The critic is dead – long live the critic (or something like that!)

The (now not so) recent embargo on critics reviewing @theglobe ‘s twelth night has reignited (once again) a debate about how long producers can reasonably hold back the press.

Not of course that embargos can prevent said critics buying up tickets and reviewing anyway (as The Telegraph and Times have done in the case of Twelfth Night) – or as The Guardian did print a selection of ‘reader reviews’ in the main body of the paper.

Whatever the merits or otherwise of ‘banning’ the press there is a much more interesting question here about the power critics now wield. In his blog for the stage Mark Shenton suggested The Guardians actions did nothing but ‘further undermine the influence of the critic’. He’s not a lone voice. At Edinburgh this year one of the veteran promoters voiced his anger at how the explosion of critical voices had undermined the value of a four or five star review (a quick glance at the buzz blog for I heart Peterborough would rather bear this out – we got reviews from all kind of places including something called Fringe Biscuit!!!)

Anecdotally my memory tells me that back in the late nineties a Guardian pick of the week – or a good review in the paper itself would send the box office phones ringing. By the time I left my role as Director of Phoenix Arts in 2002 the same things would cause little more than a hic cup especially for more challenging work*.

As newspaper sales fall quarter on quarter the reality of today’s social media obsessed (and I’m as addicted as the next avatar) world is that the number of critical voices out there have mush roomed. However hard the press, the industry or anyone else for that matter (including Lord Lloyd Webber) try now that those voices are out – they are unlikely to be silenced.

Look at any audience survey as to why people attend any given arts event and the most common answer seems to be ‘word of mouth’ or ‘a friend told me’. In today’s multi platform world there are more ways than ever for our friends (virtual or real) to tell us what’s good and what’s not, what’s worth seeing and what should be left well alone.

So critics and press departments alike are having to adjust their roles and tactics to this rapidly changing world. Everyone is continually re writing the guide book – how press releases are sent out, who they are sent out too, how arts companies engage with critics, how audiences engage with critics, who counts as a critic (what’s more important a press pass or 10,000 followers on twitter? ) how you create a buzz about a show. Tweet seats are one rather extreme reaction to this but initiatives like this – announced by the Guardian recently –which invites bloggers to mass review big openings … are now becoming much more common place (see the directors response here and some of the reviews here . That was followed up by Lyn Gardner’s blog on how to write a review (which runs in parallel to a whole series of Guardian masterclasses – arts journalism hasn’t popped up yet – but cricket journalism certainly has).

Does this mean – as Shenton asserts – the continuing undermining of the critic. Perhaps – or perhaps not. The Guardian would almost certainly argue that in a world where the old press models are dying by necessity they are testing what a new business model might look like which sees its users not simply as passive readers but as engaged participants (57,000 people now comment regularly on the site) with the paper being just one element of a multi faceted whole (online, broadcaster, event manager, educator, agitator).

Amongst all this ‘noise’ there will always be a need for authoritative voices that people trust. A recent survey by The International Newsmedia Marketing Association (so not totally independent) found that 60% of us still turn to mainstream media when a news story breaks – and only 6% of us rush to the likes of twitter and facebook. Advertisers still favour printed material – the much predicted migration of print to digital advertising revenues is still failing to materialise (you need look no further than Google’s most recent figures)

But back to the critics. In the case of Shenton and Lyn Gardner (to name but two examples) it’s also a case of adapting to the new rules of the game. With strong online presence (via their newspaper articles, blogs and twitter) both are probably read as much online than in print. Freed from the tyranny of 800 word limits (though sometimes restricted to 140 characters!) they become more cultural commentator than critic. Arguably they are more authorative, less aloof, voices now because of – rather than inspite of – the digital explosion and its accompanying little sister, social media. And the fact we take note is perhaps bourne out from this comment by Joanna Geary (Digital Development Editor, Guardian Newspapers);-

‘An internal audit of comments shows that conversations focus much more on the topic under discussion when the commissioning editor or author join in..and their intervention helps to set the context for the thread’

Where this might leave us in ten years is impossible to predict. The Stage might have gone the way of NewsWeek and become online only, the Guardian might have finally settled into a business model that works financially – or just as likely imploded under the weight of its losses. Fringe Biscuit will probably have disappeared into the mists of time – replaced no doubt by hundreds of new start ups.

But for now I’m enjoying the fact that the age of Clive Rich and Kenneth Tynan killing a show with one flick of a pen seems now to have passed. I’m enjoying the fact I can still read well written informed reviews – both online and in print – reviews that I can engage in a debate with . And when I’ve something to say I also like the fact there is nothing stopping me entering the fray…

*( A recent review from the Times of Margaret Catchpole did send our box office phones ringing including one lovely lady from Aldeburgh who asked are you amateur dear? Erm no -Oh are you new then? Well we’re celebrating our 30th anniversary this year ….)


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