Econobeat: The Death of the Music Critic

Categorised as FEATURES., MUSIC.

Music journalism is in a sorry state right now. There are plenty of lone fighters out there, plenty of heroes, but a quick scan of any publication touching the mainstream reveals that the slow death of the journalist from “valiant seeker of truth” to “press release refining copy churner”, is probably far more advanced in music journalism than elsewhere.

I know I’m stating nothing new but as circulations shrink, editors desperate for dwindling pots of advertising cash get even more cautious about rejecting any music with a marketing budget attached. “Journalists”, pushed for time and stuck for what to say about the latest PR push, scour around for something and end up printing dour generic PR copy masquerading as journalism.

The relationship between critic and fan used to be one cemented over time. You got a feel for different journalists tastes. Just the byline of certain journos attached to an article was often enough to make the sale at the record shop next week. You built this relationship because you got a pretty complete picture, you knew what they liked but, crucially, you knew what they hated.

That’s my actual problem with music journalism at the minute – no hate. Now, the first argument that gets thrown in my face is that no one likes negativity. You’re right of course. Just like punk, hardcore and Everett True’s Twitter feed, a relentless stream of negativity gets boring as hell after about five minutes. On the flipside though, who wants to be a hippy? Liking everything and everyone takes longer to get tired of but is no less frustrating, annoying and dull when you get to the bog end of the dregs. That’s when punk happened; the end of the 70s, when the dregs of the hippy movement turned into prog, and we needed a year or so of punk just to shake things up. It’s the same thing now with journalism, a really well written blog purely dedicated to ripping into things that are shit would, right now, be fucking fantastic. We need some honesty, some new voices, but of course the blog would get dull after six months.

Now I don’t want to get all misty eyed about the good ole days (again) and eulogise about the relationship between the god like print-journo and humble fan. It was very one-way, verdicts were handed down from on high, there was no debate and good reviews for cash is not a new invention. The internet, principally the blog, was supposed to tear these walls down but it all just got a bit lost.

The blog, originally the saviour of proper music writing and debate, has fallen into the positivity trap. That’s not a bad thing, the fact it can deliver songs instantly to the fan and share them all over the world has necessitated a shift in the blogger from music journalist to something more like a radio DJ – even the most cynical radio DJ won’t play a song only to slag it off straight after, though it should be noted that I am considering this.

When spinning through the internet reading just about everything I can get on music, politics, movies, football, I find an ever widening debate gap. Some of my favourite political blogs have comments sections worth almost as much as the blog. Articles and ideas are challenged and expanded upon. Mainstream political journalists also take the time to engage and dispute with bloggers, sending web-traffic in both directions and expanding the community even more. Does this happen in music? I mean really happen? There are a group of self-sustaining debate communities but how often do you see online-writers pushing outside their own space? A lot of music journalism now exists within cosy little clubs, each has their niche and the space they occupy, the PR just pushes the right packages through the right channels and watches to see how much coverage they generate. It’s become stale and boring and something needs shaking up.

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  • Oliver Conway

    I believe the problem lies with the ‘hype machine’ certainly, the fact that being a music journalist no longer pays the bills for 99% of english/music graduates also lies at the heart of the problem.

    But more hate is an extremely ignorant statement.

    Music is expression, thus music journalism should be an intelligent critique of how an artist has expressed themselves. Current music journalism does not need to be more negative it just needs to do its job, it must critically analyse, it needs to be objective. Something which in the digital age is extremely hard to do.

    We need to in essence find the balance between our twitter feed and our moleskine.

  • Totally agree with this. Recently I was asked to write the press release for my friends’ band, who fortunately I actually feel are pretty good so I was able to write with sincerity. However, once they started getting a little bit of coverage I was both annoyed and pleased to see how many sites had pretty much used my press release verbatim! On the one hand my mates’ band were getting some positive attention which I felt partly responsible for, but on the other hand my words were appearing all over the internet with various other peoples’ names next to them!

  • Olly

    Oliver: yeah I basically agree with you and I think the difference between “more hate” and more criticism is small and probably your way is a more eloquent way to put it. I just think that when you get a whole scheme of music criticism like the one Leonie describes “more hate” is often the reaction as people rebel and head towards the negative – albeit only for a short time. Hopefully after the period of hate people head back towards the more balanced system of music criticism you describe.

    Leonie: Totally agree. Been in that situation myself as have a bunch of people I know. This isn’t entirely relevant but it reminds me of a story that I saw in a political article today:

    ‘Tales about the prowess of the New Labour media machine were legend. Alastair Campbell was viewed as a cross between George Best, Butch Cassidy and Clark Gable. What inspired particular awe was the way he managed to secure his most favourable coverage in papers outside the traditional Labour stable.

    One especially memorable tale concerned the senior Daily Mirror journalist who asked Campbell if he could secure a short article from Bill Clinton on the Northern Ireland peace process, in advance of Clinton’s imminent state visit. “OK”, replied the spin doctor, “but you’ll have to write it yourself. Then we’ll get Clinton to sign it off”. The hack duly obliged, and sent the copy through. The day later he was amazed to open the Sun to find the article he had written, in Clinton’s name, splashed across the pages of his tabloid rival. Apoplectic, he phoned Campbell for an explanation. “I did it for peace”, came the reply.”‘


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