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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.

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