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Why Giving Star Ratings to Pop Records Is Stupid

 

Stars, but no ratings: A-12/Project Oxcart commemorative coin, and CIA medallion

A Twitter discussion the other day with @rockcritics, @nedraggett and @tomewing had me banging on again about one of the most vexed aspects of the music writing world - ratings. Although I take the point, made in a gentle admonishment from @bsdf, that I do tend to bang on a bit on Twitter, some things just can't be said in <140. So here's some more fulmination from years spent fretting over the difference between 7/10 and 8/10, wondering if it's possible to give no stars (and therefore whether a five-star system is actually a six-tier system), and querying, quite seriously, why anyone who thinks that three stars really means "good, but not for everyone" could possibly award any other rating to any record ever made.  

I can see why ratings systems exist: they're a useful shorthand, conferring decisions in an instantly graspable manner, and seem to be popular with readers. That they're also popular with the corporations who put records out is less obvious to the reader, but probably more relevant to understanding why ratings systems are now ubiquitous when not that long ago nobody would have dared think of "marking" music. 

I have two main problems with ratings, marks, stars, whatever. And neither of those is that editors can and do change writers' ratings quite often, usually downwards but occasionally in the opposite direction, by accident and/or by design. I've never been particularly precious about my work, though there has been the odd occasion where something's been altered in a way that I've really not liked. Just like the line belongs to the umpire in cricket, I can see why the fifth star, or sometimes the fourth, or the tenth point out of ten belongs to the title. If they're saying something's exceptional, and putting their brand behind that judgement, they have to be sure about it too. Mojo exercise the perfectly reasonable rule that an album that's only available to a reviewer in a playback in a record company office can't get a five-star review in the magazine, because that fifth star has to be earned by acclaim from the Mojo staff: they have to be able to put it on, listen, work out whether the reviewer's got carried away or lost their mind in awarding it the full complement, and then decide. That strikes me as eminently sensible: why devalue their brand just to satisfy security precautions overblown by artist's or manager's sense of self-importance?

Of my two reasons for ratings-hating, the first is that while they may poll well in market research, review ratings don't ultimately serve the reader very well. The main reason they exist is to convey an impression of the excellence of the product in a concise visual form, so that they make more impact as part of ad campaigns. Walk past an ad on the tube, or drive past one in a car - if the music industry can still afford to place them; though that's a discussion for another day - and you're not going to take in even a crisp eight-word appraisal of a new record, but you'll certainly notice the number of stars and the name of the title that dished them out. It's a win-win for labels and magazine publishers: the former get a neat, pat summation of the record that avoids any of those pesky caveats writers who've listened to an album a few times will tediously insist on pointing out, while the publisher gets the name of their mag plastered all over the place at someone else's expense. Ratings become an artificial shorthand, and while every magazine will point out the subtle differences between what its three-star rating means and what the equivalents in their competitors represent, the reader, by and large, doesn't care. Here's what a five-star ratings system means to readers: five stars is brilliant, four stars is fantastic, three stars is OK, two stars is crap and one star is shit. 

The second problem is that ratings give readers an excuse not to read reviews. I freely admit that this may account for part of their popularity, but it also helps underline a small part of the reason why the publishing industry is in so much trouble. In the same way the record business has contrived to drive the perceived value of its products down to zero, by allowing music to be something you get free with a newspaper or a soft drink, so the publishing industry has spent years telling its customers that the words it publishes in its magazines and newspapers really aren't worth wasting your time and mental energy on reading. Why bother with the 150 words above, when the red blobs at the bottom convey the information you've come for in a much more convenient package?





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Message for Eloise:

Hello Eloise. I got the message you left here yesterday (Monday January 18). I wasn't able to reply because you didn't leave any contact details. If you could please email me, using the "about/contact" link above and to the right, I would very much appreciate it and will get back to you as soon as possible.

Thanks,

Angus



posted by: Angus: 19 Jan, 2010 19:22:55

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