Every October, New York City welcomes a circus of music industry professionals for a week of conferences, showcases, and parties called the CMJ Music Marathon. The event opened with a panel on music journalism.
“Music journalism has exploded into a million tiny pieces,” host Benjamin Wagner, senior vice president at MTV News, said in his introduction. “The playing field is level. It’s an exciting but also terrifying time for big media.”
The program notes promised attendees that they would “find out how the top-level journalists fight the clutter to hit targets and find impact.” But top-level journalists and legacy brands, it was soon clear, struggle with as much chaos as anyone else. Maura Johnston’s namecard listed her job title as “freelance”—she left the position of music editor at the Village Voice barely a month ago
Caryn Ganz, the editor in chief of 27-year-old legacy music magazine SPIN described a time when she was holding the magazine’s website together single-handedly by writing all of its content in 15-hour days. SPIN was acquired by Buzzmedia in July, and Ganz was clearly delighted that there was now cash to hire a news editor and a social media editor. “What is news shifts every second,” she said, describing the pressures of keeping up. “Every second is a deadline.”
Meanwhile, Jessica Robertson, the director of content for MTV Hive (which was established last year to try and reorient MTV as a music brand, rather than merely the home of trash TV like Jersey Shore and Teen Mom), described a 90-10 split between time she dedicates to business and the time she dedicates to content. “This is the content business, rather than our business being content,” Robertson said, “but I live for that 10 percent.”
Only Bill Werde, the editorial director of Billboard, bragged about his job’s focus on hits. “They’re paying me to do a job. That job is to up traffic and ultimately up revenue,” he said. “I don’t feel much anxiety about that.”
Three big concerns peppered the hourlong conversation: brand ownership, aggregation, and the way that artists are now using social media to bypass the media entirely and go straight to fans.
On the question of ownership, Johnston spoke a little about how parent companies can affect editorial strategy. When she was founding editor of the Gawker-owned Idolator blog from 2006 to 2009, Johnston was encouraged to embrace a policy of speed and sensationalism over accuracy. “Nick Denton was always like, run it, go, you can correct it later,” she said. Ganz noted that running a false story means you can run a correction later, thus doubling your hits.
“Nick Denton is the enemy of truth,” Werde added.
And the defender of truth? Billboard itself, according to Werde, who gave “truth” as a one-word answer to a request to sum up his brand’s main focus. He later spoke at length about how pleased he was to get Billboard’s story on a meat dress worn by Lady Gaga in the first page of links for a Google search for “meat dress” and about a recent editorial dilemma over whether to print leaked topless photos of the lead singer of a band called Paramore. They did, he said. It was the right decision, he said.
Johnston and Ganz defended “the deep dive,” as Johnston put it, which is what they see as the need for original, curious, longer-form content. This was especially important for smaller brands, Johnston said. “You’re going to be crushed in SEO if you’re not of a certain size,”Johnston said, referring to search engine optimization, or use of keywords to raise content higher in search results. “So it’s better to take the long view.”
All of the panelists noted a shift in the structure of music news whereby artists have started sharing their news directly with fans via Twitter, rather than through journalists. Ganz recommended that music journalists pay attention to musicians’ feeds. “What is this artist telling me right now, really candidly, without a filter?” she said.
When the floor was opened to questions, panelists received a stream of requests for career advice. Set criteria about the quality and pay you’re willing to accept before taking freelance work, said Werde. “Write for brands,” suggested Ganz, who explained that many brands are branching out into content and need savvy music writers to fill slots. “Be a one-percenter,” Werde chimed in again, quoting a guest lecture he’d been to by Columbia Journalism School Dean Nick Lemann, who said that when everyone is chasing the same story, turn away from it and find something completely new.
If the panelists’ own paths are any example, a career in music journalism can take many forms. Only one thing seemed constant: Right now, nothing is constant.
“The last 10 years have been interesting,” said Wagner, the host. “But the last five years have been truly, excellently fucked up.”