Gulf news The difficulties of music criticism in the Middle East

The difficulties of music criticism in the Middle East

Music criticism here has its own set of unique challenges. Firstly, the lack of credible publications. While it's possible to find several music rags from overseas in the UAE's magazine racks, few, if any, have any regional focus. Rolling Stone Middle East was perhaps the only visible exponent, fusing coverage of Middle Eastern bands into the brand's tried-and-tested coverage of all things rock from the western world but since that folded two years ago, there's been precious little beyond a handful of blogs that critically examine the music scene here.

Music criticism in the UAE

■■ Podcast — John Dennehy talks to staff writers Adam Workman and Saeed Saeed about music writing here

There's also the problem that in championing our regional artists, critical thinking as to whether these bands are actually fit to go toe-to-toe with global contemporaries is lost in a rush to promote "one of our own".

And on the flip-side of that, we're also often so in thrall to the bigger names who grace our shores, that they can get away with pared-back live shows, short sets and even lacklustre performances.

The flow of talent coming to play in the UAE is growing and diversifying and that has to be applauded, but there's a tendency towards a seeming desperation to laud the artists that do jet in, in case savaging a below-par performance might discourage future headline names from coming here. Take Coldplay's New Year's Eve set in Abu Dhabi in 2011, which was at least inside an hour. Bon Jovi trotted out a half-interested concert without their original guitarist last year, while performances by Rick Ross and Lil Wayne were also disappointing. A number of headline acts have been about five years behind popular culture in terms of having passed their commercial peak but still enjoy top billing.

The rarefied atmosphere seems to extend to concertgoers, too: I have seen standing ovations for concerts in Abu Dhabi that in many countries would have ended with an appreciative round of applause. It's supply and demand, no doubt - those relatively starved of musical options are clearly going to place more truck on the concerts that they can witness - but context is everything.

In my own music-criticism efforts, I have always tried to balance objectivity with subjectivity - too much of either and you're on a slippery slope towards either bland platitudes or self-absorbed garbage. The results haven't always gone down well. In the early 2000s, the singer of a mid-sized British indie-rock band charmingly threatened to slit my throat; a few years later, a London rapper went as far as recording a diss track about me. (The former was for a fairly scathing album review; the latter, oddly, was for a largely positive 3/5 verdict although the diss track was arguably better than the record that catalysed the whole palaver.)

But most would consider that a success of some sort - if nobody is irate about something, the chances are nobody is reading at all. A publication has to dole out criticism where it's deserved; readers won't trust an endless roll call of glowing reviews.

Among all of that discourse, there have been multiple occasions where artists, record labels, publicists and even the publications themselves have attempted to subvert free opinion for their own gain. Whatever your take on music criticism as a profession, in terms of giving context to aural experiences, it's vital that impartial, credible voices continue to call out the charlatans, chancers and all-round claptrap and keep those on the other side of the business honest.

Adam Workman is a production journalist at The National.