When Serena Ryder was a teenager with a fresh face and full voice, she landed an auspicious opportunity: the chance to open for Steve Earle and Missy Higgins for crowds numbering in the five digits. But it wasn't long before a critic from Down Under brought her down, indeed.
She knew it wasn't a perfect gig. Young as she was, she brought only one guitar with her on tour and when a string broke, she improvised and performed a couple songs a capella -- a patch of metaphorical duct tape that failed to fool this particular reviewer.
As the now 30-year-old Ryder remembers it, he likened her to an Alanis Morissette who screamed more. He also called her unprofessional for failing to bring a backup guitar.
She was 19. She was crushed. She was also pretty much in agreement.
"He was really harsh on me, but at the same time, I was like: 'He's right,'" she recalled in a recent interview in Toronto. "He was totally right. I should bring two guitars. What if I break a string again? I don't have a guitar tech.
"He was mean, but he was the first person (to tell me that)."
In the intervening decade, Ryder has released four well-received albums and won three Juno Awards.
Yet she still reads her reviews, and she still finds herself alternately indignant and inspired by what she finds -- often at the same time.
"I read my reviews, and I'm very highly affected by them even though I don't want to be," she said. "Because I still do -- as much as I don't want to -- give a big damn what people think."
Fair enough. But perhaps it's not worth getting so caught on critical barbs anymore -- after all, it sure seems these days that the importance of the music review could be rapidly diminishing.
There was, of course, once a time when buying music was a calculated leap of faith. There was radio and there were the usual public forums for music, but listeners hoping to dip their toes into less mainstream currents or discern whether the rest of "Tommy Tutone 2" was as good as "867-5309/Jenny," for one example, would have to turn to their favourite rock critic for guidance (spoiler: it wasn't).
These wise souls were the all-knowing gate-keepers to a musical world that still required some degree of unlocking. Or, at least, they were valuable curators with free and early access to records whose content was a hazy mystery to fans desperate to learn more.
Now, however, the situation is drastically different. Record labels have responded to leaks by guarding important new releases with the tenacity of a prime Scottie Pippen, in some cases refusing to let journalists listen until days or even hours before the general public -- thus rendering it impossible for these scribes to cobble together an informed take on deadline.
Then there's the increasingly overwhelming quantity of reviews available, gradually diluting the importance of each. There's also the reduced reach of the mainstream media, and the resultant splintering that has left fewer sources that can be generally agreed upon as authoritative.
And perhaps most damaging to the traditional CD review, there's the fact that most artists -- even the massive likes of tween-pop pin-up Justin Bieber -- stream their albums online for free before they come out.
If fans can decide for themselves whether an album is worthwhile without investing money or effort, how many will still search out the opinion of a "qualified professional" before clicking play?
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