Can music journalism transcend its access problem?

A music writer’s job is easily romanticized: Imagine getting paid to listen to music, that most universal, immediately resonant, and cool-conferring of art forms. Sure, modern writers spend just as much time clearing their inbox as they do panning for aural gold, but that’s a small price to pay for hearing new records ahead of time, and going to shows for free. Advance far enough, and they might even get to hang out with the artists themselves, hopefully in the pages of a ritzy publication.

Currently, however, a glut of digital publications struggle for access to artists who retain a greater degree of control over their narrative, with the help of an expanding field of publicists. Escalating traffic demands have pushed music publications toward a celebrity-driven model, catering to readers by covering artists who are already popular and focusing the rest of their coverage on others with the potential to become famous. Access-driven music journalism is increasingly repetitive and less revelatory than it ever has been; outlets run competitive interviews and profiles carved from the same diminished portion of time and the same homogenous pool of artists. Criticism—bounded only by the writer’s intelligence and imagination—is nonetheless incentivized by the same celebrity model. Even intelligence and imagination have limited appeal when a reader has 33-plus Beyonce reviews to sift through. 

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A national decline in journalism jobs has coincided with a mass shuttering of music magazines. As Longreads’ Aaron Gilbreath chronicled, 15 years ago you could pick up Rolling Stone, Spin, Blender, Harp, Magnet, Paste, FILTER, The Big Takeover, Under the Radar, Alternative Press, The Source, Vibe, Wax Poetics, The Fader, Mass Appeal, XXL, URB, Decibel, Relix, No Depression, Down Beat, JazzTimes, The Wire, and NME, as well as industry publications Billboard and Variety, and alt-weeklies such as The Village Voice and Baltimore City Paper, which have historically served as local launch pads for many artists. The majority of these publications provided reported coverage of the industry and its artists, as well as criticism. Today, many of those publications have ceased publication entirely, switched to a digital-only format, or built a minimal web presence completely separate from the newscycle. 

Those publications released their coverage at regular intervals, bundled into a single package. Modern music journalism is characterized by abundant daily coverage. There’s a moderately diverse ecosystem of digital outlets, including (but not limited to) NPR Music, Bandcamp Daily, Vice’s Noisey channel, Stereogum, Consequence of Sound, FACT, The A.V. Club, The Quietus, The Line of Best Fit, Resident Advisor, The Passion of the Weiss, and Tiny Mixtapes. There’s renewed (if not selective) music coverage from web outlets of general interest publications such as GQ, Elle, Vogue, Vanity Fair, Esquire, Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Guardian. There’s still alt-weeklies such as The Chicago Reader and Indy Week fighting the good fight, though corporate ownership and prevailing market trends have vastly diminished their overall quantity. There’s ongoing dominance in the field from Pitchfork, now a Conde Nast-owned website, as well as The Fader and Rolling Stone, which has beefed up its web coverage as its page count has declined. 

But the splintering landscape makes it difficult for any sole publication to maintain the power that a magazine like SPIN or The Source may have had in the ’90s, when subscription numbers were robust across the board and there were fewer premium destinations to find out about music. “A Rolling Stone cover meant you had made it,” says Variety music editor Jem Aswad, who’s worked in the industry for more than 20 years at publications like Billboard and SPIN. “It means a lot [now], but it doesn’t mean as much as it once did, because exponentially fewer people are buying magazines, let alone going to newsstands to see that artist on the cover.” 

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In the early ’00s, the music-blog model cut a defiant counterpoint to more sclerotic mainstream publications, with artists blowing up because the bloggers were onto them first. Because the nature of the digital industry was so new and undefined, these blogs had no traditional access to musicians. Save for the occasional interview with a burgeoning artist, they were concerned more with pure taste, defined by critical perspective and song selection (as in, the decision to feature a song). Some of them, such as Pitchfork and Stereogum, gradually incorporated more traditional music journalism as their profile and credibility grew, while maintaining their discovery models. Now—as the music industry has shifted to a streaming model, with Spotify and Apple Music playlists driving millions of listeners to new artists—just about every music publication will tell you that traffic from stories about emerging artists has massively declined, and an overall abundance of new music means tastemaking has a much more delayed effect for the artists who do get covered. “Gorilla vs. Bear could get a band signed to Columbia,” says Shira Knishkowy, who for years oversaw publicity at Matador Records, referring to a popular music blog. “Now, I don’t get the sense that that’s the case.” (Knishkowy, now a Spotify communications manager, spoke with CJR during her tenure at Matador.)

What attracts far more attention is coverage of artists who are already successful, who readers already want to read about. A well-written review, essay, or explainer can drive a good amount of traffic; those 33 Beyonce reviews exist because, absent an interview, they’re the next best way to feature her on the site. But spending time with the artists themselves is still vital. Lengthier reported profiles attach your publication’s brand to an artist who fits its taste and audience, and create exclusive content that stands out in the publishing landscape. There’s always the hope, too, that the artist will share it on their own social media platforms and drive your publication’s audience numbers into the stratosphere. 

Popular artists will always be in demand, and it will always be someone’s job—if not the publicist, then a manager, or even a close friend—to say ‘no,’ whether that’s by phone or email. An artist’s availability is inversely related to their fame; even when available, they have to be a willing participant in sharing their story.

Today’s music journalists must heavily manage their expectations about who they’re going to hang out with, and for how long. Across the industry, celebrity journalism has waned, thanks to the emergence of the internet as a promotional tool—it is possible to share your story directly, without the mediation of a mildly-depressed writer—and the ongoing fragmentation and resource-depletion of publications across America. Thirty years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to find megastars such as Michael Jackson, Madonna, U2, and Prince giving time to publications such as Rolling Stone and SPIN. Their successors are more likely to share a revealing post to Instagram, or, like Frank Ocean or Solange, be interviewed by a friend instead. “The most famous have effectively dispensed with it, and the newly famous have grown up in an age where it was largely irrelevant,” Jon Caramanica wrote in an analysis of the celebrity profile’s demise for The New York Times. “Over time, the middle space may well be squeezed into nothingness.”

That middle space—where music journalists fight to gain access to artists who aren’t mega-famous, but aren’t desperate for whatever coverage they can find—is broadly mediated by a sprawling industry of publicists. Numbers by the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Survey show an estimated six publicists for every reporter, a ratio that certainly feels true in music, where the surge in released music has created a need for more publicists to help manage its promotion. “There’s way more indie publicists and competition than there was 10 or 15 years ago,” Judy Silverman, founder of publicity firm Motormouth Media, who represents artists such as Animal Collective, Flying Lotus, and Deerhunter, says. (“Indie” meaning publicists who don’t work in-house at a label.) Much as the internet has enabled a booming crop of musicians, so too has it lowered the bar of entry for aspiring publicists. “There’s a lot of publicists [who] literally just figured out how to do it in their bedrooms or helping their friend’s bands out,” Silverman says. 

That means there’s an unmanageable tonnage of material for journalists to sift through. Before the internet, journalists might have received from 50 to 100 promo CDs and packages a week; now, that’s a low-end estimate of press releases and promo streaming links received per day. (A certainty during my tenure at Pitchfork and SPIN, where my unread messages quickly swelled past the tens of thousands, and even at The Outline, which doesn’t regularly cover music.) 

“You don’t sleep; there’s always news happening,” Ken Weinstein, co-founder at Big Hassle, who got his industry start in the early ’90s, and represents artists including Jack White, The Hold Steady, and Robert Plant, says. “We’re sending out a lot more press releases; we’re churning and churning and churning that news.” Building a relationship with a few trusted names—publicists with industry experience who consistently represent great artists—is essential, in order to cut through the noise to obtain new records and possibly some interview time with the artists. But just because you’re friendly doesn’t mean you’re going to get more than that. 

In many regards, the negotiation between journalist and publicist to secure access is largely unchanged. An editor asks a publicist for four days with an artist; that gets bargained down to two. A writer pitches a profile; it turns out there’s only time for a Q&A over the phone. Popular artists will always be in demand, and it will always be someone’s job—if not the publicist, then a manager, or even a close friend—to say “no,” whether that’s by phone or email. An artist’s availability is inversely related to their fame; even when available, they have to be a willing participant in sharing their story. 

Today’s musicians aren’t short on press-cycle responsibilities: rehearsing, touring, visiting offices of streaming giants in order to angle for promotion, recording bumpers for Sirius, performing for licensing companies, doing phone interviews, photo shoots, and so on. “A lot of artists are sort of constantly producing content,” Jacob Daneman, senior national publicist at Pitch Perfect, who represents artists such as Mac DeMarco and Angel Olsen, says. (He clarifies he hates the word “content.”) “To a degree, they need the other time to kind of unwind and feel like a normal human being.” The barriers between music world and the regular world aren’t so cleanly drawn as they were in years’ past, leading to new promotional avenues. Sarah Mary Cunningham, senior director of publicity at Columbia Records, points to a rise in lifestyle coverage, and opportunities for her artists in fashion and sports media. (She mentions Lizzo, the R&B artist who recently scored digital cover stories at Allure and New York, as an example.) “Everything should be anchored in the music,” she says. “But there’s certainly a larger reach and more room to come up with stories and the pitch for things that might be a good fit.”

Such a busy equation makes it increasingly easy for music publications—the outlets most likely to approach the artist from a mildly combative perspective—to lose position in the race to produce original, engaging material. Ryan Dombal, who’s been the features editor at Pitchfork since 2011, says a day or two with the artist is standard for a reported profile, and says his publication will pare back to a Q&A if they’re not getting enough time. Pitchfork, as a result, runs a reported artist profile once every few months. “There’s less money now, so you have to scramble a bit more, and take what you can get, to a degree. At the same time, you don’t want to devalue what we’re doing,” he says. 

In previous eras, days and days of less pressured access were the norm, and they appeared across the music press with more regularity. Barry Walters, a veteran music journalist who contributed to SPIN and The Village Voice in the ’80s and later worked at Rolling Stone as a senior writer, notes that obtaining access was also easier when there weren’t so many competitors. “Because there were fewer outlets, it meant that the outlets that existed had more time with each act,” he says. “Things could evolve naturally, and you could get a more regular conversation out of the people.” 

I could invest ten hours and do a long feature on something that no one has ever heard of, but five people will read it. And then is my boss going to be like, ‘Yo, what the fuck are you doing?’

All of this, along with changing distribution models in journalism, means that sometimes publications all put out the same story at the same time, built around the same press opportunity. On November 2, 2016, Pitchfork, Stereogum, Entertainment Weekly, and Noisey all published interviews with the Canadian rock band Japandroids—each of them conducted at a bar or cafe—within a few hours of each other, a phenomenon you’ll find again and again if you look for it. “It is frustrating to see the exact same artists get the exact same types of coverage over and over and over, and so many amazing, beautiful mid-level to developing artists get absolutely nothing in the wake of that,” Silverman says. “I think we’re seeing that more and more.”

Twenty years ago, a magazine could slot a profile of a smaller band alongside an interview with a popular artist, and hope that it might be read as part of the whole. Now, every article is packaged individually on the internet and measured to the last click, making it very clear when something isn’t being read, incentivizing coverage of artists with proven followings. “It’s a giant shift,” Ken Weinstein says. “It was kind of better when people couldn’t really put an absolute finger on it because art is not that.” 

Most music journalists aren’t so craven as to go entirely by the numbers, but they work at businesses. “I could invest ten hours and do a long feature on something that no one has ever heard of, but five people will read it,” Julianne Shepherd, editor-in-chief at Jezebel and former executive editor at The Fader, says. “And then is my boss going to be like, ‘Yo, what the fuck are you doing?’”

While publicists and journalists can gripe about the other side, nobody is fundamentally at war, nor does the current landscape serve anyone. Unlike, say, politics, it doesn’t benefit any musician when there’s fewer journalists to cover them. Every publicist I spoke with expressed dismay about the ebbing fortunes of journalism, which will always provide a unique lens for experiencing music and understanding the artists who make it, when compared with an algorithmic playlist. The value of this storytelling goes beyond the vanity of having a big clip or the romanticization of the writer’s role. A great writer, given enough time, can intuit something fundamental and compelling about an artist. Some publicists will blanch at the idea of a profile that’s anything less than a full-throated endorsement, but a nuanced portrayal will always be a more interesting—and, more importantly, humanizing—story than just the rote cheerleading. 

So what does the future look like? Creative publications will look to undercovered genres of music, in order to capitalize on unfulfilled audience interest. Drew Millard, a former senior editor at Noisey, says the publication upped its coverage of metal once it realized metal fans were eager to read about the scene, and there were no consistent competitors. Just about every website now covers K-pop, with varying degrees of depth, in order to woo bands’ large social-media followings. 

Publications can also continue to invest in great writing that doesn’t depend on access. We’re living in a golden era for criticism, popularly exemplified by Pitchfork but felt across the publishing landscape at outlets such as The New Yorker, where a rotation of writers including Hua Hsu and Amanda Petrusich cover artists who might have never made the magazine 20 years ago. 

Publications with some resources can also invest in tricking out the “digital cover story,” which at the very least means a fancy photo shoot and custom layout. In 2012, Pitchfork debuted its Cover Story format, which became a large enticement to publicists during the negotiation process, and led to a rare Daft Punk feature. “Artists have a certain ego, and they like seeing themselves be presented in this flattering, interesting way that seems like a big deal,” Mark Richardson, former executive editor at Pitchfork, says. “Comparing that at the time to showing someone a 3,000-word story with text and two promo photos; it’s like, who gives a shit? But here’s this special thing. It was the digital equivalent of trying to leverage access in a way to compete with the covers.” After a few years without publishing one, Pitchfork relaunched the format in late March with a lengthy story on the pop musician Sky Ferreira, and published its latest, a profile of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, last week.

Most encouragingly, there may be a space for an intentionally smaller publication to provide novel music coverage, without access to the big players. A publication such as Bandcamp Daily embodies the spirit of the internet’s weird, discovery-oriented days as it tracks scenes and emerging artists from all over the world. Its best-of album lists are routinely absent of big name stars, and a unique read amongst year-end coverage. And in the era of Big Algorithm, we might even see something like a slow revival of the mp3 blog—well-curated song selection with vibrant editorial, which you can still find at sites like The Alternative, The Martorialist, or Gorilla vs. Bear, for all its ebbing influence. That wouldn’t solve the access problem, but it would break up the homogeneity that often defines existing coverage.

Or maybe the pendulum will swing back, with artists realizing they need not wall themselves off from writers with no agenda beyond writing a great, honest piece. “There’s still value in telling a story through the press,” Shira Knishkowy says. “There’s still a disconnect between casual listenership on a playlist and actual investment as a fan, like I want to see you live, I want to go out of my way to go to this festival that you’re playing, I want to engage in you as a person as an artist. That’s why the media is important, to tell a story and make it interesting and give it context.”

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Corrections: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this story inaccurately described Bandcamp Daily as VC-funded. This story has also been updated to correct a reference to Sarah Mary Cunningham’s employment; she works at Columbia Records, not Atlantic. CJR deeply regrets the errors.

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Jeremy Gordon is the culture editor at The Outline.