Classical music criticism in Australia is undergoing a period of incredible change, as indeed is journalism and criticism across the arts. Traditional avenues for classical music criticism are shrinking or disappearing while new publications and new writers are emerging around the country. While there is a sense of energy and enthusiasm in the new voices emerging, they are entering the scene in what is a challenging time for media and particularly for arts coverage.
At this year’s Liveworks Festival in Sydney, writers from around the country gathered at an event titled RealTime in Real Time, which paid tribute to 25 years of a publication that covered experimental and exploratory performance and media arts—including contemporary classical music—across Australia since 1994. The final print edition of RealTime was published in 2015, with the publication operating exclusively online after that, launching a brand new website in May last year.
“Despite considerable creative and technical effort—and achievement—in 2016-17, it was clear the operation would soon become unsustainable, a result of the widely felt negative impact of social media on advertising sales,” explained the announcement on RealTime’s website. It was the end of an era in Australian arts criticism.
The winding up of RealTime’s regular publishing (it is still available online as an archive) was yet another blow to a sector under strain – RealTime was just one of many arts publications that have closed up shop in recent years, including Australia’s Rolling Stone earlier this year.
For Dr Michael Halliwell, Associate Professor at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and a critic specialising in opera, there is one particularly strong factor in the changing face of classical music criticism in Australia. “The most drastic change in my view is the move away from print-based media, and particularly newspaper criticism, to the plethora of online outlets for reviews,” he says. “This has brought in a much wider range of reviewers and broken a ‘monopoly’ of a few ‘names’ that perhaps existed in the past,” Halliwell says. “Of course, the quality of this criticism varies greatly.”
While there are now more voices in the critical mix, newspaper reviews have become increasingly brief and infrequent—often little more than short round-ups of several events or concerts.
“The loss of the newspaper monopoly on criticism has in some ways led to a devaluing of the importance of reviews in the arts,” Halliwell says. “The length of reviews has been drastically reduced in most newspapers and equivalents, so that a deeply considered and elegantly expressed view of the work has become so much more problematic.”
The shift to online criticism has positives, however. “What it does allow is a deeper engagement with the particular work unconstrained by length restrictions,” Halliwell says. “This can provide more nuanced responses rather than a desire to immediately capture the attention of the reader through comments that sometimes might be rather superficial and glib.”
Classical music criticism in Australia has operated very differently from criticism in more populous countries like the USA or in countries in Europe where a more deeply entrenched culture of classical music appreciation and participation has existed for generations.
“Australia has never had a tradition of well-paid, highly respected full-time critics,” wrote Australian theatre critic, author and opera librettist Alison Croggon in her 2014 essay The Critical Gap. “For good and ill, it’s always been an amateur activity, driven by enthusiasts. Theatre critics here, even those with the few plum jobs, are all freelancers, and come from a wide range of backgrounds and expertise. Performance criticism in Australia has never been professionalised, by default rather than intention, and we lack the rigid hierarchies that until recently dominated theatre criticism in Britain and America. Consequently it’s easier for new voices to emerge.”
While Croggon was referring to the state of theatre criticism in Australia, her words are perhaps even truer of classical music criticism, and new voices have indeed been emerging.
The State of Play
National classical music and arts magazine Limelight, the publication for which I work, began in 1976 as ABC Radio 24 Hours, a programme guide for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s classical music radio station, ABC Classic FM, though Limelight no longer has a formal affiliation with the ABC. Limelight reviews both Australian and international CD releases in the monthly print magazine and select live reviews are published in print each month. Clive Paget, Limelight’s former Editor (now Editor at Large), greatly increased the number of live reviews published online from around the country when he took over as Editor in 2015, a legacy continued by his successor Jo Litson.
Other websites and blogs offering classical music reviews in Australia include ClassikON, which was founded by Kate Tribe in 2011; Sydney Arts Guide, which began in 2005 reviewing stage and screen and now also offers classical music reviews; industry website ArtsHub, which began in 2000 as a small weekly jobs bulletin covering the performing arts, and now publishes classical music reviews; and arts and entertainment website TimeOut, which publishes opera reviews, though doesn’t extend to classical music beyond that. Critic and author Rosalind Appleby established Noted in 2012, covering classical music in Perth, while in Hobart Stephanie Eslake established CutCommon in 2014, which covers classical music across Australia. One of the most recent websites to emerge is Seesaw, which covers the arts, including classical music, in Western Australia.
While classical music reviews can still be found in newspapers—The Australian, particularly, covers the major events around the country—there are also other print publications, like Limelight, that continue to publish criticism in print. Sydney independent classical music radio station Fine Music FM, for example, publishes CD reviews in its monthly Fine Music magazine.
The proliferation of voices beyond the newspapers not only offers a wider range of opinions on major classical music concerts, but also opportunities for smaller independent ensembles and musicians, who may be beneath the attention of the newspapers—or beyond the limits of their resources—to have their work reviewed. “Noted started as a platform to talk about my work as an author of Women of Note, [a book charting the rise of Australian women composers]” founder Rosalind Appleby says. “But it quickly morphed into something much bigger due to two things—the steady decline in opportunities to publish arts journalism and the growing insistence from the arts sector that I keep reviewing their work.”
Like Halliwell, Appleby sees challenges in the changing face of classical music criticism. “The rise of the digital age has led to a dramatic reduction in paid advertising and as print newspapers struggle to compete with digital platforms, there has been a change of editorial direction to popular entertainment,” she says. “Simultaneously we have seen the rise globally of fake news and loss of trust in the media industry. And although there has been a proliferation of blogs to fill the gap, it has been difficult for readers to find a ‘trusted voice’ on the vast expanse that is the Internet.”
The situation isn’t unique to Australia, however. “It’s a global phenomenon,” she says. “In Western Australia we have watched this play out at The West Australian with a shrinking newspaper, and a dramatic reduction in local content including the depth and breadth of arts journalism coverage.”
So what does this mean for the arts ecosystem? “Artists and arts companies are experiencing a lack of exposure and documentation, and a breakdown in the reflective feedback loop,” Appleby says. “There is an absence of independent, informed opinion alerting audiences to what’s good and what’s not. Readers have lost those trusted voices who brought with them often many decades of industry knowledge—in many cases they were the holders of our cultural history.”
It’s not just the audiences and arts organisations who suffer from this decline. “From the government’s point of view there is a concern regarding their ability to now communicate Western Australia’s cultural events and the lack of independent review of those organisations receiving government funding,” Appleby says. “The breakdown of traditional arts journalism is also significant to the businesses and individuals who have decided to support the arts because of the massive loss of branding exposure for them.”
“And for the writers themselves, those of us who believe arts criticism is an art form in its own right, there has been a loss of vocation,” Appleby says. “There is a sense of the sector being diminished. It has become clear that a vital part of the life cycle of the arts is missing.”
While these challenges abound, Appleby sees positive signs in an arts sector beginning to respond. Citing Audrey Journal, a website established last year to cover the arts scene in Sydney, sourcing revenue from the arts companies themselves. “Another digital platform Witness began in Melbourne last year, based on a reader subscription model,” Appleby says. “In Western Australia a number of freelance writers have responded by setting up their own websites including Nina Levy and Varnya Bromilow (at Seesaw magazine) and myself (with Noted). We believe it is crucial the voices of the artists in our community are documented, championed and critiqued. There is a sense that momentum is gathering within the arts sector and people are starting to think creatively about the way we can generate conversations about the arts.”
“Journalism has typically been something of an ivory tower—the holders of knowledge passing down their verdict—which is why the social media revolution has damaged traditional media so immensely,” she says. “In some ways it is a good thing this model has been challenged and we are looking at new ways to document, critique and champion the arts.”
Moving into the future, Appleby has big plans, which will certainly affect the Western Australian scene and may well have lessons for criticism across the country. “Noted and Seesaw have recently merged as part of a larger vision to restore journalism to the arts ecosystem,” Appleby says. “Nina Levy and I plan to launch a fully funded, professional digital arts journalism platform in July 2019 to document, champion and critique the local arts scene. The new Seesaw platform will be a one-stop shop for the arts in Western Australia, generating and accelerating the arts’ most powerful marketing tool – word of mouth.”
Classical music criticism will feature as part of the new platform. “We will be drawing on a team of music critics to cover all the major classical music organisations in Western Australia and key performances from the independent sector,” Appleby says. “The platform will track and gather and disseminate classical music events into the wider community, the tourism market, and nationally. So far we have already seen an amazing coming together of both the government and the arts organisations to support this vision. Critics are coming out of the woodwork again and there is a real sense of momentum. We’re having to be creative about finding new ways to fund arts journalism but I think the potential is there.”
In Hobart, Stephanie Eslake founded the magazine website CutCommon in 2014 with young and early career musicians in mind. “I felt there was a need for a space in which young classical musicians could learn about the way their industry really operates—the sort of education you don't receive at university,” she says. “I founded CutCommon to fulfil this need, and to provide a platform that would share and celebrate the achievements of young people working hard to achieve their goals in the arts.”
For Eslake, the greatest challenge facing classical music criticism is funding. “Mainstream commercial media publications are stripping back their funding for arts coverage, publishing less about classical music and simultaneously making journalists redundant across Australia. Smaller publications like CutCommon and Limelight may step up and enter this space, but are still faced with the threat of financial distress. I feel this is indicative of a lack of value for classical music and the arts on a broader level within Australia, as is evidenced through the countless arts organisations who are operating to high levels on shoestring budgets.”
There is a sense of desperation in the arts journalism industry, reflecting the wider constriction of funding for the arts and the challenges facing the arts industry as a whole—such as turbulence in arts funding policy—and classical music criticism is by no means first in line if more funding becomes available. “Arts criticism is the unloved stepchild of Australian cultural policy,” Australian journalist Ben Eltham once wrote. “There is precious little in the way of funding for it.” Until a model is found that can provide longer-term financial stability for criticism, whether through government funding, support from arts organisations, subscriptions, advertising, philanthropic donations or a combination of any of these and more, the sector will remain under stress.
But like Halliwell and Appleby, Eslake, too, sees positives. “Despite the challenges of working as a classical music journalist, I’ve experienced an overwhelming sense of community in this space,” she says. “I feel as though Australian arts media functions as an ecosystem in which we are all working hard in our own projects and publications, but working toward a mutual goal of supporting classical music and arts practitioners.”
The Future of Classical Music Critics
As fewer critics work in the sector, there are fewer potential mentors and training programmes to nurture the next generation. Fortunately the Australian Youth Orchestra offers an excellent Words About Music programme at its annual National Music Camp, providing a range of training that covers written journalism to radio work. The difficulties lie in bridging the gap between training and working in the field, and that’s where programmes like internships with publications—Limelight offers internships remotely or in person—or programmes like CutCommon’s newly launched Young Critics’ Mentorship programme become important.
“All of CutCommon’s writers are working in the classical music industry,” says Eslake. “While I have studied media and worked for news publications, I firmly believe these are not necessary qualifications for producing a great piece of classical music criticism. I think it is more important for the critic to know their product. They should have a passion for music, and understand what they’re writing about. That’s why I enjoy nurturing emerging critics, and helping to give them confidence in exploring their potential as writers about classical music.”
“Outside CutCommon, I also teach and write academic degrees, including courses about writing and editing,” she explains. “So it seems entirely natural and incredibly enjoyable to bring these experiences into CutCommon, and to share this knowledge with emerging classical music critics in Australia. The new mentoring programme was designed by our deputy editor Lucy Rash (who also runs her own content writing agency Cult Copy), as a collaboration between the Peninsula Summer Music Festival and CutCommon. Because of my remote location in Tasmania, I am able to provide digital mentoring to CutCommon’s weekly writers. But Lucy will be providing an on-location mentorship programme, in which she'll work one-on-one at the festival with the winning writer.”
The Future of Classical Music Criticism in Australia
What will the future of classical music criticism in Australia look like? “It’s hard to predict,” Halliwell says. “I think newspaper and print criticism in general will probably continue to decline in importance, but the online presence of critical work will continue to expand. Podcasting is an area that I think will expand greatly (I’m a regular with Saturday Review on the BBC). In some ways consumers might become more discriminating but the downside is that one can exist in a critical ‘bubble’ of work that supports one’s own world view, and exposure to dissenting views and voices becomes more difficult to achieve.”
“The journalism industry keeps changing so quickly (paywall versus free content, digital versus traditional, etc.) that everyone is constantly playing catch up,” Appleby says. “A digital platform is essential to keep up to speed with the pace of social media. I recently saw a group of book reviewers using YouTube as a platform for literature reviews.”
At CutCommon, Eslake has also been experimenting with different formats, digital and otherwise. “Indeed, we launched our first print magazine this year after four years of digital publishing, and in an era in which we often hear that ‘print’ is a dying form of media,” she says. “I’ve learnt through the stories we share that audiences are hungry for new ways to engage with classical music, and I believe that includes classical music media.”
The changing formats in criticism echo changes in the way people consume and create classical music as a result of technological changes. Boundaries between contemporary classical music and sound art or multimedia art practices are continuing to blur. While music composed for film has been around for a century, more and more music is being written for video games or inspired by video game music. On one hand, digital streaming is disrupting traditional notions of “record collecting” but on the other it is bringing entire catalogues of music to people’s speakers and headphones, while live streams allow audiences to watch the Sydney Symphony Orchestra perform in the Sydney Opera House from anywhere in the world—particularly significant in a country as geographically sprawling as Australia. All of these developments will affect the way classical music criticism operates into the future.
Ultimately it is passion that drives classical music criticism in Australia, the “enthusiasts” who keep it alive. “Who knows what the future holds,” Appleby says. “However I think there will always be a vital role for classical music criticism in the arts ecosystem. In the creative arts we have the tools to be innovative in the way we pursue it. Sometimes writing about music does feel like tap-dancing about architecture (Elvis Costello) but while there are still people crazy enough to love doing it we will find a way.”
“I feel that it’s going to be an incredibly tough road ahead for those who persist in publishing classical music criticism,” Eslake says. “But I hope Australian audiences and musicians alike will continue to recognise its importance. After all, once the concert is over, what do any of us have left if we don't record, document, and publish our critical responses?”