Now, before you navigate away from yet another “is music journalism dying a painful, bloody and slow death?” article, bear in mind that that’s not the aim of this piece. No, the aim of this piece is to try and figure out how we went from something like this to something like this in 1991 to this in 2012. Robin Seamer and Mike Bradford have attempted to answer the question head on — and have done so with style; both their arguments are well considered and articulate. I’m going to take a slightly more sideways look at the issue.
A lazier person than I am would simply write “the internet did it”, file her copy, and go chill by the water cooler. But I, battling at the vanguard of music journalism, will tirelessly dissect the issue, painstakingly, just for you, for the next twelve pages.
Joking. We don’t even have a water cooler. We do have a vodka cooler though, which may explain my, uh, gonzo writing style. Here are a few meandering thoughts.
I’ll begin with print. It’s a shame nobody buys music magazines any more, because there really are some fantastic ones out there. Clash Magazine, Mixmag and Crack Magazine, for instance, cater strictly for the heads and combine gorgeous photography (even a retina screen doesn’t hold a candle to paper) with proper journalism, well-written (and sub-edited!) features, and interviews with people whose opinions I care about. Publications like NME have successfully taken their brand online, but actual sales have declined to about twelve units a week, and three of those are bought by Luke Lewis‘s mum. Sure, XLR8R and FACT aim for a similar quality to that found in print journalism, which, while appreciated, is still hampered by readers’ insatiable need for daily updates — the result of which is often hilarious but unashamedly bottom-of-the-barrel articles like this (and ripostes like this, though there was humour and mutual admiration from both sides in the end). Of course, what a print magazine can’t deliver (unless it’s at a significant loss) is actual music, which partly explains the overtaking popularity of music blogs with embedded Soundcloud players. Oh look:
(I just wanted an excuse to post that track. Nice one Arkist.)
On the other hand, there are some great free print publications out there, such as Vice, Trap Magazine, The Stool Pigeon, and Loud & Quiet. Moreover, the advertising that pays for them isn’t annoying, irrelevant or obtrusive, flashing all the way down the side of what you’re reading or popping up in your face like a pesky child. It’s relegated to its own pages, and well designed. Sometimes it’s even informative or persuasive, the way good advertising should be. The enjoyment of a physical product aside, I think it’s fair to say that print magazines get advertising right, unlike their blog equivalents, and that contributes to their longevity, flying in the face of the prevailing attitude that quality music journalism is dead.
There’s an attitude among some music bloggers that first equals best. A more uncharitable person than I would call it an attitude borne from the depths of 4chan, though we can pretend these bloggers interned at Reuters if you prefer. But if Flying Lotus puts a new track up on Soundcloud, who cares if you hear about it 5 minutes or 5 days afterwards? So long as you hear it — and, more importantly, buy it. Buzz blogging, as it’s known, is largely to blame for artists receiving huge amounts of hype at one moment, only to become seemingly irrelevant the next. One clear consequence of needing a constant flow of music to post seems to be not only a decline in the quality (or indeed quantity) of writing, but also a diminution in the quality of the music. Similarly, whole genres are created and killed by buzz blogs, meaning horrific coinages like Tumblrwave and Hipster House exist. I despair, truly.
Flying Lotus shreds it with Earl Sweatshirt in a world where hype and actual quality collide.
Which brings me to the next point. Some artists and labels are blogged to death, and are yet to make a penny from it. Many music bloggers are so used to receiving free promos and settling for the impoverished quality of streaming that they no longer encourage their readers to buy music. Not only are the artists and labels deprived on the income they need to continue making and releasing music, in this culture of entitlement the internet has fostered, you — the listener, the consumer — also loses out. You lose out on quality, on a sense of ownership, on loyalty to the artist or label. Obviously music streaming is a wonderful thing in many ways, the equivalent of trying on an outfit before buying, or dating someone before you marry them and have mad kids. But sometimes I feel like in their quest to spread music as widely and thinly as possible, buzz bloggers are actually reducing the depth of people’s love for music.
The flipside is, of course, that many people would rather listen to the music than have to trawl through reviews, opinions and suchlike. I can of course understand that. And I appreciate that in this oversaturated world of hourly tweets and instagrams, a single opinion carries less weight than it might have previously done. But a well written album review, or music feature, isn’t just about generating hits. It’s about giving good music the care and attention it deserves, while maintaining a spirit of questioning curiosity: not only celebrating good music, but asking yourself constantly why it’s good, and how artists can continue to push boundaries. It’s this interplay between artist and critic that gives rise to experimentation, rather than mere trend-chasing.
Olafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm make beautiful, experimental music on Erased Tapes. This remix by Max Cooper is freely downloadable from XLR8R.
So where does the future lie? I believe the strongest prospects are with blogs and online publications that either consist of quality writing, like The Recommender, Errol Anderson’s Touching Bass blog and stalwarts XLR8R and FACT (twitter journalism notwithstanding), or those that cater to a specific audience or genre, like Wears the Trousers, Hush House and Passion of the Weiss. Free print publications are also leading the way, paid for by advertising like blogs, but with the greater integrity afforded by the comparative permanence of the medium. Buzz blogs will die as quickly as they’re born. And I hope against hope that good writing — indeed, any writing — will continue to have a central role in the musical landscape.
By Maya Kalev