Concert Critiques & Media Reviews
Notes for Agencies, Organizers, & Artists

Last updated: 2020-11-14


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Table of contents


Introduction

Rolf Kyburz, 2008-12-31

My blogging started in summer 2011, with the idea of writing about music in my CD collection and related topics. 2014, I was “sidetracked” by an invitation from Bachtrack to do concert reviewing. However, over the past 6 years, concert reviews have gradually moved into the center of my blogging activities. As of this writing (2020-11-05), 350 (> 62%) out of 560 blog articles are concert reviews or related posts.

Initially, concert reviews in my blog were largely linked to concert visits / reviews I did for Bachtrack (in German). In late 2018, I stopped writing for Bachtrack, expecting to return to writing more CD reviews again. However, to my amazement, various organizers and ensembles signalled that they still offer me press tickets. Just for a blog review. On top of that, my blog is in English. The majority of my readers therefore are in North America and the U.K.

Aims of This Document

This document elaborates how this situation emerged. And it discusses its consequences for me as blogger, but possibly also for my “customers”, i.e., agencies, ensembles, and artists. I’m addressing the central aspects of these questions further down, in the sections “What Role Can I Play in Concert Critique?” and “Goals and Directions“.


The Role of Music Critique Today—A Personal Take

Of course, I’m not just attending concerts when I get an invitation and/or a free ticket. I am attending additional concerts which I deem interesting. Events where I feel that I should be able to write a review. I have set myself the rule to write about every concert that I attend. The only exceptions are concerts in my area, with local artists.

I try to satisfy as many requests / invitations for reviews as possible. At the same time, I don’t want to give up on my own concert plans and wishes. Quite often over the past years, though, I found that “my appetite is bigger than my stomach”. I seem to have the tendency to overfill my concert / review schedule.

I need to learn to make compromises between demands / wishes / requests, and my abilities and time. With this write-up I’m trying to explain my situation, what I think I can do. The aim is, to funnel incoming demands. I would like to avoid excessive expectations and disappointment.

The Context

To start, let me give a bit of context and perspective. I’m of course honored and infinitely grateful for opportunities to receive press tickets, and to attend interesting concerts through these. However, my “channel” is merely a private blog with limited readership. So, I often wonder why I’m receiving these offers for press tickets. Some of those may find an explanation in personal relationships with organizers & artists. Still, the more invitations and offers I got, the more I realized that there is more to it.

The Decline of Concert Critique

Gradually over recent years, I have observed a decline in music critique. I can see this from two things:

  • Concert critiques in print media are becoming fewer and fewer. Retiring music critics / commentators are not replaced. The remaining ones report more and more selectively. They typically focus on the “big names”—and/or on big orchestral performances and festivals with their mainstream repertoire. This year’s pandemic has severely dramaticized that situation.
  • At the time when I reviewed for Bachtrack, I was occasionally invited to press briefings. These were either preceding a specific concert, or they serve to present the program for the upcoming season. To my amazement, one orchestra keeps inviting me to their yearly press briefings. Even though I’m merely a blogger with limited outreach. True, I’m usually writing favorable, if not enthusiastic reviews on their performances—but still… Sadly, and confirming the above statement about critique in news media, there are typically just one or two other attendees: the main local newspaper, rarely also a local radio station or one smaller newspaper.

I made these observations already in recent years—at a time when concert live and festivals were booming, even overheated. With the collapse of concert life due to the pandemic, that shortage or absence of music critique has become alarming.

The Need for Music Critique

Of course, it is legitimate to ask whether music critique is really essential. Especially now that print media are under increased financial pressure. Let’s ignore the entertainment & information value of feuilleton pages for the average reader. What seems relevant here is the point-of-view of concert organizers, and even more so that of the musicians.

Possible Views of Concert Organizers

Concert organizers and agencies are commercial undertakings, therefore must be financially viable. They rely upon publicity to get and keep audiences. Hence their interest in having concerts reviewed in media.

At the same time, somewhat unfortunately, commercial pressure changes their attention and focus. They primarily look at the “big names” for artists (soloists, conductors, orchestras), the big festivals and locations. On top of that, more unfortunately, it makes them steer for mainstream repertoire. At least, they want to ensure that mainstream works maintain a substantial presence in programs. This way (and through the “big names”), concerts should attract big(ger) audiences. Needless to say that the current pandemic has dramatically increased the economic pressure on these enterprises.

How about the Artists?

I’m not talking about the superstars here—these rarely even care about music critique. They are typically busy traveling the world giving countless concerts and recitals. So, they probably don’t have the time to read critiques. And even if they do; why bother? They have their audience.

For the majority of the artists, however, the situation is different. They may have a teaching position or an employment in an orchestra. If not, they almost exclusively rely on the income (and hence the success) from concerts. CD sales can’t support an artist’s life.

CD sales are waning. Moreover, CD producers pay the artist an appallingly microscopic amount per CD sold. Only superstars get a substantial income from hardcopy media sales. Streaming platforms are now gradually taking over the market from CDs, DVDs. With respect to the artist’s payout, these are even worse, rather than better. Hence, recordings / CDs have become a mere means of promotion for concerts.

Help through Video-Broadcasts??

During the pandemic, many artists have started live video broadcasts via social media (YouTube, Facebook, IDAGIO, etc.). This may often be an act of despair. These broadcasts feature live performances, interviews (e.g., with fellow artists), teaching sessions (either with a pupil, even addressing the audience), lectures, discussions, or mixed formats. I have been following several of these and still enjoy them.

However (with few exceptions, maybe), such broadcasts are not a source of income. To the contrary, they cost time and resources. Broadcasts are mostly a means of maintaining contact with audiences and/or self-promotion. They maintain the hope to help the outcome of future concerts.

Critiques to the Rescue?

Overall, for many artists, critiques are a key element in promoting their activities. Especially young artists in the early stages of their career. The decline in critique is affecting artists directly. On top of that, the pandemic has put their livelihood at risk. When the concert life is suspended, many are cut off from their main source of income.


Rolf Kyburz, 2014-12-01

An Unexpected Blogger Career?

2018, when I ended my cooperation with Bachtrack, I expected to focus on CD reviews again. As already mentioned, to my surprise, several organizers and agencies signalled that they continue to offer me press tickets for their concerts. Agencies also send me invitations to concerts “out of the blue”, i.e., without prior contacts with these people / entities. More recently, this also happened through artists and ensembles. I’m apparently in some database(s) for potential concert reviewers. In other cases, people ran into my blog and liked my reviews.

However, the real reason for people to offer me press tickets almost certainly is in the decline of critiques in news media. And agencies, artists, and ensembles need publicity. They want to “stay in business”, as outlined above.

Too Much of a Career?

Needless to say that I enjoy and feel grateful for these unexpected opportunities to attend and review concerts! It honors me that organizers and artists view me as “viable” critic, that they invite me to their concerts and like my reviews. Especially those on their own concerts and recitals. Moreover, these invitations often led to friendly relationships with artists and people working for concert agencies. This is the most rewarding aspect of my blogging.

Downsides?

Both the opportunities for free tickets, as well as the growing circle of friends make it harder for me to decline offers for concerts. On top of that, there are of course additional concerts that catch my attention. Primarily in the area of chamber music and solo recitals. Events which my wife and I can’t resist attending, provided they are affordable and geographically within reach (see also below).

As stated above, I have set myself the rule to write about every concert that I attend. This keeps my blog reviews “alive”. And it also makes me listen more carefully, makes me remember more details about works, performances, and artists.

The downside, however, is, that—as one can easily picture—”my appetite is bigger than my stomach”. This was the case from the time when I reviewed for Bachtrack, up to the point where the pandemic brought concert life to a grinding halt. I often tended to keep myself so busy that I ended up working more than in my previous, professional life. Which actually means a lot.

This write-up is as an attempt to avoid such overload, maybe to keep invitations and other people’s expectations at bay.


My Work Ethics as Critic

For my concert review blogging, I have set myself a number of rules and principles:

  • I want to write about every concert that I attend. If there is too much of a review backlog, I may have to skip one or several concert opportunities.
  • I try applying the same (“universal”) criteria to all concerts that I attend. I don’t have diverging “local” and “global / world class” rulers / criteria.
  • At the same time, if I suspect that an event would lead to a mediocre, if not negative review, I’d rather skip the event. I don’t want to hurt or insult anybody. This is also a reason why I tend to skip local events.
  • There are some exceptions to the above. Occasionally, I disagree with the view of a world-class artist, based on recordings or YouTube videos. Given their generally high ranking, I may sometimes attend a concert just to re-assess (verify or falsify) my preconceived opinions.
  • I try hard to avoid complaisance reviews. I want my reports to be sincere. They should reflect my true (personal) musical concert experience.
  • Sure, I’m only just human. I concede that it is sometimes hard(er) to be critical with friendly artists and organizers. However, I noted that in almost all cases, artists like critical (and detailed) reviews. Assuming the critique is well-founded, of course. This confirms my course towards critical—and detailed—reviews.

Bribing?

It passed my mind that some may see a danger of me feeling bribed by free press tickets. Could this push me towards favorable reviews? That could barely be farther from reality!

I typically spend at least two full days preparing the review (organizing scores, doing Web searches, etc.) and writing. If I’m also taking photos, I may spend another 1 – 2 days wading through hundreds of pictures, looking for the best shots. And none of this receives any compensation. In addition, I pay for the transportation to and from the concert. These costs often exceed those for a regular ticket.

Blogging, a Money Sink?

In the case of concerts, ideally, my reviews turn out a mutual benefit:

  • I may get 1 – 2 free tickets, and I certainly enjoy the music, the concert, the contacts.
  • In turn, artists and organizer get a detailed and (hopefully) careful review describing how I (as a listener) perceive a performance.

The costs for the press tickets are often non-existent: unless a concert is sold out, I don’t take anyone’s seat. My costs, however, are real, considering travel / transportation (rarely even costs for nights at a hotel). There are also expenses for running the blog (hosting, software, etc.). My only factual “income” is via the amazon product links. If somebody buys media through these, I typically receive a 5% commission from a successful sale. However, this happens so rarely that over the past 5 years I could perhaps purchase 3 CDs (at regular price). It simply does not compare with my expenses, not even remotely.

I can actually only afford the blogging because I’m actually retired and live from my pension funds and social security. And of course, I draw my motivation from my love for music. And from the satisfaction through the friendship with musicians and organizers.


What Role Can I Play in Concert Critique?

Rolf Kyburz (2016-11-04, © Rolf Kyburz)

Finally, I’m getting to the central purpose of this document: What You Might Want to Know Before Asking me for a Concert Review. I fully appreciate your wish to have me review your concert(s) or recital(s). However, I would like to avoid disappointment and frustration. Therefore, I would like you to be realistic about what you can expect or hope for.

Review Scope

I’m strictly limiting my music listening to classical music. To me, this ranges from medieval / Renaissance up to contemporary classical. The bulk of my experience is with baroque up to late romantic music. That’s where I can rely upon experience (from concerts and recordings) to judge, and to form my personal opinion. Further back in time, my experience gets slightly thinner, but I still trust my ability to form an opinion and / or to rate a performance.

For contemporary classic compositions, there is very often nothing to compare with, no scores that are available or easily accessible. With such works, my comments still address performance aspects (coordination, sound, intonation, interaction with acoustics). However, apart from that, my reviews focus is on describing my personal impressions, the emotions and pictures that such music evokes.

Repertoire that I’m Not Covering

I don’t listen to (and refuse to comment on) Pop, Rock, Folk, etc., or what is sometimes called “popular music”. This includes mixed (“hybrid” or “blended”) genres, such as crossover, or the like. I did occasionally listen to Jazz (mostly decades ago), may indeed enjoy it—but I don’t have the knowledge and experience even just to talk about it. So, that’s excluded, too.

I made the decision to restrict myself to classical music over 50 years ago. And I stick to this—a lifetime is not enough to cover more with sufficient depth.

Repertoire Preferences

Within what I called “classical music” above, I’m applying additional restrictions. That’s not because I don’t like specific music or genres. Rather, I want to focus on events, performances that I feel comfortable commenting on:

  • I do enjoy opera and theater, but don’t feel like commenting on stage direction and related aspects. So, opera reviews are rare exceptions (I only reviewed one “real” opera performance so far, upon specific request by Bachtrack). Opera in concert halls is a different matter—I may consider that.
  • I do enjoy ballet, but have neither the knowledge / terminology, nor the language to even just to talk about it.

Genres

Other restrictions come from the way in which my blogging “works”. I refuse to do “quick and dirty” reviews. I want to stick to my standards in quality, depth and detail. In addition, I’m not just a writer (that’s hard enough, usually!), but I’m also my own editor, and I maintain my Web / blog platform all by myself. The latter involves maintaining databases, internal cross-linking, external references, checks for consistency, and social media coverage. For all this to work, I’m sticking to standard review schemes, in order not to get lost in the complexity of the publishing process.

In that chosen scheme, concerts with a large number of small pieces typically turn out to be laborious. Especially if they are from many different composers. This is one reason why I rarely attend song performances. I’m more amenable to attending performances of entire song cycles (such as Schubert’s Winterreise) though. The simpler the structure of a program, the easier it is for me to write about a concert.

Apart from that, I cover most genres within classical music, with some preferences. For example, in baroque and older music I (usually) prefer performances on historic instruments over interpretations on modern instruments. I try to be open-minded as much as possible. Still, there are some rare things I’m less enthusiastic about. For example, I never was a particular fan of the mandolin.

Artists

As outlined above: while I don’t necessarily dislike their performances, I personally find commenting on interpretations of established, world-class stars less attractive. Particularly if they are in the last phase of their career.

  • The results of such reviews are often predictable.
  • Countless critics have already commented on these or similar performances.
  • These artists typically ignore reviews.
  • Their fan communities only accept comments that fit their preconceived opinion. I don’t really care about these, but I’m not eager to start a heated debate. And I’m not willing to change my reviews in the aftermath, based on such input / debates.
  • If an artist’s performance level is declining, it may sometimes be worth spelling out the truth. However, writing such comments typically feels rather unpleasant.
  • Very often, such artists have their repertoire well-documented in recordings. With this, a sensible review would be restricted to the “shape of the day”. If I find the time, though, I’m certainly including such artists in postings that compare different performances / interpretations.

Mainstream Repertoire?

Since I stopped reviewing for Bachtrack, I’m rarely attending classic/romantic concerts with big symphony orchestras. For one, I’m not on the reviewer list for such ensembles (“not an accredited member of the press”). Also, big, orchestral concerts often still get sufficient coverage in the print media.

Big, orchestral concerts are expensive. This almost forces organizers into repertoire that is likely to attract big(ger) audiences. Of course, I have nothing against reviewing performances of the “big”, classical symphonies, or the popular classic and romantic concertos. But if that repertoire repeats itself over and over again, I tend to lose interest in reviewing it. Chamber music concerts and solo recitals are usually covering a broader and non-mainstream repertoire.

Goals and Directions

I have written about my view on the purpose of music critique in an earlier blog post (2018-10-27). In a more recent post (2019-11-10) I have written about the associated time requirements. I don’t want to repeat myself here. Just a few additions:

Outreach

I’m not a newspaper. This is merely a private blog. The number of readers / visitors to a review is small, unless artists of organizers “spread the word” (assuming they like the write-up). And I suspect that ordinary readers often don’t make it to the end of my long texts. Still, I’m trying my best in

  • assuring that Google will find my postings (SEO), and
  • promoting my reviews via social media (Facebook, Twitter, tumblr, etc.). But also there, the number of followers is limited. Hence, re-posting / re-tweeting or other sharing is most welcome.

Note that by principle, all my reviews are in English. For German-speaking readers, I’m adding a short German summary near the top. For concerts in French- or Italian-speaking areas I do occasionally add a summary in these languages.

Size and Detail

More than once I have made the resolution to write short(er) concert reviews—all in vain. If anything, my reviews appear to be growing in size. At least, I have started formalizing the introduction. And I have stopped posting detailed excerpts from CVs, especially where at the same time I post a link to an artist’s Web page.

However, I don’t want to give up on the amount of detail that I offer in the discussion of the actual performance. More than once, I thought “well, this review is going to be short(er)”. And invariably, I seem to end up with 3000 words or more. I have no ambition to follow the scheme of stenographic Newspaper reviews.

The length of my reviews may be problematic, in that they look long and hence will scare off some readers. As a partial remedy, I’m structuring my reviews with titles and subtitles. And I use a smaller font for text that I consider secondary / less important. On top of that, I always have a table of contents at the top, with links into the text. This should make it easy to jump to a particular section.

Photos

Furthermore, whenever possible, I’m adding pictures to my reviews. This makes the text look less dense and easier to read. I’m using artists’ press photos only around the header. Sometimes, there is an official press photographer. If so, I’m of course more than happy to use such “official” event photos in my review. I will always include the appropriate copyright note and/or source information.

If there is no official photographer, I’m often taking photos myself. I made the experience that even with tricks, smartphone shots from a live, indoor concert are typically not suited for a Web posting. So, I use my iPhone only in rare exceptions, and only during an applause.

Using a DSLR in Concert

If I’m allowed to do so (and several organizers and artists are happy with this), I rather take along my DSLR. However, even there, I only take shots only during the applause, if I’m sitting amidst a crowd. I don’t want to upset people around me.

Ideally, however, I use my DSLR on a tripod (and of course always in silent mode and without flash). This of course requires sitting on the first or the last seat in a row, or with nobody behind me. I don’t want to obstruct anybody’s view. The tripod not only keeps the camera stable, but it also is a great help later, in the photo processing.

First row balcony seats would of course be ideal for an unobstructed view—but these are rarely available. In any case, I don’t wander around in the hall for spectacular “action shots”. My intent is merely, to give an impression of the visual aspect of a performance, from a (my) seat in the audience.

Limitations & Restrictions

Scheduling, Time Requirements

I’m trying to plan ahead, but even then, there are periods with serious overload. There were months with 8 – 10 reviews. Inevitably, this leads to delays in the reviews. Needless to say that writing a 3 – 4000 word review takes its time.

Moreover, if I take photos, this adds to the delay. When I use a tripod, I often take several hundred photos. Working up such large batches (selection, lighting adjustments, cropping, etc.) easily takes up 1 – 2 additional days. Please be patient.

Locations

Most of the concerts that I review are in the Zurich area. However, my wife and I do consider concerts in other locations, too:

  • primarily venues that are easy to reach by public transport (Basel, Lucerne, Bern, Brugg, Baden, maybe St.Gallen, or the like).
  • Locations that can only be reached by car are definitely not our favorites.
  • We consider concerts in locations such as Lugano or Geneva etc. (where we need to stay overnight) rare exceptions. If you want me to review a concert in such places, you’ll need very good arguments!
  • Needless to say that concerts in other countries are usually out of question. Unless we happen to be there on a vacation trip.

Concerts and the Pandemic

The Author in the audience @ Landenberghaus, Greifensee, 2020-09-11 (© Rolf Kyburz)

With the pandemic and the associated lockdown and restrictions, concert life has temporarily been suspended. Initially, I thought that this would be the ideal opportunity to resume CD reviews. However, after some consideration, my wife and I have taken this as a chance for a “mental reset”, for recovery through garden work, catching up with tasks that we had on our mind for years (but kept “moving for a later time”).

Indeed, we have enormously enjoyed this period—not the least because we could afford to do so, both being retired. That said, I have mixed feelings about this, given what many artists—especially musicians—are going through right now.

Switzerland is now in the middle of the second wave of the pandemic. It is unavoidable that concert life (which only just started up again some 2 months ago) is once more suffering. And I expect the second wave to last several months, maybe all of this coming winter.

What I can say, though, is, that I want to resume concert reviewing (whenever that will be possible) slowly and carefully. As we are also very cautious with traveling, even locally. We’ll see how this works out.


What About Requests for CD Reviews?

With a grain of salt, i.e., mutatis mutandis, the sections “Review Scope” and “Repertoire Preferences” are also valid for media reviews.

In addition: since concert reviews have taken over the lion share of my blogging, I had to make CD reviews lower priority items. I have indicated this to agencies, pointing out my backlog. I don’t promise reviews and may not even respond to incoming requests. And of course, I won’t commit to deadlines.

In case you consider asking for a CD review: note that right now, my review backlog is substantial. It contains CDs that I have received several years ago. Still, agencies and artists occasionally asked for reviews, some sent me media. Sadly, since 2016, I just barely managed to post two CD reviews per year. Sorry—I’m on my own with my blog. Time is limited, life is short!


Other Media?

On principle, I’m not reviewing YouTube videos: only too often, the audio quality is questionable (to say the least). It is certainly not comparable to that of CDs (or DVDs, eventually), let alone with live concert experiences. Per rare exception, I may occasionally mention YouTube recordings—though without detailed discussion and/or rating.

Another exception are occasional comments on DVD recordings. Within my scheme of commenting and blogging, these turn out too time-consuming. And I can only give rudimentary coverage of the visual aspect of such recordings. I don’t actively collect music DVDs.

In the early days of my blog, I once commented on the live stream of a concert. However, for the same reasons as with YouTube videos, I will in all likelihood not repeat this.

Out of similar arguments, I don’t want to comment on other streaming formats, such as audio of video podcasts, Blogs, Vlogs, and the like. My list of pending tasks & projects is already long enough to keep me busy for many years to come.



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