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.
How many people can really do that, though?
Mike Riggs had the harshest, and perhaps most accurate view of the future: “It will come with a massive shedding of music journalists, because many of us are not worth what we make.”
Ouch. As an aspiring music journalist, that one stings. But I can’t not acknowledge its veracity. For all my time and experience in the field, there are very few of my fellow writers who I actually follow…because there are very few whose writing I admire. It has less to do with point or view or chosen genre, but rather the quality of work that’s being broadcast, and how well I can engage with the writers opinions, whether I agree with them or not.
When discussing the future of any kind of publication, naturally the subject of online platforms is bound to come up. What is the value of having all of those voices out there, if many of them don’t have much of value to say? “A platform is only as good as what they bring to it,” said Moon, and I’m inclined to agree – it’s like an open mic out there right now, and you have to wade through the half-assed efforts to get to the real kernels of talent. But they are out there, and over time, they will rise to the attention of the public at large. For many, the web is a way to send their voices out into a world with a narrowing field of publication spaces, and practice the craft long enough to develop a voice of quality.
Three days of discussions, thoughts, arguments, and ideas cannot really be boiled down to a single phrase, but in tribute to all of the 100-word record reviews out there, I’m going to try.
In almost every panel, every discussion, this was the core message that came through. Don’t suck at playing music. Don’t suck at writing about it. Don’t suck at seeing the bigger picture. Don’t suck at realizing that future potential of technology is more important than squashing it short-term gains.
The universe of music, and music writing, is expanding. There is more to talk about, and more ways to talk about it. You can hear a track as soon as you read about it, download an album right after reading a review, be pointed to a new band or genre on online radio. The “musical ecosystem” is thriving, and music writing is an integral part of it – the guide on the raft, navigating the river flowing through the dense jungle of what’s out there. As long as we don’t suck.
You can view archived streams of the conference at The Future of Music Coalition's website.