Sunday, 31 January 2010

15 FAQs: Some of my thoughts on the impact of the web on old media

It's that time of year again when my inbox fills up with questions for coursework and dissertations. I find it a bit odd that I get so many of these as I never studied, in a traditional sense, beyond A-levels. Anyway, as this one was lengthy and asks a lot of the FAQ's about the impact of the web/blogs/user-generated content/etc on old media, specifically music mags, I thought it maybe best to sling this online for anyone else whose sent me questions I've not been able to get back to and for anyone thinking of sending them. Feel free to ask additional Qs in the comments and I'll try to get back to as many as I can... 

These questions came from Ashley Martin

1.      How would you describe the internet’s effect on print media and music journalism in general?

I guess at first, back in the 90s, it seemed like a collection of pamphlets and places to subscribe to magazines. Then messageboards and communities turned things into letters pages, high on a cocktail of acid, meth and blue smarties. I don't think anyone really thought it would be an alternative to print, and few major publications foresaw the benefits of audio and video. The web seems to have made some publications raise their game and given the broadsheets a better sense of which bits of the paper people read, and it's interesting that the growth and investment in music coverage in non-music mags has been one of the biggest shifts.

2.      Do you think this change is beneficial?

For me, personally, of course. There's no way I would have been able to set-up something like DiS without the web. If it wasn't for the web I'd probably have gone from fanzine 'editor' to improving my writing (probably would have gone to Uni) and pitching to express my opinions and passions in other publications.

On a bigger scale, I think the web has taken away the value and point of words about music. It's less to do with the shift in media (there's probably more words available and consumed about music than ever before) but moreso a shift in the need for journalism, when you can inform yourself by listening, rather than spending 5 hours every Wednesday trying to decide your cd purchase for the week by hiding Melody Maker under your exercise book, pretending to do maths.

I'm not sure music writing in traditional music mags is as good as it was but partly that's due to them covering 70+ acts an issue, trying to compete with the abundance of the web and its endless soundbite reservoir of recommendations.

3.      Would you say the relationship between the music fan and the music critic has changed?

I don't think people need 'critics' any more, they just want some guidance. I think 'critics' probably only influenced others within the intelligentsia and I don't think that has really changed. People want to know what's good, maybe hear an explanation of why it's good (especially if they're unsure about something on first listen) or they want to peer into the worlds and inside the minds of their favourite artists but increasingly they can do this via artist-generated content in blogs, tweets and on youtube.

4.      Is the notion of a tastemaker critic dead?

I'd love to say they're alive and well but I think it's more a case that the tastemaker is more important than ever but the critical element (to slay terrible records, destroy demi-gods and deconstruct the things they adore) is OVA! People, especially those with influence in mainstream media, still rely on those who have searched out great things by listening to all the crap. The trouble is - with things like Hype Machine chart, BBC Sound of Polls - there are now so many 'tastemakers' that its become less about trusted individuals and more about democracy, which in my opinion is incredibly flawed as the agreeable is rising to the top, rather than the exceptional and the acts who 'win' are merely those who have the funds to invest long-term in acts, putting all the right dominoes in line....

5.      Do you think the internet has had a dumbing effect on music journalism?

In many ways, I think Andrew Keen was right about this with his book Cult of the Amateur but journopocalypse is a way off. I spent Christmas reading mags like Huck and collections of music writing like the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2009 journal, and the standards are higher than ever, especially considering what all the bullshit from people like John Harris about the death of journalism would suggest. Of course the web isn't suited to text heavy content but at the same time was VBS's Donkumentary or Kevin Rose's Digg interview with Trent Reznor 'dumb' or 'bad' journalism? I wouldn't say so. At the same time, Peter Robinson's Popjustice site and his writing about pop elsewhere is funnier and much more sophisticated and biting than Smash Hits ever was. Then there's Sasha Frere-Jones at New Yorker and I suspect there more great books about music than there's ever been (I guess technically Luke Haines and Kill Your Friends isn't 'journalism').

I suspect the lack of a troop of great writers, all gunslinging at one publication like Creem, is more about economics because writing about music doesn't pay as well as say TV or other such pop culture, which is perhaps why the likes of Charlie Brooker, Miranda Sawyer and Laura Barton aren't writing about music as much? Even Swells was writing about Football to pay his rent, etc. And from my own experience, great writers, who value what they write, don't want to do it for free but sometimes do, by writing blogs, like musicians giving mp3s away, to let people sample their writing, in the hope of or to compliment, paid work.

6.      Do music fans simply demand things that print media can’t offer?

They don't know what they want. I suspect if Pitchfork went into print it'd outsell Rolling Stone and NME, and that's not because it's web-friendly but because it covers the music people currently want to read about, in a flicking-through-the-record-racks kinda way. I mean, how many print publications gave a record like Postal Service 'Give Up' the end of decade plaudits it deserved?

Of course the web with playlists and click to play buttons, trumps comprehending some confusing description. But it depends whether you class "music fans" as web-savvy, ringtone-listening, book-hating (Twilight and Harry Potter defy this logic) 14-21 year olds, like NME/etc still does or realise, like the hugely successful The Word, that people in their 50s may be listening to Leonard Cohen and Wilco but they bought Clash and Kraftwerk records in their teens and are interested in bands like My Morning Jacket and Grizzly Bear. When I was involved in the launch of and when I signed Martha Wainwright, this was something I was very aware of.

7.      Do you think user generated content will eventually supersede professional journalism?

I think its already, er, drowned it out somewhat. The reservoir of shite has always and will always exist, I just think that, as with crap bands, the truly great stuff will always be valued and be more successful (some will miss out on the success they deserve but the often very cynically motivated hobbyist crap, which gets no interest - or, if they wanted to do it as a job, enough ad rev - as you need about 100k readers before you can quit you day job!). The reason HipsterRunoff does so well is because it's very funny, GorillavsBear is always 'on it' with their recommendations, MBVmusic looks great and has great content... Popbitch didn't destroy celebrity gossip mags. Is HuffingtonPost going to kill the Guardian or FT, I don't think so but I suspect its made them pull their socks in a different direction. For some papers the web has meant less requirement to search out stories or research them as much due to the instant resources of the web.

The web may eat away at traditional media but most things compliment others and the process of adaption will ensure things which are popular and/or valued survive. Compromise and balance is more important than ever, for instance, if DiS just covered bands only a tiny niche have heard of, who play to 200 people, we'd struggling to get the 400k readers a month that currently visit the site. NME's website reaches more people than their magazine ever has and with sponsored awards shows and wotnot it's probably more profitable than its ever been too. ABC sales figures of the print title aren't the be all and end all. In the same way major labels are learning from what the likes of Trent Reznor is doing, Spin is learning from Stereogum...

8.      Do you personally welcome user generated material?

DiS was built upon it and will continue to be. However, we don't let everyone post our featured content (we select contributors based on quality of their submissions) and not every music fans wants or needs to voice their opinion. Our forums are hugely popular but only about 10% of those who post are active users. I started out as a music fan with no idea how to write or edit a 'magazine', and I've learnt everything by muddling through and making every mistake, so I'm still closer to being a webuser generating content, than a qualified, educated, professional journalist.

9.      Does the internet provide an engaging forum for discussion or an outlet for offensive and argumentative behaviour?

Both but mostly the latter. Within closed or selective communities things are always nicer but it's like choosing a pub, if you goto a Whetherspoons at 11 on a Friday night, it'll inevitably get rowdy.

10.     Do you think the anonymity of the internet spawns faceless or characterless journalism?

To some extents I guess it does. Lotsa people burrow themselves behind the media 'brand' and oddly even our readers still consider reviews to be the editorially-sanctioned 'DiS opinion', rather than that of the individual who wrote the review (something I'm trying to improve). I think characters are still out there writing but like trying to find a great band, it really isn't easy to find that sharp spark amongst the screaming throng of loser-generated blogs. It's very easy to throw rocks, it's incredibly hard (and takes an investment of time, which requires money, support and an element of freedom) to be Lester Bangs, Nick Kent or Charlie Brooker.

11.     Would you say the integration of social networking sites like Twitter/Facebook adds anything to online journalism or is it just a passing fad?

It makes it much easier to receive abuse! It does help great content spread and can be useful for keeping abreast of what's going on but not sure it's as important as people think. For instance, DiS has 11k+ Twitter followers, yet links we post rarely get 500+ clicks but on the flipside, we get a lot of new users from social networks. People are digesting more content but in different ways. I think music fans are spending less time coming to sites in case they've covered, say Radiohead, and spending more time looking at feeds of information, hoping to spot trends of bands being mentioned a lot, whilst waiting for a mention of Radiohead...

12.     Do you think people will ever be prepared to pay for online music criticism?

For news and pithy reviews, I don't think so. However, I think with the emergence of eReaders there's a chance lengthier articles may have a chance of being monetized. I also think people value curated content and realize that high-quality costs money, so has value. However, I think, with so many free alternatives, there's a lot less need to read to discover music or inform purchases, so it will remain ad-supported for quite some time. Should people pay for poetry? Should people pay to look at art? These are similar questions, I just think it's strange that recorded music and writing opinions about music, have similar questions based on the culture of the past 50 years, which isn't a great deal of time in the grand scheme of things.

13.     Do you think today’s audiences only want to read about stories as they break?

Sadly, I think that might be the case. It's interesting tho to see a rise of analysis of big stories in the media, led somewhat by mags like Newsweek. I think articulating an opinion on the story, to help people make sense of it (like all the fantastic Jay Reatard and Kate McGarrigle obituaries that ran lately). Been pondering this quite a lot with regard to festival coverage as a 'breaking' story but I think the people who want to read about festivals are most likely those there, unless it's Glastonbury.

14.     Does web-based writing spur as much passion for music as magazines do, in your opinion?

It can do, there's perhaps more honesty and passion online but, for some reason, it still doesn't have the same gravitas. I think there's still something to be said for the space that can be dedicated to a story in print. The web, in terms of design and shoving-stuff-in-readers-faces still hasn't achieved the same impact, so the element that most passionate recommendations which the editor decided everyone should read, isn't quite there. I think it's easy for great things to be missed or lost online, as it's hard to bring attention to things. And I think, with an air of 'maybe no-one's listening' or 'maybe i'm the only one reading this' the passion which goes into the writing or is received from it, is perhaps a little skewed but maybe that's just me.

15.     And finally do you think people today pay less attention to what magazines have to say and view the internet as a natural progression?

I'm not sure 'people' ever cared but an influential core are probably getting more out of the web and traditional media, than they ever were. I don't think it's an unnatural progression but it's happening so fast and I'm not sure enough people understand the seismic shift and how to get the best from it.

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