Tuesday, 16 February 2010

FAQs: Music Journalism, Critics, DiS' role, Taste-Making, New Music, Old Media, 2.0 woe...

As per my previous post on old media vs new media, here's my response to some questions from Anna Nikolarakis...


Do you think music journalism has changed in the past 50 years, why do you think this may be?

The passion and purpose for many is still the same, if not evolved a little in terms of the focus and the understanding of the possibilities of 'rock-writing'. More generally, as an 'art-form' it's very different. There have obviously been massive industry and technological shifts since the early critics started penning their passionate analysis in the few publications that existed. It's kinda funny how there's not that much difference between the writing in Bomp! to what's on Stereogum or some of the essays in Loops or by folks like Simon Reynolds and Laura Barton in the Guardian to the writing in Creem and Sounds. 

For me, the biggest change is from a world of a few notable 'authorities' waxing lyrical on records you had to purchase to be able to hear, to a slew of sound-bitten snot-balls in Q and tabloids which passes as 'journalism', seemingly with the simple mission of encouraging those people who buy 5 CDs a year to maybe buy one that isn't Coldplay, Girls Aloud, Madonna, Dido or U2. Maybe this writing has always existed, I don't know, I was only born in '82.

The sheer volume of music 'journalism' is obviously the biggest sea change, with a lot of 'writing' replaced by have-a-go hobbyists, who - much like the slurry of undeveloped bands lacking in virtuosity clogging up the interwebz - have little 'art' in their 'criticism'-cum-one-sentence-recommendation. This once would have been in fanzines, read by a few people who understood it was a small cog, whereas people have no idea how big or small most blogs (the modern fanzine) are. That said, there's still a lot of good writing about (the annual Da Capo collections compile an awful lot of it!) but the clutter of 'opinions' has diminished the impact of the lucky few who honed the craft to inform us. 

What inspired you to become a journalist?

Probably a mixture of being told to "bore off" by kids at school who didn't know who the bands were I was banging on about, let alone why I had all these theories about why they were historically important. This passionate outpouring met the web and my weekly mixture of awe and disdain came rattling out over ICQ whenever music mags inevitably slagged off bands I loved.

A more covert influence was post-school TV. I'm pretty sure nearly every show from Clarissa Explains it All to Sweet Valley High had kids dreaming of becoming journalists/writers. Plus I was working in a record store, promoting gigs and couldn't afford to buy a Reading ticket and I read in one of the piles of magazines beside my bed that journalists got free tickets, so it seemed like something tangible to tell my careers advisor, rather than 'I wanna test computer games' or 'be Richard Branson'... I didn't really wait for anyone to say I could be a 'journalist' and when I was 16 I became one of those have-a-go-hobbyists cluttering up the internetz with terrible spelling and atrocious grammar in my fortnightly email blog (some of which was just pasted from instant messenger conversations), which grew to be DiS.

To be honest and being a little pedantic, I'm not really and never really wanted to be a fact-chasing "journalist" and I'm more of a 'critic', more interested in sifting out the best music, offering opinions on why something is gash and exploring concepts 'n ideas.

Did any ‘personality’ music journalists inspire you and who?

Swells (Steven Wells) was hugely inspirational. I often massively disagreed with his reviews but the pummelling of shock 'n awe imagery and the ridiculously aggressive tone was inspiring. I'd never read rants like that, it felt like a pop-up book, the Viz and this otherworldly articulation of half-formed thoughts in my head. I realised after his death that I probably read a lot of his stuff in football mags at a formative age (when I was about 8 I bought pretty much every football mag). I met him when I was writing for Bang magazine and he pretty much lived up to the persona you read on the page....

Someone (extremely generous) mentioned my first bits of erratic writing were a bit like Lester Bangs, so I bought his collections just as I was starting my email blog back in '98 (worth noting another friend said the jumbled imagery "read like a Jackson Pollock" and I still can't tell if that was meant to be an insult). From there I read a lot of Nick Kent, Everett True and various others, who were massively inspiring. More recently I've been inspired, and at the same time feel utterly inferior at incredibly high the bar is set by Charlie Brooker, Chuck Klosterman and discovered the Richard Meltzer collections. I'd recommend Meltzer's collection a 'Whore Like the Rest' to anyone.

Do you look for famous writers for your website?

Not really because we can't afford to pay them. Also I'm not sure many writers are particularly "famous" beyond a niche of fellow writers and die-hard music journalism enthusiasts. We paid Everett True to write for us for a bit last year but somewhat surprisingly he garnered the same amount of views as someone submitting their first article about the same acts, which is sad but sadly true - however, to be fair, I doubt the format of our website particularly helps. 

I guess it's worth noting that many of our writers have garnered notoriety and followings (former Editor Mike Diver and current reviews editor Andrzej Lukowski especially), as well as gone on to bigger things i.e. NME features editor James Jam, Metal Hammer features editor Terry Bezer and various others started out contributing to DiS. We've had various musicians write for us too and will continue to do so as it's loads more interesting than reading their responses to the same ol' questions.

Do you think reputation and branding has a lot to do with the success of a website or magazine/paper?

I think reputation comes from many factors but the main ones are relevance, reliability and more importantly, the length of time something has existed (and been relevant to people's tastes and reliable at sorting the wheat from the chaff). So much media comes and goes but 10 years on and just as the internet is coming of age, we're finally shutting up a lot of the 'you're just a glorified fanzine' doubters from further up the food chain and becoming a more established part of the media landscape. Plus being around that long also means you have a good Google pagerank and an archive of content which picks up traffic - I'm not sure how we would survive as a semi-professional operation without that if we launched today. Then again, I'm not sure if I launched a site today it'd be much like DiS currently is and am massively rethinking things at present.

I guess "success" is hard to define as there's now sites from Resident Advisor to Gorilla vs Bear, which offer a awful lot of high quality but super-niche media which successfully delivers what its audience wants. Their audiences are probably as big as they could be without compromising what they do. In the same way a lot of cult bands are as big as they are, I'm not sure there are really many publications which could hugely expand their circulation beyond the numbers they currently get, without radical and innovative shifts in the service they provide.

Over the past few years, one of the major factors in terms of a drop in readership across the board is people's access to music on services like MySpace mixed with the ridiculous volume of music coverage both online and in every publication from The Sun to Glamour, all of which reduces the need to buy a publication or visit the website of a 'brand' that specialises in music editorial, especially in terms of informing your purchases. Most people (rather than die-hard music enthusiasts, who crave comprehensive coverage and are never satisfied) want the ready-meal summary and/or to listen to and explore music for themselves (which has led to a lot of people being trapped in their own niches, never challenged or forced to invest time in understanding music beyond a shallow gut reaction to it/its aesthetic). I'm not sure anyone trusts or respects a "top-down" music media brand as much as they once did and increasingly people are living in a pick'n'mix mess of media and individual pundits, as well as fellow web users.

I believe media's biggest challenge going forward is to collectively grow the audience that cares about opinions and thoughtful explorations of music, rather than go further and further down niches of music that's irrelevant to the average music fan but pleasing to the hardcore vocal minority. There's also this issue of music fans becoming entrenched in a middle-of-the-road status quo for their individual tastes, which is incredibly disturbing, especially given herd mentalities and musical palettes which could become increasingly bland because of the lack of sounds and ideas which challenge people......but that's another topic altogether.

What do you think about the quality of music journalism today?

For every great piece there are 10k shit bits spewed onto the web. Wading for greatness isn't as fun or feasible as it once was and I agree with a lot of Andrew Keen's Cult of the Amateur book (although I'm well aware of the hypocrisy because of how I started out but at the same time readers opting to side-stepping the professionals won't know what they've lost 'til its gone. Plus I think a lot of the amateurs are those clueless corps trying to be 'new media' and failing, leaving a lot of damage in their wake...). The great bits by experts are probably as good, if not better than they have ever been (a slight caveat, as I'm concerned that it's hard to tell whether I'm more interested in active opinions or more able to comprehend writing than I used to be) but it's still rare to read something amazing which isn't by a professional journalist or that is in a popular music-only publication, mostly because these specialist titles circulation's and revenues aren't big enough to get a Sacha Frere-Jones (New Yorker) or pay (even if it's just in terms of audience reach) Douglas Coupland to natter with Morrissey like the Observer can. 

Authority and context for opinions is hard to come by and I think increasingly people hone in on individual contributors or blogs run by 1 or 2 people, rather than a wafty spread of conflicting opinions from a corralled collective, especially as there are technologies like HypeM, WeareHunted and last.fm which can democratically aggregate recommendation or hyper-personalize it like Amazon does.

A lot of the best music writing isn't in music mags. I really love the writing in The New Yorker, New York Times, Guardian, Sunday Times but also non-music mags like Wired and Huck magazine, which is run by the people behind Little White Lies and is a magazine that specialises in surf and skate culture, and a lot of their approach is much more like travel writing, which I really like. NME's upped its game since Krissi's started editing it with contributions from various (former) DiS staff members and the guys from theQuietus.com which I helped launch on BSKYB's dime that has some of the best writing on the web. And as I said earlier the annual Da Capo Best Music Writing collections are brilliant, the piece about Lil Wayne from Oxford American journal which I tweeted last week is especially great. I think journalism is in great shape but like anything, finding the great stuff and it resonating with an audience large enough to justify paying what people used to get in the 70s and 80s isn't too great. Put it this way, if we paid for some of the contributions on our site we'd barely be able to pay them £3 in ad revenue for their review (and even some of the most read content of the year only garners about £50 in ad revenue), such is the ad-supported economics, for even our site which gets 400k unique users a month but never ever gets 400k people looking at any individual article.

Do you think the branding in the mainstream music press has affected music journalism?

Not really sure it has made any significant difference. I think the mainstream press is more interested in fighting for market relevance whilst compromising specialism for comprehensive coverage in a desperate attempt to compete with the web and with eachother. None of this is really driven by branding or advertising (obviously a drop of audience is a bigger factor in this fight!), and having spent time with agencies, it's fair to say they're less interested in the details (we did a special week and had a Sonic Youth tour diary, and heard "Sonic what?" in response) and they're more interested in the ambiance (or "halo effect" to use crass marketing terminology) of the media brand/publication, hoping to reach target demographics across a range of mediums.

Vice probably do more work with brands than most yet their style of editorial and music they cover isn't mass market or massively important in the grand scheme of things but the brand has a counter culture aesthetic of 'hip' youth, and that's enough for most brands. In the states, a lot of magazines like Fader and Filter actually do a lot of brand marketing (Clash here does bits of it too, curating events for brands - closest I've ever come to this is putting on !!! for Amnesty) and as the magazines don't write about the brands themselves, there's rarely a conflict. However, I'd be curious whether there's any research that says anti-corp bands or images of the-not-hot-looking-musicians have been left out because of this modern folly.... I do know that having pretty girls increases the page space and feature opportunities open to artists in certain publications, mostly in an attempt to offset all the beardie-weirdies. 

Have you ever not been able to write something due to advertising a certain band/gig? Do you think this happens a lot in the music press?

We've had campaigns pulled at the last minute due to reviews (most recently Vampire Weekend who we only gave a 6/10) but on the whole these things are isolated and rare. We tend to only get music-related ads from companies who understand and are interested in reaching our audience and they're well aware they can't buy positive reviews or ensure coverage. Often I only know we have a campaign when it goes live as all the ad sales is done by third parties (a company in Manchester called w00t!media now looks after DiS' ad sales). I doubt the reviews editors at NME have a clue who's advertising either when doctoring scores. Obviously if we're championing a band, we tend to find someone who's likely to be a fan to write the album review but that's as sinister as it gets. I can only think of about 3 reviews we've taken down and none of them were to do with branding, and everything to do with unjustified comments which weren't particularly politik. 

However, with my label boss Wurzel head on, I know there are instances where magazines have asked me to take out ads to cover the cost of having a band on a cover mount cd, which comes with a new band feature or been asked for £22k to include a label sampler with a certain music weekly, which would also get me several pages of editorial for much less than taking out several pages of editorial would... I can't believe some labels paid to do this! This happens quite a lot more than I anticipated and the funny thing is, these features make negligible difference in the grand scheme of things. The only thing which makes a huge difference is a great song, ideally at the right time, in the right place... 

That said, there's a lot more that happens within the PR world in terms of exclusive content and alliances than in the branding/advertising world - no-one really bites the hand that feeds and my lack of desire to 'play the game' has probably held DiS back and benefited our 'competitiors' but is also probably one of the reasons what we say matters and why we've managed to last so long. It'd be piss-easy to run everything people want us to run but our readers don't want a deluge of shit, they want us to filter things down for them.

What do you think of the rebranding of NME?

I read it regularly but not really aware of a rebranding, although I know it's due to happen (again) soon.

Do you think we are a much more celebrity obsessed society in the 21st century and it’s harder to write what you want?

I think it's easier to write about whatever you want but much harder to find an audience who want to read about 'anything' or editors who'd pay you to write about or dedicate space to stuff that doesn't hang on certain hooks. For instance, I couldn't just write my column for the Sunday Times about absolutely anything I want, it has to be something which will make sense to a more general audience but it does mean, if I make things accessible, then I can recommend new bands I love if I can make it relevant to topics and trends. 

I think it's getting harder for editors to decide exactly what to cover and things are somewhat of a contradictory mess. For instance we get tonnes of traffic but some articles struggle to get 1000 hits, whereas Prodigy and Brand New, acts we don't really push to the fore, get really well read. Whereas, in print, they have no true idea how popular some articles or regular features are, apart from in research groups and letters they get in but the only true metric they have is the difference putting an act like Oasis on the cover, rather than Lightspeed Champion, makes to sales in Tescos. 

From my point of view as a label boss that works mainly with brand new acts, I think it's hard - especially considering how many bands don't sell much and how quickly the churnover of new bands is - for many new or cult acts to get coverage without a relevant narrative or specialism or simply being 'on trend' in terms of a made-up sub-genre-leaning scenes or issue themes (and often being part of a 'scene' can be to a detriment as acts get glossed over or deemed something like 'yet another solo electro thing' or you get feedback like 'sorry, we've had too many female fronted rock bands lately'). Obviously it helps if an act is undeniably exceptional in all departments (lyrical prowess, musical virtuosity, narrative hooks (famous families help somewhat!), aesthetics, etc...) but that's all deemed quite subjective. Having a big label with a marketing budget and the resources to shimmy-along opinions (or to do the things which help tick the boxes which lead to coverage i.e. relevant supports, notable collaborations, provide exclusive bits of content, rack up myspace plays through relevant fans of other acts, etc...) is more likely to get you tipped and onto the runaway train of hype, fuelled and propelled by self-perpetuating loops.. Recording in smokey mountain sheds, painting eyeballs on your breasts and flame-thrower bras are more likely to get you written about than being the music mag office band du-jour. And even when bands do get pushed to the fore, the difference is negligible unless the rest of the media follows suit. Personally, I think it's astounding that there's more media space given to introducing bands who've barely recorded a demo or played a gig, than is given to those who've developed and are releasing albums 2 and 3. Every punch is pulled or barely felt for fear or not covering everything, at the expense of highlighting the truly remarkable. 

I don't disagree about celebrity obsession and even fleeting fame has more scope for coverage than innovative or imaginative sorts. Musical virtuosity is always trumped by "a good story", like her mum was in the Bill or she's Sting's daughter. I think it'd be hard for any magazine to tumble too far adrift of what people seem to want or be currently interested in. Even Mojo and Uncut, who did well in the ABCs haven't veered too far from Neil Young, Dylan, Bon Iver and Midlake who're the 'celebs' of their world in terms of dedicating space in their magazines, rather than branching out to covering m83, Justice and Crystal Castles, even if they did love them. 

I think it's a bigger challenge than ever for publications to turn people on to new music (and by this I still kinda class bands like The National and LCD Soundsystem who haven't really crossed-over as "new" but then the mainstream audiences won't be affected by the press, whereas the R1 execs and TV producers who look at the press and web for guidance, are looking for things to satisfy these audiences) but a good start would be to rip up the rulebook and reign things in A LOT, competing with the abundance of the web (or other websites) and focussing on the finest, rather than trying to stick a branded pin in everything - the 24+ new bands and 10+ albums by bands even I've only vaguely heard of the NME covers each week is just ridiculous, although I'm sure their research and label/pr-pleasing policies say otherwise. From the top-end of our stats it's clear people want what they know plus some recommendations, and some analysis and a few interesting opinions, and it doesn't matter if these come from someone whose written 500 reviews or someone who just joined the forum, those lines have well and truly blurred. Magazines and all media today should be instigating and/or expanding the conversation topics, rather than chasing the dregs of it but that's much easier said than done and there are only so many sensationalist talking points (i.e. lists) your readership can take in a period of time.

The music writer as a ‘consumer guide’ is not as relevant today because we can usually get hold of albums before reviews come to print in some cases, do you think websites, such as yours are now opinion leaders instead of the press?

I'm not sure anyone is really 'leading'. Different genres have different flagships and obviously there's a lot of hot air attached to sites like ours and Pitchfork's in terms of our impact but I don't really buy into it. Our coverage does impact on other media (probably more than it impacts on individuals) but it's also a feedback loop as we often cover stuff because of 'them' and because of our boarder. Also, with media fractured the way it is today, consensus is just as broken into bits as the audience is, which leads the plodding agreeable blah to rise to the middle of the internet superhighway or democratically voted 'polls'. 

A lot of people check out bands that have either been mentioned in one place a lot or across a wide swathe of outlets (a bit like inbuilt trending topics, I guess). I'd love to believe we're driving what bands are covered across the board (I know we have 6music producers and Guardian journos, as well as label bosses as regular readers) and am sure there are isolated examples but when it comes down to it, we're just an authority for a select (and sometimes influential) group of people but I'm not delusional and I know we can't change the face of music or break a band, least not on our own - which is depressing because that's what I - and many sites like ours - set out to do and. This is why I decided to start a label instead of writing about bands, to try to do more. If anything, we're just as likely to put some journos off covering a band if one of our many contributors or users raves about them, as we are to get them as far as listening to the act and forming their own opinion.

How do you think the role of the music journalist has changed?

There's a lot more need to be able to react instinctively in an instant with the rise of live-blogging or daily reports from festivals. Within news journalism especially, there's a huge value to being first or adding some details to a story, everything in-between quickly loses its traffic value. There's less time for or interest in considered thought. People who are winning on the web lately are those who provide a unique understanding (even if it's HipsterRunoff's take on an indie album) and hose who provide research, as they're often creating content that doesn't exist elsewhere.... 

The most successful modern journalists are those who've managed to build a reputation for being incredibly informed and entertaining to read. Contrastingly and depressingly, the most successful (in terms of traffic) websites have become those with the most amount of content and smallest amount of quality (see also: Gigwise's Rate or Slate: Lady Gaga's Best and Worst Looks - VOTE NOW! http://tinyurl.com/yf64u94). 

As the world has become more individualistic and I think with the tides turning, the importance of editors has receded greatly and things are much more focused on spotting talented and/or specialist individuals, rather than employing incredible sub-editors and forming a party-line for the publications. Journalism, especially online with sites like Guardian or the Gawker network, things have become much more about having a reaction to every bit of information within a field, in the hope of offering a different insight just by spinning the story in a different way. We've obviously shifted from a world with one TV channel to something like infinite forest of people stood on soapboxes, some of them have megaphones, others are just sticking tin can telephones to loudest sources but ultimately the challenge for everyone is to rise above the noise. The only way to climb out of the mush is to innovate and to specialise.

Posted via web from seaninsound's posterous

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