Blitzkrieg Pop: Is music journalism dead?

Interior illustration from ‘EXNIHILO’ — screenshot from ‘BURN’

In 2014, Scotland’s longest-running arts magazine The List became a free paper. This was something of a bittersweet moment for me. When it happened, I was full-time arts journalist, but about to give up on the profession.

As a former editor and writer for The Skinny, a free paper rivalling The List which I helped set up in 2005, there was a certain amount of schadenfreude involved, on hearing that news. An old ‘enemy’ had fallen.

But in all honesty, I couldn’t feel anything but disappointed to see The List given away for free. What The List’s no doubt painful decision really reflected was the home strait of a race to the bottom for publishing and journalism.

At the time the paper I worked for was launched, we wanted nothing more than to take The List down. We openly competed with them. Targeted the same markets they relied on to bolster their income with ad revenue, and attempted to eclipse their free listings service with our own. In our opinion they were boring, old and elitist, while we were young, fresh and democratic.

Our paper’s writers, most of us in our early twenties at the time, had a very Utopian notion of what the ‘free paper’ market represented. To us, ‘taking out’ The List would mean removing perceived ‘gatekeepers’ — and democratising arts coverage in Scotland by offering an equal amount to small, independent artists and promoters as was given to the big names.

We did this with a financial model based on ad revenue, and with articles written by, for the most part, unpaid young journalists who were gaining what we saw as ‘valuable experience’, although in a sometimes anarchic, punk-y, DIY setting.

By 2014, it was increasingly apparent that The List was doomed as a profitable paper. That model of journalism, with teams for different areas and topics, and little reliance on freelancers, was simply no longer sustainable.

After a couple of extended periods working for The Skinny as a Staff Writer and Editor, I was less and less convinced that we were the good guys. It wasn’t so much that our model undercut The List’s— it made it irrelevant. We were giving away for free the ‘product’ for which they had been charging. Whether our product was inferior didn’t matter. We had broken down barriers. We were participatory. Anyone could, potentially, write for our mob. We considered ourselves to be ‘citizen journalists’.

And yet… different kinds of ‘advertorial’ had inevitably crept in to our bag of sales tricks over the years, along with any number of strategic partnerships with brands, venues, labels, funders and investors. This meant we were no longer the ‘truly independent’ cultural journalists we had set out to be — at least, not so far as I was concerned. Increasingly, I realised that the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ — the hip free paper kids and the professional journalists — was simply training and experience, not ideology.

What’s more, you could argue that our idealistic free paper eventually became staid, just as The List had been. We certainly had our ‘favourite’ bands and artists, just like any other paper established for nearly a decade would have. We became the establishment we had wanted to replace. Perhaps the only difference we had made, truly, was being part of the locust-like cultural swarm which had eaten away the foundations of professional journalism.

I quit the same year. It took me far too long to realise that if I wanted to make any real money, I would have to either write about very mainstream artists and art in order to draw a pay cheque from a large media organisation of some kind; or simply change sides, and write press releases and PR materials for artists with intact budgets.

If I am honest, I still miss the kind of specialised, niche-interest journalism I used to write. I’m still envious of those older, more experienced writers who at least got to experience training for, and being paid to do, arts journalism before the bottom fell out of criticism. Nothing is stopping me writing this kind of journalism now — but nobody is going to pay me to do it either.

As a committed fanboy of comics, hip-hop, electronic music and other esoteric fields, the chance to speak to the likes of Alan Moore, Andrew Weatherall and Ales Kot was more than worth the effort, even when such opportunities were unpaid, or poorly paid. But there was no way to continue writing about subjects for which I had some passion, and also pay the rent.

This is the problem with the narrowing of the field — it means the things we cover are safer, blander, more mainstream. The death of music journalism is the triumph of Ed Sheeran.

“Just a reflection of a reflection of a reflection…” — Arcade Fire

It isn’t that there are no jobs for critics — just that there are so few, that to be a critic is to dedicate your life to it, regardless of pay and standards. What’s more, you will be expected to comment on what is popular. Journalism may not be ‘dying’ but it is undergoing ‘mainstreamification’.

The reality on a local level is that there are fewer and fewer paid gigs for arts journalists in Scotland. Increasingly, arts journalism is written by underpaid or unpaid freelancers. Losing The List as a paid-for title massively exacerbated this.

The great arts journalists I know are either lone figures clinging determinedly on to the skeletal foundations of the print press, or self-made bloggers for whom the idea of ‘work life balance’ is a hilarious joke. More and more often they are both. I’ve tried both methods, and neither worked for me. As a career, it is unsustainable. A Quixotic dream bound to break more people than it ‘makes’.

I fear for those who want to make arts journalism a career — they will find themselves shuttling from unpaid position to unpaid position to gain experience, only to find that the only way to get a paid job, full time, is to move to London or Manchester.

Even if they choose to follow that dream, they may well find that in order to stay in print, they must review the kinds of culture which appeal to the mainstream, or which are made only by producers and artists with good connections to funding, investment, and the industry at large.

Nobody is being incentivised to find new and exciting culture any more. We only pay people to talk about what is already popular, or likely to become so.

‘Mainstreamification’ is not the death of journalism, but evidence of its slow throttling by free market economics, the rise of postcapitalist internet distribution methods, and the increasingly blurred lines between news, criticism, opinion, advertorial and sponsored ‘messaging’.

It is no mistake that former journalists such as myself work in marketing — our integrity and taste, our ability to be critics, is only useful now as a metric in an advertising campaign. We have been reduced to meagre profiteers. Shills and hawkers.

We have seen the last John Peel. The last Mark Fisher. The last Simon Reynolds. The last Miranda Sawyer or Caitlin Moran. When I see a formerly credible journalist like Kitty Empire on a 90s nostalgia clips show, recounting her feelings on the cultural weight of 2 Unlimited or somesuch, it genuinely breaks my heart — it’s like seeing a rare animal in a zoo, shivering and miserable, a few ragged breaths from extinction.

Not to mention what they did to the NME, a free paper too now, and a shell of its former radical self, completely in thrall to corporate pop and its shareholders — a ghost of the title that gave so many journalists their start in the 70s, 80s and 90s. A proud tradition reduced to… well, this. Given away free next to the Tesco service robots.

I realise now I was extremely lucky to have had the chance at a fully-paid position at all, one which lasted a year or more, even if it led nowhere, and involved me living in relative poverty. These experiences are getting rarer now, despite the best efforts of free papers like The Skinny, who it goes without saying do their best to behave with integrity, and continue the struggle to produce credible, readable, intelligent journalism in the face of tough economic challenges.

Debates over the decline of journalistic standards are pretty self-explanatory — unpaid reviewers and journalists are simply not as likely to be heavily invested in ethics, professionalism and notions of balance and fairness. Why should they be, unless journalism is their JOB, not a hobby or a passion?

Which is not to say freelancers have less integrity — just that they are unarguably less incentivised, because their pay is lower, and their job security is nonexistent.

Let me give you one more example, although I won’t name my source — I was speaking to a colleague and fellow freelancer who started as a print news journalist in the 1980s, on a healthy salary. He now works as a self-employed journalist, pitching constantly and struggling to earn a regular cheque. His earnings have nearly halved during his career. But he is a trained journalist — one of the old school, with integrity and grit, who cut his teeth in real newsrooms. He doesn’t know how to be anything else. It makes me sad to see my friend as one of a dying breed.

That said, being a wily and underpaid freelancer does seem like the future, not just for journalists, but also nurses, teachers and other, arguably more vital professions. The zero hour contract is king in the land of those whose job does not immediately relate to sales or profit, or to providing services to the wealthy. This is the worm in the apple of free market economics.

Perhaps it is as the writer and futurist Bruce Sterling said in 2013, comparing the loss of poetry as a vital part of public life to the disappearing role of the professional journalist:

“If you’d asked John Keats if there was any ‘truth’ in the journalism of his day, Keats would have said no, that all the newspapers were organs of party faction, and that the ‘truth,’ and also the beauty, was in poetry. Our own society doesn’t have ‘Poetry.’ Poetry is already gone. We don’t miss it any more than those un-novelled societies miss novels. That’s a major cultural loss we’ve already experienced through media transition…
“We do still have oodles of poems around of course, but it’s all of that unpaid-enthusiast, unsorted, so-what variety. We no longer rejoice in that huge and ponderous cultural institution of Capital-P Poetry, where the great poets were vastly read and hugely honored, even by people who didn’t speak their language…
“‘Poetry’ is certainly much, much older and more ‘needed’ than ‘Journalism.’ Poetry is probably pre-human in its origin, while Journalism is only three or four centuries old. So I think it’s unwise of us to conclude that there’s some metaphysical need within society for an institution like Journalism to exist.”

Here’s the crux, for me as a thirty-something ‘creative’ with no regular employment, few prospects but what I can grab for myself, and zero hope of ever finding job security without compromising my ideals: Everything I love, enjoy and know how to do is effectively worthless now. That is what the world is telling me.

I’ve made three albums in the past five years, written hundreds of thousands of words of journalism and fiction, and it has barely kept the wolf from the door. I can barely scrape a profit from any of it. I battle daily with the implicit value judgment this places on my work. If we lived in a meritocracy, as Theresa May believes, the answer would be that my work is not good enough. That I am not good enough.

But realistically speaking? The bottom has dropped out of the markets. All of them. I have no market in which to prove my worth except the markets I make for myself. I am my own critic, my own client, my own fan, my own manager, label, artist, designer. I am ‘creative’ only insofar as I can be an entrepeneur. This is the triumph of the free market writ large. Everything is commerce, everything’s for sale.

There are fewer and fewer places left to put any of this stuff — places where it will be read, experienced, enjoyed; where it will matter. That’s why I’m writing opinion pieces for free on Medium, in the hopes of at least connecting, on some level, with another human being.

That’s why we’re all here, right?

Listen, I hate to be the one who has to ask, but… what’s next?

  • Originally written in November 2014