Business News Media The Great Escape 2017

CMU@TGE 2017: The Crisis In Music Journalism (Part 2)

By | Published on Thursday 15 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 two of a session from the Media Conference titled The Crisis In Music Journalism.

In part one of this session looking at the state of music journalism in 2017, the panel of music journalists – Laura Snapes, Emily Jupp, Greg Cochrane and Mark Savage – considered the commercial pressures faced by music media today, and the impact that has on those pursuing a career writing about music.

The panel then discussed the different kinds of content music journalists create – whether the good old review is even necessary in an era when readers can immediately listen to a new album or track themselves, and whether the growth of music news reporting was a good thing – before asking whether the rise of digital media had brought to an end a golden age of music journalism.

“I think reviews have a different role from 20 years ago”, Jupp reckoned, acknowledging the fact that there was now a much higher chance a reader had already heard any track or album being reviewed. But, while you don’t need a reviewer to explain what a record sounds like anymore, the review still added something, she said. “You might read a journalist’s reviews just to understand what they’re seeing in an album, which might not be what you’ve heard in the first listen, second listen, or the 20th”.

You don’t need a reviewer to tell you a record is out – a simple news story, probably with a SoundCloud or YouTube embed, does that – but a review can provide background, context and alternative opinions. “I suppose we are talking about two types of journalism”, she added. “One that’s longer form and more about the quality of the writing, and one that’s bish-bash-bosh ‘this is out there now, go listen now’. Both have their value, but I think they’re quite different types of journalism”.

Although agreeing that reviews still had their place, Savage reckoned that the pressure for publications to get their critiques online quickest could have an impact on the quality or nature of the review. “The amount of time you get to live with an album before you review it has shrunk”, he said. “Even though immediate opinions often don’t count as much. The best pieces I read about Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ last year were published in December, because people had time to absorb it, to think about what it meant for Black America, for female musicians as a whole, and that sort of review I am really interested in. I don’t know how much the general public is though, because I’m a music nerd!”

Which is an interesting point. Reviews remain popular for core music fans, and music journalists like writing them, but do they have mainstream appeal? “I spoke to the editor of a national newspaper before I came here”, Savage revealed. “He said when he’s looking to cut costs, the first thing he wants to cut is the reviews. But, he said, ‘the music writers then rise up in arms and say NO, this is absolutely what we want to do’, and so, to keep those writers happy, to get the other content that actually does shift newspapers, you have to let them keep on doing it”.

Savage added that, although when the BBC News website publishes reviews they do well in terms of traffic, generally they don’t do as well “as interviews and other more analytical features”.

While that may be true for non-specialist media, Cochrane said he thought reviews were more important for specialist music titles, especially those with a focus on artists and genres not getting covered by more mainstream media outlets.

“From a Loud & Quiet point of view, we kind of exist in a music ecosystem where reviews are still important because we write about artists that may only get reviewed in one or two places”, he said. “It doesn’t really matter that we didn’t review Harry Styles’ album. Nobody needs another opinion on that. We’d rather give four pages to Wesley Gonzalez and talk about why we think he’s interesting”.

Though – referencing his time at NME – Cochrane conceded that when it comes to online, music news is probably the key content type, something that has risen in importance as music media has shifted from print to digital. “When I was running the absolute core of what we were doing was based on news”, he said. “And there was a huge appetite for it – that was justified by the stats”.

There is undoubtedly more music news available now than ever before, on music and entertainment sites, and more generalist online news outlets too. Though that doesn’t necessarily mean there is more original music news reporting, Snapes noted.

“There’s unfortunately little budget for actual reporting”, she said. “For example, the PWR BTTM story that’s been going on for the last few weeks. 95% of the reporting on that has just been rehashing Facebook posts and rehashing statements from the label”.

“Those statements are obviously important things that need to get out there”, she continued. “But I’ve only seen two organisations, including Jezebel, that have actually gone and done original reporting on it. So, they have actually spoken to the victims and spoken to the bands who were due to be supporting on the PWR BTTM tour which has now been cancelled and fallen apart”.

“It’s really unfortunate that original reporting is so undervalued”, she continued. “You’re not going to define an agenda by being the first person to report that ‘BEYONCE HAS POSTED A VIDEO’. You’re going to define the agenda by doing the report that then everybody else copies and links back to”.

Nonetheless, despite the commercial challenges, the tight resources, and the desire to publish content quicker than ever, all four panellists remained positive about the future of music journalism, and rejected the sometimes stated idea that the latter decades of the 20th century were some kind of golden age that has now passed.

“Working in music journalism is kind of unrecognisable even when I think of how things looked twelve months ago, five years ago, and when I started ten years ago”, said Cochrane. “But I think there will always be a desire in people to read great original content – and that is still out there if you look for it”.

Rejecting the idea that music journalism was better in the olden days, Savage argued: “I just read so much stuff that I love today. People talk about Lester Bangs a lot, as representing some kind of golden age, but if you’ve ever read Lester Bang’s journalism, it’s impenetrable. It’s not good writing in the way we understand it. Yes it’s impressionistic and arty, but it’s mostly nonsense, and I think of people like Tom Ewing, Dorian Lynskey, all of these guys here, Jude Rogers, Eve Barlow, people who when they write something I want to read it, no matter what they’re writing about”.

“Whether it’s an artist I care about, or an issue I care about, they generally turn out really fascinating, insightful articles about music and about the music industry”, he continued. “That’s why I’m optimistic about it and not just in print”.

Snapes added: “Ten, twelve years ago people used to say that blogging was going to destroy music journalism because it would democratise it and everybody would be able to do it. I don’t think that’s the way it has democratised it”. Which is to say, we’re not living in a world where everyone’s a music journalist, but the community of people who do write about music on a regular basis is a much more diverse bunch.

“I don’t think there was a golden age of music journalism, when you look back”, Snapes continued, picking up on Savage’s point. “I specifically had an experience with a Lester Bangs piece when Lou Reed died. I had to pull something out of the archives for NME and I found this Lester Bangs piece about him, and there were good parts in it, but it was full of rampant transphobia. The amount of good stuff that’s from that supposed golden age is really minimal”.

“When you look at music writing now, we’re seeing so much more writing from people of colour, people of different gender identities, different racial backgrounds”, she went on. “I think that is why we’re in a golden age of music journalism now”.

Though that’s not to say that the music media doesn’t have similar diversity issues to the music industry. There are a greater variety of voices than in the past, but the music journalist community could and should still be more diverse. Which brought the journalist panel to back where they started – in part one of our report – the fact that most music writers launch their careers by working for free.

“A lot of people can’t afford to”, Snapes said. “I have seen things to counteract that – there are great organisations that are helping to sponsor people if they can prove they are a great writer. But there is a long way to go still, and I think it’s going to get harder for people from impoverished backgrounds. That’s a shame for the entire music journalism industry, because we’re not going to hear such diversity of opinion”.

Though Savage offered some optimism, arguing that new channels are offering new opportunities to budding young journalists, and allowing a rise in video journalism. Referencing the grime scene, he said: “That whole generation live on YouTube and are making videos on YouTube. I think that that is where the next generation of journalists will come from”.

And that’s the next challenge for traditional music media too, Savage concluded, ie creating different kinds of content that work on the channels where younger consumers hang out. And that increasingly means audio and video content.

It’s a challenge Savage’s employer, the BBC, is trying to meet. “It’s strange” he said, “we’re a broadcast company. We’re in the business of making television and film, but we really have to think about how we engage in video on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, because that is not our natural home. The audiences don’t come to us anymore, we have to go to them. Our journalism is having to be refocused”.

“When I do a written piece now, I quite often do a film version that doesn’t go on the BBC website but lives on Facebook or another social channel”, he added. “I suspect that the next generation of great music journalists will probably start in that sphere”.

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