For anyone harbouring optimistic thoughts about the future of journalism, it’s been a sobering start to the year. BuzzFeed and HuffPost, leading players whose viral content and revenue-per-click strategy were once considered groundbreaking, laid off over 1,000 employees, while Condé Nast, the media conglomerate that owns publications such as GQ, Vanity Fair, Wired, and Pitchfork, announced that by the end of the year all its titles will be behind paywalls. For sites and publications lacking in cred or venture capital millions, things are even bleaker; newsrooms and staff positions across Europe and the US have been decimated, with 2018 being the worst year for media redundancies since 2009.
How did we get here? The Internet was supposed to be the dawn of a brave new world for publishing, the multimedia possibilities of the digital age allowing anyone, anywhere, to access a wealth of real-time information. Editors could no longer act as gatekeepers, nor could journalists afford to be cavalier when it came to facts – anything could now be checked in an instant. The advent of smartphones and social media accelerated such changes; blogs, bystanders, and so called “citizen journalists” could help break – and shape – stories in ways that were impossible for TV or print. If knowledge truly is power, then the web is one of humanity’s greatest inventions.
And yet in reality, it has proven to be more of a Pandora’s box. Nowhere is this more evident than in the world of cultural journalism, especially music. Legendary titles that used to shift upwards of 250 000 copies a week have either disappeared altogether or have been forced to re-invent themselves; the iconic NME became a free weekly in 2015before abandoning print altogether to focus on NME.com. The situation is just as grim for publications that were born on the web and never embraced print; with Google and Facebook tightening their grip on digital advertising revenue – by 2020 they’re expected to take more than half of global ad spending – the likes of The Quietus and Drowned In Sound struggle to survive, frequently relying on supporter donations and funding drives.
Those who’ve managed to buck this trend have reassessed what “success” might look like and adjusted expectations – many music magazines are now specialist, highly focused publications, and have cut their cloth accordingly. Smaller circulations mean lower overheads, smaller teams, and a commitment to quality writing and core specialisms – things that make them indispensable. The likes of The Wire, Mojo, and Metal Hammer continue to have a loyal readership, while sites such as Mixmag have leveraged social media platforms and YouTube to reach a digital global audience of millions.
The last few years have also seen what’s left of the music press indulge in sporadic bouts of soul-searching and navel-gazing. Invariably, discussions that swirl around this topic boil down to one, key question: in the digital age, is music journalism still relevant? Many ordinary fans argue that it is not. Most music is now merely a click away, so why bother reading about whether something is good when you could just, y’know, listen for yourself? The need for guidance before dropping some hard earned cash on actual records (that you otherwise might never get to hear) has long since disappeared, as has the traditional role of the critic as tastemaker/gatekeeper; no surprise then, that a general sense of apathy abounds.
“Music journalism is a bit shit these days” is a common take. “Do we still need critics?” is another. And just as the Internet has flattened culture itself, so it has blurred the boundaries between traditional (and, some might say, qualified) music writers and anyone with a blog and an opinion; the sheer volume of people passing judgement online about music nowadays is staggering. Indeed, many point to the proliferation of music sites in the mid to late 2000’s – and the army of unpaid contributors that allowed them to post hundreds of pieces every week – as the moment when the general public started to lose interest in what critics had to say.
Part of the problem resides in perceived value; as music itself has become just another free – and readily available – commodity, the number of people willing to pay to read informed debate around it has also dwindled. Viewed like this, the difficulties facing music journalism are the same faced by music in general: ensuring content creators are adequately remunerated for their efforts, and gaining attention in an increasingly fractured culture. Yet clearly there is still some demand for intelligent, thoughtful writing. Therefore, the question becomes: what should music journalism look like in 2019, and what does it need to do to survive?
It has never been easier to make, and release, music. SoundCloud, Bandcamp, Spotify, YouTube…a sea of sounds, representing every conceivable style and genre, washes across the Internet every day. Navigating this vast ocean – in modern parlance, “discovery” – is no easy task; one could spend days clicking on links and following hashtags, and find nothing but mediocrity. It helps then to have someone making sense of it all, to do the hard work of finding the worthy, the interesting, and the creative – essentially, to elevate that which does not deserve to languish unloved and unheard in the shadows.
But it’s not just in the realm of new music that such a role is important. As this somewhat pessimistic piece points out: “critics rate and recommend, but most of all, they critique, which is something very different.” The value of great music journalism is thus the same as it ever was – as a colleague put it: “It helps contextualise and analyse work that deserves or requires it. Since we don’t usually ask (or even want) art to have an explicit political or cultural message, critics can bridge that gap. Who made this? What are their concerns? How does their identity resonate with our culture? Whose art or philosophy helps us understand theirs?”
The formats may change – are changing – but music needs a vibrant, diverse, independent press to champion what the mainstream won’t – or can’t –, to be honest and fearless in its approach, and act as a catalyst for debate. Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll be running a series of articles looking at the above issues in depth, drawing on the experience of writers, editors, and websites from across Europe. Journalists’ role as curators, Big Data, AI, and algorithms, and sustainable business models are just some of the topics we’ll explore, all of which are, of course, relevant to Europavox.com and our ongoing project. We believe music journalism continues to be important, and are invested in its survival; we hope you are too.