The Classical Music Critic Goes Extinct

John Terauds, Music Critic

Seems important to note the passing of music criticism as a legitimate job in Canada. John Terauds, for six years staff classical music critic of the Toronto Star, was reassigned this week to the paper’s business section. He was the last full-time classical music critic at a Canadian newspaper. The job of full-time classical music critic literally ceases to exist in English-speaking Canada (Quebec apparently still has a couple of critics).

This is depressing.

Apart from being a fan of John’s work, the loss of his job is symbolic of the end of an era. In the past seven years, more than half of all arts journalism jobs have been eliminated in American newsrooms. It’s fine to say that 300,000 arts blogs now compete for attention online (according to Technorati). And there’s something great about the opening up of public discourse about the arts that the digital world has wrought. In some ways we live in a richer ecosystem of engagement with the arts.

And yet, by a significant measure, the erosion of commitment to covering the arts in traditional newspapers says something about where we are culturally right now. Institutions signify their support by where they choose to put their resources. And the inescapable truth is that these institutions (newspapers) for the most part don’t support the arts.

“Support the arts.” That sounds strange applied to newspapers. Newspapers say they’re supposed to be objective. I don’t mean “support” in the sense of boosting or advocating for them. I mean support in the sense of pay attention to. There’s no conspiracy against the arts here; the business decisions made by the Star and so many newspapers is that there simply isn’t an audience for what the newspapers have traditionally offered as coverage of the arts. These decisions are business decisions, and in a world of shrinking resources, newspapers – like any other business – triage.

I was once a full time classical music critic. The newspaper I was a full-time critic for – the Seattle Post-Intelligencer – no longer exists. There’s only one full-time dance critic left in the United States. Only one full-time visual art critic at a US alt-weekly. My town – Seattle – doesn’t have a full-time classical music critic, and many music events pass without any critical mention at all.

On one level you can say it doesn’t matter. People still go to concerts. Tickets are still selling. And then there are those blogs.

And yet, the market seems to have declared that arts criticism as a profession, as a calling, isn’t supportable, isn’t sustainable, isn’t legitimate. I find that sad. We could go on about what was lacking or what didn’t work in the way we covered the arts. But the cold hard truth is that there just isn’t an audience for what we were doing. We can lament it. Or we can figure out whether there’s a better way to do it and move on.

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Comments

  1. says

    Ultimately it became a question of money, free music downloads, and the erosion of copyrights paradigm. The value placed upon art has diminished across the board, not just in newspaper criticism. How did it happen? No one probably has the answer but it’s telling that it has occurred on the baby boomer watch. A generation that in some ways has tried to rewrite value, tradition, and art itself. A greater focus by this generation on popular and rock music has been the norm. And for some reason, this generation, of which I am a member, has abandoned what is culturally seen as a continuum by those that lament classical musics fade from importance, and has been replaced with rock music as the natural evolution of a long musical history. Education, can’t fix it – that has been tried. New works can’t fix it – that has been tried. Crossover can’t fix it – that has been tried too. All that remains is to hope that our grand children look to see what makes, not made, humanity great in the minds of true musical genius whenever it appears in their life time.

  2. says

    I hate to disrupt this occasion for Spenglerian hand-wringing, but John Terauds was not, as you imply, the last of an unbroken line of full-time classical music critics at The Toronto Star. Before John moved to the Entertainment pages from the automotive section, his predecessor, William Littler, spent three decades dividing his time between classical music and dance. I spent a few of those years covering the same split beat across town at The Globe and Mail. Neither of us suspected that our part-time involvement in music criticism did not amount to a “legitimate job.”

    So The Star went from 34 years of having a part-time classical critic, to 6 years of full-time coverage by John Terauds, to – what? Do you know? Did you even try to find out?

    You claim that “music criticism as a legitimate job in Canada” is now over, yet I am at this moment a full-time music critic at The Globe and Mail, aka Canada’s National Newspaper. But I don’t count in your assessment, because I write about classical and other kinds of music. The Globe maintains freelance classical critics in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver, to cover events I can’t get to, but by your measure, their employment isn’t legitimate either.

    We Canadians are accustomed to being denigrated by our American cousins. Still, I’m disappointed that you, from your perch in Seattle, find it appropriate to say that the lights have gone out all over English Canada because one critic has been reassigned.

    • says

      Hey Robert – I didn’t imply that John was “the last of an unbroken line of full-time classical music critics at The Toronto Star.”

      And no slight to you or the Globe & Mail, whose work I often cite on ArtsJournal. My point was not at all that you didn’t count (I am a fan of your work as well). My point, even if clumsily articulated, was that the newspaper business model less and less supports arts journalism, and that the job of full-time staff critic is disappearing not just in Canada but in the US as well. Not just in classical music, either. The erosion is irrefutable. We can argue about whether covering the arts on a freelance basis is a bad thing or a better thing, but it most certainly is a different thing.

      Neither was my post a denigration of Canada (being a Canadian myself) and nowhere did I suggest that “the lights have gone out all over English Canada because one critic has been reassigned.” The G&M has had the best arts coverage in Canada for a long time. And better by far than most American newspapers.

      I also wasn’t hand-wringing or lamenting. I’m sad, certainly, that the old model is no longer sustainable, but one can say that about many things in the larger media restructuring going on. I do think it’s worth noting the markers of a changing profession. I think it’s sad that there isn’t a pathway to full-time employment as a classical music critic and that it’s a shrinking profession. The new media forms – blogs, online publications, etc – have yet to produce critics of the stature and prominence of the old system. And certainly a business model to support them hasn’t been discovered. Perhaps this is because these new publications don’t yet have the distribution or stature themselves to make big impact. But it might also be that if the job of critic is no longer supportable as a way to make a living that fewer potentially talented critics will attempt to try in the first place.

      Without slurring Canada or the G&M, I think it’s fair to ask whether the passing of a profession as a full-time gig is due to changes in priorities in the larger culture or whether it is the sliding off of an old journalism model for something better. I, for one, hope for the latter.

  3. says

    Douglas,

    Artsjournal is an important resource for me, yet as I read your reply, I get the feeling that you are a more careful reader of others’ words than of your own. You certainly did imply that the Toronto Star was the last fortress of full-time classical criticism in Canada, though the paper didn’t have a full-time critic before 2005. And I think that anyone who knows the scene less well than you do might easily get the impression that outside Quebec, still home to “a couple of critics,” English Canada is basically scorched earth for music criticism.

    It may have been more accurate to begin your post as follows: “Six years after appointing its first full-time classical music critic in over three decades, the Toronto Star has reassigned critic John Terauds. I don’t yet know how the Star plans to cover classical music in future.” But that’s not a very compelling “marker of a changing profession,” is it? It wouldn’t have given you nearly as good a springboard into your main and quite discussable topic.

    If bloggers are indeed part of the replacement for the old print model of cultural criticism, I think it essential for them to value accuracy as much newspapers traditionally did, and to fess up to errors when made.

    Robert

  4. ariel says

    Mr . Mc Lennan even as a Canadian must practise extreem caution when touching on the passing parade in Canada -
    . The Canadian cousin has ruffled feathers if at the slightest provocation” supposed criticism” comes from
    the good old USA. no matter that no one ever cared what a critic from the Toronto Star had to say .Mr. Terauds is
    gone -did the musical world as a whole notice , – nor does the musical world in general care
    that Mr. Green is full time at Canada’s National Newspaper !?. It is interesting how Mr. Green lectures you
    on how you should have written your article . Dare I suppose he writes reviews on how works should
    have been performed and on not what he heard ?

  5. AMariani says

    Douglas. I admit that I’m not a regular reader of ArtsJournal –– my tastes lean more toward the underground than the ivory tower –– but I’ve been stopping by artsjournal.com long enough over the years and have read enough AJ-generated or -hyperlinked stories to conclude that in all of AJ’s handwringing over the deplorable state of U.S. arts journalism no writer has ever even deigned to acknowledge the established, colorful, mostly solvent presence of alt-weeklies. Blogs are frequently cited in AJ’s spleen-o-grams, even though most blogs –– I’d say about 90 percent –– are maintained by hobbyists and read by very, very few people. Alt-weeklies, of course, employ bona fide arts journalists and critics and can circulate in 100,000-plus territory.

    There’s also a strong argument to be made that alt-weekly criticism is more thoughtful, more honest than that of most daily newspapers. A study several years ago indicated that most critics in daily newspaperdom –– of course, alt-weekly critics weren’t invited to the party –– consider as Job No. 1 educating readers. Not respecting the art by interpreting it, by describing it lovingly, to paraphrase Sontag, whether good or bad. Not even entertaining readers. But educating them. No wonder daily newspaper readership and arts journalism departments are shrinking (and most alt-weeklies seem to be doing pretty well). Who in his or her busy life wants to open the paper to be accosted by a lecture or glorified Wikipedia entry?

    And speaking of deplorable, an open secret in my city, one of top-20 largest cities in the country, is that in return for advertising dollars the local daily paper dedicates a certain amount of column inches to advertisers’ goings-on, be they museum exhibits, venues’ concerts or theatrical productions, whatever. The paper is owned by a conglomerate with dozens of properties scattered throughout the country –– you’d have to be utterly naïve to believe that my city is the only one where such backdoor deals are going down.

    If I were you or one of your peers, I wouldn’t be too worried about the death of daily newspaper arts journalism and criticism, especially when a lot of what passes for daily paper criticism is often merely educational and when spunky alt-weeklies are thriving.

  6. WTZ says

    I would not cry about sending Mr. Terauds to the retirement compound. Maybe he belongs, indeed, to automotive? But this is not a point (biased, of course) I want to make. I think, expressing opinions (biased, of course) about musical performances by one (per newspaper) “assigned guru” should have no place in newspapers like Toronto Star or Globe and Mail. While such magazines are by default designed to brainwash the common reader according to the political sect the newspaper’s owner belongs to, shaping our musical tastes according to Mr. Terauds (or people like him) gospel seems to be pathetic (and an impossible task). Large part of criticism published in newspapers should have place in professional magazines, designed for musicologists and performers, where they can discuss their points of view. The “common reader” deserves information, e.g., about gossips or responses of the audience to the music, etc., but should not be intimidated, e.g., by a sharp criticism of the performer whose music the audience authentically enjoyed (and paid for). Not to mention influencing performers’ careers by untouchable “experts”. Such writings (for mostly musically uneducated audience) in, e.g., Toronto Star, do not produce anything useful, they do not shape the tastes and do not set standards. They say: you enjoyed your evening yesterday, but look how stupid you are, Mr. Therauds said the performance was junk. Thanks God, we have bloggers, we have comments (like the section here), and we can feel more honest and open minded. Do we need music critics at all? Yes, but they should reinvent themselves, and start writing differently, according to the character of “the outlet”. What Mr. Therauds has produced in the past was politically correct, and it is outdated now. Such writings and styles of communication with the audience deserve to be extinct.

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