How should a music critic be?

Another panel discussion won’t figure out the future of culture reporting. It’s up to you. 

An essay with the above title means most of the people reading this are music critics. Colleagues: I am not asking you. If you knew, we would be celebrating in a Gatsby mansion, our pensions secure and our champagne French, with our friend Bill Murray bringing over more ice.

I work for a newspaper-cum-website and in my office, as in many, we’ve become focused on engagement: on talking to readers, on getting them to talk back. On understanding what they want. When journalism is digital, instant, accessible, it means the old boundaries of authoritative distance and the appearance of factual finality — the hallmarks of print—are fading like last year’s ink. Journalism is becoming a conversation, most loudly in the realm of culture writing: readers are voting with their clicks, their tweets, their shares, their comments.

On good days, readers absorb my prose and relate a shared experience that deepens the conversation. On bad ones, they yell at each other, or into a hungry void that echoes back at them, calling for more, more! The most remarkable thing about the Internet is that it has made it easier than ever to talk about ourselves instead of to each other. Or we don’t say anything at all, just click in and click out, a headline just momentary neural static, one tweet among thousands.

What We’ve Lost

Once, web traffic revolved around building a readership, with the truly devoted signing up for RSS, a measure blogs would display proudly. Rawkblog, the music site I founded in 2005, peaked at over 1,500 RSS readers; many tech sites, full of people savvy enough to swap to Feedly after the death of Google Reader (R.I.P., you handsome stallion), still reach tens of thousands that way. But many of us are just Poohsticks in a stream now, bumping into this article and that on Facebook and Twitter, our chosen follower lists—streams that should mirror the never-miss-a-post concept of RSS—fogged by algorithms designed to boost the profits of public companies drooled over by Wall Street analysts. Elsewhere, Tumblr, which offered a brief renaissance of blog-tool excitement and music writing vitality, has lost its music magic.

Music, more than any other kind of cultural writing, has been undercut and made more competitive by the Internet. The most popular figures on social media are musicians; the most popular videos on YouTube, music; photos of one’s favorite artist are just a Google image search away. Everything is at our fingertips, on demand. Access? Curation? What’s that?

Consider an issue of SPIN in 1995, or Rolling Stone in 1975: for people interested in knowing which new albums were good, especially the odd, hard-to-find kind that were usually the best, short of spending a few hundred dollars a month on blind mail-orders, such magazine coverage was the only game in town. (My high school skipped the zine era, though we did have one kid who was really into the Velvet Underground.)

For a while, Pitchfork and its forgotten brethren—Junk Media, Cokemachineglow, Tiny Mix Tapes—were an online extension of this obscure, advance-notice wisdom, committees of cool older brothers (and they were generally brothers) who could tell you to seek out the Dismemberment Plan or Aphex Twin. Not any more. Now it takes longer to read a Pitchfork Best New Track blurb than it does to press play on the accompanying SoundCloud link (on your phone!) and make a snap judgement if it’s worth your time. Who knows your taste better than you?

Webzines played by the old media rules, they just covered different albums: as goofy as the reviews got, they were still reviews, consumer directives to buy or not buy. They were written often assuming you had not heard the music first. That changed, around the rise of bittorrent and the sudden simplicity of album leaks. Blogs were initially exciting not for their taste-making prowess, but because (sorry, everybody) they were an untraceable grey-market way to download pirated MP3s pulled from OiNK and re-posted via YouSendIt and cheap file hosts. Journalists counting on a three-month lead time looked down to see their pants around their ankles.

Blogs were supposed to kill the magazines, but tech turned on them as well: statistically, piracy remains an issue, but any realistic cultural impact it has was crushed years ago by YouTube, SoundCloud, Spotify and other free and legal streaming services. Along the way, labels have locked down leaks, but any competitive advantage hasn’t returned to its old journalistic haunts: artists from Radiohead to Beyonce spring their albums on the whole world now, and many who might’ve once looked to critics for guidance have the tools to be their own tastemakers.

Here, If You Want Me

And yet, we still write. And you still read. But why? For what? Our purpose is different now. Music journalism must change. But the shape it should take, today or six months or five years from now, is unclear, smoke filling a spinning vessel. Should we be curating SoundCloud singles? Looking for political messages in summer hits? Should music writing be a 5,000-word profile or a 50-caption photo gallery? A series of smart tweets? A thinkpiece? A thumbs up? A star rating? A personal essay? An anniversary retrospective? A blog post about drugs? A 10.0?

In his recap of a panel at the Primavera Sound festival, Huffington Post’s Theo Bark addressed a few of the issues we’re facing, from faltering access (citing Coachella’s corral-sized press tent) to reader attention spans (as measured by the almighty pageview) to the strength and nature of critical authority. I’ve been on a few of these panels myself; in 2010, sitting alongside Ryan Schreiber and Sean Adams, among others, at Manchester’s In the City, I advised bloggers to seek out their own voice—to use the honesty of their taste and words as a way to connect with a readership.

There’s power in that. But in the spirit of not having five different conversations, this one is about the state and future of writing as a profession, which is currently a medium supported by 1) advertising money 2) subscribers 3) writers’ rent-subsidizing parents. Those willing to write, and create, for the sheer pleasure of it will continue doing whatever they want, which is why sites such as One Week // One Band and Cokemachineglow remain the most interesting reads on the web.

Those willing to write for free, however, also clutter up the SEO plate—and those trying to get paid $40 for the 30th review this week of the Hundred Waters sophomore album are, too. Do we need 100 aggregations of every headline? 50 takes on every review? 25 thinkpieces on every inflammatory video? The web has opened up culture writing to a broader, necessary range of voices, and maybe having more options means expanding our overall readership—or maybe it means, in our aging niche, everyone gets by with less. I would never tell anyone to stop writing: our competition is YouTube (and Netflix), not each other, but sometimes, after a full week of stone-turning controversy essays, I wonder how many readers can smell the stench of desperation.

But I understand where it comes from. Advertising money is a slave to the market—remember trying to job-hunt or freelance in 2008?—and requires a lot of clicks: clicks that the authentic journey of unique, cutting-edge taste alone doesn’t generate. I like him just fine, but Pitchfork doesn’t cover Justin Timberlake these days because he is a visionary independent talent. Just as his sales do for RCA Records, his traffic success subsidizes less populist efforts.


The question becomes: as a music writer wanting to do good work while making a living, how do we define “good work,” as demand for the next Frank Sinatra Has a Cold—or four paragraphs about a new Frank Ocean album, for that matter—appears to dwindle? What do readers want, enough to come to in droves? Better, what do they need enough to pay for themselves, cutting out the ad-funding pageview-chasing that leads to the compromises and questionable business practices we’ve come to accept or ignore?

I do not have the answers. I believe there is value in the long hours of a Rolling Stone cover story, in an expert’s guide to schlock, in one person’s carefully chosen chronicle of cool new songs, in a silly viral video reblog. Even in festival street fashion. Is there one path ahead, or all of the above? Is a headline about Jack White and the Black Keys mildly feuding really the most interesting topic of the day, or should we be talking about the new Robyn EP through a feminist lens? Do you want to argue or listen or something else entirely?

Let us know when you figure it out. We’re all ears.

David Greenwald is the Oregonian’s music critic. He still uses bittorrent.