Music journalism: still dead, thank goodness.


Jason Gross of Perfect Sound Forever asks the burning question: Can music journalism exist at all? And his panel at SXSW: Do Music Journalists Matter Anymore?

You’ll be unsurprised that the answer was, per the Austin Chronicle, “not even journalists were interested”. As a commenter put it, “I mean, if you have to ask …”


The big problems music journalism has are: (a) the press are not the gatekeepers any more, so (b) the record companies aren’t spraying money over them any more. Music journalism died when the major label money was no longer sustaining it. And (c) opinion is cheap now.

(Remember Rock Australia Magazine, 1975–1989? RAM went broke, despite a loyal and sustained readership and 28,000 sales a fortnight — a lot in Australia — because they pissed off the major record companies, who then refused to buy ads. That was all it took.)

Back in the day, music press got the word out about music before the music itself could get there. You could read about a record, but hearing it required hard work, happenstance or money you didn’t have. It could take years between seeing the name of some potentially-interesting band or song and actually hearing them. These days, of course, your chosen obscurity is likely just a YouTube search away.

With the rise of blogs, opinion is as readily available as the music itself. Approximately nobody is going to pay money for this stuff. Only the biggest blogs and sites can sell the ads they need to, and even they’re having serious problems. The New Musical Express is now an entertainment guide given away outside tube stations. The problem for professional music critics and press is competition from literally the whole world, the same problem artists have.

This is a special case of the problem with journalism in general: the money dried up with the exclusivity. About the only press that’s done at all well are the technology sites, who ripped down those tedious walls between editorial and advertising and gave up any reluctance to live off payola around the turn of the millennium, turning into utter and unapologetic shills. (Though it’s not clear those walls were ever up in music journalism.)

Even in the ’80s and ’90s, the pay was bloody dismal — I quit X-Press twice because of their widely-attested habit of asking for stuff then not running it, thus not paying you — and the main attraction was that it beat working for a living; but even that beer money level is now largely gone. Though I enjoyed it — even the tedious bits were pretty fun — I’m a computer system administrator primarily because there’s no money in writing about music. This Baffler story is me after I moved from near-unemployable nonprofit lifer to overpaid geek. I eat way better now.

(I have told Elizabeth Sandifer that if this freelance pop culture academic lark doesn’t work out, she could probably do quite well as a sysadmin. This was intended as a scary story.)

Thirty years later, I’m still in recovery from my few years’ writing about music for money. To the point where, when Ben Butler said in 2001 “hey let’s do this thing, I’m calling it Rocknerd,” I was in there like a shot. Because this is fun! But apart from the occasional hit, I know better than to think anyone cares. The reviews are useful and important for small bands …

Even with the loss of opportunity for potential greatness — there will be no more Bangs, Meltzers, Coleys or Morleys — I’m not displeased at music journalism being stabbed through its putrid little heart; way too much about it was gatekeeping rather than enthusiasm. (Hence fanzines. We knew what we were fighting for in the ’80s.) Everything is much better now for culture.

As I’ve said: rock criticism was only useful when music was hard to get and we only had words. I could try to contort uses for it. But.


5 thoughts on “Music journalism: still dead, thank goodness.

  1. Music writing is on my running list of “genres in bad enough shape that I could succeed in them,” though not one I’ve identified a self-evidently killer idea for yet. (The other big and long-time entry on that list is sex writing.)

    It strikes me that the last successful phase of music journalism was structured around the idea that music was a means of defining yourself. And this was rooted in a functional counterculture that could advance the message “here’s something else you could be.” With the collapse of the counterculture in the face of the Internet’s fractally complex long tail, this role isn’t meaningful anymore. It’s not just that music is easy to get now, it’s that there’s no unifying countercultural identity to bind together disparate pieces of music journalism into a scene. Broad tribal affiliations have collapsed.

  2. oh man, so many bad zines that the “New Haven Rock Press” describes (“With this album, Elton is performing to his potential…5 stars”).

    That’s a great piece, particularly how he’s so busy ranting about everyone else that’s ever pissed him off that he doesn’t get to Crowe until half way through and the movie until two-thirds. Truly, this is rock journalism that delivers the promise of the form.

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