By Susan Tomes, a professional pianist and author (THE GUARDIAN, 19/06/07):
Music critics must be trembling after reading that the owners of an Australian restaurant have won a court case against a newspaper that gave it a bad review. The owners claimed that their business interests had been damaged. A few months ago a Belfast restaurateur won damages of £25,000 for defamation after a negative review.What if the combative attitude of these restaurant owners were to spread to the arts? Reviews of individual restaurants are relatively infrequent, but artists and performers, particularly in the music world, are reviewed in every big city they visit. Could they sue?
Restaurants and their reputations are a very different matter from artists and theirs. If your restaurant is criticised, you can fire the chef, get a new team in the kitchen, change the front of house staff and within a short time, turn it into a new establishment. The situation is much more serious for an artist. If someone does a hatchet job on a solo pianist, his or her personal reputation and business interests are both damaged. The pianist is the business. His playing cannot be spruced up overnight. If he could prove that bookings had fallen through, or were likely to, because concert promoters had lost confidence in him after reading a negative review, surely he could sue for damage to his business interests.
Musicians often wonder what authority critics have to publish their opinions in the national press. This is not to say that there are no committed and knowledgeable critics out there – there are. But an arts critic needs no training. No qualifications have to be achieved before you can become one.
I often think about this when I play in the US. Months before the promoter is allowed to hire me, I have to submit extensive reviews, past programmes and CD reviews to show why I should be engaged, rather than a similarly qualified American artist. When the concert finally takes place, it is likely to be reviewed by someone who – to put it mildly – is unlikely to have been so thoroughly vetted. The critic may even be someone who wanted to be a musician but didn’t succeed. Yet this one person’s review of my concert may determine whether I get asked back.
There is a huge imbalance between the long training and private practice that goes into being a performer and the preparation that goes into being a critic. Performers know this, and it lies at the heart of their uneasy relationship with critics. In the music world it is generally thought that the most dignified response to a poor review is silence. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some performers were now wondering whether it would be better to fight back.