Saturday, 22 January 2011

Music Journalism: Past, Present, and Future

I haven't added a serious article to the blog in a long time so here is one. It was originally part of my Masters portfolio that accompanied the Tor Marrock interview that has since been published on There was also a feature on concert photography done in the style of Digital SLR Magazine which I may post as well at some point.
The following is a report rather than an essay, and I have slightly expanded a couple of points and added pictures to make it an easier read.

Neue Zeitschrift für Musik issue #35

Music journalism is agreed to have started as soon as the popular press (newspapers and journals), as we recognize it, came into circulation in the eighteenth century. The reporters and reviewers employed then were often professional musicians themselves such as Robert Schumann who founded the journal Neue Zeitschrift für Musik in 1834. At this time the subjects of the reportage and criticism were mainly operas and symphonies with “lower” forms of music such as traditional folk music, monastic music and vaudeville being regarded as common and not of interest to the upper class readers. This changed during the period of the Romantic Movement when interest in music became much more widespread and non-specialist publications began to cover more entertainment subjects with journalists who were not necessarily experts in the field.

Coverage of rock‘n’ roll and pop music as we know it today didn’t become widespread until the early 1960’s after the international success of The Beatles. At this time publications such as Melody Maker, Sounds, The NME, and Rolling Stone emerged ― sometimes first as small circulation fanzines, then as established publications. As John Harris wrote for The Guardian in 2009:

“The history of rock writing begins around 1966 when, with what was once mere "pop" being taken seriously, the American writer Paul Williams published a journal-cum-fanzine titled Crawdaddy, which aimed to bring to rock music the kind of cerebral writing long devoted to folk and jazz. Other currents were swirling around the more educated bits of the US counter-culture, among them the expressive precedents set by the Beats and the possibilities suggested by New Journalism.” 1

These new magazines not only covered and critiqued the artists and their output but also began to dictate the changes in music trends in. So much that Rolling Stone magazine began courting power with record labels for the public attention a cover feature could generate for a band. Music journalism soon became big business as cover features in influential publications came to be seen as stepping-stones for musical acts and their record labels.

In the 1970’s music journalism took its first steps back toward being controlled by the people as much as the wider media. In 1976‘punk’was, according to the late Malcolm McClaren, born and with it came the new wave of fanzines. This was a backlash against the commercialised and increasingly impenetrable world of mainstream music coverage that allowed fans of new genre’s such as punk to write articles and reviews and publish them via their nearest Xerox copier. One notable example, and for some the original punk fanzine, was Sniffin’ Glue by Mark Perry. The cut and paste 'DIY' nature of this fanzine soon spread and became a platform for writers such as Danny Baker, Mick Mercer and Tony Fletcher who would in the following years of the 1980’s take control of the established publications.

Sniffin' Glue issue #3 featuring The Damned

The punk ethic that was carried over from the scene’s fanzines into mainstream magazines such as The NME and Melody Maker in the 1980’s shook up the established idea of music writing. Critique and reportage had been the objective of the magazines for their entire lifespan thus far. But with the new wave of writers came the new wave of attitude. Tom Wolfe's "New Journalism" and Hunter S. Thompson's "Gonzo" styles incestuously mixed with deconstructionist literary theory and frank, opinionated personalities. Take for example this review of the Bauhaus single‘The Passion of Lovers’from The NME by Adrian Thrills, which simply states:
“The desperation of losers…”2

The idea of the music journalist as a somewhat glamorous entity who travelled the world to do drugs with bands and write about it wasn’t a new one ― Just ask former NME scribe Nick Kent. However the idea of a music journalist that told you that you were an idiot for liking a certain band or, more often, and idiot for not liking them was more novel. As Everett True recently summed up his late colleague Steven 'Swells' Wells as the “paradigmatic tastemaker critic”:

“[T]aste-maker critics are like gods […] Do the public really require―or even want―a faceless “meta” critic, the lowest common denominator of countless opinions, where all opinion is reduced to a mean average mark?”3

The late Steven 'Swells' Wells: "Tastemaker Critic"

This style of music journalism has since been mythologised in the popular consciousness. Across the Atlantic in the USA, Lester Bangs was pioneering his own brutally honest form of music journalism that initially found a home in the pages of Rolling Stone magazine and later Creem. Bangs' cerebral and incendiary style was again informed by the principles of "New Journalism" and "Gonzo" which has given his thirteen year career an "outsider" credibility. This has even led to him being portrayed in Almost Famous (2000) as a wise guru and mentor to the film's young and naive protagonist.

"Well basically I just started out to lead [an interview] with the most insulting question I could think of. Because it seemed to me that the whole thing of interviewing as far as rock stars and that was just such a suck-up. It was grovelling obeisance to people who weren't that special, really. It's just a guy, just another person, so what?" 4

Lester Bangs: Journalist with attitude.

The weekly music publication in the 80’s was transformed, taking the idea of artistic writing and running with it with many publications opting to take the reader into the discussion by engaging with them. The reader may not necessarily like what the writer has to say, but based on their experience of that writer's work they will have formed their own opinion. As a result the reader will be able to create further discourse because of it. Thus spreading the debate and keeping the sense of ‘fanzine-people-power’, as Petra Davies notes:
“This model’s imagined reader is willing to become engaged with what she reads, a participant by proxy in the cut and thrust of art-criticism, and, crucially, imagined as likely to disagree as to agree.”5

Suddenly the music press made a dramatic shift in the 90’s. The glossy monthly magazine grew as the format of choice and with it an objective ‘consumer review’ style of writing that reduced the artistic merit of albums to the level of the machines that played them. The mainstream music press systematically alienated those who had personally invested in it. The idea of a balance between a trustworthy rating system and writing that would attract more advertising became the basis for a new type of marketing system. The authoritative and sometimes incendiary critic was, as a result, toned down if not snuffed out altogether.

As the world-wide-web grew and connected to more homes in the late 1990s, the fanzine began to return to strength through the basic HTML coding of websites. Companies such as Geocities, Angelfire, and Lycos provided free web space and a ‘drag and drop’ interface that gave people the chance to create their own E-Zines. By the turn of the millennium E-Zines had become as slick as the mainstream print publications, but were not yet bound by the same rules. Advertising came, but not enough to qualify censoring the opinions of its critics. Many sites even featured forums where the readers could praise and blast the reviewers, or even do some of their own reviewing thus continuing the trend of stimulating debate into the digital realm.

The shift to web 2.0 has since provided even more scope for the websites. Wordpress and Joomla have become powerful content management systems that promote user interaction (and best of all they are free!). Cheap web space and domain names coupled with the explosion in professional and amateur blogs has created a system of critics on the pulse of the industry that has propelled bands into the mainstream media’s attention.
“A counter-culture of laptop-toting aural misanthropes has successfully (if not accidentally) managed to turn the music industry on its head. Suddenly indie is not so “indie,” and the counter-culture―like it or not―is not so “counter.” Ironically, the citizen journalism cult built on P2P file sharing and hipster snarkiness is driving the music business, not draining it.”6

The falling circulation of publications and decreasing revenues in recent years has meant that many titles have begun to switch over to the interactive and blog-based webzine format. In many cases using the website portion of the publication to compliment, enhance and sell the traditional print version. But is it too late for the mainstream media model in the face of digital expansion, or will the bloggers of today like the fanzine writers of the punk era, take over the current publications and shift focus once again?

 End Notes:
1. Harris, John. The Guardian.  (June 2009)
2. Thrills, Adrian. New Musical Express. (4th July 1981), P31 - Full review.
3. Davis, Petra. Drowned in Sound.  (16th July 2009)
4. DeRogatis, Jim. Perfect Sound Forever. (Nov 1999)

5. Davis, Petra. Drowned in Sound.  (16th July 2009)
6. Wayne, Jim. Online Journalism Review.  (18th December 2007)


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