Critical Matters: Raising the Bar for Popular Black Music

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    By L. Michael Gipson

    “People are just so brainwashed. I don’t think people know what’s good and not good anymore. Anything popular even if it’s wack it’s like what sets the pace for music nowadays. It’s like “oh, this is ‘hot’” and it’s wack. Ninety-eight percent of what’s on the radio is wack. Ninety-eight percent of the musicians you hear playing is wack, you know? Because, there is no bar anymore… ” – Musicians from Robert Glasper Experiment’s “Black Radio”

    By L. Michael Gipson

    “People are just so brainwashed. I don’t think people know what’s good and not good anymore. Anything popular even if it’s wack it’s like what sets the pace for music nowadays. It’s like “oh, this is ‘hot’” and it’s wack. Ninety-eight percent of what’s on the radio is wack. Ninety-eight percent of the musicians you hear playing is wack, you know? Because, there is no bar anymore… ” – Musicians from Robert Glasper Experiment’s “Black Radio”

    Who decides the bar? Musicians? Record labels? Critics? There’s a lot to blame for the sad state of black radio’s playlists, for the state of popular black music itself. Annually, questions and finger-pointing come rolling through as predictably as the seasonal flight plan of Capistrano swallows. Much of what Glasper’s recorded guests say is typical soul scene cocktail fodder. The answers flow readily, solutions less so. Some of the explanations ring true, some are reductive, some ahistorical, but few begin to approach realistic solutions to the matter at hand: how can we improve the average black music fan’s listening experience? How can we re-establish the bar that everyone claims is subterranean at this point? The issues are more complex than the idea that black radio started sucking because of payola or because folks just got lazy in their thinking and appreciation of music. Way more. And the solutions may be multifaceted, but one of those facets must be informed, independent critics.

    There isn’t sufficient space to go through the many factors that have contributed to popular black music’s decline, but some important factors: The 1996 Telecommunications Act that ushered in radio monopolies and helped privilege nationally syndicated deejays over local, homegrown talent;  a freefall in minority media ownership since the 1995 repeal of the Federal Communications Commission Minority Tax Certificate; the new Arbitron radio ratings methodology system introduced in 2007 that immediately measured ratings declines of 37-68% for audiences age 25 to 55 on minority-owned radio stations in piloted cities, and resulted in an uphill battle to avoid white flight of advertising dollars from impacted minority stations;* and the continued neglect by FM radio program directors of the largest age groups outside of Gen Y, namely Baby Boomers and their Gen X kids—a combined audience of 77 million being ignored – in favor of an almost exclusive focus on the 18-25 and 26-34 “markets of desire” despite those youth markets’ increased unemployment, lack of disposable income, boomerang nesting, and tech savvy (allowing them to get whatever music they want even before it’s commercially available). 

    Maybe the reason popular black music and radio is “wack” (as opposed to a very robust Black independent and underground soul & R&B scene) is a decline in the public’s musical ears, fueled largely by the stunning reversal of childhood arts education that began a quarter century ago following nearly 50 years of growth. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) data also shows that those exposed to arts education are more likely to attend live arts and music events. Better and more arts education mean better and more real musicians and more audience members being tickets for their shows and seeing a value in good music. Could it possibly also mean the raising of that dang pesky bar?

    One could reasonably argue that the bar for what was considered good music was once higher (an argument can be made to the contrary) and part of what made that bar was a more informed group of gatekeepers. In addition to DJs, program directors, and the now defunct A&R staffs of many record labels, those gatekeepers included folks like us: the newspaper and magazine critics and music journalists. With more music saturating the internet than ever before at a time when the public has less time (and more distractions) than ever, having critics serve as credible gatekeepers matters now more than ever. Maybe it’s time for discriminating music critics again?

    At the turn of this century, everyone became a reviewer, a blogging “tastemaker” through the internet revolution. Eventually, desperate for fresh, daily content to keep “relevant” and keep advertisers coming, some of these bloggers essentially posted press releases from publicists, masquerading them as reviews, occasionally lifting text wholesale from their P.R. releases, adjectives and all. There were also those tastemakers who were more interested in rubbing elbows with stars than they were critiquing their work, leading to more watered down reviews. The public might have thought they were getting more varied and discerning gatekeepers to tell them “what’s hot” through this internet revolution. Varied? Yes. Discerning? Not so much. One too many bum purchases recommended by those without good ears, journalism ethics, and/or any music education, has started taking its toll and the refrains of how bad music today is has roared back even louder than before, despite there being a steady stream of good music being released all the time.

    Still, the question I often get asked is “how do I get to that good music when I don’t have the time to look?” Who’s trustworthy enough to filter out the noise and direct the traffic in good music’s direction? With terrestrial radio sucking and bloggers proving increasingly untrustworthy gatekeepers, the tech savvy have begun to rely on Spotify and Pandora recommendations, but their algorithms are only as good as they are  current in their knowledge of the musical universe (with black music genres usually being their blind spot). Most folks have just come to rely more heavily on their friends’ word-of-mouth to find what’s good, with mixed results. Friends lacking a shared musical vocabulary aren’t always the best at telling you why they like something, to help you determine if what they like would be your cup of tea. Everybody may be a critic, but few are basing their critique on matters of substance - often just a sense or a feeling, sometimes undervaluing high quality musical products that don’t follow familiar radio trends, and ultimately doing a disservice to artists, fans, and music culture alike.

    Even among our critic ranks, us dinosaurs of an age when our authoritative stamp of approval or dismissal actually meant something more than another disposable P.R. clip in an artist’s press kit, there is pressure to not name that which is “wack,” “wack.” The proliferation of the word “hater” (a carelessly rendered, substantively meaningless word) and the rise of the music stan (stalker fan) that demands partisan loyalty and allegiance to beloved artists regardless of the quality of products they release has both led some critics to not call a spade a spade, in order to avoid a social media avalanche of negative stan attention attacking the critic even more than their words. Contrary to popular belief, all music journalists aren’t failed or frustrated artists secretly longing to be in an artist’s shoes. In fact, being industry insiders, most critics and music journalists have even more sense of just how thankless and financially bereft a walk being a music artist today can be, and hold folks taking that rather arduous path in high esteem. We just demand as much of the artist as their potential indicates or to say the Emperor has no clothes when the hype outweighs the performance. Happily, at our best, we play our position.

    There is also the pressure by media outlets to not be critical of artists whose labels might spend money on advertising at that ad-dependent outlet. Blessedly, that has not been my experience at SoulTracks, but it has been my experience at other media businesses for which I’ve worked or contributed. These editors and publishers are concerned that speaking critically of an album, much less negatively, is viewed as a threat to their bottom lines, further neutering critics and leaving consumers without trustworthy filters. There is also a sense that no one cares to read a critique that digs deep, which is why I saw editor requests for reviews of 1000 words decline to 150 words over the last ten years, so little is there respect for either the audience or the critique. This is a bad state of affairs all around.

    Yes, we need the return of deep, thoughtful criticism and more fearless critics and music journalists willing to speak their truth, helping guide our readers to the cream – or at least beginning a healthy debate about what is the cream - and sparing their hard-earned dollars from being wasted on too many empty-calorie artists that don’t feed their minds, ears or souls. We need critics and journalists who don’t care if they are beloved by the musicians they cover (those who respect your voice will come around in time and those who won’t shouldn’t matter; this isn’t supposed to be a popularity contest among musicians). We need critics and journalists who aren’t groupies and stans, but still music fans. We need critics with so consistent and respected a point of view that following that critic long-term already lets readers know whether they like the product or not, based on their knowledge of that critic’s perspective, even if they disagree with that critic.

    Criticism is and always will be a subjective art, a balancing of history and music education with a finger on popular trends and a highly individualized view of what is and feels good. Accordingly, it is ripe for debate, discourse, and disagreement, but when it’s well done and the voice rendering it is respected, critical thought can stand in the gap left by a radio industry that has abandoned its listeners, betraying bloggers overly anxious about follower metrics, media outlets more concerned with ad dollars than respected journalism, and a relentless dumping of music products in the world free of a discerning bar. Until music education is restored and internet radio is in every car, giving people better ears and better choices for where they listen to music most, then clear, artful, unvarnished music criticism is needed again to help us all. Demand more from us and the artists serving the music we all profess to love. Quality black radio is dead. Long live quality black music!

    L. Michael Gipson is the Music Editor for You can follow him on Twitter @LMichaelGipson and SoulTracks @Soultracksdotcom. 


    * those interested in learning more should pick up Kristal Brent Zook’s brilliant “I See Black People: The Rise and Fall of African American-Owned Television and Radio”)