Who is this “Davey Minor” kid anyway?
My previous diatribe, a response to Paste Magazine’s demise, elicited many different reactions and started a bit of a conversation on music journalism, so I thought I would follow it up with something more in-depth on the topic. I only had about an hour to put that piece together at the time, so I want to expound and better explain my points, as well as communicate how I feel about music journalism on the whole. Since Creative Loafing bestowed one of their rare non-advertising print spots to rebut my piece, I’ll start off addressing that first and go from there. My number one fan at CL, Chad Radford, declared that my “arguments are deeply flawed”, but I’d say at worst they lacked clarity. Let me break it down for you.
So of course what has gotten all of the grampas up in arms is my purposefully cavalier and prodding statement, “Old people shouldn’t be in charge of covering music for kids.” What I was getting at was more about mindset than physical age, but I do believe that getting older is a significant handicap in understanding current music trends. Most people tend to solidify around an aesthetic at about college age and the musical styles they enjoy becomes part of that person’s identity. They develop a sense of what they believe to be good and bad music, and after a certain point that doesn’t fundamentally change very often. But the history of music is in a constant flux. Some style comes along, gains popularity, and then another style is birthed as a reaction and repudiation of the current fashion. It’s a never-ending oscillation between trend and counter-trend. The problem is that once someone identifies their personality with a particular trend, it’s difficult for that person to overcome their bias. Abstractly, the way that it usually manifests itself is in a belief that older music is better, which I would argue is virtually never objectively true, and anyone who claims as such is a victim to their own subjective preferences. People, and especially music journalists, tend to believe that the music they enjoy is better than what everyone else listens to, and it’s difficult for anyone to see things outside of that lens.
That’s not to say that it is impossible to overcome this limitation. I did state that there are exceptions, and Radford’s response to my piece name drops a few that I actually had in mind when I myself stated there are exceptions. But in terms of understanding what’s happening right now, even those particular journalists hardly grip the musical climate as well as the prominent new media folks. Let’s take Jim DeRogatis for example. I like him and I read him on occasion because he has an interesting perspective, but when it comes to assessing new music, he is as out of touch as any other print journalist. For example, here’s Hipster Runoff lambasting DeRogatis for being a “bitter, old music critic.” I get such a kick out of how much Animal Collective mystifies and enrages old-school journalists. But to the point here, I would be surprised if more than a tiny sliver of DeRogatis’ audience is young kids looking for new music suggestions. So his audience is old, which is fine, and totally compatible with my statement. I didn’t say that old people shouldn’t be covering music, they just shouldn’t be in charge of targeting and connecting with a young audience when a business is at stake because it’s more difficult for them to do so. With regards to Paste, if you don’t think they were attempting to target younger readers, go read their press kit.
The correlation between growing old and being out of touch is probably bolstered by biology and how the human brain develops over time, but I would postulate that it is mostly psychological. As fun as it is to joke around about old people, the central idea I’m trying convey isn’t really about age, it’s about hubris.
Print-era music journalists are their own worst enemy.
One of the starkest differences between bloggers and people who claim to be music journalists is in terms of tone. Journalists smother every word they write with a sense of authority. They act as though they own a monopoly on knowledge. They painstakingly assemble their own resumes inside reviews to justify their declarations. They are eager to explain to us just how important they are. They’re the experts, they know best, and we would all be lost without them.
Once bloggers came on the scene and began competing against established journalists, most journalists didn’t take bloggers seriously. Journalists believed there was some intrinsic value to what they did that separated them from the amateurs. Then once new media started kicking their asses, instead of simply working harder and doing better work, journalists started concentrating on communicating how much better they were. They looked for excuses instead of looking to improve. They wanted to ride their previous achievements rather than compete on a level playing field.
A great example of a journalist in denial is Chunklet’s Henry Owings. About a year ago, he cried on the shoulder of the LA Times about the state of music journalism:
“My biggest gripe with online journos is their false sense of importance when they’re oftentimes just regurgitating press releases and tour dates. Of course, that mindless mentality is what many labels love. Me? I just find there to be a negligible amount of talent in what passes as a blogger in this modern age. What ever happened to attitude? What ever happened to opinions? What happened to pissing off advertisers? What happened to alienating readers? What happened to having fun? Sadly, I believe that the new boss is the same as the old boss. I just wish and pray somebody would be out there stirring things up instead of following the herd of mindless sheep. But then again, when you have publicists that just needle you all day to write about their clients, it makes a blogger’s job easy.”
This is hilarious to me because I could make that exact claim, word for word, about print journalism.
Now look, I can understand that it would suck to have a cushy job where you could just go through the motions and get paid to write about music, and then all of a sudden there are thousands of kids popping up giving you real competition. But that’s the situation you find yourself in, so instead of complaining, you should be demonstrating why you’re the professional and they’re not.
It’s not the cost of free, it’s the cost of not being the best at your job.
At another point in that LA Times piece above, Mr. Owings states the biggest fallacy in journalism right now, what every journalist falls back on when they get their asses handed to them:
“When presented with quality writing that costs money versus questionable writing that’s free, like most things, the masses go the path of least resistance.”
I’m so tired of professionals using this excuse. First of all, there was free content in journalism long before the Internet. Both Creative Loafing and Stomp And Stammer are free. There have been and still are plenty of free print sources. Secondly, it’s a false dichotomy. Print music journalism isn’t losing to questionable writing, it’s losing to superior writing. Of course when a ton of amateurs get access there is going to be a plethora of horrible content, but with such a large pool of people, there is also going to be much more talent rising to the top. It’s easy to go find a couple of examples of bloggers that suck, but those aren’t the bloggers that the masses are choosing. It isn’t Joe Shmoe’s little blog that gets 30 hits a month that is beating print, it’s Pitchfork. And that’s the biggest hole in this argument. If Pitchfork can make millions of dollars a year dispensing free content, you can’t blame your lack of success on the cost of free.
It’s all about quality and efficiency of content.
One thing that didn’t seem to get across in my Paste piece is I’m not speaking in absolutes. I didn’t mean all old people are uncool. There are plenty of hip oldsters, though rarely are they print music journalists. And I never declared print to be dead. The problem with print isn’t the medium, it’s the people running it. Print will survive in some form for a long time, but that doesn’t mean that hundreds of crappy magazines will survive. With other media options available, demand for print has inevitably decreased, and that demand is further hampered by the level of relevance in most print publications.
In his reaction to my Paste piece, Mr Radford attempts to reveal a paradox in my arguments by paralleling my praise for Pitchfork with me stating that “demand for long-winded, deep-digging album reviews” has diminished. But a lot of the reason that the demand has shrunk is because Pitchfork has cornered that market. Why do I need to read ten different five paragraph reviews for every album when one place does it better than everybody else? Look, I could write a novel on all of the things I don’t like about Pitchfork, but when it comes down to quality, there isn’t a single other music outlet of any sort of media that even comes close. That’s the reason they are rich and everyone else is losing business. And while Pitchfork’s long, flowery album reviews were what established them in the first place, that’s pretty much the only content area they haven’t expanded since coming into prominence. Maybe The Rad One didn’t catch on to the fact that Pitchfork’s latest endeavour is a website featuring the most succinct reviews possible. And honestly, I would love to see what fraction of people actually read all of Pitchfork’s reviews versus who just glances at the number scores and listens to the mp3s. If Pitchfork thought there was more market share to capture out there with “gratuitously in-depth record reviews,” which is their specialty, they would be expanding in that direction, but they’re not. Instead they are putting their efforts in capturing competent and relevant voices, because that’s where the only unmet demand exists.
Mr. Radford’s final stab at my arguments embodies the hubris I mentioned earlier:
“He then adds that “aggregators and torrent site’s top lists do a better job of efficiently communicating the best new music then [sic] 99% of music journalists out there.” What he fails to understand is that just because something is popular does not mean that it’s good.”
Really? You actually think I fail to understand that? You believe I think Katy Perry is good? Wow, you really got me on the one. Way to call me out.
But see, this is the excuse journalists typically fall back on when they become out of touch: If people don’t agree with them, then those people are just stupid. Journalists know best, and they don’t feel they have to prove it in any sort of measurable way. Sure, being popular does not equal being good. But the two aren’t diametrically opposed either. In the past, journalists could get away with praising whatever random, obscure thing they wanted and readers didn’t have the resources to call their bluff, or many other alternatives. But now that there are so many media choices, and previewing records is easy for anyone, journalists can no longer hide behind their title. They have to stand purely on the merits of their words, and that’s where they are losing.
If you can’t attract an audience, maybe you aren’t really a professional.
Journalists get so wrapped up in their own self-importance that they forget their purpose is much more than to simply get a check for being so cool. They claim to be providing a service to the public. If you look at this whole situation from the point of view of the end user, things are better than ever in music journalism. No matter what your taste, you can find what you’re looking for easily. I mean, Pandora is more efficient at giving a random person music suggestions they will enjoy than anyone in the history of music journalism. Between technology advancements and the more relevant voices being featured almost exclusively online, people have discovered that they don’t really need print journalists to learn about music. These journos act like if they didn’t get paid to tell us about some shitty 7″ that only forty people in the whole world care about, the Earth would spin off its axis. If we get to a point where technology and a rotating cast of amateurs can more efficiently serve the public’s music information needs than journalists, is that necessarily a bad thing?
“But there’s still a demand for writing that offers cultural context rather than knee-jerk tantrums written in your “parent’s basement.” The bottom line is that while some music blogging passes as good journalism, blogging and journalism are rarely the same. And where the extinction of print is concerned, we’ve heard the same doom and gloom about analog recording, vinyl records, and even record stores over the last decade, but they’re all still here, so don’t hold your breath.”
What Chaddy Rad “fails to understand” is that a decrease in demand is not the same thing as an absence of demand. I guess economics was left out of his journalism curriculum. Yes, there will always be a place for musical historians. But with such a vast amount of information easily accessible to anyone, how many professional art historians do we really need? There are plenty of people who are out of touch that will enjoy another out of touch voice to echo their thoughts, but beyond that, there just isn’t that much need to explain what was good in music twenty or thirty years ago. It’s easy to go to the Internet and figure that out.
One of the biggest problems for print is that they can’t measure metrics the way digital media can. Creative Loafing can dump as much trash in the front of bars and claim whatever circulation numbers they want, but that doesn’t mean their reach per article is actually that large. Beyond big headlines bumping up circulation, print can’t easily discern which sections and pieces are generating readership, at least not as easily as digital formats. It makes them less nimble to adjust to changes, which is why they are trapped with all of these out of touch voices weighing them down. But even worse for print is this attitude among the journalists that metrics aren’t important. They have this sense of entitlement, yet find it both impossible and bothersome to justify that worth in any empirical sense. I’m sure once this attitude, as well as some of the inefficiencies, get purged from print, it will see a nice resurgence down the line by recruiting more relevant and efficient contributors. While I seriously doubt the demand for print will ever return to pre-Internet levels, some print will surely survive, the institutions that adapt better than the others. Creative Loafing has certainly made an effort to adapt, bringing in fresher voices in recent time who may obviously be lacking in overall musical knowledge, but they at least demonstrate an effort to compete. I mean Spencer Sloan’s “Tracklist” series on Cribnotes is identical to the “Friday Free-Style” and “Monday Mash-Up” posts I used to do here back in ’07 and ’08. If Creative Loafing’s music department is ultimately successful in the end, it’s because they adapted, thus proving that journalism’s fate is in its own hands.
Free content is a viable business model, but sympathy for sucking isn’t.
While I do enjoy being playfully antagonistic, my intention here is not just to bash old people, print, and journalism. I didn’t invent the Internet or blogging, and I wasn’t even on the forefront of those things. I didn’t make people grow out of touch as they grow old. I’m only the messenger. I’m trying to help journalists get their heads out of their asses. I wish we could all sit around and talk about music and get mad paid and never grow old, but that’s not reality. I’m doing you journalists a favour and attempting to wake you up from this slow suicide of mediocrity where you blame your ineptitude on everything outside of yourself. Because I’m not really your competition. To me, no matter what cultural context you put it in, music journalism has always been more about cronyism, corruption, and vanity then anything else. So I have no interest in being identified as a music journalist. As a writer, I couldn’t think of anything more horrifyingly boring than having to write record reviews for the rest of my life. Sooner or later I’ll lose interest in this blog, but someone else will come along to replace me. I’m sure this massive wave of bloggers will eventually recede, but access to an audience will never be as restricted as it once was. So from now on, you’ll have to prove your worth in some sort of measurable way to be successful. And if not, you’ll go the way of Paste.
- Posted by Davy Minor on September 13, 2010 at 5:29 am