At a Bennetts Lane gig recently I was chatting to a musician about, among other things, the number of stars given to an album I’d reviewed. I was gently chided for handing out half a star fewer than other reviewers. I said I did not like the concept of star ratings, but a record label publicist who had joined the conversation happily confessed to loving stars because “stars sell records”.
I defended the paucity of stars on my review by explaining the view of some fellow reviewers at the Sunday Herald Sun, people who I believed knew their music far better than me. Their belief, I said, was that for ratings out of five, awarding 4.5 or 5 ought not be done lightly because those ratings ought be kept for albums that had stood the test of time.
A new album, according to this argument (with which I agree), has been listened to attentively by a serious reviewer, but not for long. Editors of review pages are always keen to stay ahead of the pack, so often albums are reviewed soon after they arrive, especially those from established artists with an established name. So there is not much time to really get to know an album and discover how much it will stick in the mind or demand to be revisited.
An album that has been released a long time ago, but which remains a favourite for the reviewer and is eventually re-released, may be deemed to rate the ultimate five-star rating because its worth has been enhanced since its release.
I understand that record publicists appreciate high ratings and positive reviews, because their job of promoting the music is much easier. But I do believe that reviewers, like newspaper editors, need to keep something in reserve — to avoid going overboard and leaving no room to move. There always needs to be a bigger headline reserved for World War III.
I confess that I do get a little aggravated when I see reviewers handing out four or 4.5 stars on a regular basis, because it exerts a subtle pressure on me. I start to wonder whether I’ve been too harsh. But really, on a five-star scale, an album that scores three stars is getting a very high rating and is considered an album well worth buying or downloading.
Awarding stars is often not easy. I have reviewed some albums, picked the star rating and then later regretted that I did not go a little higher or, occasionally, a half star lower. But it is all so subjective and so likely to be influenced by the reviewer’s circumstances at the time, that star ratings can only be a rough guide. There is much that cannot be said in a short review. There is also tension between the personal tastes of the reviewer and the effort made to be disinterested (as opposed to uninterested) and to review for a wider audience.
Also, the temptation is always there for reviewers, who are lovers of the music after all, to take on a promotional role because they sincerely want to get more people to hear live music and to buy albums by the many excellent musicians about. This applies in particular to jazz and improvised music in Australia, because there are few resources available to push the music, yet the quality of the musicians is often spectacular. Regular patrons of Bennetts Lane, Uptown Jazz Cafe, Bar 303, Paris Cat and other venues (and that’s merely in Melbourne) often find themselves in small crowds listening to music that requires great skill and a lot of hard work. Yet the cost of admission is much lower than for more high profile music such as classical or operatic works.
So, the temptation to say nice things in reviews is real. And it is also possible that reviewers will offer too much description of the music rather than an assessment of it. But I think there is a role for reviews to give readers an idea of what to expect. In practice it is unlikely that reviewers with little space available will waste it on condemning aspects that don’t work, provided there are positives to be mentioned.
All this has wandered about and away from star ratings. It would be interesting to hear from patrons and musicians about how important star ratings are from their perspectives.