In Seattle this week, we lost a local journalism institution when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer stopped the presses for good. The P-I was one of our two daily newspapers, and the other one — the Seattle Times — is also reportedly in financial trouble.
I knew the rock critics at both papers. Patrick MacDonald — wily old veteran that he was — got out a few months ago when he announced his retirement from the Times after decades of covering everyone from Hendrix to Nirvana. MacDonald no doubt smelled the writing on the wall, and decided to get out while the getting was good.
As for Gene Stout at the P-I — well, I'm not sure what ol' Gene is gonna' do. I always liked Gene though. When I was working in the record business in L.A., he once stayed at my apartment in Burbank, and we went to see a comedy show featuring the guy who used to play the bartender on the Love Boat. Gene himself was always a genuinely likable and funny guy. He used to refer to beer for example as a "meal in a mug." Definitely my kind of guy.
Word is that Gene's old paper the P-I will be trying things out as an exclusively online publication. And this, to be honest, has really got me worried on a couple of fronts. You see, much as I love the internet — and don't get me wrong, I do love the internet — I have also seen the damage it has done to two institutions I happen to love very much — music and journalism.
It doesn't take a genius to see what the internet has done to the music business. While downloading has made music instantly accessible to everyone — and in the process of doing so turned every old-school record industry marketing apparatus on its ear — it has also done so at the expense of both sound quality and, subsequently, artistic vitality.
If MP3s and the like blew up that whole music as commerce dinosaur for good, they did so at considerable expense. Unless I'm mistaken here, the only really viable casualties have been the independent record stores and record labels once run by actual music guys. These days, the music business is being largely run out of the corporate boardrooms of megalithic companies that give less of a shit about music than the suits at Sony or Warner ever did.
The result? To be right honest, I'm sick of this shit. Record store closures. WalMart Deals. Ticket prices that all but shutout the youngest and least well off fans. Artists reluctant to experiment with the infinite possibilities of the recording studio — since the final product will likely only be heard on thumbnail sized speakers anyway, if at all. Don't expect any future Dark Side Of The Moon, Born To Run, or OK Computer in such an environment.
It doesn't take a genius to see what's happening. But this article isn't about that. This is about that other victim of progress — journalism. Specifically, it's about music journalism.
Years before I ever embraced the whole concept of "blogging," I was a music journalist. I plied my trade at a number of publications — most often freelancing articles whenever and wherever I could. But I cut my teeth at a Seattle paper called The Rocket.
When my editors there used to send me back for rewrite after rewrite of something as simple as a review of the new album by Sir Mix-A-Lot, it used to really piss me off too. Guys like Charley Cross and Grant Alden were tough as nails, but they were right in doing so. They not only made me a better writer, they also upheld a journalistic standard. Things like journalistic credibility and the overall vision of the publication mattered back then.
If it was shit, or if it wasn't relevant, we either called it as such or we just didn't review it at all. The quality of the writing also had to pass a strenuous standard of quality. Our readers didn't always agree with us as a result. We were called pretentious, elitist snobs and worse. But they did trust us. Somewhere in the nineties, this started to change.
The thing I most started to notice was a laziness as college students writing for free music wrote reviews that read more like press releases. Because who wants to piss off a record company or publicist giving you all that free music, right? As long as the tap is running, why shut off the spicket?
Then there was the new elitism. The more obscure the band, and the less people have heard of them, the better. Which led us to the flavor of the minute, attention-span deprivation we see as being the hallmarks of both music journalism, and the music industry itself today. And people wonder why the music biz is in the dumper.
Which brings us to the internet. With journalism, as with just about everything else, anything goes on the internet, right? This is all fine and good when it comes to blogs. If Joe Blow wants to start Joe Blow's blog to talk about everything from his shitty date last night to his obsession with comic books for an audience of his mom and his buddies, that's fine. In fact, God bless him for having the outlet to do so.
Unfortunately, this lack of any basic journalism 101 class standard has spread to the larger websites as well. What used to be called "writing" is now referred to as "content."
"Content" is a lot like what they used to call "product" in the old school music industry. God, I used to hate the word "product" back then. The record companies were all about pushing out as much product as possible. Didn't matter if it was the Ramones or Right Said Fred, as long as it got out there.
And it is much the same with internet journalism today. Fact checks? Truth? Fiction? Sources? Credibility? Forget about it. It's all about "content." And in the world of internet "journalism," it's a game of more is better, where quantity trumps quality every single time.
Do the incisive and thoughtful pieces still get through? Sure they do. You're reading one right now. But searching for that ever elusive needle in the greater internet haystack of articles where only the most basic standards of grammar are often applied — if they are at all — can be a challenge at best.
What exactly is the standard for internet music journalism today? Pitchfork? Blogcritics?
All I know is I miss Lester Bangs. And that we sure could use him now.