Why are you reading this right now?
Is it because you know who I am (hi mom!)? Is it because you assume I have something interesting to say? Are you looking for something to guide you? Inspire you? Entertain you?
These are questions that have plagued me since I first started thinking about the role of the journalist, particularly when it comes to my field of music criticism. I write things, put them out for consumption, but what prompts you, the audience, to consume them?
At this year’s Future of Music Policy Summit, I was determined to find out. And the panel on The Future of Music Journalism was just the place.
The panel was diverse and star-studded: Maura Johnston of Idolator, David Malitz of the Washington Post, Mike Riggs of Washington City Paper, Howard Mandel the president of the Jazz Journalists Association, Raymond Leon Roker of URB Magazine, Molly Sheridan of New Music Box, Eliot Van Buskirk of Wired.com, Scott Plagenhoef of Pitchfork, Greg Kot, host of Sound Opinions, and Tom Moon, music critic for NPR. If these folks didn’t know what the future holds, then nobody does.
Well, nobody knows…at least not for sure.
A lot of time throughout the three days of the conference was spent talking about the “musical ecosystem” – how the artists, businesses, and distribution systems could work together. Trying to figure out where the music journalist fits in this day and age is more complicated.
It used to be that the rock critic was there to give a comprehensive view of what is out there – the good and the bad. Records would be praised and panned, features written, and profiles done to give the reader a view of the musical world. These days, given the plethora of voices out there and the sheer volume of music, the mission of the writer has become just to create a path for the reader to follow.
In Van Buskirk’s opinion, “It’s more of a curatorial process, where you’re half way to being a DJ. You only offer music of a certain stripe, saying ‘this is worth checking out.’ It’s moving from a buying recommendation to a taste thing.”
With hundreds of thousands of records coming out every year, through the major labels, indies, and just online, reviewing everything is simply impossible. Even reviewing everything that’s good is impossible. So why bother covering bad records? If we eliminate reviewing the crap, then really what is left is a recommendation process, a creation of taste instead of a comprehensive covering of everything out there.
That kind of curating has a downside, though – many music writers are retreating to covering microclimates of the musical world. And if you can’t move beyond very small boundaries, can you really be called a musical critic?
Tom Moon summed it up: “We haven’t talked about criticism yet, because it doesn’t exist anymore. My role models were curious people. What I read online is not curiosity, but knowledge of their own genre.”
When writers focus only on their own narrow band of music, what happens? Sometimes, they get painfully self referential – using only other bands as a reference point to describe what the subject sounds like. Not only does this obscure the writing, it also alienates a lot of readers – the casual listener who might not know the other bands you’re discussing has no hope of being interested in the subject of the article, and often will wander off to something more penetrable.
So perhaps what music criticism needs is a balance between the knowledgeable curator, and the curious listener – someone who has enough knowledge to speak well about the music they’re describing, but also isn’t stuck in just one genre so that the process of discovery stops.