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 Matt O'Neill

Whatever Happened To The Music Press: An Answer

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It’s been a long time since I genuinely enjoyed music journalism. I know that sounds odd coming from someone most people would consider a music journalist (myself included) but, genuinely, I’ve despised the overall form of music journalism for the majority of my adult life.

My reasons change almost daily. Sometimes, I am irked by writers more interested in promoting their own ego than writing about music while, at others, I am annoyed by the incessant need for music journalists to present themselves as some kind of authority (often on subjects of which they have little to no understanding). I’m frequently irritated by nothing so offensive as a sentence beginning with ‘and’.

The twist is that I actually think music journalism is a wonderful concept. The idea of a form of communication dedicated entirely to the democratic discussion, contemplation and evaluation of music is, to my mind, a magical ideal. It’s the execution of that ideal that bothers me. I’ve always wondered exactly how we managed to go from almost Aristotelian philosophies to a mistrusted, treacherous collective of self-centred windbags – but, finally, I think I’ve clocked it.

It was not so much an epiphany as a gradual realisation of simple truths. It started with an article by American composer Scott Johnson; The Counterpoint Of The Species. Published in the initial volume of John Zorn’s Arcana: Musicians On Music series (a series of books conceived, fittingly, to redress the inadequacies of the journalistic coverage surrounding contemporary music and the avant-garde), Johnson’s Counterpoint deals primarily with the distancing of ‘art music’ from ‘popular music’.

The crux of Johnson’s argument is that art music has essentially been ossified by people viewing it as a clinical and academic phenomenon as opposed to the mutable product of an evolutionary continuum. “All that is real in an artistic dichotomy like ‘serious/popular music’,” the composer explains, “is generated by shifting human behaviours and ideas circulating within a cultural ecosystem, not by polarised, formal and immutable categories.”

This idea circulated around my mind long after I’d finished reading the essay before eventually hooking up with a completely different series of contemplations about humour and relevance. In particular, an experience I had during the recent BP oil crisis wherein a satirical article from The Onion was distributed by a number of my friends with the tagline “when did The Onion stop writing satire?”

My friends were obviously joking but, like The Onion article itself, there was an element of truth to the humour in that satirical humour outlets have increasingly become trusted news sources. A survey conducted in 2007, for example, found that viewers of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show were more informed regarding news events than audiences of actual news programs.

What does Jon Stewart have to do with Scott Johnson? Well, The Daily Show’s unexpected social relevance perfectly illustrates Johnson’s theories in action. Johnson would assert that art music became irrelevant when it ceased to conduct itself as an evolutionary movement of individual practitioners and began functioning as an institution and, in the success of programs like The Daily Show, one can see how conventional news sources have tempted irrelevance through similar tactics – audiences naturally gravitating towards individuals they can trust like Jon Stewart.

How is this relevant to music journalism? Basically, we suffer from a similar problem. Increasingly, music journalism has become defined not by individuals but by institutions and, as Stewart and Johnson demonstrate, audiences are increasingly unlikely to trust institutions. The idea of a faceless multinational entity like Rolling Stone maintaining any kind of cultural sway in a world wherein even the news is considered unreliable, for example, is completely ludicrous.

This, however, is approaching the problem from the wrong direction. Music journalism being institutionalised is not a problem because it makes us untrustworthy (except insofar as our ability to make money). It’s a problem because it can’t be done without compromising the entire point of the form. You can institutionalise the news and, to a lesser extent, you can institutionalise music – but you can’t institutionalise music journalism.

I am not being romantic – merely practical. Music journalism is a democratic form built on the foundation of well-articulated (but nevertheless subjective) opinions. The further one distances it from those values, the more dishonest (and therefore less effective) it becomes. A review from Pitchfork.com, by way of example, will always possess a certain degree of dishonesty because, for better or worse, it must partially serve the agenda of the Pitchfork institution.

I have no intention of advocating anarchy. A cacophony of undisciplined voices would be as irritating and impractical as a thousand voices echoing the same false sentiment. I just think we would all be better served if we stopped pretending that we were authorities, professionals or important in any significant way and admitted that we were people. I think all of the problems I highlighted about music journalism earlier could be remedied by admitting we aren’t faceless critics.

I think the best way to look at it is as if music journalism were a band. I don’t think anyone would argue that any decent band starts to suck when they start to contemplate their own importance. Metallica lost it after Metallica, U2 lost it after Achtung Baby, Pink Floyd lost it after The Wall (if not before) and Green Day really lost it after American Idiot. The moment a band realises their value, they are almost destined to lose a significant portion of it.

Music journalism realised its value somewhere back in the 80s with the reflexive and self-aware work of writers like Paul Morley. We’ve desperately tried to maintain that relevance by teaming up and institutionalising our work but, like Metallica, the harder we try to recapture our youth, the more obvious it is that such years are behind us. We need to admit that we aren’t as cool as we used to be, deal with it and stop pretending.

10 Responses to Whatever Happened To The Music Press: An Answer

  1. max August 28, 2010 at 9:55 pm

    one word only: brilliant.

  2. Tom Hawking August 29, 2010 at 10:19 am

    Hey Matt, much as I like your argument, I want to raise a couple of points with it:

    – The fact that the majority of music journalism that gets published is awful (which it undoubtedly is) doesn’t make music journalism per se worthless. You could make the same argument about journalism in general. The fact that The Age sucks massive balls, for instance, doesn’t invalidate the concept of quality journalism in Australia. It just proves how much quality journalism is desperately needed.

    – As per your band analogy, bands get old and shit, and eventually new ones come along and take their place. Rolling Stone is pretty much completely irrelevant these days, but that only matters if you actually read Rolling Stone – does anyone? There are plenty of interesting voices on music out there, provided you look beyond the institutions. If “it’s been a long time since [you] genuinely enjoyed music journalism”, you’re probably just looking in the wrong places.

    – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with someone setting themselves up as an “expert”, so long as it’s not just a case of dick-waving. I think that it has to be a good thing if someone says, “This topic is one that’s very important to me, and I’ve read a lot about it and done a lot of research about it, and I have something to say”. This is as valid for music as it is for anything else.

    – Following on from the previous point, I think music journalism is important because *music* is important (and by, extension, because art as a whole is important). If music is nothing more than background noise or entertainment, then sure, there’s not really a whole lot to be said about it. But for me it’s the most powerful art form we possess: it has a unique power to work on both a cerebral level and a visceral level, often simultaneously. It moves your mind and moves your hips. It *is* important, and people should think seriously about it, and write seriously about it. This doesn’t mean being a humourless, faceless critic, but it does mean thinking seriously about your subject matter and addressing it with the respect it deserves.

  3. Tim Footman August 29, 2010 at 11:53 am

    Pink Floyd lost it when Gilmour joined.

    Good piece.

  4. Ian Rogers August 29, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    Good article.

    At first I disagreed. To some degree you are advocating meek journalism. I think culturally self-reflexive music journalism might sound like meeting your readership/community halfway but – in practice – it would be pitifully boring to read. People are only generally interested in gods and assholes, they always make for good reading.

    Then again, in some ways how I look at my own hobbyist writing in this field does conform to some of what you’re suggesting: I get paid to provide an opinion. I am the greatest authority on my own likes and dislikes ever invented, so I write with as much confidence as I can muster. Someone else publishes it. I invoice them. The end.

    I don’t ever really stop to consider my position on the ladder. It just doesn’t seem relevant. Proof of which is that I never enter into a dialogue with my readers, despite the best attempts of Web 2.0 to entice me to do so. I don’t care what people think about what I think. If they totally misread me, that’s generally my fault. If they disagree with me and they don’t make critical arguments, that’s their fault. Thus, it’s best I just do my job and stay out of the way.

  5. Matthew August 29, 2010 at 1:34 pm

    Hi. A couple of Qs/friendly counter-arguments (which I don’t mind if you let pass by). I really enjoyed your post by the way.

    Firstly, to your band/journalism analogy. You said, “I don’t think anyone would argue that any decent band starts to suck when they start to contemplate their own importance”, but here’s an attempt…

    Don’t most all bands contemplate their own importance (even if they’re the only ones who initially perceive it) from the outset? Though I partly agree with you here, I suspect (but don’t know for sure, of course) the reasons those bands lose it has more to do with running out of a finite stock of ideas. Once this happens (combined with their mind-boggling bigness), rather than push on with ever-increasing confidence, performance anxiety/identity crises grip the groups, so they stop dictating to and exciting their fans, and instead start pumping out what they think will go over the best. So yes, contemplation of importance comes into it (e.g. the increasingly egoistic/bloated Beatles from ’66 onwards), but I think it usually operates more as a kind of invisible-before-the-world stage fright. (Moreover, who’s to definitively say for everyone that a self-important group like the Doors, for instance, sucked or not?)

    If we admit that the pressure to consolidate success and make increasingly massive amounts of cash is both causative and common to big bland bands and those institutions writing about them, I still don’t think it’s the hegemonic magazines’ (and their writers’) “contemplation” of cultural-power that makes them such a shitty read. Simply, their cultural-power is real, and their shittiness is way more targeted and intentional, I think, than the corporate-ised pop groups who only seem in control but have in fact arrived at their shittiness by a much less direct and more creatively frustrated route. One way of accounting for this could be as simple as re-framing how we think of both the magazines and groups: not as critical and artistic entities/institutions, but as teen-oriented ‘pop’ products. We just got old and learned to see through it. It’s not for us.

    The other idea you sparked for me: I (think I) get what you mean about music journalism institutions bearing down upon their complaisant contributors – those who necessarily (to get paid) churn out seemingly individuated work which actually conforms to entrenched ‘house styles’; they’re more like copywriters than critics, and it’s kinda dishonest to pretend otherwise. But this characterisation of institutions relies itself on reducing (by not acknowledging) the individual writers’ agency and scope to say something unique. I don’t think journalism institutions are so inhibiting to disallow any nuances. There mightn’t be a lot of dissenting elbow-room, but a little texture could simply come through the range of topics rather than aggressively opposing viewpoints.

    How else do critics admit they’re not not faceless but by putting their name to work? And if it’s more unconstrained music writing you’re arguing for within big magazines (which I agree would be great), don’t blogs like yours or articulate forums like ILX already give us that anyway?


  6. darragh August 29, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    I think the point regarding how the music press begins to lose its glean once it begins to become institutionalised is very well made. I’m not so sure if its all academic as what you suggest, but there is certainly some value here. You can see this idea working by looking at the pressures institutions must face in order to continue existing – commercial pressures and so forth.

    While I don’t know first hand, but I assume if a magazine were to piss off its advertiser by being critical of music/bands/artists etc that these advertisers sell, they would be none too pleased. The cycle of self-censorship to prevent risks to the institutions inevitably exerts influence on its writers and leads to “reviews” that sound nothing more than PR.

  7. EverettTrue August 29, 2010 at 10:38 pm

    (from Facebook)

    Dominic Valvona
    ummm, food for thought as they say.
    Yesterday at 21:44

    Didier Becu
    You know, Everett, I know the answer as a fan….
    I read my NME and my Melody Maker every week, page after page.
    In the end (I know it’s old shit) I only had some names in mind…you were one of them as you know : you glorified yourselves…true….but you also glorified your passion!
    Fuck (sorry) now it has become so BOOOOOOOOOOOORRRIIINGGGGG.
    As a hobbywriter I call myself a “pupil of ET”, God….am I glad I do.
    14 hours ago

    Dominic Valvona
    Sorry just to add, the institution argument is true to a point, but the Rolling Stone of the 70s had the likes of Hunter S Thompson, Lester Bangs, Grail Marcus etc. pass through its doors, all holding their own personality and to a point free to air their own agendas, not the magazines.
    I agree to a point with Didier above, you at least showed some passion towards music, it seems the top brand sites and mags don’t allow this any longer.
    19 minutes ago

  8. EverettTrue August 30, 2010 at 11:54 am

    “Think about it: what is your job? Truth be told, very few people genuinely give a crap whether you like a song or not. I mean, your best friends might, but almost everyone reading anything you like only cares about whether they are going to like it or not. Your job is to describe it well enough for them to consider whether they might like it. If you say you like it and they like most of what you like, then that makes it easier – just giving a description with no measure of endorsement doesn’t really help. The question we ask our friends of anything they’ve experienced is normally ‘is it any good?’ That’s all: describe; recommend” – Correspondence from an Everett True “fan”

  9. Matt O'Neill September 2, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    Greetings everyone – thanks for reading. Sorry it’s taken so long to respond. I’ll try and keep my comments brief. I should offer a gentle warning, though, that my mind gets bored with ideas incredibly quickly and, as a result, my perspectives on this matter may be a little inarticulate, hopefully not.

    Tom – I wouldn’t explicitly disagree with any of your points. In answer to them, however:

    i) I do think published journalism is, at this point, quite rubbish. That said, I haven’t engaged with it enough to pretend to have anything resembling a perspective on matters, so I try to keep my mouth shut about it.

    ii) There is a lot of exaggeration for the sake of emphasis in this article. This is not an excuse – just a reality. You could even take it as a partial admission of laziness. This piece was originally going to be about 4000 words long but I got bored and rewrote the whole thing. There is plenty of music journalism I do enjoy (in all sincerity, I think your blog is fucking badass). There’s just a hell of a lot more that annoys me to no end.

    One of the reasons for this piece emerging was that I feel you shouldn’t have to dig to find decent journalism. The obvious retort to this is that you have to dig to find decent anything but I genuinely feel music journalism is different. Music journalism ultimately exists as an intermediary between musicians and everyone else and, therefore, quality work should be more immediately accessible to everyone.

    I know I’m probably being altruistic and naive but that’s why I criticised from the commercial/mainstream top down as opposed to providing a more comprehensive view. That and the whole laziness/4000 words thing.

    iii) My answer to that would be: the proof is in the pudding or, to use another cliche, show – don’t tell. I have no problem with experts being experts but that expertise should be evident in your analysis and not in your voice (if you get my meaning).

    My quintessential example in cases like this is rock writers writing authoritatively about electronic or dance music without the knowledge or experience to support their perspectives. In the interests of humility and self-flaggelation, I’ll use one of my early reviews as an example.

    I wrote about Benga’s Diary of an Afro Warrior and my key point of comparison was Massive Attack. This is not a completely unjustified comparison but I only made it because that was one of the few electronic acts I was familiar with at the time. I remember reading a similar review of a Fennesz record wherein the author referenced Kraftwerk.

    In short: be an expert if you are an expert but don’t try to be if you aren’t one. Another way of putting this would be to say: be honest with both yourself and your readers.

    iv) I don’t disagree that music and music journalism are important – only that musicians and music journalists are important. I know that’s a gloriously obtuse and unhelpful response but hopefully you’ll understand my point.

    Ultimately, writers should avoid ego in their work and understand that they are but one tiny part of an ever-evolving system. This does not mean that they are not important but their importance cannot be accurately comprehended by them.

    I know this is still unclear but, essentially, I think writers should always assume they have something to prove and that they owe their position to the goodwill of others – not the other way around. I suspect this is still ambiguous but I’m going to stop trying for now. Hopefully, you can make some sense of my pseudo-zen cliche bullshit.

    Ian –

    Perfectly valid critique. I’m not suggesting meek journalism, though; just honest and respectful journalism. God knows I am anything but meek in my writing (or anything else, for that matter).

    My personal perspective has always operated on the assumption of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. I feel each and every act deserves to have the facts of their case interpreted in their favour but, if after going through that process, they’re still found unremarkable, then I have every right to thrash them (within context).

    In honesty, this perspective is largely a product of interacting with too many music journalists who seeme dto take more pride in writing a pithy, ‘clever’ review than actually providing any kind of meaningful service to readers or musicians. This is why I feel good writing requires both respect and honesty.

    An honest opinion is appreciated but, if it’s nothing more articulate than a ‘you suck’, then it isn’t very helpful. A respectful opinion, by the same token, is completely without merit if it isn’t honest. “You’re not to my taste” – well, bullshit. Who does that help? Furthermore, as you implied, Ian, who the fuck wants to read that kind of nauseating bullshit?

    Matthew – Glad you enjoyed the piece.

    I think your first point only really justifies my example. You just expanded on why the contemplation of importance has such an effect on artists. If I were to respond in an adversarial position, though, I would add the caveat ‘the contemplation (and belief) in their individual importance’. This touches on what I said to Tom – all journalists and musicians are, by virtue of their profession, important. They are not, however, uniquely important.

    In regards to your second point – I am not advocating the dissolution of institutions. I am discussing the possibility of slackening the process of institutionalising. As I said in the piece, an uninstitutionalised world of music journalism is as useless as a fully institutionalised one. In the former instance, you ultimately have a cloistered echo chamber and in the latter you have a vast and cacophonous universe.

    To this end, I don’t think institutions currently offer that degree of nuance that you touched upon (and won’t unless it is an explicit part of their metier, so to speak) and I don’t think blogs adequately redress that situation. The reason I decided to have a look-see into this Collapse Board world is because it ultimately offers (or, to be more accurate, attempts to offer) a hybridised solution in that it unites sympathetic individuals and ensures a standard of quality but does not possess an explicit agenda (again, I stress the connotations of the word ‘attempts’).

    There we are people. Thanks again for reading. Hopefully that offers some clarity (but I understand it probably doesn’t).

  10. Matthew September 4, 2010 at 2:48 pm

    Thanks for your replies, Matt.

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