CMJ: Curmudgeons of Music Journalism

A panel of rock critics talk about negativity in music reviewing

Once a year, CMJ (College Music Journal) puts on a weeklong “Music Marathon” in NYC. It’s sort of an urban version of a music festival, where venues throughout the city host shows geared toward the hordes photographers, musicians, writers, DJs, and industry professionals who come from all over the world to attend. A CMJ pass gives one access to tons of shows (depending on capacity and popularity) and some other cool stuff like mentor sessions, movie screenings, and panel discussions. Last Wednesday, I checked out a panel called “Curmudgeons of Rock,” with this tagline: “Is the music press too soft today? Not according to these ruthless critics who never mince words or beg to win favor.” The panelists were: Charles Aaron of Spin; Nitsuh Abebe of New York magazine; Sean Fennessey of eMusic (but who talked most energetically about writing for; Rob Harvilla of the Village Voice; and Maura Johnston, a freelance writer who spoke mainly about her days blogging. The discussion was led by CMJ’s Michael Tedder.

While all the issues covered had at least something to do with negativity in music reviews, the panel did discuss both broad and specific aspects of music journalism. Here are some of the more interesting topics that came up.

Movies/TV vs. Music

The relationship of music to movies and TV kept coming up unprompted. The panelists exuded unanimous frustration towards the mainstream popularity of movies and TV; their resentment was tied to an implicit assumption that the pop culture sphere is so saturated with these other mediums that music is unfairly overshadowed. The younger members of the panel pointed out that, since fans and potential fans can so easily find and access music on their own, the music critic has simply become less relevant than a TV or movie critic whose readers are more constrained by the schedules and costs of their medium. Fennessey observed that music doesn’t require the same level of investment (of either time or money) that movies do; in the time it takes to read an album review, one could preview the album first hand. This led to a polite debate among the panelists about whether the business of a music journalist is to act as a curator/gatekeeper or admit to being just another fallible voice (albeit a loud one) in the crowd of music fans.

Authority of Music Critics

Obviously, none of this matters if no one takes music critics seriously. Some of the panelists sought to dispel the idea that rampant blogging, message boarding, and tweeting are diluting music journalism. Fennessey argued that, right now, it is both easier to write and easier to be read, despite what people might think. His implication was that the reason the industry may seem more dispersed and difficult to enter into is because so many more writers are both trying and succeeding (leaving a greater absolute number of failed attempts and discouraging stories). It might be relatively easy for a weak article to get lost in a sea of similar stuff, but the panelists confidently asserted that a well-written or controversial piece still stands out and carries weight, especially if coming from a trustworthy source or brand. Johnston did point out that, in addition to journalists (who largely admire and respect each other) competing with one another for readers’ attention, some musicians’ “immediate but disconnected” Direct To Fan outreach is another form of content that might pass as music journalism, and distract readers from legitimate reporting. (She specifically cited Kanye West’s Twitter page.)

The News Model

Nitsuh Abebe explained that the industry is constrained by its reliance on a “news model” in which albums are reviewed solely with respect to their release date. In addition, he said, authors assume an authoritative stance that is, in fact, arguable and often regretted by them soon after. This is a good point. Sure, the release of Radiohead’s In Rainbows was news, because they disseminated the record in a particularly radical manner. But to pretend that any artist simply issuing a record is newsworthy in itself is as absurd as the companion assumption that any music journalist can speak with supreme clout about an untested record. Abebe sensibly suggested that this method hurts the field’s journalistic integrity. By saturating the intangible sphere of music criticism with rushed reviews, he argued, there’s no room for insightful reporting down the road.

Negative Reviews

Charles Aaron of Spin explained that negative reviews actually serve a specific purpose: to build readers’ trust. This concept makes sense, if readers recognize that negative reviews take mettle to write and publish. But, as a reader, it’s not always clear when and if they do. (Pitchfork has made negative reviews so standard that Fennessey was forced to defend his positive reviews, which were apparently contrarian.) Aaron explained that a magazine like Spin (presumably more so than a blog) faces backlash from promoters and bands for writing negative reviews, implying that a negative review takes the readers’ side against the industry heavyweights. He recalled comparing the singer of Kings of Leon to a dog eating peanut butter, and regretting it when they blew up and snubbed Spin. He also admitted that fear of a backlash from such a major band is the reason that Spin’s “takedown of Radiohead” amounted to a dull indictment of the band as slightly boring.

Speaking of print, Aaron explained that there is a known formula for attracting magazine readers. The cover should feature: a picture of a popular artists; a number (like a top 10 list); and “something salacious.” Aaron acknowledged that Spin deliberately courts “the airport crowd” (people who spontaneously pick up magazines off of newsstands), an audience not necessarily composed of music lovers—this despite these readers comprising a small percentage of the magazine’s total readership. These are the independent swing voters of magazine sales. Unfortunately, appealing to these independents undercuts the actual industry independents (like lesser known labels and artists.) This is why, Aaron said, we predominantly find “white people and rock bands on the cover.” He lamented that simply “doing what you’re doing makes you narrow,” suggesting that sticking to a traditional industry model created a void which Pitchfork quickly filled (leaving it and the “not music based” Rolling Stone as the two unrivaled forces in music journalism.)

The Next Big Thing

This is a big part of CMJ. Most of the bands that played last week came here to be heard by people that could give them that one review needed to push them into the stratosphere of recognition. On the other side, music journalists approach CMJ hoping to be the one to anoint the next kings of indie rock. Harvilla referred to this as “winning CMJ” and offered a succinct and apt appraisal: “It’s bullshit!” Abebe explained that finding the next big buzz band or artist is much more about the prophecy itself than actual musical merit. That’s why many artists that have attracted so much attention at CMJ in the past have often turned out to be epic disappointments when it’s time to follow up their understandably coveted positive review. Johnston remembered Black Kids being crowned indie kings without a full length album under their belts; they have yet to make good on their massive hype. Making rash prophesies certainly hurts music critics’ credibility. The problem is that if it is easier than ever to write and be read, there’s always someone who will inevitably make a slapdash prediction and get attention for it. It might as well be you.

The panel came to a close with a short question and answer session, which consisted mainly of audience members suggesting potential methods for improving the industry and the panelists shutting them down, cynically and methodically. One suggested that the future of music journalism might include a periodical with in-depth essays. This idea deflated when Abebe and Aaron reminded the room that the market is beholden to the release dates of records (however arbitrary) and that once the first flood of words is inevitably unleashed alongside the release of the record, future coverage is uncalled for. (I would like to see something like an annual review of reviews that would compare and evaluate the multiple appraisals in light of each other and the actual impact of the record.)

As the discussion was set to close, Abebe mused that these types of panels always tend to end similarly: with the seasoned vets complaining that they would love to change things for the better, but that that would simply be impossible. He confessed that this observation was all that he could offer, and that he had no encouraging solutions. Maybe the pervasiveness of negative record reviews has as much to do with the ubiquitous negative attitudes of the people who tend to write them as anything else. Maybe these attitudes are derived from an industry already built on negativity. But it’s not all negative. This CMJ will allow some lesser known writer to christen a similarly subterranean band the next big thing, which will inevitably lead to broader recognition of both. My guess: a band called Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. (Just throwing it out there.)

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Dylan DePice is a former CJR intern.