DO MUSIC critics have any influence?
That question has been the subject of hot argument for centuries -- beginning long before the day a Viennese music critic wrote that a new symphony by Beethoven (it was the Fifth) would not last because it had no melody.
But until now there has not been a statistical survey made of the impact, if any, that music critics have upon readers.
A study was made prior to the recent conventions of the American Symphony Orchestra League and the Music Critics Association in New York City. It set out to determine whether:
Music critics affect attendance at particular performances;
Alter the careers of individual artists and performing groups; and have an impact on the economic welfare of artistic performance in general.
There are those who deny all of the above influences entirely. There are also those who insist equally vociferously that critical reviews are matters of life and death for young artists, strongly affect the careers of mature artists, can even destroy performing groups, and greatly expand or reduce attendance at musical events.
The study was undertaken by Dr. William Baumol of Princeton and New York Universities, and he reported his findings to the conventions two weeks ago. Noting that the survey, while based on statistics, reflected "the introspective evaluations obtained by interviews of members of audiences who are the consumers of musical performance, of artists' managers whose function it is to develop performers . . . and of those who are involved in the decision to engage performing groups and individual artists," Baumol reached some specific conclusions:
All audiences judge the direct influence of criticism upon attendance to be very small -- "all but negligible." (They cite the reputation of artists, word of mouth and advertising as far more significant.)
However, Baumol emphasizes, "the indirect influence of musical criticism, at least over the long run, seems to be very substantial," adding that "artists believe that accumulated critical reaction is a prime ingredient" in building a reputation.
Artists' agents believe that critics are important for reputation. They all indicated that they read reviews constantly. The truth of this can be seen by anyone who picks up a flyer or brochure put out by an artist's management. It will be little more than a list of favorable quotes from reviews. That these are sometimes nothing more than "STELLAR!" -- Glutzville Times-Gazette, or "SPELLBINDING!" -- Scootertown News-Ledger does not keep them from being set up in large type. When the quotes can include something from a major daily paper, it makes a substantial difference to the artists, their managements and eventually to the public.
Among those who decide what artists to engage, only music reviews appearing in New York and Washington, out of the entire country, were cited as having any influence whatsoever.
Baumol's figures on audience responses come from 648 "usable responses" to questionnaires distributed at three New York City concert halls -- Carnegie, Alice Tully and the 92nd Street "Y" -- and at the University of Wisconsin. The Madison campus was selected as representative of a middle-sized midwest college community. His information on those who present concerts came from questionnaires sent to the 1,500 members of the American Symphony Orchestra League and the Association of College, University and Community Arts Administrators. Answers to these came from all over the country. The artists' agents, most of whom have offices in New York City, were interviewed there.
It was no surprise to Baumol that most of the audiences were well educated, high-income, predominantly professional people, and not a very young group either, though the age level dropped, naturally, in the Wisconsin survey. However, one of the items that was very clear was that more than 77 percent of the audiences had studied music for varying lengths of time. This was of such significance that Baumol could state emphatically that "one effective way to build future audiences is to encourage musical training of the young." He found also that almost a third of the audiences was composed of amateur musicians.
It also appeared that the longer listeners had studied music, the less they depended upon reviews as reasons for attending.More often they went because of subscription tickets, but also "because of curiosity, personal relationships, free tickets, hearing the artist on radio," and, as some said, "I just love chamber music."
In spite of the apparent minor importance of critical reviews on audience attendance, Baumol insists "that is not all there is to the story. Indeed, we will see that the figures may vastly underrate the critics' role." These figures indicate that in Wisconsin only 0.6 and in New York City only 0.4 of the audiences cited critics' reviews as reasons for attending specific events. However, Baumol notes that the factor of "reputation of the artist" is given as the No. 1 reason for attending, and emphasizes that those reputations are not independent of critical opinion. "In the extreme case," he concludes, "if the performers were not reviewed at all, it is doubtful that the audience would have heard of them at all."
The survey also established clearly that, though audiences denied that reviews brought them to concerts, 35 percent of the audiences said they read music reviews "regularly" and another 30 percent read them "sometimes." And the more often people go to concerts, the more often it appears they read reviews.
Curious to know if these readers were really in touch with reviews, Baumol asked them to name the critics with whom they generally agreed and those with whom they disagreed. Forty-one percent of the audience was able to name at least one critic, while of those working in music fields, 72 percent could name various critics. "As an indication of the breadth of our audiences' reading, over 30 different critics were named in New York and about 20 in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin group reported reading 96 newspapers and magazines, while New Yorkers read more than 100 publications. "The evidence here is simply overhwelming. The music critic cannot be taken to occupy a position of anonymity," Baumol says. (I wonder if he realizes how reassuring that statement is.)
Among those who present concerts, a majority -- nearly 80 percent -- agreed that critics' opinions were not important to audiences' tastes. But they tended to agree that critics were important in stimulating attendance. One thing that many felt would be most useful would be for critics to offer some advance opinions on the musical quality of future events far enough ahead so that those who may be choosing from among a large number of possible events, or even series, might have some more concrete idea about which to select.
Baumol's findings bear out what both critics and artist managements have long known: that no career is either made or broken by a single review. "All the artists' representatives agreed that the ability of the artist to please the public was the most important factor, and that this information is transmitted not only by reviewers but by concert managers, other musicians, audiences, etc. The agents considered the important factors to be talent, rapport with an audience, luck, persistence, sponsorship, and, they all agree, good management." They insisted that "a good review will pay off with attention, engagements and eventually higher fees. A poor review makes it much more difficult for the manager to get bookings, but is not fatal." As one agent put it, "The importance of reviews is overrated, but you use them just to be practical," to which another added, "The public has ears and that is ultimately most important."
Those responding to Baumol's survey also added these personal observations on the role of the critic:
A music critic is primarily a journalist, not a musicologist.
The critic is only giving his private opinion.
The critic is to identify the excellent from the second-rate to encourage the audience to see, think, hear in ways in which they are not accustomed; to defendhis/her opinion with specifics; to tell the truth and to admit subjectivity; and to demonstrate his/her love of music and musicians.