Sunday, November 02, 2014

Publicity Comes in All Shapes and Colors

From the Washington Post comes news that pianist Dejan Lazic  has asked that the paper remove a concert review written by critic Anne Midgette back in 2010. His request is based on the European Union's Right to Be Forgotten ruling.

Oy vey. There are some misunderstanding here.

First of all, the Right to Be Forgotten ruling applies to search engines. A person can ask Google (at least) to remove links to particular items on the web from the search results served in Europe. The ruling does not in any way require the source of the item to remove that item from the web.  In other words, if I run a search on Dejan Lazic's name from my home in California, I am likely to see the link in my search results; the Washington Post is not obliged to remove the item from its web site. And also, Mr. Lazic has misdirected his request. It should go to Google, not the WaPo. If Google removed a link to an item at a German newspaper under the ruling, that link wouldn't be served in Europe, but it would be served  in the US, and the newspaper could retain the item itself on its web site.

(Disclaimer: I Am Not A Lawyer, and furthermore, while I work for Google, nothing I say is other than my own opinion. I do not represent Google or its views, and what I know about the EU ruling comes from reading the NY Times and other public news sources.)

Second, Anne's review is what I would call mixed, and some of what she says is very positive indeed, the kind of thing that makes me want to hear what Mr. Lazic can do:
The very first notes of Chopin's Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante at the start of the program signaled that he can do anything he wants at the keyboard, detailing chords with a jeweler's precision, then laying little curls of notes atop a cushion of sound like diamonds nestled on velvet. Again and again, throughout the afternoon, he showed what a range of colors he could get out of the instrument, switching from hard-edged percussiveness to creamy legato, crackling chords to a single thread of sound. The sheer technical ability was, at first, a delight.
Substitute an ellipsis for "at first" and you have a publicist's dream. It is obvious that this young man can really play the piano, with flair and technique to burn.

Third, and this gets us to a matter I've expounded before, it's usually not a good idea for a performer to read his or her reviews. That's what your manager, publicist, partner, and teacher (if you have one) are for. As I've noted, performers almost always know what has gone wrong in a performance, and know their own strengths or weaknesses. (If not, maybe performing is not the right career for you.) Performers have to be willing to get up there and show the courage of their convictions without worrying what Anne (or me!) will say the next day. They can't and shouldn't be shifting their approach in response to what any particular reviewer thinks on a given day. In other words, reviews can become a distraction, but they need not be.

Fourth, Mr. Lazic needs to have a talk with his publicist. He has been appearing in public for long enough that he must have one; if not, he needs to hire one right away. Talking to the press can be helpful to your career, but sometimes it's just not. Complaining to the Times about how the Met was treating her couldn't have been good for Ruth Ann Swenson's career, for example. Asking the Washington Post to remove a review from your web site just gets you the kind of publicity you might not want. That is, I'd never heard of Dejan Lazic until a day or two ago. Now I have, but think if all I knew was that very positive paragraph Anne wrote in 2010!

Putting it bluntly, if you're a professional musician, part of your publicist's job is to help you deal effectively with the press, by coaching you about what to do and what not to do.

Lastly, Mr. Lazic has misunderstood the nature of reviews, and I wish Caitlin Dewey had explained this in her blog posting: a review is an opinion piece. Yes, parts of it are factual, including:
  • Who played, and where
  • What was on the program
  • Whether a string player or singer is in tune (individual listeners have varying degrees of sensitivity to this, but pitch is a fact, not an opinion)
But the most interesting part of a review, and the real reason to read a review, is the writer's opinion of a performance. Was it effective? Was it exciting or dull? Did it work? Was it an eccentric performance (think Ugorski's Beethoven piano sonata op. 111, as recorded) or a "central," uneccentric performance? Do you want to hear these performers again? Does the repertory suit the singer's style? 

These are things that are debatable, which is why, in a perfect world, we'd have multiple reviews of any particular performance. Reviewers' tastes and interests and training vary; they have different areas of strength and weakness. 

In the end, it doesn't make much sense to ask for a review to be taken down. If you're a touring pro, you probably play from 50 to 150 performances annually, depending on your fame, age, repertory, endurance, etc. A single performance is just one day out of your career; a particular review is unlikely to make or break you. It's just one person's opinion, after all.

UPDATE: I've clarified how the EU ruling works. And I'm reminded that I meant to mention the Streisand effect, in which nobody is paying attention to something you want ignored....until you call their attention to it through legal action. Then everybody pays attention.


Unknown said...

Very well said, Lisa.

One question: Does your advice about nor reading reviews also apply to composers?

Lisa Hirsch said...

That is an excellent question that I had not even thought about! What do you think?

Dr.B said...

Thank you for explaining that the EU ruling has only to do with search engines. It seemed obvious to me, but people seem to have no idea how computers work.

Lisa Hirsch said...

No idea how computers OR the law work!


This was very helpful, thanks. You're absolutely right that this poor guy should consult a publicist, and he's an easy target for misunderstanding the regulations; but to look at it from his point-of-view, the headline for Midgette's review ("Sparks but no flame: Pianist Dejan Lazic at Kennedy Center's...") is what pops up in the Google Search, and one can see how that would be frustrating, regardless of what else Midgette wrote. (I have no idea what his other reviews look like.) No, artists shouldn't be able to control perceptions about themselves, but the Google algorithm probably has more power than it should in a case like this.

I'm curious about why the Post (?) chose to publicize this request which they were certainly under no pressure to grant. This strikes me as a case of a naive artist making an embarrassing but fairly harmless mistake that didn't need to be made public. On the other hand, counterbalancing the "Streisand Effect" is the "no such thing as bad publicity" principle, so maybe he comes out ahead.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Re the Google algorithm, well, after 16 years of Google, anyone curious about a performer should know to click through and read the whole review.

Yeah, good question about the Post; maybe they were looking for a way to discuss the EU Right to Be Forgotten ruling, which is pretty scary.

Zwölftöner said...

Excellent post about the only real issue there is to discuss. Scariness I don't buy, or at least not in the form the Washington Post is selling it. It's not just that neither WaPo nor Google are going to take down the link. Lazic's request isn't a 'troubling demonstration of how the ruling could work' because it's precisely the kind of request the ruling doesn't support. The EU Information Commissioner's office would, I think, have been happy to confirm the ways in which the right is qualified. But it's clear enough why the writer hasn't read the ruling, or reached out for an official statement (here's to 'fact-gathering'). The point of this piece is to make Europe sound vaguely Orwellian.

Lazic helps, of course. Dear me, this boy is the gift that keeps on giving. Determining the truth content of what a critic writes about a concert and the right to edit the public record, well, that does indeed have 'kind of terrifying' implications. But we don't live in a world where Dejan Lazic makes EU law.

Unknown said...

No, composers shouldn't read reviews either. One reason: by the time a piece is premiered, the composer's head is in the middle of the next piece (or two more pieces down the line). Reading criticism about an "old" piece can be unhelpful in one's current work.

- Mark Winges

Lisa Hirsch said...

The voice of experience, with an excellent observation, that.

Bind said...

Did you happen to read about another "poor guy" in the same situation:

... and Dejan Lazic comprehensive clarification? ))

Lisa Hirsch said...

I was not at the performance in question, but I've heard Domingo conduct, most recently at his Operalia competition. He is terrible, and at the Operalia seriously undercut the young singers, who, honestly, deserve a real conductor to work with.