I write a fair number of product reviews of music software and hardware. I get paid for writing them. In the main, it’s an irritating chore. I’ve been trying to remember the last time I actually had fun writing a product review, but nothing comes to mind.
At best — if the review process goes smoothly — the money is barely enough to cover the psychic cost of the inevitable irritations. When things go wrong, the money doesn’t really cover it. And all too often, things go wrong.
Let’s see … where to begin? For starters, very few music technology products have adequate owner’s manuals.The process of learning a complex piece of technology often leaves me flipping through the manual, steam coming from my ears because I can’t find the bit of information I need.
Then there are the compatibility issues. These days, most hardware can link to a computer, which means I need to install a driver. Today, the USB driver for the Roland Fantom-G proved to be incompatible with the Syncrosoft License Control Center (also USB). When I switched on the Fantom, its driver trashed Syncrosoft, so I couldn’t launch Cubase until I powered down my whole system and powered it back up (without the Fantom). It was a scary moment; I was afraid I was going to have to contact four or five manufacturers and request new licenses.
This type of thing is sadly normal. The details differ from case to case, but when new software is installed, nothing can be taken for granted.
Products today are extremely complex. To give just one simple instance from among many that I could trot out, it’s not unusual for a software-based musical instrument to ship with 20GB or more of audio samples. That’s literally thousands of separate sounds. Do I have time to listen to them all while writing the review? Not unless I want to end up being paid less than $5 per hour for the work.
Then there’s the writing process itself. Competition for page space in the music technology magazines is fierce, which is another way of saying that none of the magazines is making much money. (Or at least, not much is left after the corporation takes its hefty slice off the top.) So the poor reviewer is saddled with the task of writing about a more complex product than last year, in less space.
And naturally, the magazines want to give readers the impression that the reviewer is actually using the product in real-world situations, not just writing a summary of features after flipping through the manual. This impression is sometimes very accurate, but sometimes it’s very close to being an outright lie. I’ll leave you to try to figure out which reviews belong in which column. In any event, the description of the usage of the product leaves precious little space to devote to a considered discussion of the merits or deficiencies of specific features.
To put it another way — I could easily write three or four times as much as they could ever publish. If I did that, writing the review would be more fun, and reading it would be a lot more informative too. But the economic realities don’t permit it.
I’d love to spend ten times as long making music with each of the products I review. That would be fun, and I’d learn a lot that would make for a better review. But actually having time to make music is a rarity. I need to finish writing the article and get on to the next thing. It’s not like I never play music: Lately I’ve been practicing the piano every day. But nobody is going to pay me to write about it. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to do all the wonderful stuff I’d like to be doing, so creating entire new pieces of original music with the products I’m writing about happens very rarely indeed.
Last but not least, we come to the obligatory mealy-mouthed, kiss-ass writing style. It is generally the case that positive features are described in effusive terms, while problems are minimized by slathering them with bafflegab. I have a large supply of both at my disposal. If I like something, it’s amazing, it’s kick-ass, it’s groundbreaking, it’s stunning, it’s stellar, it’s sexy, it’s mouth-watering, it’s jaw-dropping, it’s … oh, God, somebody stop me. But if I dislike something, it’s “a limitation.” It’s “probably going to be addressed with an update by the time you read this.” It’s “not entirely competitive in today’s market.” It’s “unlikely to be a deal-breaker for most musicians.” It’s “something you need to consider.”
Can I say it’s unforgivably stupid? No, I cannot. Can I say it sucks? No. Lame? Annoying? Primitive? No, can’t say that either.
This is how magazines put positive spin on their editorial so as to placate advertisers, while still wrapping themselves in the mantle of “honest product reviews.” We don’t omit negative findings — at least, not the big ones. (Sometimes there just isn’t room to write about all the little problems.) But what we do, and very routinely, is rave loudly about the good stuff while mumbling quietly about the bad stuff.
This is a soul-deadening exercise. I’ve been doing it for a long time. I know how to do the tap-dance. But it was never fun, and the older I get the less fun it is.
Maybe I ought to start writing the product reviews I want to write. But you know what? Nobody would pay me for them. As Randy Newman once said, “It’s money that I love.”