Is Music Writing About to Die?

Is Music Writing About to Die?

Not really. I don't say that with any certainty mostly because trying to do this for a living is like constantly hovering over a body you found in the street, sticking your finger under the nostrils to see if that's breath from the body's lungs that you feel or just a passing wind.

But similar to just about everything else in existence right now, music writing and music-focused editorial content at large will most likely undergo serious substantial changes over the next two to three years, even as the steadily declining pre-pandemic fortunes of media continue their crash-and-burn trajectory.

Minus arts coverage in major newspapers, what's left of the alt-weeklies, and publications with the form baked into their reason for existing, music criticism—especially album reviews—will continue to have less of a presence in the world of digital publishing. This is a shift that's been taking place for years now, but in regards to album reviews it’s became more explicitly pronounced in the last several weeks. Pitchfork—inarguably the most visible publication to place album reviews across any genre for at least a decade, to the point where past efforts to undercut their share of this editorial market failed silently and miserably—began occasionally ceding its top-album-slot review mid-day to track reviews from blockbuster-sized artists like Kanye West and Sufjan Stevens.

arca album so bad that pitchfork decided to put a track review in the top album slot instead 30, 2020

This emerging practice shows good business sense. Anyone who's worked in media the last three years will tell you that MAGA-era Kanye still drives traffic more than anything else around. And an artist like Arca, who's already well established in the music and art worlds and is constantly cresting the dividing line that separates mainstream and underground culture, will be fine regardless of the sudden demotion.

But for rising artists or boutique reissue labels lucky enough to have their releases nab the top slot (not to mention the teams behind those artists and releases who look to profit from any gains, as well as the critics themselves hoping for the bump in work that the visibility of penning a headline review can result in), the prospect of dropping from pole position mid-day in favor of a marquee artist has to be at least slightly unnerving.

For Pitchfork, the de-emphasis of album reviews in this manner was inevitable—an acknowledgment, maybe, that the speed that covering music online requires these days doesn’t allow for lingering on just a few albums in the site’s prime real estate all day. The decision likely has little-to-nothing to do with the once-independent publication having been acquired by Condé Nast, and it certainly has nothing to do with COVID-19. Neither does the continued decline of the artist profile across the music writing industry at large—a perpetually downward trend encouraged by the use of social media as a way to control career messaging, as well as the media's traffic-driven turn towards celebrity content to the point where celebrities have increasingly been in total control of the content.

But as the pandemic rages on and assuredly becomes a feature of everyday life as common as mass shootings and hate crimes, there is close to no chance that the in-person artist profile will ever meaningfully return as a promotional tool. (It's certainly hard to imagine any musician willing to risk contracting COVID-19 by way of letting a music writer figuratively crawl up their ass for even one hour.)

While this might be seen as a loss from those who love reading sentences like "In a plucky fashion, the 25-year-old bassist chomped on her chicken sandwich while pondering my question thoughtfully," the potential death of the in-person profile might encourage greater creativity in coverage from an industry that's increasingly been forced to churn color out of being one participant in a revolving door of conference room or coffee shop Q&A's.

And when it comes to editorial coverage, creativity will be an increasing necessity in the months and years to come. Live performances are likely not to return in any meaningful fashion until fall of 2021—an estimation that felt generous even three months ago, before it became clear that too many Americans would rather die on a ventilator than be denied the right to bring their handgun to Chili's. Music festivals and their collective corporate-driven culture are most likely dead as a fucking doornail, to the point where there's a grim and unintentional hilarity every time a big fest follows a 2020 cancellation with an announcement regarding their next installment.

Local live coverage often factors strongly in the coverage plans of the U.S.' remaining alt-weeklies, and when I spoke to City Pages editor Keith Harris for Todd Burns' Music Journalism Insider back in March, he confirmed that his desk had already switched to running livestream listings in place of the usual concert listings. (I'm suspicious and at worst actively pessimistic—surprise—about livestreaming as a financially viable replacement for live performances, and you can read some of my thoughts on that here and here.)

Editorially, festival coverage was already approaching the early stages of extinction and was increasingly becoming a perk afforded to writers and editors who wanted to attend. Since there are no festivals to provide video or cross-promotional deals with, though, a sizable chunk of music media's engagement is all but completely gone.

As the economy worsens and various parts of the world engage in a cycle of re-openings and re-closings, there has been and will likely be more coverage dedicated to the perpetually failing financial health of the modern-day musician, especially when it comes to paltry streaming royalties. (And the situation for musicians will assuredly get worse, as TV and film productions continue to lie dormant and close off the all-important sync revenue stream.) There will also be more detailed reporting on the concert industry's attempts to return in some meaningful fashion. (Who will be the first music writer to attend a maskless Chase Rice concert or socially-undistant DaBaby club appearance for a byline's sake? Is there even a chance in hell they will be paid competently for it?)

Of course, we arrive at a bastardized version of the United States' favorite question when it comes to funding anything: Who's gonna pay for all of this content? Digital advertisers have long included blocklists of certain keywords and topics in terms of where their ad dollars are reflected on publications, and now that most of the world is finally talking about anti-Black racism as if it's some sort of revelation, the subsequent coverage from publications is now being demonetized alongside previously demonetized COVID-19 coverage.

More music writing, whether by choice or forced by widespread change in societal opinion, is engaging with these "hard topics" than it was, let's say five or seven years ago—but still, music writing gets conflated with the type of experiential lifestyle writing ("We Gave a Support-Slot Indie Band a Disposable Camera at Bonnaroo and Here's the Proof") that's infinitely more ad-friendly. How long will companies be able to hold out for more "fun" content to advertise alongside when there's not much fun to be had in modern life? Will those companies even exist when (if) the "fun" content is able to exist again?

It seems that MTV has laid off their editorial operations—the first time this has ever happened, I’m told, definitely specific to COVID-19 and not because they’ve been one of the worst media companies to work for 15 years runningApril 29, 2020

If this all sounds dark, remember: none of this is new in the slightest. Pre-pandemic, there was already word that music coverage at culture-focused publications was being winnowed down to the type of large-font celebrity coverage that assumedly drives traffic and ad sales. Freelance budgets and the breadth of coverage they encourage have steadily declined for years, and publications of varying sizes were already beginning to discontinue their written content or going on hiatus from publishing long before we were all engaging with hand-washing memes.

Most notably, The FADER's print edition—the cover variants of which have been considered a sign of success for mid-tier artists about to make the next big leap in their careers—has been M.I.A. without much of an explanation to most of the industry's power players or the publication's readers for a whopping seven months. (Full disclosure: I was in charge of hastily editing and assembling the remnants of what might well be The FADER's final print issue, after all of this happened.)

Media companies addressing their histories of deep-seated racism and inequality 13, 2020

Speaking of: Since the pandemic began, there have been much-needed public reckonings for publications like Pitchfork, Complex, Refinery 29, Okayplayer, and Remezcla, which have highlighted the structural inequalities and cultures of abusive workplace behavior that were previously whispered about and openly tolerated. As the notion of full-time employment in media increasingly becomes a thing of the past, there will doubtless be more open revolts from current and former staff members of music and culture publications in the months (and, likely, years) to come.

Whether the necessary institutional bloodletting will result in real and actual change remains to be seen. Arguably—and, I want to be clear, this is not to dissuade anyone out there from continuing to expose misconduct and push for changes within their publications, because it is all terribly necessary work that the people who came before you should've pushed for years before your time—it might actually be too late for any of these publications (or, more accurately, the companies that are owning and mismanaging them) to make meaningful steps towards reforming their culture.

i keep thinking about how these ceos/founders/chiefs made so much money, generated so much trauma, and are now leaving behind extraordinarily huge messes for someone else to deal withJune 11, 2020

I fear that, when companies are letting go of high-ranking executives accused of abuse and misconduct, it's more because cost-cutting is particularly alluring in advance of a Depression-level economic collapse and not because some rich dickhead suddenly grew a conscience overnight. (Just look at the recent advertiser exodus from Facebook, which has been situated as some valorous boycott against hate speech and disinformation instead of an expected cost-cutting measure to keep said companies afloat.)

I also fear that buzzword-friendly phrases like "diversity panels" and "more inclusive hiring practices" are bandaids on gaping wounds. These occasionally well-meaning initiatives can set up those hired or promoted to fix past structural mistakes for failure when money gets tighter, more advertisers jump ship, the rate of attrition from once-powerful media companies eventually guts staffs, and—you have to be prepared for this—destroys the publications themselves entirely.

Back in the halcyon days of February, Media Twitter was lit like a candle after the publication of Jay McInerney's (wait, where are you going?) review of former Details editor Dan Peres' addiction memoir As Needed For Pain. There was marveling at the levels of excess laid at the feet of white men like Peres, who'd enjoyed considerable largesse at Condé Nast while in the throes of addiction—as well as rage that the decrepit state of media is such because of a legacy that's held abuse, addiction, misogyny, racism, and anti-queerness as virtues for nearly its entire existence.

The truth is that anyone working in media is, regardless of any victories against bigotry and misconduct made upon the way, working off of the same shitty playbook that's been handed down to them. As music writing shape-shifts into a new guise in this next era, it might be more instructive to stop thinking about how to put out the house that's on fire and start thinking about what we're going to build when the embers have stopped glowing.

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Jamie Larson