Whatever happened to the music press? An interview from January 2002
Originally run on PennyBlackMusic. Interview and feature by David McNamee in Hull, who later (briefly) became editor of Plan B Magazine.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE MUSIC PRESS?
It died a death.
After reading Laura Branch’s recent interview with Alexander Bailey of the indie label Radio Khartoum, I was reconciled to the notion of label as auteur. An innovative record label can wield as much – and frequently, as exemplified by Radio Khartoum, sometimes even more – creativity as any musician on their roster. Listen up Stereophonics fans – MUSIC IS NEVER JUST ABOUT MUSIC. And Jesus, how boring would it be if it was? If we were forced to experience only a sort of fermented in-oak-vats-for-fifty-years interpretation of art. Who on Earth would want to love something so sterile?
The music press have created and destroyed every influential and inconsequential band of the past 50 years – FACT.
At best they are a critical force – cleansing the trash from the industry, hyping and honing faceless nobodies into millenial icons, establishing a canonical view of culture – after all if labels can be auteurs then can’t the music press? They curate a form of contemporary culture, they prescribe manifestos for new art, they eradicate the flaccid, ageing ephemera congesting the superhighways of pop culture.
At worst they’re an oppressive agent in inscribing industry-sponsored nonsense into the cultural consciousness. A parade of failed pop stars reproducing an A&R man’s version of pop music, a repulsive cultural fascism trading elitisms and populisms and selling what amounts to little more than ‘lists of cool’ to those too ignorant to make up their own minds.
Ain’t it fun?? But the music press died. It became complacent, stopped being critical and settled for contrived arseyness instead. Publishers began haemorrhaging publications as readerships dried-up; ‘Select’, ‘Vox’ and ‘Melody Maker’ were on the losing side of a campaign against a music industry that had lost faith in itself. After all, who needs Daniel Booth when we have Ant & Dec?
Aiming to redress the balance is ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives.’ A no-budget, punk-spirited uber-zine brought to you by The Man That Invented Grunge, Everett True, and a motley pack of web kids, fanzine editors and indie iconoclasts. So far True and photographer comrade Steve Gullick have managed to drag one issue (issue 12, they’re counting down in reverse order, if they make it to issue 0 they’ll have succeeded in annihilating the music press) out of gestation.
Veering between shambolic and sleek, the first instalment of Careless Talk has been dubbed ‘an indie Wire’ or ‘a nu-Melody Maker’, when in truth all it’s really doing is identifying and mass-mediating a raw, reflexive, new type of journalism, one that is flourishing on the internet on sites like I Love Music, Alistair Fitchett’s Tangents, Freaky Trigger and our own Pennyblackmusic, and in fanzines run by attitude-spitting girls and boys with a grudge against the lies they’re being sold and a big thing for photocopiers and pritt sticks.
Bits of Careless Talk read like diary entries; other bits are like manifestos scratched in glass, etched on the side of subway trains or scrawled on the back of bus tickets and beer mats, left for someone to discover and live their life by. Every page of it screams: “THERE ARE STILL PLACES TO GO. THERE ARE STILL THINGS TO BE DONE.”
Careless Talk Costs Lives is more interesting than any band I’ve heard so far this year.
PB: Firstly, the name. Why ‘Careless Talk Costs Costs Lives’? The original slogan was something to do with the need to keep intelligence operations quiet during the war, so what relevance does it have for music journalism?
ET: None. We liked it. There’s a war on, but that’s sad coincidence. Our first editorial was on September 10. We liked it because we felt that almost all journalists and critics waste their lives and people’s patience with unwieldy, false reams of prose and writing.
PB : The name also sounds perhaps more like a fanzine title than a magazine. Would it be accurate in assuming that ‘Careless Talk’ is in many regards your fanzine? It sounds as though you’ve identified a niche in the market, simply by putting together something which appeals to you as a fan of music, rather than tearing your hair out trying to pull in ‘target demographics.’
ET : I know this business backwards and every other way. I don’t think I need to sit down at a table with a bunch of (doubtless very nice to have a drink with) corporate publishers and people who get paid to predict where the market was at several months ago to work out what sort of magazine I want to put it. Is it a fanzine? Is that term derogatory? Certainly, ‘Careless Talk’ reflects many viewpoints other than my own – Jimmy Possession, Miss AMP, Al Larsen, Fletcher Carr, Alistair Fitchett, Chris Letcher are six incredibly fine writers, most of whom I hadn’t even encountered till a few weeks ago. I couldn’t give a fuck for niches. I know by instinct what is write and wrong – and even if I didn’t, Steve Gullick is on hand to kick EVERYONE’S ass.
PB : Who do you think will be interested in ‘Careless Talk?’ Can you envision a typical reader of your publication?
ET : In this post-Millennial, post-baby boomer, post-teenage world of ours, there is no one demographic anyone can count on when talking about music. People of 60 behave as if they’re 16, kids of 13 may as well be Margaret Thatcher. I don’t necessarily approve of either. We aim to have an equal balance of male/female contributors and readers partly because that seems more interesting than the way most music publications are angled. Yes, I can envisage a typical reader and I think they’re smart, funny, sussed, opinionated, stylish and great to have a pint with. Many people will be interested in ‘Careless Talk’ because we care. We’re not careless.
PB : In ‘Careless Talk’ are you attempting to plug the void in British music media that has existed since the eradication of Vox, Select and, perhaps in particular, Melody Maker?
ET : No. Yes. Not deliberately, but yes deliberately. There’s a whole strain of music – and fans of that music – that exists that isn’t being catered to, despite the pretence on the part of some magazines. We would never seek to patronise, and times change and move on. I personally am a fan of the music press when it is done properly: very few critics around are able to conduct their craft and art in a manner befitting. Fuck them. They lose.
PB : From where have you drawn the ‘Careless Talk’ staff? You originally suggested that the writers would be composed of fanzine editors and ‘web kids’ and feature a much larger quota of female contributors than other publications. What kind of journalists are appropriate to your vision of ‘Careless Talk’ as an alternative to the current mainstream music press, and what in your opinion makes a good music critic?
ET: There’s a whole new strain of music writing that’s grown up in the last few years, on the Web, separate to those dullard corporate companies that particularly excites me: it’s more personal, involved, but nonetheless authoritative and witty. The writers are mainly composed of fanzine editors and web kids, with a few music hacks thrown in for good measure cos I like to keep everyone guessing. Specifically, check the I Love Music message board at greenspun.com. What makes a good music critic? The above, mainly.
PB : What is your mission statement as editor?
ET : To rid the world of mediocrity. That’s it. I do not want to bore people.
PB : What do you think is the problem with the music press in this country at the moment? Publishers seem to have lost faith in the genre and readerships are fleeing like rats from a sinking ship. Is it reflective of changes in the music industry as a whole? How do you hope to present an alternative to this?
ET : No one has any pride in what they do: it’s been taken away from them by one underhand means or another. I have no idea what the music industry as a whole is, I can only relate to the parts I encounter. And the parts I encounter seem exceedingly healthy to me, being populated by genuinely talented and enthusiastic people.
PB : What problems have you encountered with putting together your own music magazine? Who funds the publication of ‘Careless Talk?’ Has it involved you putting up the cash to put the magazine out or are you working under a publisher? What difference has there been from working under a company like IPC?
ET : None. (Except for being swamped by a deluge of well-wishers). I know my own mind, as does Steve Gullick. That is enough for anything. Don’t be swayed by what others say. We fund our own publication, and we hope not to lose too much money by doing so… right now we are, but I would imagine that will change as more and more flock to be entertained by what we have to offer. Er, I can’t really answer the question about IPC because it has no relevance whatsoever to anything. None.
PB : John Robb once told me that the music press was basically “a balding man in his 40s sat at a computer typing away lists of cool… when it comes down to it it’s not very fucking cool at all is it?” Would you say this is accurate? Music journalism, particularly in this country, seems dedicated to constructing canons of ‘cool’. Why is this and do you think that the music press is successful in ‘creating’ movements?
ET : Perhaps music journalism is dedicated to that. Perhaps not. Myself, I like to rave about music that excites me because… well, because it excites me. If other people want to misinterpret that as me creating canons of cool then that’s their lookout and they should probably learn to create their own taste instead of relying on other’s. John’s comment sounds a little like bitterness to me – and don’t get me wrong, I rate John very highly. The world isn’t that cynical. Or perhaps it is. But not the section I encounter.
PB : Why become a music journalist when they are generally perceived as being a somewhat bitter breed of failed pop stars? Do you think that in your career as a journalist – the man who other critics have claimed introduced grunge and riot grrl to the world – you have made a difference to music and people’s enjoyment of it?
ET : Of course. That’s the dumbest question I’ve ever been asked. I’m more of an artist than most of the musicians I speak to – just because someone’s worked out how to plug an amplifier in on a stage and turn the volume control up, doesn’t make them intrinsically interesting. Without my words a great many people wouldn’t have enjoyed the experience of listening to music even a 10th as much. Most ex-pop stars think they can become journalists (look around you). They are so wrong.
PB : The music press itself enjoys something of a love/hate relationship both with the musician and with the music fan. What do you define as being the function of the music press? What will make a good music magazine as opposed to a bad one? What sort of cultural value does music criticism carry in the industry? Do you think what you do is important in maintaining a healthy music scene and how necessary is it to consumers of music?
ET : Cultural value? None, if the people creating the criticism have no self-worth.
PB : And finally, what has the reaction to the first issue of ‘Careless Talk’ been like?
ET : Overwhelmingly positive, but then… it would be, right?
PB : Cheers, ET