Martin Bernheimer's article dated last Sunday touched a nerve in the classical blogosphere. He had the audacity to claim that the internet and bloggers were partially to blame for the lessening of classical music critics' influence.
I happen to think he's right. The internet has raised the volume on the media dial that people are exposed to, and professional critics have to shout louder to be heard over it. It isn't necessarily true that they are now softer, it's that they are operating in a louder world, and are having to compensate.
Secondly, the internet is excellent at providing people with what they are looking for. If I'm looking for out-of-print Byzantine chant records from the 1960s, Google does a bang-up job at helping me find them. If I'm not an expert, though, but merely want a little more clearly written and opinionated commentary on my city's musical or artistic culture (say, Dudamel conducting Prokofiev with the New York Philharmonic), I'm basically screwed. Not only is that hard to find, as we'll see, but the classical-music blogosphere in its current incarnation doesn't really lend itself to playing nice with these people.
Print journalism allows for the chance that someone may chance upon a classical-music review or article. The web doesn't, and even reading a newspaper online doesn't have the same free-form information gathering as flipping through it as it's in your hands. The general reader who's doesn't know where to look may find something appealing about classical music if it's in the paper, but finding that online presents a challenge.
Even as print media's circulation continues to fall, the numbers at newspapers and magazines flat-out, hands-down, game-over trump that of blogs. I emailed Alex Ross about this when I first started rolling it around, and he summed it up pretty well, as usual. "The Internet is a hall of mirrors making things appear bigger than they really are," he wrote. "I get four thousand hits a day [at The Rest Is Noise], but a lot of that is passing searches; I'm guessing maybe there's a thousand people who read the blog on a regular basis and maybe a few thousand more who look at it from time to time." Going on, he said that, "At the New Yorker I have a million potential readers each week, most of whom actually read it. Never mind the New York Times. So there's really no comparison."
If the absolute leader of the classical blogosphere claims a thousand readers, it should be clear that we're talking very tiny numbers here. I know, I know, it's all about proportion, and his readers are undyingly faithful, and that's wonderful, but it does not follow that as many people will stumble upon his writing there as they will in the New Yorker, or that classical criticism is fine simply because he is there (or any other professional critic, I'll add). Moreover, if they aren't stumbling upon Alex, they probably aren't going to be stumbling on other classical bloggers.
The claim from Bernheimer is misguided comes in the form that there is good criticism on the internet, and that lousy criticism is drowned out and ignored. But what is completely ignored in that formulation is that, before any of that can happen, the criticism has to be found, and that is extraordinarily difficult, as you can see below.
I did a series of searches that an average concertgoer might conceivably attempt to learn a little more about classical music. The Rest Is Noise didn't turn up in the first four pages of any of these searches, and the respected classical blogs that did can be counted on one hand. Bernheimer's claim that "[A]nyone can impersonate an expert. Anyone can blog," turns out to be all too true.
First up, we have the searches for "classical music."
The Google search turns up a series of educational sites and radio and internet radio stations. That's good, people can always learn more. Still, it's not criticism, at least in the terms we're using here. Technorati, which loads pages slightly slower than George W. Bush changes his mind but still serves as a decent portal into searching blogs, gives us the Noble Viola on the classical-critic crisis, and then a handful of people who play classical music in the background as they're making dinner. Still no criticism. Google blogsearch links to post after post wondering if classical music is dead. If classical music fans ever studied mortuary science, they would continually misread vital signs and bury people alive.
The following searches turn up similar non-critical sites, and you're invited to click through and see what's there. If you come to a different conclusion than I do, feel free to let me know.
The reality is that the professional critic writing for a wide audience is endangered, and that is negative for the readers and the community as well as for the writer. A lack of critical voices means that curious readers have to do more work on their own to find something that used to be exceptionally easy to discover. The 'net has many upsides, but it's important to remember that you can't have an up without a down.
New York Philharmonic:
(Above: a typical blogger)