Business News Media The Great Escape 2017

CMU@TGE 2017: The Crisis In Music Journalism (Part 1)

By | Published on Wednesday 14 June 2017

The Crisis In Music Journalism

Look out for more reports throughout June on key sessions that took place at the CMU Insights conferences at The Great Escape last month. Today, part one of a session from the Media Conference titled The Crisis In Music Journalism.

The challenges facing music media in the digital age were put under the spotlight during the CMU Insights Media Conference at The Great Escape this year, with both commercial and editorial perspectives on offer.

Leading the latter was a panel of four leading music journalists – Laura Snapes, Emily Jupp, Greg Cochrane and Mark Savage – who discussed the challenges of pursuing a career in music journalism today, as well as the role of the review in the streaming age and whether or not the golden age of music writing was now over.

Between them the panel have worked for numerous titles. Snapes has had roles at both NME and Pitchfork and now freelances. Jupp was Music Editor at The Independent and now also freelances. Cochrane previously worked for both the BBC and NME, and now writes for Loud And Quiet and other publications. And Savage is a music reporter with the BBC.

While for media owners the key challenge today is how to generate revenue around online music journalism, for individual journalists the challenge is how to build a sustainable career when there are so few full-time music editorial roles on offer. Not to mention the fact that, online in particular, a not insignificant amount of music editorial is actually the result of unpaid work, with journalists eager for an audience writing for free.

“I do think there needs to come a point where you start getting paid for it”, Snapes said, acknowledging that a lot of music journalists still produce at least some editorial for free. “And I don’t know how I feel about publications that solely subsist on free labour, especially if they’re pulling in money from advertising which isn’t trickling back down to the writers”.

Though, pretty much all music journalists admit, writing for free is how you get started. Jupp recalled the start of her career. While she had a paid role with newspaper The Independent, that was in social media. She wrote music content for the title for free in order to get her music journalism career off the ground. “I was doing it all for free”, she said. “And I was even taking holidays from my paid job in order to do it for free!”

But she agrees with Snapes that, while working for free is how you get started, budding music journalists have to get to a point where they push for payment. “After two years of not having a holiday, I sort of thought it was time for the paper to recognise my commitment”, she said of her own experience. She then managed to negotiate a wage for her music writing and subsequently became the paper’s Music Editor.

“I think if you do just write for free and you feel like you’re not getting anywhere with it, that’s time to negotiate getting paid”, she advised. “Because by that point, if you’ve proven yourself and done enough free work, the company should actually try to support you from that point. It did pay off for me eventually, but it was a struggle, and I don’t think there is a solution to that. It’s just a personal decision. If you feel like, ‘OK, I’ve got enough skills now to actually be paid for this’ that’s the time to demand a salary”.

Cochrane also began by writing about music for free, but equally felt that this provided the route to paid work. “I worked for free at the outset, but that was my chance to start building a portfolio so I could go to places like NME looking for paid work”, he said. “I could go to the places that I aspired to write for, to work for, with something to offer and a portfolio that exhibited my skills”.

Cochrane says he considers himself lucky because he found a paid job in music journalism fairly quickly, though he added that junior roles in music journalism aren’t actually that well paid. “When I first started working in music journalism, once I’d taken the cost of my train ticket from where I was travelling from into London and bought my lunch, I had about £10 left every day”, he said. “But I was 21 and I thought that was fine. That’s what I felt I had to do to get started”.

Some of those music writers writing for free aren’t necessarily providing that free content to others of course, ie they are publishing it themselves via a blog. Blogging about music is another great way to get started, the panel reckoned, and a blog can also give a music journalist who is being paid elsewhere a place where they can write more freely about a wider range of topics, and continue to build their own profile.

Savage got into writing about music by starting his own blog. “Really, that’s the only place I had to try to develop my own voice”, he said. “And then when I started pitching stuff on spec to the BBC entertainment team, I had a style that I was writing in by then – I think it’s hugely important for somebody who writes about entertainment to themselves be entertaining”.

Of course, with music media owners struggling to generate revenue, writing for free the classic way into a career in music journalism, and so many people aspiring to be music journalists, that could result in a culture where more and more music publications are relying on free content.

Does that make it ever harder for those reaching the ‘I ought to get paid now’ point in their career? Is it even ethical for publications to ask people to work for nothing? Snapes said that it depended on what the publication’s remit was, adding that she felt that there had been a shift in the last decade where some sites that began with an ethos of “team spirit, everybody mucking in together” had become more commercial operations but still don’t pay writers.

Although insisting that “I really don’t want to sound like one of those old men that bangs on about why people shouldn’t work for free”, Snapes seemed to suggest that freelance journalists eager to reach an audience should nevertheless consider the commercial set-up at a publication before committing to work for free, or for next to nothing.

“A friend told me recently that they had done a small feature for a big glossy fashion magazine, a really ‘proper’ looking one. I think they had to file about 1500 words and they got paid £30. You can see the fashion adverts that are in that magazine, and they add to a lot more than £30. I see discrepancies that I think are unaddressed”.

She added that too many publications relying on free labour could also have a negative impact on the quality of the music journalism. And even with those titles that do pay everyone, most music media now operate on such tight resources, there often isn’t the infrastructure in place to support a writer’s professional development.

“One real problem is that even on publications that do have a full paid staff – staffs these days are quite skeletal, because they haven’t got the resources to hire lots of people. And that means they haven’t got the resources to develop the most junior members of staff to eventually teach them more skills, so they can become more accomplished members of staff and take higher positions”.

All of the panel acknowledged that a big part of the problem is simply how hard it has become to make money out of music journalism, especially online, and that is a key reason for the skeletal staffs and reliance on unpaid work. In the recent CMU Insights music journalist survey, many of the writers surveyed said that subscriptions or simple banner advertising would be their preferred way of music media generating revenue, but most recognised that neither of these seemed like viable ways to stay in business today.

One possible solution is music media forming closer relations with consumer brands. Though how do the journalists feel about brands having an increased role in music journalism – as sponsors, or by working directly with artists, or by working with music publications to create so called branded content?

“I do find increasingly that I get offered interviews or content not by a PR for an artist but a PR for a brand that is taking that artist under their wing and therefore they want some kind of payback”, Savage noted. “Of course we can’t do that on the BBC, it’s even crazy to ask! But it’s clear to me that if we’re being offered that, then everybody is being offered that. I do wonder how far away you are from accepting that deal to then offering the brand copy approval and all of those sorts of things”.

It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, countered Cochrane: “My desire has always been to be a journalist and editor that upholds integrity, and that can be about finding a real a balanced spot when you are working with external clients that want to achieve a commercial goal. I do think there are ways of doing that. When I was working for the BBC, the idea of that might have horrified me a bit, but it can be done in a legitimate way”.

Snapes added: “By and large brand partnerships are made really obvious so you know it’s a sponsored post or advertorial – ‘in association with X’, that kind of thing. Media consumers today are incredibly media literate and they know what to expect, they know the bargain that is being upheld here. However, sometimes lines are crossed”.

“At the end of last year I wrote an article on the band The xx and I spent a number of days with them”, she continued. “I thought it was going to be a normal article the whole time, but when it came out, it said ‘sponsored by Mailchimp’ on the side. And I thought, ‘Well, I didn’t see any of that money! Who did?'”

“This piece was nothing to do with Mailchimp, The xx are nothing to do with MailChimp, I wonder if they even knew about it”, she went on. “It was very jarring to see that appear. Somebody else I know who did a piece about the 20th anniversary of ‘OK Computer’, that also happened to them and they were livid because the nature of ‘OK Computer’ was very anti that kind of thing. So I think when it’s foregrounded, people know what to expect, but when it’s sneaked in through the back door like that, it’s a bit more muddled”.

In part two of our report on ‘The Crisis In Music Journalism’ we find out what the panel felt about the role of the review in the streaming era, and whether or not the golden age of music journalism is now dead.

Check out all the reports and resources CMU has published around this year’s CMU Insights @ The Great Escape conferences here.