Music & Journalism: Playing Too Rough

2/9/2016

Music shares tension with journalism.

Lust, too.

Their relationship is a symbiotic one, at best, but it has a tendency to start licking and then biting its own tail just a bit too hard.

But without journalism, music might be left throwing its own parade.

Music journalism is more than criticism, though these terms are often swapped with fluidity. Like sport, business and other fields of interest, there exists an ecosystem within music that deserves reportage. The arts are perceived to have more of a niche appeal in Australia, but music, especially, has always held a deep-seated role in people’s lives.

No More Rock Stars (please)

Frank Zappa once said: “Most rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read.”

Professional music criticism has gnawed and caressed since bigwigs realised they could use it to make a proper buck. The first magazines devoted entirely to critiques of compositions came out of Hamburg in the early eighteenth century, arguably giving rise to colossal publications like Rolling Stone.

Perception of music journalists since the seventies has been somewhat glamorous in the eyes of the public, as they hitched themselves onto the backs of musicians and obtained tourist visas for Sodom and Gomorrah.

“Hey Lou, don’t you think Judy Garland was a piece of shit and better off dead?” Music journalism’s golden boy Lester Bangs famously baited Lou Reed in his 1973 profile.

In Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film, Almost Famous, a teenager submerges himself in a cesspool of sex and drugs in a bid to get his first cover story published for Rolling Stone.

This image could never last; it was a thin veneer from the start. Journos have been forced to shape up, and so have musicians in many ways.

PC culture and market-saturation killed the rock star, perhaps. Maybe people just got tired of the cliché it started to become.

 

Road to Nowhere

According to MusicInAustralia.org, the majority of music criticism still exists in print form, despite the rapid decline of print media. Most daily newspapers in Australia feature regular reviews of albums and live performances, even if they are tucked in between real estate and horoscopes.

This is a microcosm of the larger issues music journalism now finds itself up against. The need is there, but there may not be enough space.

Melbourne-based music journalist Chad Parkhill believes serious journalism that takes music or musicians as its subject will always have a role, but the time may have already passed where this type of journalism is commercially appealing to music magazines and sites.

“I’m not sure about the relevance of journalistic practice to music writing in the future,” says Parkhill.

“The Internet has radically democratised the consumption of music, ergo also the practice of music criticism. The ‘consumer guide’ model of music criticism seems very much dead to me, and it only really lives on in newspapers as a kind of vestigial form.”

Compounding matters, Parkhill suggests the current state of play in music journalism is bleak as it becomes, more or less, redundant.

He argues that as streaming services like Spotify begin to revolutionise the way people consume music, newspaper album reviews are (especially) useless.

“Why would you, when you can stream it at the same time as everyone else, read in-depth pieces about it for free online, and make up your own mind?”

He concedes that live reviews are a different story for now, but suspects these won’t last much longer either.

Parkhill’s sentiments are echoed by Adam Workman in an article titled ‘The state of music journalism: is BuzzFeed to blame?’ for The National.

Workman argues that music criticism is not only is superfluous to journalism as an industry, but it can be detrimental for individual journalists.

“Since the dawn of music as a commercial entity, criticism has been an important check to press-release hype and rabid fandom, but with jobbing journalists now fighting for scraps of an ever-shrinking pie, sticking one’s head above the parapet with an honest opinion can sometimes be counterproductive to future job prospects,” writes Workman.

But veteran music journalist and City University lecturer Stevie Chick disagrees.

He believes honest and opinion and creativity are quintessential for good music journalism.

“The writing has to be entertaining,” Chick told Journalism.co.uk.

“More than any other form of journalism, music journalism has got a really powerful creative writing quotient to it.”

I Need a Dollar

All aspects of journalism face the same challenge going forward: finding a way to monetize content as it moves from print to digital.

In his article ‘Not all writers’, Chad Parkhill argues that the models employed so successfully by other areas of business, like music-streaming or ride-sharing, will not work for journalism because these models are founded on devaluation.

“The disruptive technologies that have emerged from Silicon Valley, built on the infrastructure of the internet, are vast destroyers of value,” writes Parkhill.

“Whether it’s Airbnb and accommodation, Spotify and music, Uber and taxis, or The Huffington Post and writing, much of the money made in technology has been predicated on the wholesale destruction of former industries and their replacement with something cheaper and more precarious for all parties involved – except those mediating the transactions between consumers and service providers, of course.”

He goes on to say that the difference in the way people perceive these services is evident in the language now used to describe them.

“Even the language we use to talk about services reflects this seismic shift: writing, music, visual art and video is now ‘content’, a mass noun the purpose of which is, like kapok stuffing, to fill infrastructure and provide value for those who control the platforms on which it is distributed.”

Seriously, Can I Have Dollar?

Parkhill is a freelance writer (if you need to put a label on it), but has ceased to think of himself as such.

He has a string of accomplishments to his name: published in The Australian, Program and Production Coordinator of the 2014 Emerging Writers’ Festival, Manager of the 2013 National Young Writers’ Festival, professional writing lecturer at the University of Queensland, and has a book on the way.

Despite his achievements, he now finds himself working part-time in a bar to supplement his income and pursue his passion. It’s a sacrifice, he says, many accomplished music and culture writers are being forced to make.
“A lot of freelance writers are actually like me and do other, less glamorous or public work to support their craft,” he says.

“It says a lot about how dire things are for freelancers that getting paid – twenty dollars per hour to pour beers or caption television or whatever can feel liberating compared to the constant anxiety of pitching places and smashing out takes or listicles for one hundered dollars a pop.”

Parkhill is decidedly cautious in giving advice to young writers who have a desire to carve out a career within music journalism, and a naive vision of themselves doing so in a world that doesn’t even exist anymore.

He straddles a fine line between understanding and responsibility here, it seems.

“I hope this doesn’t come off as facetious, but don’t expect to make a living from this,” he says sympathetically.

“A very small number can, but the odds are that you can’t. If you still want to do it, and you have the means to support yourself while doing it, then in many ways you’re in a great position: thanks to streaming services, you can access huge swathes of the world’s musical history with a few clicks.”

Thanks Chad, and Now for the Weather, Here’s Lisa

In the days when Lester Bang could pitch to Rolling Stone as an unknown, there were significantly fewer women in music journalism.

Sexism wasn’t sexism yet and everyone held hands with each other all of the time.

Lisa Robinson was one woman who destroyed social conventions with a look.

Dubbed the queen of music journalism, she has interviewed everyone from Michael Jackson to Justin Bieber.

Robinson remembers a time where it was much harder for women to be accepted as professionals in music journalism.

“Mick Jagger famously said to me that there’s no reason to have women on tour unless they have a job to do or are there for sex,” she told Teen Vogue.

“I was there for a job.”

Women were not only confronted by chauvinism from their subjects, but faced it less deliberately from their peers.

Joe Rivers described music journalism in the seventies and eighties as a “boys club” in his article ‘Women in Music Journalism’, but notes that some women actually thrived in a male-dominated environment.

“The oft-repeated anecdotes tell of offices thick with cigarette smoke punctuated with infrequent, erratic visits from Nick Kent scrawling florid prose on the back of cereal packets before slithering back onto the city streets in search of debauchery,” he wrote for Clash.

“You think of liquid lunches that turned into afternoon-long sessions fuelled by booze and opinion.  There were women who prospered in this hotbed of testosterone – Julie Burchill and Chrissie Hynde spring immediately to mind – but they were the exception rather than the rule, and they certainly had to fight their corner to make a go of things.”

Sexism and nepotism have certainly been quelled thanks to the rise of online journalism and social awareness, though statistics indicate the industry still has a long way to go when it comes to accommodating women in journalism.

A British study conducted by Women in Journalism (WiJ) in 2013 found that 78 per cent of front page articles were written by men and were the subjects of these front page articles 84 per cent of the time.

But Rivers remains optimistic for female music journos, suggesting that the implicit democracy the Internet brings will go a long way in providing music journalism with a more even gender balance.

“Women have been making popular music just as long as men; it’s inexplicable that they should continue to be marginalised and discriminated against in today’s society.”

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