Ed Sheeran Couldn’t Be More Wrong About Music Critics

photo: Dan Martensen

Sure. In one respect, Ed Sheeran is right. Recently in a Rolling Stone spread, the British pop star said music critics are useless in the age of streaming. “Why do you need to read a review? Listen to it. It’s freely available! Make up your own mind.” Due to streaming, you don’t have to stand in the lobby of the record store clutching your $20.00 allowance, wondering apprehensively what two precious albums you should purchase after reading the review section of Rolling Stone or Spin.

With every single piece of recorded music now right at your fingertips, spending time reading professional reviews may seem silly. But the problem is that you have every single piece of recorded music right at your fingertips, which means we’ve gone from not enough options, to way too many. An average of 60,000 new tracks are uploaded to the Spotify platform every day, meaning a new song goes live every 1.4 seconds, and around 22 million new tracks are being added each year. Oh, and those numbers are increasing over time. In 2019 for example, it was 40,000 new tracks going live each day.

So sure, if you want to hear the new Ed Sheeran album, you can queue it up and see for yourself if it’s something that resonates with you. But what if you think Ed Sheeran and most popular music sucks, and don’t know what you want to listen to. What if you want to find the music that most suits you? 17 years ago before streaming was a thing and anyone could produce an album in their bedroom on an iPhone, finding your favorite music was less daunting of a task. Now it’s virtually impossible without some guidance, and it’s getting more impossible every single day.

Just take the tiny little corner of the music universe where independent country, good mainstream country, and Americana/roots fans hang out. Just last week on March 24th, 22 albums were released, and that was the list of ones personally curated by a music critic. The full number was over 30. Also appreciate that these albums aren’t getting shorter. One of those March 24th albums was Gettin’ Old by Luke Comes that had a whopping 18 tracks. That’s paltry though compared to Zach Bryan’s American Heartbreak with 34 tracks, or Morgan Wallen’s 36-track One Thing At A Time. We’re in the middle of a musical arms race, with listeners getting so buried in a dizzying sea of options, it’s hard to breathe.

This is where the music critic comes into play in 2023. Sure, with playlists, recommendation algorithms, social media, and other curation points, the role of the professional critic has diminished to an extent, and evolved. But someone has to actually get out there into the real world and discover the next Ed Sheeran. With so much music and so many holes in people’s perspectives created by algorithmic experiences, critics out there digging through reams of submissions and watching many hours of live performances to find what everyone else is missing is an essential part of the musical environment.

Take Saving Country Music for example. This place should no longer exist according to conventional wisdom. This is a web 1.0 property in a web 2.5 world. Who reads blogs anymore, or even goes to standalone websites? Tons of people do actually, and one of the reasons Saving Country Music has thrived is very specifically because it’s one of the few places where you can find actual music criticism as opposed to musical lifestyle reporting presented as criticism.

Music criticism is dead in many respects, but it’s not for the reasons Ed Sheeran cites. It’s because in music coverage today, seldom is heard a discouraging word as Twitter types with inferiority complexes suck up obsequiously to their favorite artists, similar to the puff piece spread on Ed Sheeran in Rolling Stone where his quote about critics came from. Oh sure, you can still find many music journalists lashing out at artists on social media or in certain articles, but it’s rarely or ever for their musical output. It’s for the political stances they take, words they said in the past, and other such pearl-clutching nonsense that has nothing to do with the music itself.

It’s extremely rare to see a review these days that takes a critical turn, constructively or otherwise. Editors won’t approve it, and many journalists won’t participate in it, because ultimately the journalist or outlet doesn’t want to lose access to the performer for future coverage. This is completely opposite to how it is in the movie realm where 50% of professional reviews are negative.

Similar to movie criticism though, music criticism now is often centered around identity vectors, while the artistic merit of a work is barely mentioned if not off-limits. Instead, attention is lavished on a performer for the level of vitctimhood they can cite, or the political beliefs they espouse, which ultimately is an insult to both the art and the artist, while strong, honest, and constructive criticism is a sign of respect, even if many of today’s self-absorbed artists raised in environments where they were babied find it foreign, if not outright verboten.

Ever since there has been art, there has been artistic criticism, dating all the way back to Greek society. True artists should embrace the criticism process, and encourage and foster it, irrespective of the curation qualities of the practice. Riffing about music at bars, barbecues, baseball games, water coolers, etc. is a part of life. Music means something to people, and they want to actively participate in it by sharing their opinions. Supporting artists, and engaging in coverage of them is one way to do that.

Make no mistake though, with Chat GPT, the proliferation of social media, and other emerging challenges, music criticism is under threat, and on the wane. Last week, NPR Music laid off 10% of its staff and discontinued numerous podcasts. Other outlets are cutting back as well as the bottom has fallen out of the ad revenue market in the current economic downturn. Even if an outlet is attracting readers or listeners, it’s still tough to turn that into revenue.

There are not nearly as many people reporting on music or art in general in both local and national publications as there were even just a few years ago, mostly due to the focus of journalism gravitating more toward politics and other culture war issues that generate more clicks. But artistic criticism will endure, at least it will for the ones who do it from the passion of wanting to leave the musical world in better shape than where they found it, damn the clicks and revenue. Critics have to work harder, dig deeper, and do more to prove their worth. Their role in music is not guaranteed. Just like every occupation—including being a musician—it must be earned.

Ed Sheeran has his. He’s a multi-millionaire performer that doesn’t need some music critic taking a chance on his album submission in a huge stack of them to hopefully help light the initial spark of interest in his music that may launch a career. When Saving Country Music was the very first outlet to review Sturgill Simpson, interview Zach Bryan, or report on Sierra Ferrell, who knew where they would go? Was it these reviews or articles that made their careers? Of course not. It was their talent, and the timing of their art that filled the appetite that was presented in that moment. But maybe it helped a little.

This is what motivates the critic—finding the next Sturgill Simpson or Ed Sheeran. And as long as there are artists to discover and careers to launch, there will be albums and songs to criticize. Because even when you have something negative to say, it still symbolizes that you care, and that you’re listening, even if the rest of the world isn’t. And that is why music criticism has value. Still.

© 2023 Saving Country Music