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Megan Vaughan: The long tail of theatre criticism

Shaftesbury Avenue after the mainstream critical apocalypse. Or is it? Photo: Shutterstock Shaftesbury Avenue after the mainstream critical apocalypse. Or is it? Photo: Shutterstock
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I want to take Mark Shenton out for a pint. Not like that, don’t be silly. I just want to cheer him up a bit. All that doom-mongering about critics being laid off, those retiring not being replaced, the desperate search for “authoritative voices” amongst the “online chatter”… it must get exhausting.

I imagine him living in the first chapter in a dystopian novel: walking shell-shocked through Shaftesbury Avenue as poor, abandoned audience members clutch credit cards to their chests and scream long primordial screams because they don’t know whether to take a punt on Oppenheimer or just see Wicked again.

“Chill out mate,” I’d say, “you’re making a big deal out of this and it’s really not that bad. Let’s get a round in and make a list of some of the positive things. That’ll make you feel better, you’ll see.”

Daniel Evans, artistic director of Sheffield Theatres, appears to be similarly panicky about changes to theatre criticism, albeit from a different perspective. One of his recent columns in The Stage effectively said that only criticism sitting beneath a newspaper masthead can ever really matter: “The blogosphere is no substitute… We need newspapers, whether in print or online, to explore, to examine, to enquire, to interrogate the value and impact of our work, to offer context.”

I keep looking at that sentence and can only conclude what he actually means is “and sell our tickets for us” because everything that he says he wants from a critic is being done all over the ‘blogosphere’, day after day.

So that’s me, Shenton, and now Dan Evans all going out for a drink. The more the merrier. Let’s invite Tim Walker too, while we’re at it. We’ll reserve a whole area like you do for birthdays.

He was going to sit these young writers down and tell them not to bother

Walker, previously The Sunday Telegraph’s lead critic, recently told the Salisbury Review that in his masterclass for the Young Critics programme at Theatre Royal Winchester, he was going to sit these young writers down – passionate, engaged theatre fans, many already blogging, all committed to creating a vibrant theatre ecology – and tell them, basically, not to bother. “My advice to them,” he wrote, “shall be to get proper, well-remunerated jobs in which they are respected by their employers and the world at large.”

I think that’s when I realised it, realised that none of this – not Shenton bemoaning the latest redundancy, not Evans calling for better-resourced arts desks, not Walker and all his talk of ‘respect’ – has anything to do with protecting criticism or its standards. It’s only about protecting their own existing income streams.

In 2004, Chris Anderson, then editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, wrote an article called The Long Tail. In it, he explained the cultural shift brought about by an online marketplace and its almost endless choice of product for the consumer. (Bear with me – I know this economics shit is boring but I promise it’s relevant.) The Long Tail is named after the shape of the graph that the phenomenon creates; from a small number of ‘hits’ (the short head) to a large number of ‘niches’ (the aforementioned tail).

Chris Anderson's 'long tail'
Chris Anderson’s ‘long tail’. Image: Wired

It’s most often considered in relation to music sales. Once upon a time, when theatre programmes were 4d and Kenneth Tynan still roamed the earth, we used to have to go into a record shop to buy actual real-life records. These shops had limited space so only held a limited number of records. In this climate, a small number of recording artists made an absolute fortune. Then the internet happened, and Amazon and iTunes happened. First, we would order albums online, and they would be posted to us from a warehouse. Later, we would click a download link, and receive our music almost instantaneously. Perhaps we wouldn’t even pay for it. Oh, the freedom.

Anderson’s article on the long tail explained that, while the hits were fewer, online retail actually revealed the true nature of demand: more consumers had more of their niche interests catered for by more musicians who were, granted, making a lot less money than the handful of hitmakers had done in the past, but were generally trundling on okay. It wouldn’t be long before they started to bypass Amazon et al and sell their music direct anyhow.

A quick search of twitter tells us that there is now more criticism than ever

We’re heading towards a long tail with theatre criticism at the moment. Not a long tail of actual theatre, the liveness of which still (largely) prevents online consumption, but of criticism, which has a much greater potential audience and is much easier to disseminate. While fewer professional critics make a lot less money than they used to, a quick search of twitter tells us that there is now more criticism than ever.

At Tim Walker’s workshop in Winchester (I was there because the theatre asked me to sit in and offer a more positive counterpoint to his war stories), he kept his word and told the young writers that this critical diversity would hold them back in life, prevent them from getting on the property ladder. When Mark Shenton spoke at another session in the same Young Critics programme, he said that this plurality of opinion meant that it’s even more important for readers to filter down to “the authority of people actually appointed (rather than self-appointed)”.

I can see his point. When I first discovered theatre, Lyn Gardner’s recommendations guided my ticket-buying more often than not. Now though, as I’ve spent some time exploring my own taste, as well as the whole menu of online reviewers out there, it’s a handful of my favourite bloggers influencing my choices. I’ve found my own niches within the long tail and (the horror) they’re almost all “self-appointed”.

Mark Shenton is probably reading this and thinking, “But I am the champion of the bloggers! I’ve been blogging for 15 years, you know!” And, fair dos, his online column on this site has been running a long time now. I’ll also be the first to say that his knowledge of musical theatre and cabaret, as well as his commitment to regional coverage, means that he’s an invaluable voice within this critical landscape. My Theatre Mates (his latest venture with Terri Paddock, previously of Whatsonstage), works like a portal to a number of different theatre blogs. Shenton and Paddock have created a way to filter the noise of the internet in a way that will, once it’s properly up and running, provide an easy entry route to online criticism for the audiences that we last saw screaming for help in the Shaftesbury Avenue of our dystopian novel.

When I write it down like that, My Theatre Mates sounds great. And I guess it’s still far too early to know how it’ll pan out exactly. A couple of weeks ago it was just Shenton and Paddock, grinning together in their echo chamber. Now there are new bloggers adding content every day. And yet I can’t shake the feeling that this is a very bad thing. They want it to look like progress, but what if it stops progress dead?

Why? Because Shenton and Paddock don’t get to decide whose writing is trustworthy or not. That’s not how the long tail works. That’s not how the internet works.

If they wanted to start a magazine-style site, they could’ve done that. They could’ve approached the bloggers they liked, set submission criteria and taken on all the editing, ticket admin, all that shizz. It’s a system that’s worked before and will work again.

The Stage Critic Search 2015The Stage has just launched a new competition for emerging critics because it wants to cast the net wide to find the most talented new voices, with training and mentoring and, importantly, standard freelance rates for all the shortlisted entrants.

All that being-an-editor business, though… that’s a lot of grafting, right? Instead, My Theatre Mates syndicates content posted independently, and promises nothing but the vague possibility of additional web traffic that might lead to that Holy Grail: “supplemental revenue”.

The bloggers they sign up, on the other hand, must advertise My Theatre Mates, host their mailing list sign-up, and regularly share other contributors’ content across their own social media accounts. (I bet you’re all wondering how the “supplemental revenue” from hits to the main My Theatre Mates site is going to be divided up, aren’t you? Me too.)

Mark Shenton and Terri Paddock
Mark Shenton and Terri Paddock

I’m a bit of a leftie, and naturally predisposed to question anything driven by profit, but even if we look beyond the project’s financial model (which, granted, is becoming pretty standard in our online economy), there are other damaging operational practices at work. Exactly how are bloggers chosen for the site? What criteria are they using? Who gets to decide which opinion matters? Turns out My Theatre Mates is just as in thrall to the system (*anarchy face*) as any mainstream publication. All syndicate ‘Mates’ must “provide three recognised theatre PRs or publicists as referees” so hard luck to those of you covering small-scale work that can’t afford PR. Tough shit to those of you writing about youth theatre, pub theatre or live art. “My Theatre Mates sends its apologies to the already under-represented. Sucks to be you, rural touring!”

Okay, I made up the last quote.

This is not a long tail. This is not a readership finding its own niches within a democratic critical conversation. This isn’t even the “authority” that Mark has been searching for this whole time. When he asks for authority, he’s actually just asking for someone to trust. It’s quite sweet really. But trust is granted in practice, not dictated by proxy. I mean, imagine if iTunes decided it would only stock music that had been rated by a handful of specific users. Then imagine if those users had been on the payroll of the major labels all along. The PRs don’t work with bloggers who won’t play their game.

I showed this article to my friend as I was drafting it, and he said, “Blimey Meg, are you sure it’s not you that needs to be taken out for a drink?”

He’s probably right. As a blogger myself, maybe I’m just too close to any of these arguments to be properly objective. A little light curation is hardly going to herald a new era of mass censorship or anything. Readers of criticism will still follow the writers they like. That revolution I’d been looking forward to is still on the horizon. The dream of the long tail is still alive, stretched out before us like a glittering utopia of conversation, analysis, humour, and space for all those previously hidden corners of our vibrant and diverse sector. I just don’t want to see off one two-tier system only for it to be replaced by a new hierarchy within the blogging community itself.

So Mark, whaddaya say? Shall we go for that pint? You bring Terri. I’ll invite Dan and Tim. First round’s on me.

Megan Vaughan blogs at Synonyms for Churlish

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