Rise and fall of the critics

Tim Page, a former music critic at The New York Times and the Washington Post (winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his criticism at the Post), pens a heartfelt elegy to a now almost defunct trade. “[T]here are likely no more than 20 Americans who still make most of their living writing in newspapers about classical music,” reflecting mass media’s increasingly “minimal interest in presenting any sort of intellectual record of a given place,” Page observes in an essay for the Depauw University School of Music’s 21CM website:

In Memory of the Critic’s Trade

Page is recalling what in fact was a brief golden age of American music criticism. Fifty years ago, there probably weren’t many more than 20 full-time classical critics at US newspapers, most of them working in the same large cities whose papers still employ critics. Added to them were what we’d now call “gig-economy” critics, a smallish coterie of writers who could sustain reasonable incomes by contributing to music magazines and writing program notes for concert presenters, liner notes for recordings and guidebooks for non-specialist readers to this highly specialized field.

There were very few full-time newspaper staffers covering arts and entertainment, either as reporters or critics. Papers outside major cities, circa 1960, typically had one or two general-assignment writers, mostly concentrating on movies and other popular entertainment, and a cast of free-lance stringers writing critiques of “high” art. Typically, they were academics or people schooled in an art form but making their livings in non-artistic fields. They were not expert in reporting and news-writing; the factual quality and readability of their work, and the depth of knowledge behind their work, were, to put it charitably, variable.

In Richmond and similarly sized cities – especially those on main railroad routes when rail travel was the dominant mode of travel – the only written documentation of the tour engagements of major musicians, actors and other artists were reviews by free-lancers, whose compensation was little more than a free ticket and the satisfaction of seeing their names in print. These are the writers who tell you how it was to hear the likes of Sergei Rachmaninoff, Arturo Toscanini, George Gershwin and Duke Ellington performing in places like Richmond.

For professional critics, the journalistic dam broke around 1970. Rock and other pop-music concerts drew ever-larger crowds to newly built arenas and a proliferation of nightclubs. At the same time, orchestras, opera companies, theater and dance troupes in smaller cities evolved from amateur to semi-professional to professional status, assuming more prominent roles in communities’ social and economic self-perceptions.

As cities began to promote themselves as cultural destinations, and their businesses began to use cultural amenities to recruit talent and draw clients, their newspapers naturally devoted more space and staff to cultural coverage. Full-timers were hired to cover arts and pop music, and those formerly covering movies and television part-time became full-timers.

It lasted for about a generation. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, newspapers’ revenues began to be squeezed by competition from digital media and the decline of classified and retail advertising, and reductions of newspapers’ staffs reflected the old employment practice of last-in, first-out. Critics were among the first to go. Those of us who could retired; those who couldn’t were reassigned to more traditional news beats or laid off.

Today, print coverage of arts and entertainment is pretty much like what it was 50 or 60 years ago – except that there are far fewer arts magazines and most major papers devote less staff and space to fine arts and more to pop culture. Digital coverage of the arts is considerable, but most writers in this medium work for little or no money. This, too, will diminish when people like me, former full-time newspaper critics now running blogs or doing podcasts, finally call it quits.

I’m not looking to pack it in any time soon; but when I eventually, inevitably do, I wonder how or whether classical music in Richmond and cities like it will be documented. Maybe as it was in most places before the rise of mass media, in personal diaries and published reminiscences.

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