Yesterday, 13 music journalists convened at Georgetown University for the Future of Music Coalition’s Policy Summit panel, “Critical Condition: The Future of Music Journalism.”
Our ranks included reps from online-only (Scott Plagenhoef of Pitchfork, Maura Johnston of Idolator), old media vets (Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune, Tom Moon of the Philadelphia Inquirer), and some in-betweeners.
While there were a few too many panelists for a coherent discussion, the ideological breakdowns were awkwardly clear: New media vs. old media, generalists vs. niche(ists?), and many, many iterations of “Kids these days don’t know how to write about music,” followed by, “We’re all fucked.”
After the jump, who said what and why.
Eliot Van Buskirk of Wired.com kicked things off by suggesting that music critics [Ed. note: the word “critic” meant different things to different people, especially to Tom Moon] have evolved from making buying recommendations to guiding/shaping/sharing taste (because now that everyone steals EVERYTHING, you can’t exactly convince them to buy or not by something). He likened good music writers to DJs: They “curate” multimedia content, analysis, mp3s, interviews, etc.
Todd C. Roberts of The Daily Swarm supported this idea as well (Roberts’ site is a HuffPo-like aggregator for music content), and Raymond Leon Roker, editor of Urb, spun Buskirk’s sentiment into the instantly quotable, “Content is no longer king. The audience is king.” Which, when broken down, explains why music critics who have not done so already must change the product they deliver; we’re not going to stay afloat if we continue to write as if the release of new music is still a chronologically linear, critic-favoring process.
Roker’s other big comment was that ad-funded content—scorned as it is by the likes of Kot, who said that anyone who thinks allowing an advertiser to subsidize a story or a Q&A should get another job—is a concession that his publication, which recently closed its print edition, is considering in order to stay alive. (Kot, righteous though he be, is a great columnist but not a publisher, and he won’t have to worry about the bottom line unless it gets raised above his head.)
I went next, positing that any discussion of business models will likely involve cutting arts budgets even further, as there’s no model in sight that will allow legacy media to maintain large, ’90s-era staff in an age of cheaply run niche sites. A love for music is not qualification enough to expect a job, especially not when that entails writing q&as, show reviews, and meandering album reviews. No amount of biz modeling is going to save a publication that produces dreck no one wants to read.
Buskirk’s post on the conference, however, suggests a way to keep traditional music writing alive in its present form:
Say you like to read Pitchfork’s new music coverage. Imagine a “Pitchfork Player” app for Windows, Mac, and cellphones that would present relevant reviews for each artist, album, and or track you’re listening to from your own library, or even from a streaming service such as Pandora. Such applications would have to analyze your entire music library or identify streaming songs on the fly — both of which are possible and have been done by other apps.
As rosy as this sounds, I stand by my point that there’s no way to avoid reducing our ranks. “Relevant reviews” would likely mean the most widely read reviews, as the number of media players will never be equal to the number of music critics, and streaming services are more likely to form partnerships with content providers like Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, PopMatters, or even Wikipedia, rather than select reviews willy-nilly from an abundant number of publications.
Tom Moon and Greg Kot were the standouts on the first half of the panel (I left before the second half). Moon provided a passionate tear-down of, well, new media. He bemoaned the absence of “real criticism,” for which he blamed niche writing and websites that support it, younger writers who lack curiosity about music, and the fact that no one provides “context” anymore. His diatribe, and Kot’s, which emphasized good writing over frequent writing, boiled down to “There are no more Robert Christgaus” and “The internet fucking blows.”
All in all, the panel was fun and depressing. Just like music writing!