. No qualifications have to be achieved before you can become one.

I often think about this when I play in the US. Months before the promoter is allowed to hire me, I have to submit extensive reviews, past programmes and CD reviews to show why I should be engaged, rather than a similarly qualified American artist. When the concert finally takes place, it is likely to be reviewed by someone who – to put it mildly – is unlikely to have been so thoroughly vetted. The critic may even be someone who wanted to be a musician but didn’t succeed. Yet this one person’s review of my concert may determine whether I get asked back.

There is a huge imbalance between the long training and private practice that goes into being a performer and the preparation that goes into being a critic. Performers know this, and it lies at the heart of their uneasy relationship with critics. In the music world it is generally thought that the most dignified response to a poor review is silence. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some performers were now wondering whether it would be better to fight back.

Sure, in theory, it would be great to fight back–but in the end, the suing musicians wouldn’t gain too much from a lawsuit, aside from mounting legal fees, a drastic drop in press mentions about the performer’s musical output (the ink would instead go to breathless, schadenfreude-tinged coverage of the lawsuit), and a cold, harsh realization of how little these “untrained” scribes actually wind up earning.

Unqualified criticism [The Guardian]

  1. mike a

    Fortunately for us Americans, the Cherry Sisters set a precedent that allows us to be as critical as we like:


  2. mike a

    It also begs the question: what if a qualified and “thoroughly vetted” critic, with impeccable credentials in the artist’s chosen field, reviews the artist’s work and STILL doesn’t like it? Do you still sue? Could it be that bad art is bad art regardless of the critic’s credentials? I already know the response to that: “You’re still not entitled to an opinion because you’re a critic and not an artist.” For such people, no critic will ever be acceptable unless that critic offers a rave review.

  3. janine

    Unfortunately, people don’t seem to understand the difference between criticism and reviews. Reviews are here to stay, though I’ve never had a use for them. But criticism, a first hand account of what one person took away from a song, or album, or show, or whatever, has always been the best way for me to see what I get/got out of the same thing. Never more so than when I disagree. That said, I think we should stamp out the celebrity journalism part. I don’t care if they’re smart or nice or assholes; how was the music?

  4. FunkyJ

    The critic may even be someone who wanted to be a musician but didn’t succeed.

    I’ve actually had this accusation thrown at me after I said a DJ cleared the floor a little. It was also said the only reason I got the review gig was because I was sleeping with the editor.

    I admit I may have been over critical, but I was just saying what I saw.

    However, that DJ still plays and is still successful, the club was successful, and everyone there enjoyed it and many still continue to enjoy that music.

    However, my reputation came under fire because of this, and I’m still hesitant to give even a remotely negative review of something.

    I think to attack the critic, and not what they’re saying, is the lowest form of action a musician can take.

    If you don’t like a review, you simply ignore it, and find one you do like.

  5. nonce

    The “credential” problem Tomes is talking about is exactly why artists and audiences sometimes have an issue with large-scale journalism in creative areas–when large newspapers or national mags hire critics they’re looking for *journalism* experience, not passion or knowledge. This is why the theatre critic in Milwaukee is a former sportswriter, and theatre comapnies there know the way to get a good review is to put a scantily-clad woman under 30 onstage.

    But nobody should treat critics nowFunky J was treated. The bottom-line problem is slow-witted people relying on opinions as the final word instead of using those opinions as a starting point for forming their own impressions.

  6. nonce


    Yeah, uh “how Funky J”.

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