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 Pitchfork.com); 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.