Why Album Ratings Need To Die

"Don't forget to rate [insert album/movie] at the bottom of your article." It's one command, by an editor I worked for, that irked me with no avail.

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Don't forget to rate [insert album/movie] at the bottom of your article.

It's one command, by an editor I worked for, that irked me with no avail.

Ratings.

It's funny how everything in this world can be boiled down to the traditional academic system that emblazons a permanent number on your head. I've felt the embarrassment of wearing a Scarlet letter numerous times before when my parents, with report card in hand, would see fit to scold me and restrict privileges to this and that. But when judging musicians, should we undermine the artists by using a rather elementary system?

If you've ever read an art critic's review of an exhibition, you'll notice one inherent difference from an album review. Art reviews are absent of ratings.

When you've taken off the facade of what has become a cultural norm among music reviews, you'll see that there really aren't many differences between an artist's album from a visual artist's exhibition. Both are a collection of an artist's self realization of an idea pertaining to politics, autobiographical accounts and the like and their vision transpired into a tangible medium. They also both showcase individual pieces that collectively are thematic. If you need convincing, go onto NYtimes.com. You'll see that even a renowned publication like the New York Times is absent of stars under their Music Reviews and that they've understood that a review is merely an opinion, and not a final say.

The consumption of pop cultural anecdotes in auditory form is far greater in comparison to the consumption of the boring and inaccessible paintings and sculptures thanks to the inexpensive costs, and more importantly, the accessibility of digital music. At the end of the day, we've all grown up with music. It's in our homes, it's playing in the department stores, it's in our conversations, it's on our laptops, and of course it's on your iPod. So not surprisingly, the generations after the baby boomers would elect to spend $10 on iTunes as opposed to a 30 minute sojourn at a local art gallery.

At the same time, the music critics with journalism degrees out there have been well aware of the gap in socioeconomic status and education levels between the average visual art consumers and the music consumers. This awareness justified the accompaniment of visual and easy to comprehend representations of a critic's conclusion If you thought art historians were elitist, you don't have to look further than the music publishing hierarchy.

Today, with the realization that blogs were more than just personal journals, wannabe critics with an interest in music, but lacking in writing prowess, easily set up their own online publications, wrote on the presupposition based on their feelings, and blindly adopted the rating system. But what these neophytes haven't realized is that ratings perpetuate a duality of political incorrectness one: fans need to be told what to listen to; two: critics believe that fans of music are not capable of coming to their own conclusions. Add to that, publications that utilize the rating system are feeding the wild fire that is today's ADHD culture, which seeks quick information (and by quick, we're talking about 140 characters), whether or not the information is correct.

Writers, PR firms, musicians and ultimately readers, have to understand that ratings are a textual fence for musicians whether they've garnered 5 of 5 stars, or just a 2 of 5 on their life's story because the blogger just didn't like the sound of the music. While these blogs have taken an authoritative position as the omniscient music-guru, rarely do I read an analysis of an artist's lyrics in the way that art critics have analyzed the child-like lithe figures in Paul Klee's work as being reflective of Cubist roots intertwined with the Bahaus, where he taught during his prime. Instead, readers are so used to lazy and amateur journalism that we've just accepted the facts and think nothing much of what has to be said.

Smokey Robotic couldn't agree more. Grades and stars definitely seem like a lazy way for people with opinions to label an artist's work, the collective said.

Wouldn't you say that musicians, for their introspective and art, deserve better?

The New York Times has understood that contemporary music is an art form rivaling painting and literature and that Pitbull's tracks should be analyzed on the same playing field as Picasso's paintings. While most publications are stuck on analyzing the popping beats and serene melodies, these are only just one half of music's equation. The lyrics are more so important. It's poetry, filled with alliterations, metaphors, iambic pentameters (in some cases) and references to messages that can be analyzed within the context of the artist's intentions and their history. My Art and Democracy professor encouraged us students to do just that with the controversial classic, Ice-T's Cop Killer, but to do so required reading the transcript of the court cases, Ice-T's own defense of the album and its title (which I suggest you to read) and the various assessments of the album's dangers and benefits. But many music writers have not been formally trained to analyze art in the way that that art historians understand and comprehend art. Instead, the process is a mutual understanding between blogs, bands and their representing PR firms. For the bloggers, any content is good content and for the bands and PR firms that have grown up in an industry changed by the Internet, any press is good press.

Simply, maybe the best explanation is that there are just too many amateurs out there who claim to be music critics, boasted by the vast readership that they've grown. It's a troubling thought. I myself have listened to bystanders discuss music writing with disgust and apprehension. But, think of it this way. How can anyone other than yourself rate your autobiography, your life, your political stance, your poem without having asked you about your life and your intentions? Would you be comfortable with someone telling you that you've lead a mere 2.5 of 5 star life or that your anti-government protests are just a mediocre 3 of 5 mics?

I've been reading Jay-Z's autobiography, Decoded and among the various pieces of insight, there is one that is applicable to my sentiment. He writes, Magazines, even hip-hop magazines, would reduce a song to a rating, a number of mics or stars or some other system. But I always wondered how they could try to pin down and attach a rating to music that was really helping people understand their own lives.

To answer Jay-Z, I would say that we've deviated from the artist driven culture into the fame and data driven frenzy fed by the amateur music publications, who in reality are putting pen to paper but nothing more; and from a consumer's point of view, it's insulting to know that just because I happen to like music, publications assume that I can't formulate my own opinions about art, and that music cannot share the same podium as the famed visual artists.

You can rant in the comments of the original article, posted on music marketing blog Dotted Music. Francis Bea is a New Yorker turned Chicago co-founder of Musefy.com (in development) and writes Musefy's blog Musebox.

45 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Necromicon
    Respecting your opinion about ratings i won't rate your article, but i must say it's very well written and the argumentation made think for a while.
    MoreNoise
    Ratings (and reviews) are really whatever the reader makes of them. Clearly a 200 word review and a score out of 5 will never amount to an in-depth and insightful discussion of an artist's work. But they can still be useful; maybe I don't want to read a 10 page essay about every new album? I try to be aware of my time spent reading about music vs. time spent actually listening to and enjoying music. Sometimes all you want is a pointer to a few artists to check out next. I do agree that ratings aren't always helpful outside of their context. What does a 6/10 album sound like anyway? I think the increased accessibility and consumption of music (due to the internet) render these unspecific ratings even more irrelevant: who cares if a song is 6/10 or 7/10 when you can listen online and judge for yourself? Regarding the attitude to "amateur" music discussion: how focused on genuine discussion are various "professional" music publications/newspapers/blogs anyway? Their business is ultimately about gaining readers/selling copies, targeting their content at a particular genre or type of reader. I imagine that for these publications, the longer a review gets, the narrower it's audience becomes; and there will come a point when an article stops being profitable. Same goes for websites and page hits. Write a review, sell some advertising space, repeat. It's also worth noting that the fairest, most considered reviews are not necessarily the most entertaining - if you were a newspaper/magazine editor, what would you choose? The amateur content is more likely to deliver the type of in-depth, rating-free review you want, precisely because of who it's written by. Knowledgeable fans who've had time to really think about a song or album, and are interested enough to notice and discuss all the little details. They don't have word limits or editorial guidelines.
    jthm_guitarist
    Haha yeah, I can never trust the scores because music is so personal. I read a lot of reviews and the numbers mean less with each one because the reader cannot have the same taste as the author.
    jean_genie
    I couldn't agree more. There are a couple records I own that have helped me a lot through some really difficult times, and I would even describe one of them as being one of my favourite records ever, in my 20- year history or buying them. And yet, even my own iTunes ratings puts it below other albums I own and like less.
    kratos379
    I understand the point, but often times people just like a number. Many people (admittedly such as myself) like to quantify things. It's how we understand things. There is a lot of music out there and we try to only listen to the best. I don't personally rely on reviews a lot, but if my friends recommend it to me, or if I hear a sample, I look into it and possibly buy it. As far as lyrics go, I don't always know what the singer is saying, nor do I always pay attention even if they are understandable. You brought up rap, which for the most part is an automatic 0/10 rating for lyrics. They say some of the dumbest shit I have ever heard. I know that not all rappers are like that, but when I hear Lil Wayne talk, I feel like shooting myself. We need to push people past lyrics of that particularly low level of intelligence.
    catastrofx617
    kratos379 wrote: You brought up rap, which for the most part is an automatic 0/10 rating for lyrics. They say some of the dumbest shit I have ever heard.
    If you listened to any rap besides what's on the radio you would have a drastically different opinion.
    Lost Dog
    I agree with this. Some of my favorite albums have rating of only about 3/5 on allmusic, the rating website I use the most
    randomthoughts
    This article is absolutely true man. If you enjoy music just enjoy it. There shouldn't be any reason to compare and contrast. Just enjoy it.
    Amuro Jay
    I really liked this article. I love writing reviews but I absolutely hate assigning numbers. Especially since after doing it for so long you trap yourself in a hole where you think "wait, I can't give it this high of a rating because then it would be higher than the last album, but I liked the last album a bit more" kind of thing. I like the words to do the talking, not the numbers. People on this site think anything below an 8 is garbage, which really irritates me.
    Tiago Sa
    Ackj wrote: The main difference between music and other art such as painting, is that the masses are going to be buying it. For a painting, only one person needs to like it and purchase it. Music has to be liked by thousands so that album will be purchased, possibly get radio time, etc. Finding out a rating for music is an important marketing tool to figure out if something should stay on the radio, or if the next album needs a major overhaul of the band.
    By that logic, all reviews should rate their subjects 5/5, because they need to sell. Nevermind what they say in the text.
    guitarsolo_17
    If you take the time to read someone's review, you're already wasting time, so why not hear their opinion on the rating? Go listen to the music. You can't read music in a magazine..unless it's sheet music.. or the weird tabs in GuitarWorld...whatever.
    sonicx2218
    Agreed. I don't like the bad rap some of my favorite bands are getting from the self-proclaimed musical review gods. They let their taste in music get in the way of honest reviews. I think the Itunes member reviews in whole, are more reliable than any one "professional's" review.
    pixiesrule73
    I don't think any reviews would rate someone's life story as 2.5 of 5 or anything like that. It's how 'well' you express your ideas, and if you are doing it with lame lyrics and derivative music then you don't deserve more than 2.5. As for songs being measured on the same playing field as Picasso's paintings, if that were true almost everything would be getting very small ratings because very little contemporary music is original or covers important themes in more than a cursory manner (i.e. a slogan in the chorus or something).
    HaydenHohns
    This is exactly how I've felt about ratings but I don't don't have the skills to word it so coherently, thank you. I've never given a review here with a number rating accompanying it. Besides, in a review I look for observations that the reviewer has made and then their opinion on it. Then listen to the music and make my own opinion on it. When I crit a users song in T & C I actually refuse to look at other reviews, write my own, and then look everyone elses. I've never bought an album I didn't like either, so I think that's proof enough for anyone who is dependent on ratings. I only have albums I've grown out of.
    Azbats63
    I have a simple solution: look around, find a reviewer you agree with, then read their reviews.
    iup788
    Shawn1379 wrote: Perhaps ratings should die, but I think reviews should live forever. It always interests me to see what other people think about an album. Not to mention the fact that many reviews are actually quite informative and intriguing. Even when it comes to amateur reviews from people who don't know much about music. I actually find those reviews to be just as important. Sometimes a newcomer to a subject can provide insight that others who are more experienced may not have seen otherwise. I often enjoy reading a review from someone who just talks about how enjoyable it is to listen to an album, and not breaking the music down to a science. After all, enjoying the music is all I really, truly care about as a fan. Not everyone is going to care if a band's solos aren't technically impressive, or if their drummer doesn't do polyrhythms, etc.
    I actually prefer reviews by people who don't know about the technical side of music. When I listen to songs I don't care about their complexities or anything, I just care if it's good. Example - Sunshine of Your Love is an AWESOME song, but not very complex at all.
    iwannabesedated
    I disagree that lyrics play such an important role in music. It's much more important how you say something than what you say.
    katalyzt13
    Taargus wrote: Ackj wrote: The main difference between music and other art such as painting, is that the masses are going to be buying it. For a painting, only one person needs to like it and purchase it. Music has to be liked by thousands so that album will be purchased, possibly get radio time, etc. Finding out a rating for music is an important marketing tool to figure out if something should stay on the radio, or if the next album needs a major overhaul of the band. >implying everyone who makes music does so to please the masses
    I think they're saying everyone who "markets" their music does indeed make music to please the masses, or at least to sell it and make money, become famous, etc. or some varying combination of those two things.
    Shawn1379
    Damn, I just realized I wrote, "just because some people misuse/abuse the something"... I ****ing hate typos.
    Ultima2876
    I don't have time, I prefer to be able to know how good an album or song is at a glance rather than having to read a whole review. Any less than 4 and I'll never listen to it
    Ackj
    The main difference between music and other art such as painting, is that the masses are going to be buying it. For a painting, only one person needs to like it and purchase it. Music has to be liked by thousands so that album will be purchased, possibly get radio time, etc. Finding out a rating for music is an important marketing tool to figure out if something should stay on the radio, or if the next album needs a major overhaul of the band.
    Taargus
    Ackj wrote: The main difference between music and other art such as painting, is that the masses are going to be buying it. For a painting, only one person needs to like it and purchase it. Music has to be liked by thousands so that album will be purchased, possibly get radio time, etc. Finding out a rating for music is an important marketing tool to figure out if something should stay on the radio, or if the next album needs a major overhaul of the band.
    >implying everyone who makes music does so to please the masses
    Shawn1379
    Perhaps ratings should die, but I think reviews should live forever. It always interests me to see what other people think about an album. Not to mention the fact that many reviews are actually quite informative and intriguing. Even when it comes to amateur reviews from people who don't know much about music. I actually find those reviews to be just as important. Sometimes a newcomer to a subject can provide insight that others who are more experienced may not have seen otherwise. I often enjoy reading a review from someone who just talks about how enjoyable it is to listen to an album, and not breaking the music down to a science. After all, enjoying the music is all I really, truly care about as a fan. Not everyone is going to care if a band's solos aren't technically impressive, or if their drummer doesn't do polyrhythms, etc.
    francisybea
    bobqjones wrote: So did you just copy and paste this article wholesale? Not cool.
    No. I wrote the article and gave them permission to repost it on UG.
    shreddymcshred
    Awful, elitist garbage. Amateur content is what makes the internet so great. If you don't like ratings systems, fine. Most of the time, a rating is accompanied by an explanation anyway. The rating carries much less power than the explanation, but it is an aggregate of it.
    Dpullam
    I agree with this article IF a good explanation is not given in the review of the subject material.
    Shawn1379
    CoreysMonster wrote: And this is the entire problem with the rating system. Giving an album a number of stars immediately gives readers the option of blindly trusting the numbers given instead of reading the article and actually getting an insight to the music.
    Honestly, I think that what you're saying only really applies to ignorant and foolish people. Of course it's wrong to let other people decide what you will or won't like, and any sensible person knows that. Just because some people misuse/abuse the something, that doesn't necessarily mean that it should be non-existent. It's almost like saying sports shouldn't exist because there's a chance someone could be cheating. That's an issue to be taken up with the athletes or the organization, not the sport itself. Just like this situation is an issue to be taken up with morons who let other people decide things for them. It's not really a problem with the ratings system, it's a problem with people who misuse the ratings system. Otherwise, not only should ratings be banned, but opinions in general should be banned altogether because if ratings go away, opinions will just replace them. Then the idiots who used to let ratings decide for them will turn to opinions from random people and say things like, "oh, I heard that that album sucks, so it must be bad right?" Rating should only tell you what other people think, not what you think.
    CoreysMonster
    Ultima2876 wrote: I don't have time, I prefer to be able to know how good an album or song is at a glance rather than having to read a whole review. Any less than 4 and I'll never listen to it
    And this is the entire problem with the rating system. Giving an album a number of stars immediately gives readers the option of blindly trusting the numbers given instead of reading the article and actually getting an insight to the music. Not to mention that the past has proven that new, different music generally receives less favorable ratings at the beginning, but are sometimes later on hailed as timeless classics because of their influence.
    Zeletros
    Ultima2876 wrote: I don't have time, I prefer to be able to know how good an album or song is at a glance rather than having to read a whole review. Any less than 4 and I'll never listen to it
    This just proves the point
    Axeman96
    ratings does not mean you need to agree with everyone else, someones rating is just an opinion.
    Silverpack
    Ultima2876 wrote: I don't have time, I prefer to be able to know how good an album or song is at a glance rather than having to read a whole review. Any less than 4 and I'll never listen to it
    That's why noone should care about the numbers, but reading the review often gives a good impression on how an album sound, how it was written, and so, if it will please someone or not. The numeric rating system in itself is subjective as can be, and rather useless.
    PsiGuy60
    Honestly, I usually ignore the numbers underneath a review. I also sometimes give completely random numbers in reviews I have written for school and the one I have on this site. I have seen some of my favourite albums, shows and books recieve a low rating for no apparent reason in reviews before, and I've also seen the exact opposite happen.
    sirloganthestud
    As some have said, ratings are simply one's opinions. As such, the reader has the option to disregard them. No good review will say "You won't like this album". I agree with many of the points of this article, but I don't think I'd want to get rid of ratings all-together.
    malalark
    Shawn1379 wrote: Perhaps ratings should die, but I think reviews should live forever. It always interests me to see what other people think about an album. Not to mention the fact that many reviews are actually quite informative and intriguing. Even when it comes to amateur reviews from people who don't know much about music. I actually find those reviews to be just as important. Sometimes a newcomer to a subject can provide insight that others who are more experienced may not have seen otherwise. I often enjoy reading a review from someone who just talks about how enjoyable it is to listen to an album, and not breaking the music down to a science. After all, enjoying the music is all I really, truly care about as a fan. Not everyone is going to care if a band's solos aren't technically impressive, or if their drummer doesn't do polyrhythms, etc.
    this this this is the perfect comment for me so far
    shreddymcshred
    CoreysMonster wrote: Ultima2876 wrote: I don't have time, I prefer to be able to know how good an album or song is at a glance rather than having to read a whole review. Any less than 4 and I'll never listen to it And this is the entire problem with the rating system.
    WRONG! That's not a problem with a ratings system, that's a problem with people who misuse the ratings system. You can't blame the system because of the way it's used. And that is only one opinion. Just because they use the system that way, doesn't mean it's wrong. I don't think it's a correct approach to take to it, but to many, that's how they operate. This is also a valid approach! Just not the one most of us would like to see happening.
    BOYERxBREAKDOWN
    When I read a review for a record. I read the review. I don't give a shit about ratings. I'm just looking to see what I can expect from the record.