Are music critics too nice?

The snarky freelancer that tore your last release to pieces might be the exception to the rule.

I’ve been pretty lucky when it comes to “press.” I did my own PR for two early records and got a few really nice reviews. That favorable regional coverage helped build a foundation for my publicist (when I could finally afford one) and he’s been able to secure many more positive reviews, premieres, show previews, and interviews for followup albums.

But here’s the thing: I’ve grown suspicious of good ink.

All told, I’ve probably gotten hundreds of reviews from blogs, music magazines, weeklies, and newspapers. And with the exception of three or four of them which were mildly critical to lukewarm (oh, the sting!), they’ve all been kind.

Not to sound ungrateful — I really am happy to have nice things said about my music — but what are the odds? I mean, maybe my publicist is great at targeting the right critics, or he’s encouraged the ones who don’t like my music to just leave it be, or maybe my music really IS as undeniably brilliant as I like to believe in those first moments after writing a song. (I think Abe Lincoln had a famous saying that would poke holes in that last theory).

Or maybe music critics have grown less… critical.

That’s what IBMA-nominated music writer Ted Lehmann suspects. He wrote an interesting article for No Depression called “What Happens When Reviewers are Too Nice?” 

In it, he wonders why we’ve grown so accustomed to superlatives, which by definition should be reserved for the most outstanding work. Why is every new MC the voice of a generation? Why is every new band the savior of Rock and Roll? And why are we all so afraid of criticism?

Here’s Ted talking about the moments in his life when he gets critical feedback on his own work:

My stomach lurches a bit at first. Sometimes I feel hurt or angry, but, after I settle down, I read the critique again and benefit from it. That’s what good criticism does. It goes by another name, too: teaching.


Grade inflation has become a standard in schools through the last couple of generations. The tendency seems to have coincided with a variety of factors: the competitiveness for continued funding under the G.I. Bill when students returned from war, the idea prevalent among parents that trying hard deserves a reward, the belief that not winning destroys the self. You pick your own demon. But along the way, the word competent has become denigrated.


A person whose work or play is labeled competent seems insufficient. But if competence is that area between good and bad, in the middle where most of us reside, then why should we scoff at competence? Synonyms for competent include: adequate, capable, decent, clever, complete, skilled, and many more. When was the last time you heard a recording, a band, or an individual musician applauded for being competent?


Yet that’s the space most of us inhabit. Words falling into the superlative frame (peerless, outstanding, superb, gilt-edge greatest) should be limited to those who truly are. And every time we reserve the superlatives for those who deserve them, we lift the quality of performance.

Okay, dear critics, please, by all means, sharpen your pens — just pretty pretty please keep being nice to MY music? ; )

Is Ted being a stick-in-the-mud, complaining about the culture of participation trophies? Or is he onto something? What do you think? And what has your experience been receiving positive and negative press coverage for your music? Let me know in the comments below.