STATE OF THE MUSIC PRESS.
By Jake Cleland
This was the year I became convinced that there wasn’t a secret world of great Australian music writing I simply wasn’t privy to, nor was the mainstream music press going to get better. The latter point was made abundantly evident every time I met the head editors of some of our most popular publications, people who had either grown too old and given up on finding exciting new bands or who were never interested in that pursuit in the first place, having started a music site for a company credit card to use for inhuman amounts of cocaine. I can barely even believe this shit, it sounds like a bad 80s nightmare. Of the people I met this year, two people gave me hope that the industry in this country is salvageable: Marcus Teague and Everett True. I’ll get to Everett in a minute but first, Marcus.
I only hung out with the guy a couple of times: once after a panel on which we both spoke about music journalism and once at the AIR awards. On the first occasion we talked about why he co-founded Mess+Noise and how he ended up at The Vine, and on the second occasion we talked about corporate sponsorship in music, where he generously let me rant to him about the injustice of it all without mentioning he’d already nailed the issue to the wall a year prior.
I look up to Marcus, not only because he’s supermodel-tall but because even though his contemporaries are the ones responsible for my increasing bitterness, he gets it. Mess+Noise, though he no longer works there and though the rate of their writing has slowly declined, still publishes the best writing about Australian music among the major publications, and as editor of The Vine he’s curated a list of incredible writers like Ian K. Rogers, Matt Shea and Tim Byron to fill out the site. The Vine is still beholden to the typical advertising model so of course they still run quick-digest content but I don’t find that to be inherently bad. Like Everguide, if that kind of bullshit allows the slack for meatier pieces (like my brilliant column) then the net gain is positive. The search for how to avoid that compromise entirely, of course, continues.
Everett, though. I said to Chris a while ago that I wish I knew how to get more people in Australia to pay attention to Everett because I think he’s what this country needs as far as music’s concerned. Who else is tugging at the boundaries of what music criticism can be? Who else has the gall to publish 17 reviews of one Morrissey show, at least one of which is fake?
One of my formative experiences with the music press was a couple months into my tenure writing for Inpress and I was assigned to review the anniversary of SLAM Day, and of course street press doesn’t pay for reviews but dutifully I went along to The Tote for the love of my craft and so on, and I got to the door and the lady tells me it’s a compulsory $10 donation to get in. Well, fuck that, a compulsory donation is not a donation at all, in fact, it’s an admission fee, and I wasn’t getting paid enough to justify it. These days I’d probably just pay it – might find a new band to dig – regardless of the absurd “donation” pretense, but back then I had $12 in the bank and no job, so I went around the corner, bought a $3 bottle of wine and went home instead. I still had to file this review though, so I wrote a brilliant piece of fiction (came in right on the word limit too) about teeth broken and blood spat and real Aussie rock’n’roll in the tradition of the Tote’s rough and tumble reputation.
That was the first time as a music critic I was called unprofessional. Christ, it was like being back in primary school again where the brief was to be meticulously followed and any straying outside for a sake so pathetic as creative license was not only discouraged but vocally disdained. Nobody reads live reviews anyway (because they’re all so tediously boring) so why not have some fun with them?
On the contrary, when I finally found Everett years later he became a source of great optimism for me. I was so disenfranchised with the homogeneity of Australian music writing. I think it was the piece he wrote for The Guardian about the Australian music press and how deferential it was towards mainstream Australian acts. Just to hear someone saying it oud loud made me wonder whether the fight was over before I’d arrived after all. But it wasn’t just his media criticism, it was his whole philosophy.
In the second quarter of this year I was talking to my friend Matt about how this girl I’d been trying real hard to woo wasn’t into me because I was too excitable. He said something like, “Fuck that, man. Being really into what you’re into is cool. Disaffected irony is bullshit.” I saw that same spirit in Everett, a relatively unhip dude who was always dancing at the front of the stage, and that passion carries into his writing as well. “Do you like anything?” someone recently tweeted at him. “Yeah,” he replied, “I do. Passionately. That’s one of my main problems actually.” When you’re inclined to love everything, inevitably you’re gonna get your heart broken. Again and again and again. That passion is practically non-existent in Australian music criticism and that is why Everett True is the critic this country needs. The one it deserves, however… well, you read FasterLouder lately?
I gave Darren Levin and FasterLouder a lot of shit this year because he asked for it. His absurd manifesto over-promised and when he under-delivered it was worth calling him out for it just in case anybody gets the wrong impression that that’s what good music journalism is supposed to look like. “In Defence Of Nickelback”, for example, is not a good premise for an article, besides which I already did it better.
Perhaps the piece which most exemplifies Darren’s failure is the Most Overrated Albums of All Time list. Not only is it a garbage premise but it carries the cynical expectation that outrage garners page views, an expectation which displays so much contempt and so little regard for its audience it’s incredible they still have one. It was made worse because the blurbs were written by some of my favourite Australian critics (Doug Wallen, Max Easton, Caitlin Welsh) and in at least one case (Doug on Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I KNOW YOU LOVE THAT ALBUM, DOUG!) they disingenuously misrepresented their own personal opinion on the records. Their Opinions section went full-contrarian, an angle which gave their coverage the thematic link of championing everything gross and garish about the music industry from ticketing fees to Amanda Palmer.
To Darren’s credit, there have been several very good pieces published on FasterLouder since he took over. Though their album reviews continue to languish in irrelevance, Edward Sharp-Paul’s live reviews have been among the best I’ve ever seen on the site and generally several rungs above the national average. Their Features section actually started pretty strongly with Catcall’s piece on Pussy Riot and Caitlin Welsh’s rebuttal to Chloe Papas’s viral Chris Brown review (in fact all of Caitlin Welsh’s feature writing for FL, especially this piece despite its confusing and inane framing, has been outstanding). There’s also this fantastic piece on the Adelaide music scene. Even In The Firing Line (a column in which the interviewer isn’t afraid to ask the hard questions) is, despite the self-importance of its concept, frequently very good. But these are all exceptions. When Darren inherited FasterLouder I expected him to bring some of the same thoughtfulness he cultivated as editor of Mess+Noise for all those years, but the transition has been disappointingly slow. It bums me out just thinking about it but I can’t help wondering if things are ever gonna change.
Dave Greenwald gave it a shot. UNCOOL was conceived with a solid, fundamental premise: get good writers paid directly. It helped that the writers he chose were predominantly ones I really liked and wanted to see rewarded for their efforts. I mean I really can’t state how grateful I am that there are other people out there trying to get my talented friends paid, you know? They deserve to be. However, setting aside the politics and PR mismanagement that ensued after the Kickstarter launched, they asked for $54,000 to get started. It was a modest proposition with an immodest price tag and one which seemed unjustified given we had no idea what the publication was going to be like.
Jordan Sargent touched on this - UNCOOL was (initially) being sold on the strength of the writers, but those writers were already giving their writing away for free, so what was our incentive to fund the project? Personally, if the only incentive is to reward the writers, I’d rather paypal the ones I like directly rather than fund a project which, I’m gonna be frank, 80% of the content I won’t care about anyway. I applaud Dave’s idea and for actually getting the ball rolling but the value I got out of it was essentially at his loss. To put it like the sagely protagonist of some kids show, I think we all learned an important lesson about how to launch a new music publication. (On that note, fuck Oakie Doke: dude was never saying any of the shit he claimed.)
The other issue is that it’s a mistake to ascribe any inherent virtue to writing for the sake of its length. There’s a reason you don’t read every eight page New Yorker profile: longform writing as we know it tends towards the academic and meticulously detailed and therefore, it’s typically pretty dry. This seems blindingly obvious and I have to thank my old editor Tim for waking me up to it, but there seems to be this sort of stigma attached to accessible and entertaining writing which is totally unjustified.
The two books I read repeatedly this year were Psychotic Reactions & Carburetor Dung and Eating the Dinosaur, both written by especially wordy bastards but who also inject humour and wit into their writing as often as insight. It’s crazy that anyone feels entitled to an audience for writing something detailed. What’s next to your toilet? Text books? (I frequently stay at the home of some med students and the answer to that question in their case is yes, but I also wouldn’t read anything they’ve written either.) Going forward, let’s not feel so bad about being funny. The rock crit game ain’t that serious – unless you write for street press.
I believe the future of this ridiculous mess is in following the lead of American hardcore (yeah I just bought Our Band Could Be Your Life, so what?) and abandoning the system to start our own. This is a necessary part of the cycle, one which repeats every so often to clear out the old guard and do what they no longer can. Recently I read “Where Were You When Elvis Died?” by Lester Bangs and as he wraps it up he describes being at a concert where a not-even shrug of Presley’s shoulder led to “tens of thousands of people [going] berserk.” He closes it with this:
“If love truly is going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each others’ objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy Stooge, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak for your own private, entirely circumscribed situation’s many pains and few ecstasies. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis’s. But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.”
I don’t entirely buy this. Look at how the whole world was united this year by ‘Call Me Maybe’ [not the whole world - Ed], and although I wasn’t there in either case to compare it seems to me like Justin Bieber and One Direction are provoking very Elvis-like reactions on the scale of million-strong audiences. But there is an element of insight there into what I think is the only practical way of going forward for anybody who wants to start their own music site: fracturing. The concept of hyper-local coverage at the dawn of web 2.0 seemed promising but it has yet to make its way into music, at least in Australia, and I can’t fathom why.
I live in Melbourne, which is ostensibly the music capital of the country, and yet a while ago when I went into our preeminent zine shop to look for good, undiscovered music writers, I found two zines. Just two zines, one of which was had been dead since 2010. I mention this because zines are supposed to be the avenue for covering the local music scene, right? But they’re completely fucking dead! Street press isn’t doing it, they’re reporting on the same radio charting bands as everyone else.
As a consequence, there are so many bands going unwritten about. Look at this list I wrote for Everett the other day. ScotDrakula, Rayon Moon, Francolin, 8 Bit Love, The Stevens, nobody’s writing about these incredible bands. And they’re all from this one small section of Melbourne, so I’m going into 2013 thinking about all the other Melbourne bands I’ve never heard of who are potentially just as great. Or even better, but I have no way of finding them short of blindly walking into band rooms. I’m down for that, but what if it was easier?
The first step is to leave the existing pantheon to carry on doing what they’re doing rather than expecting them to change. They only have so much space on the page to cover bands and the nature of their business means they need to cover bands a lot of people are already interested in. I’m not condemning generalist coverage but there are so many of those sites out there now that starting one more… it’s just a drop in the ocean. Then round up some reliable folks and start reporting on the stuff that only you can report.
Shaun Prescott did essentially this when he launched Crawlspace earlier this year and the results have been phenomenal. They’re putting effort into properly covering bands either nobody else is covering, or nobody else is covering well enough. And the more of those sites, the better for the music scene. And for fuck’s sake, avoid advertising like the plague. Dependence on advertising is what got us into this homogenous mess. Here’s a novel idea: try building trust and respect with your audience. Maybe they’ll give something back. I don’t have all the answers ‘cos I’ve got more ambition than sense but I still think Dave was on the right track and that if folks believe in what you’re doing, they’ll even pay you to do it.
There are people out there, I believe, who want to read this kind of stuff. They want to know what’s going on in their hometowns and maybe even in other small scenes around the world. They want more than a bunch of prefabricated questions for the band to answer, they want to know what the bands are actually like and whether (or why) they’re worth seeing. We can go back and forth on what constitutes “good music writing” but for all the kids coming up from behind: we’ve gotta get away and start sorting shit out for ourselves otherwise nothing’s gonna change. For the sake of my declining mental health, let’s raise the bar. Get out their, kid. Divide and conquer.