In a world where we can stream entire records before purchasing them, have album reviews lost their importance? Much like what video did to the radio star, has the internet killed the music review?

Cast your mind back to a world before the ubiquity of the internet. Purchasing music was once a meticulously calculated, thought-out process. Prior to the existence of streaming we had very limited resources at our disposal. There was, essentially, no way of developing a full grasp of an entire album until we got home from our local store, chucked it into our walkman and played it through.

The metallic disc hiding in the CD case was, for the most part, an enigma. Sure, we would be familiar with the lead singles that initially sparked our attention, but the rest of the track list was an illusive mystery waiting to be discovered. Buying and finding new music was defined by an element of gamble and surprise, risk and reward.

There was, however, one tool available to help us sort the good from the bad. It was, of course, the sacred album review.

Discounting word of mouth, it was typically the amount of guitars, five-pointed stars, or a number out of 10 appointed to an album by a trusted publication that would tell us if a CD was worth our precious $30. If we saw Rolling Stone gave it four stars out of five, it was the biggest possible indicator that it was worth fishing out the cash from our old school velcro wallets.

Clearly, album reviews held great authority before the digital era. They were the taste-makers, the informers, and the all-mighty invisible hand guiding us through the aisles of Sanity. Only they could describe to us the music we didn’t have access to ourselves. “Reviews were our trusted guides for musical buys, and as such, they could virtually determine the commercial success or failure of a record.”

Let’s compare post-internet and pre-internet scenarios.

Kanye West’s Yeezus famously leaked online a few days ahead of its official release date, meaning that anyone could stream or illegally download the record and make up their own mind before it even came out.

Without the internet, though, the general public would have only been able to hear his SNL performances of ‘New Slaves’ and ‘Black Skinhead’. Before the internet’s takeover, our only way to glean further information about West’s latest masterpiece would have been the rollout of reviews in the buildup to its public release date.

This, ultimately, was the review’s fundamental importance: they were our trusted guides for musical buys, and as such, they could virtually determine the commercial success or failure of a record. They enact on our natural human instinct to be drawn to something we’ve been told is good, and avoid whatever we’ve been warned as bad, and enable us to sift through new music with ease and efficiency.

Enough reminiscing. Cut to the present. The internet has embedded itself into almost every aspect of our lives, the word ‘YOLO’ exists, and hashtags have become a part of the English vernacular.

It’s solely due to the internet that the power and relevance of album reviews has even come into question. The question is an obvious one: is there really a need to refer to a supposedly expert opinion when we can easily type in any album or song into a search engine, listen to it and decide for ourselves if it’s worth our time?

According to LA Weekly’s music editor, Ben Westhoff, it’s a loud and resounding “no”.

As reported by Digital Music News, LA Weekly suffered a drastic decline in the number of people reading their album reviews, resulting in Westhoff taking the unprecedented step of scrapping them entirely in January 2012.

“You’ll notice that in recent months we’ve dispensed entirely with album reviews. Wanna know why? Nobody read them. And we know this with certainty because not a single person has complained,” he said, illustrating the dramatic shift in our behaviour as music consumers.

On the contrary, senior editor of Spin, Christopher R. Weingarten offers a slightly less bleak account, and changed with the times. Last year the publication temporarily gave their review system a facelift, condensing them from in-depth analytical essays to 140-character Twitter-style summaries. It was an unexpected move from a publication whose old review template was iconic in the midst of the 90s. “You can break a band off one Pitchfork review.” – Marc Geiger, music executive

“I think reviews still serve a purpose… but there’s certain things that they don’t do anymore,” Weingarten explained to Metro News. “They’re not the way for people to discover music like they were. They’re not the way for someone to discern what something sounds like. We live in an age where if you want to know what something sounds like, you can listen to it very, very easily.”

This is where streaming services come into the picture. Review’s loss of purpose has instead been taken over by the likes of YouTube, Vevo, Soundcloud, Spotify, Pandora, and Rdio, who have been driving the newest way the majority consumes music.

For instance, Vevo has become Australia’s biggest online video streaming network, recording 51 million streams in March alone, and since Spotify’s Australian launch last May we’ve listened to an astounding 42.5 million hours of music on the Swedish music service. Basically, we can’t get enough of streaming.

Even major record labels have caught onto this obsession and have harnessed it into an instrumental marketing tool proving to have a profound impact on the commercial success of artists.

Take, for instance, the correlative success between this year’s two highest selling releases. Daft Punk’s latest anti-EDM opus, Random Access Memories, has only been eclipsed in sales this year by Justin Timberlake’s pop comeback The 20/20 Experience.

It’s no coincidence that 2013’s biggest commercial hits both utilised the power of iTunes, Spotify, and Rdio’s advanced streaming services which allow for fans to legally stream the albums in full for a week prior to their respective launch dates. If you can listen to an album in full before its release date, why bother to read a review?

The way we use album reviews has changed, there’s no question about it, but that doesn’t mean that they’re redundant. It only takes a glance at the new wave of powerful voices, largely lead by Pitchfork, to see that reviews are still popular and continue to play the roles of taste curators.

Marc Geiger, music executive and talent agent of William Morris Endeavor, endorses the American tastemaker’s vital influence. “When they gave a review that was over an 8-something to an artist, we’d get 40 calls to book them,” he said. “You can break a band… off one Pitchfork review.”

American alt-rock outfit Broken Social Scene still credit Pitchfork with their rise to success, report Wired. Frontman Kevin Drew acknowledges the avalanche effect initiated by Pitchfork’s glowing 9.2 review of their 2003 record You Forgot it in People.

“That’s when the phone calls started coming in,” recalls Drew. “The next tour we went on, we suddenly found ourselves selling out venues. Everyone was coming up to us, saying, ‘We heard about you from Pitchfork.’ It basically opened the door for us. It gave us an audience.”

To insinuate that there are no longer tastemakers because music is at its most accessible is to completely discredit the power of wide-spanning knowledge and well formed opinions that music reviewers offer. While a review may no longer make someone buy a record, it can still make someone listen to it.

Ultimately, the digital era has seen the rise of new dynamics in music culture in regards to album reviews. With streaming services rising to the forefront of the industry, reviews are no longer our primary, go-to advisors for purchasing music. However, there is still a vital place for reviews, and it’s difficult to imagine a future without them.

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