Greta Van Fleet and the Value of the Pan: Can a Bad Review Be a Good Thing in the Streaming Age?
Two weeks ago, Heidi Robinson-Fitzgerald sat in her Los Angeles office and read a review that had eviscerated Greta Van Fleet, the young Michigan blues-rock band, and a client of the veteran music publicist.
The review, posted Oct. 23 by Pitchfork, laid waste to the group’s anticipated debut LP, Anthem of the Peaceful Army, gutting the record as “stiff, hackneyed, overly precious retro-fetishism” and labeling GVF “more of an algorithmic fever dream than an actual rock band.” Anthem was stamped with a lowly 1.6 out of 10 on the website’s rating scale, one of its worst scores of the year.
Robinson-Fitzgerald says that upon finishing Pitchfork’s ravaging, she was ready to pack up and take the rest of the day off. Why?
“Because somebody else was doing my job that day,” she quips.
In the age of streaming, where droves of consumers enjoy instant access to nearly every song in recorded history for little to no cost -- and possession of listeners’ attention is now valued over their wallets -- the old axiom, “all press is good press,” seems to be more germane today than ever before. Barring a career-ruining scandal, comment of any sort that might increase visibility to an artist or their work appears to be a net gain.
“Love my artist, hate my artist, just don’t be ambivalent about them,” says Robinson-Fitzgerald, who over the last 40 years has represented Jane’s Addiction, Van Halen and Slayer, among many other brand-name rock acts. “Because it is so much simpler and cost-effective for people to check something out, no matter what is written about [Greta Van Fleet], I would think that has to increase the amount of people that are somehow going to reach for the music.”
Despite critical panning, from Pitchfork and elsewhere, Anthem of the Peaceful Army debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart last week, earning 87,000 album-equivalent units, a slight uptick from the 75,000 to 80,000-unit haul predicted for it by industry experts. Greta also topped the Billboard Artist 100 chart last week, which comprises album sales, streaming, radio airplay and social media buzz surrounding an artist.
Whether or not this wave of negative press specifically boosted the band is uncertain — Republic Records, which released the album Oct. 19, chose not to comment on sales statistics, and Greta Van Fleet declined comment on the reviews — but publicists certainly seem to agree that a popular publication destroying an artist, who was looking to cut through the noise anyway, tends to ultimately be more profitable than painful in 2018.
“A piece of bad press can veritably generate further curiosity and encourage interest,” says Amy Sciarretto, owner of Atom Splitter PR, which represents Alice Cooper, Killswitch Engage and Hatebreed, among others. “People might wonder what all the fuss is about and ask themselves, ‘Is it really that bad? Let me see and let me listen for myself.’ It can have the opposite effect of scaring people away. Instead, it might welcome them in.”
Sciarretto mentions the Gawker Media site Deadspin condemning her client, the Atlanta metalcore band Attila, as “The Biggest Musical Trolls Of 2014.”
“People told me (the article) made them check out the band,” she says, adding that with the prevalence social media, bands can much more easily flip the script. “I have seen bands post a bad review, and ‘own’ that 1 rating or that really brutal quote… They share it out and say, ‘Thanks for the review,’ and add a joke or emoji -- showing that they are a good sport and have a sense of humor about it.”
Let’s pause here to make a distinction: “How to deal with a bad review” is largely a nascent band’s game to play. Many established acts have received brutal critiques for albums that went on to sell just fine. Sticking with the Pitchfork example: In the early ‘00s, the website gave scores of less than 1 out of 10 to Metallica’s St. Anger (2003, scored 0.8); Weezer’s Make Believe (2005, scored 0.4); and Liz Phair’s Liz Phair (2003, scored 0.0). All three were still later certified Gold or better by the RIAA.
Bryant Kitching, head of publicity at the Brooklyn indie label Partisan Records, says new acts should have less to fear now anyway.
“You can point to so many famous examples from the earlier blog era where a single bad review torpedoed an artist’s career, and I think that concept is effectively gone,” says Kitching, who has headed publicity campaigns for Bon Iver, Margo Price and IDLES. “Now there are so many more avenues of discovery for new music, not to mention streaming services with algorithms that hand-deliver you a customized playlist each week – there isn’t a need anymore to rely on just a couple tastemakers when deciding what to listen to.”
Even Jeremy Larson, senior editor of album reviews at Pitchfork and the author of that scathing GVF pan, can admit the impact of criticism on artists has shifted in recent years.
“Before streaming had its stranglehold on the music industry, reviews could almost be seen as a consumer guide,” Larson says. “Do I want to spend $15 on this record, do I want to spend $9.99 on the iTunes Store to download this record? Is it literally worth my money?”
But now, Larson offers, “The music industry has become very diffused and I think because the Internet has changed -- and the way we have consumed media has changed, and the way we trust content and the way people trust what they see on social media -- the way we trust each other has changed. I think all of those things play a factor into whether or not a review impacts a band’s life.”
And while Larson’s lines like “Greta Van Fleet sound like they did weed exactly once, called the cops, and tried to record a Led Zeppelin album before they arrested themselves,” might suggest otherwise, the critic says he has no desire for his negative reviews to simply delete artists from the narrative. “I hope my review encourages people to listen to Greta Van Fleet,” he says. “I want people to listen to bands, and my dreamworld is that they listen to them critically and take into account the context that oftentimes streaming services don’t give you. To me, that’s what makes a responsible modern music listener.”
Such a consumer-driven utopia sounds great, but for now, publicists like Robinson-Fitzgerald will just as well take the added notoriety that comes with such a slam. (Pitchfork reports to Billboard that the GVF piece was its highest-traffic review of 2018.)
“I think that with this record, Greta Van Fleet has certainly created quite an effect with their music -- whether it’s to get someone to stop and say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard,’ or ‘Hold on, that’s a bunch of crap,” Robinson-Fitzgerald says. “It’s great that people are reacting to it. I think that’s wonderful.”