Though, as I stated in my very first post, the main aim of my blog is providing music reviews of a reasonably high standard of quality, every now and then it is nice to break from the ‘routine’ and post something different, even if still related to music. Even if to some this post may look like a vanity project of sorts, I think – as my blog has received so much positive feedback since its inception in June 2010 – it might be a good idea to enlighten my faithful readers about the process through which those reviews are created.
Some wonder at those people who seem to be able to churn out reviews as if there was no tomorrow, and sometimes expect everyone to do the same. When I first started my ‘career’ as a reviewer, almost six years ago, it was much easier for me to review an album in half an hour, and sometimes to tackle even more than one review a day. At that time, my reviews were short and sweet, more like sketches based on impressions than methodical write-ups. I was an active collaborator of a well-known progressive rock website, where everyone was allowed (and encouraged) to post their own reviews, which – except in case of blatant violations of the guidelines – were not edited, and published warts and all. Like most other members, I wrote about albums I was familiar with, generally part of my own collection. With the years, my reviews gradually became longer and more detailed, sometimes approaching 1,000 words. My reviewing pace, on the other hand, was always somewhat erratic: when I felt inspired, I could produce several reviews a week (or even a day), but there were also times when I went months before writing anything.
Then, a couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to join the reviewing team of another prog site, with a smaller but more select readership. In the fifteen months or so of my tenure, I learned a lot about the discipline of using a template for my reviews, as well as the ‘pleasures’ of working with rather strict deadlines. Reviews-based sites generally handle promotional copies sent by labels or the artists themselves – which means a reviewer gets the good, the bad and the ugly. Together with excellent additions to your collection, you get stuff that you would pay never to hear ever again, and everything in between. Going from the absolute freedom of reviewing your own collection to a more objective, detached approach was very educational, and led me to regard my previous reviews with a critical eye. Obviously, reviewing something that you dislike can be not just challenging, but also quite frustrating, especially when you hit a patch of writer’s block (something that happens to me relatively often). Even if you are not paid in coin, you do get free material, and have a commitment to those who sent it to you – even if stories (very probably true) abound about ‘reviewers’ selling unopened promo CDs on eBay.
One of the main issues with being an ‘official’ reviewer as opposed to an ‘occasional’ one is that it is very easy to end up with a large backlog, which often means reviews are not delivered in as timely a fashion as the artists might wish. This breeds frustration and a sense of being under constant pressure – feelings we all are familiar with at work, but that hardly any of us can really afford in our free time. For this reason, I felt liberated when I was finally able to do my own thing, at my own pace, picking and choosing which albums to review instead of having to deal with an increasing number of CDs – a good deal of them of questionable quality. I was finally free to write 4 reviews a month (or even less than that) instead of 8, 10 or even a staggering 12, and concentrate on getting the best possible results.
Compared to other reviewers, I am undoubtedly slow. When I only reviewed items in my collection, in most cases I was so familiar with the music that I did not even need to actually listen to an album before I started writing. Now, first of all I need to get acquainted with the album, and that itself can take up some time. Listening to music when we are doing other things is not always conducive to appreciating it, though in today’s hectic world we do not always have a choice. In order to get the proper feel of any given album, at least three listens are needed; however, I have found that the best way for me to lay the groundwork is to sit down and take track-by-track notes (as detailed as possible) while listening to the album. The content of those notes, together with factual information on the band or artist and their other releases (whenever applicable), will be fleshed out – first rather informally, almost like a brainstorming session, then gradually honed until I am satisfied with the final product. When working on the final version of a review, I often put the album on in order to have the music fresh in my mind. As you might expect, the whole process takes time – no less than two days, often even three.
Having had experience of academic writing, and also a few of my writings published (though none concerning music), I am familiar with the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the writing process. Each of my reviews, therefore, is conceived like a mini-essay – no matter how pretentious this may sound. Knowing the rules of good writing and applying them in most circumstances makes any text (even an informal email message) much easier to read, as well as more informative. Having a proper introduction and conclusion and using paragraph breaks are just some of the aspects that make a good review. I also avoid those track-by-track breakdowns that some people seem to enjoy so much, since I find them overly clinical and of interest only to those obsessed with minute detail. Conversely, I believe in the importance of putting the album in context by referring to the band or artist’s previous or following releases, and finding comparisons with other acts.
As most of my readers know, I am not a native speaker of English, though I have acquired a reasonably high level of competence through my extensive education and in-depth study of the language. I have always been good at writing in my own native language, and being a keen reader of material on a wide range of subjects has obviously helped me to acquire a ‘feel’ for how a good written text should be like. Fortunately, English and Italian share enough features for me to feel confident when writing about relatively serious subjects in my second language – and, in my opinion, a good review is serious business, even if I do it as a hobby of sorts. We should not forget that there is a lot of work and dedication (as well as an investment of financial resources) behind most of the albums I review. Many of the artists who send me their CDs have day jobs in addition to their musical careers, and are aware that, in this day and age, this is the only way for them to be able to play the music they love. Therefore, they deserve a fair-minded, detailed review, even if on a personal level I may not particularly care for their musical offer.
This is why, though I do not shy away from expressing my personal impressions, you will never see me use derogatory or outright insulting terms about either an artist or their listeners, unlike what some of my former ‘colleagues’ seemed to enjoy doing – often ending their write-ups with sentences such as ‘avoid at all costs’. It is possible to write a negative review without offending anyone (although I am not so naïve as to think that negative reviews do not upset their recipients at all), and criticism can and should be as constructive as possible. One of the reasons why I have completely dispensed with ratings (another liberation!) is that a one-star rating feels like a sentence without appeal, while a reasonably thorough review allows the reader to find some saving grace even in the worst of albums.
By way of a conclusion, I would like to ask the artists who send me their material to be patient if my review comes somewhat later than others. While I may be slow, the care and effort I put in each of my reviews should be enough to make them worth the wait. I also wish to thank all the people who have been following my blog over the past nine months for giving me the incentive to keep on writing, even when I was not feeling my best. Although I do not make any money out of it, I consider this blog one of my greatest successes, and hope to keep it going for a long time.