Where did all the critics and professional music writers go?
I once wrote a review of a BA Johnson album. Two days later, I got my ass handed to me from a girl whom I’d never met. She told me I couldn’t write a review to save my life and that I should find another career. The truth is, there were a lot of lessons learned in that one scolding and every time I sit down to write about music, I think about each one.
From her perspective, those that write about music should be the authority on “the scene” – the whole lot of it. Every genre. Every band. Everything coming from the local, provincial and national scene. Music writers are supposed to know it all.
But these days, everyone and their dog can be a music writer. All you need is a computer, the ability to type (proper spelling not required) and an appreciation for some kind of music. As a result, the authoritative voice of the music journalist gets diluted and lost at sea. Music journalism no longer exists the way it did when writers such as Jann Wenner and Lester Bangs were hailed as the coolest kids around.
It’s just not music journalism any more
What it’s becoming is petty review after petty review. Articles on show production, costume changes and perhaps a mention or two of the live version of some single the band is touting these days. It is a review, in its simplest form being disguised as a piece of journalism – except the journalistic parts of it are dead. Lost along the way.
And, what’s probably even more concerning is that as bloggers and “content creators” edge into where journalism used to reign, the nitpicky parts of the business, such as ethics and fact-checking, seem to shrink. Recently the popular website MTL Blog has been accused of pretty much all the deadly sins of journalism. Another writer mentions how lately there seems to be a trend where journalists are being bribed by musicians to listen to and review songs. It seems that the lines between real journalism and money-making web content are getting blurred more and more every day.
So what happened?
Well, for one thing, the industry changed. The industry changed because the internet gives more and more people the opportunity to find, listen to, watch and form an opinion on a single band at any given point in time. What was once an industry based on good musical talent and artful creation of sound is now much, much larger than that.
The internet and social media means the musicians and music industry professionals end up under a lot of pressure to become the next big thing – from sound to style – in order to keep the big music business machine moving. And writing about music is just as much a part of that machine as any other nut and bolt. It always has been, so don’t tell me I’m full of crap or that it is independent acting outside the business. That’s a fairy tale.
Danko Jones makes a good point in a blog post about how social media killed the music journalist star. In it, Jones highlights the inherent differences between being a critic and being a dumbass jerk. One serves to identify an area where the artist could improve and the other, well, it serves no purpose at all. According to Jones, anyone can become a “music journalist” and he isn’t incorrect. There is no longer a journalistic standard of writing (such as, uh, I dunno, spelling and grammar) and writers don’t have to adhere to a code of ethics of some kind. It is killing the profession, there is no doubt about it, but I’m not sure he set out asking the right question in the first place. The question should be: Where did all the critics and professional music writers go?
And….What happened to the authoritative voice?
Let’s go back to this girl that felt the need to tell a stranger dreams aren’t meant to come true for everyone. Was she right? Mostly. Like 95 per cent right. True music journalism lies in taking an authoritative stance on the music scene. It requires an educated understanding of the profession and the industry. But it cannot be an authoritative stance on every single band or every single genre that’s out there all at once. That’s just impossible. And to expect as much of your writers is going to exhaust them and speed up the extinction.
So how does one become an authority on something so massive with so many branches? What if the many voices a direct response to the lack of a single solid authority because, well, that just isn’t feasible any more? Well, you don’t. And you don’t work against the many voices – you have to work with them.
To quote The National, these days, it’s common versus common. The authority one takes in music journalism has to be the uncommon. The authority still stems from a latent understanding of the industry, and how it’s changed, but it is represented in curating all the information that’s out there into one solid, single source. Separating the crap from the writing that has value. Parsing out the articles on what the musicians are wearing leaving the articles that discuss the quality of the music. Peppering into the mix is the occasional original piece of writing by a freelancer who has previously established their musical authority on their own. This is the new music journalism – a curated effort.
Sites like Exclaim!, Line of Best Fit and even Pitchfork have been doing this style of music journalism for a while now. Each site curates their news sections from sifting through what’s going on in the internet. They become the go-to places, doing all the time-consuming legwork for the reader. For example, Line of Best Fit and Pitchfork recently wrote original, albeit super short, articles on a new Bon Iver single, which was streaming on the NPR website (sidenote: Pitchfork even gave cred to Line of Best Fit for finding it first). Both sites literally took their reader’s hand and told them where to find what they were looking for.
Even original content is tactfully curated. Rather than an onsite team of writers, similar to a newsroom or magazine office, they outsource their writing to freelancers who are, in their own way, hyper-local authorities. In doing so these music journalism sites are able to cover larger ground with the right kind of tone required to establish authority.
So I guess it’s true, what they say, the critic is dead.
But long live the curator.
And I guess that means the reality may be a little different than the dream, but I’m still going to pursue it. Mean people suck anyway.
– Featured image courtesy of Chrix Morix