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Into the Great Unknown: Music Journalism in the Post Print Era

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Things are somewhere between bad and  bad-ish in the world of music journalism.  At least that was the overall consensus in the very spirited and lively panel discussion “Music Journalism in the Post Print Era.”  Christopher Weingarten, (twitters like a banshee; he’s hot on the heels of 1000 record reviews last year and currently on a frenzy of seeing 100 bands at sxsw), Lynne Margolis (overall Texas music journalist), Abby Goodman (editor of Rolling Stone online), and Maura Johnston, (currently with the Philadelphia Inquirer, former editor of Idolater.com) largely agreed that no one knows how the hell to make any money writing about music.  Moderated by the thoughtful and exceedingly prepared Jamie Berk (edits a music paper at Dartmouth, where he must be a very accomplished student) and attended by well over a hundred mostly journalists who packed the large convention center room, the conversation’s overall tone of frustration was nonetheless pierced at various moments by a certain subdued enthusiasm for this brand new world.  Even if there are parts of it that suck.  Chief among them, that whole getting paid part.  As evidenced by the audience member that walked up to Weingarten and presented him with a 5 dollar bill, that part really (really) sucks.

Maura Johnston summarized the major dilemma when she declared that online music writing is forced to slut it up for, as she put it, “eyeballs.”  When advertisers are the only customers, and advertisers care only about number of clicks (not, let’s say, length of stay on the site), then the entire online music journalism industry (as all online journalism) revolves around producing content that generates hits — namely, photos of lady Gaga’s boob falling out at an awards show.  Or whatever.  As Johnston put it, “we’re forced then to try and figure out ways to hide the vegetables in all that candy.”  This is a difficult trick to pull off, of course.  When was the last time you read a 5,000 word article on a band you really liked?  When was the last time you looked at fashion photos online?  Thought so.

But this, to use academic-y speak, is only one horn of the dilemma.  Another is that the web has completely transformed what music writing is, and why people look for it.  As Weingarten pleaded, “we need some new name for what is happening.  An interview with Evervessence is not the same as posting 3 MP3s on your blog saying ‘I like this!’”  This phenomenon was particularly troubling to the relentlessly snappy and sharp Weingarten, who bemoaned “music writing on the web isn’t journalism.  It’s cheerleading.  It’s being the first on the block to say: ‘this is dope.’  That’s….something.  It’s just not journalism.”  The professional journalist is left competing with a whole new army of arm-chair fans.

There are other horns, too, in this confounding beast of electronic media.  Many folks have written about the niche-making force of the internet, as people go to news sources that confirm rather than disrupt their views (ie: Huffpost, Drudge Report); in the world of music, as Weingarten put it, “the more narrow you go the more likely you’ll find readers.”  The trouble, of course, is the audience for “nerds opining about Kesha” (another Weingarten gem) is inherently quite small.  Let alone nerds opining about Wye Oak.  In addition to these challenges, more artists are speaking directly to fans through twitter and facebook and rendering the days of the “exclusive interview” over, while sites like Brooklyn Vegan achieve wide success by basically posting press releases (Weingarten: “and I love Brooklyn Vegan”).

The overall picture painted by the panel was of lines blurring between critic, journalist, artist and fan.  All are thrown together into the blender of the web, and where each ends up is very much still to be decided.  There are gains and losses in this unraveling/reworking, as given voice by two legendary music journalists in the audience who closed the session with back to back questions.  Jim DeRogatis, music writer for the Chicago Tribune (perhaps best known for being the journalist who received the original R Kelly tape) noted that the biggest news in his 25 years of music writing had broken in the last few weeks, with the merger of Live Nation and Ticketmaster.  “Christine Varney, the justice department official who decided the case, was here yesterday, at a panel, in this building.  It was covered in the three major papers.  But completely absent in the blogs.”  (Charged: guilty).  The point is salient and scary: what happens when you strip the “journalism” from music writing?  As Berk put it, “have music writers exchanged subsistence for relevance?”

Despite the dark picture, the prolific LA Times music critic Ann powers had the last word, and it was a hopeful one.  “I think there has never been as much great writing on music as there is today, and there has never been as much great music,” she said.  “The music industry is not dying.  It’s growing.  The recording industry is dying.  And we’re still figuring out what to make of it.”