The Media Today

Q&A: Israel Daramola on the challenges facing music journalism

February 14, 2024

Last month, Condé Nast announced that Pitchfork, the music publication it acquired in 2015, would be moved under GQ, the men’s fashion magazine, resulting in the layoffs of its top editors—including its editor in chief, Puja Patel—and many long-term staff. Semafor media reporter Maxwell Tani, who broke the news, described it as “a remarkable fall for the most important music publication of its generation.” 

It’s also the latest sign of the dire state of music journalism. Despite maintaining a dedicated readership and the seemingly reliable support of the corporate media behemoth that is Condé Nast, Pitchfork couldn’t escape the downsizing and budget cuts that have come to bear on music journalism more broadly. In the aftermath of this latest blow, writers assessed what it would mean for music criticism and reporting. Writing for Defector, the journalist Israel Daramola observed, “It is hard not to see this development as a true indicator that we’re nearing the endpoint of robust, meaningful music criticism as a concept.” 

Last week, I spoke with Daramola about how the devaluation of music writing reflects the devaluation of music itself, what has replaced journalism and criticism, and what the lack of a music press means for smaller artists. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Can you talk about the state of music journalism now and how it compares to the past?

There’s kind of nothing left, really. I mean, there’s a couple of big brands that still remain, like Rolling Stone and Billboard, and even Spin is still around, but a lot of them have become content farms, especially online, and very few of them are still publishing anything in print. So a lot of it is just hanging by a thread. We’re almost seeing, especially in music, the dawning of another kind of blog era, where there’s a lot of boutique blogs and a lot of local localized music blogs. But as far as a thing that’s covering music, period, it’s probably like one writer at all the major newspapers and outlets and then a handful of music publications that still exist.

It is obviously disappointing, because it was a very healthy ecosystem. Not just because it had a lot of people working there, but there was a time when the idea of taking music seriously was like a whole industry that was taken seriously as well. You know, people didn’t just want to talk about music, they wanted to talk about it as though it was art and also about what it said about us as a society, as Americans, as a culture, and that way of looking at music is just completely gone, even by the people who still care enough to write about it. I think, of all the arts, it’s become the most devalued. 

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In comparison to film, television, et cetera? Why?

I think music has become the most devalued because music is just background noise now. There used to be an idea of elevator music, and now regular music is what’s played in elevators. There used to be an idea of what music you hear at a coffee shop, and now you hear everything at a coffee shop. I would say that if you ask the average person who doesn’t think about music in any serious way when they listen to music, I will guarantee that a majority of the answers would be at the gym, or on the way to work. People listen to podcasts. Now people talk about podcasts more than anyone talks about music.

What are the factors that contribute to this devaluing of music and in turn music journalism?

Streaming is the easy one, obviously, but it was starting even before that, with the collapse of the music industry because of file sharing. By the time file sharing happens, music is as lucrative as it’s ever been. Because CDs were so cheap [to manufacture], the music business was just making money every second—like, it was making millions of dollars, and music was a very, very big business, and the thought of anything affecting that just sent the entire industry in a panic. And not just record executives, but even musicians who didn’t understand what was happening.

CDs were getting ridiculous—they were getting up to thirty dollars in some cases, and it was a time when you had to go based on the two songs you might have heard on the right radio. People were getting greedy [to make up for file sharing], and it was an inevitability, but I think this reaction to it kind of expedited [the decline of the business] in some ways and put a Band-Aid over a water tower. And so I say all that to say that the devaluing of music over the last twenty to twenty-five years is sort of part and parcel with the reaction to the music business’s reaction to the fall of their industry. When all this stuff fell and music became a thing that you could just click on, it takes away the specialness, it takes away the value. People say they care about music or they care about art, but when you make things easy for them, there becomes less and less incentive to go out of your way for something, especially as their own lives go on. 

In your Defector piece on Pitchfork you mentioned how features, reporting, and music reviews have taken a back seat to social media and video content. What does a music journalist’s job look like now? 

If you still have a music writing job, beyond just the fact that it’s a tenuous existence where you don’t know when your job is going to be gone, I think that your reality now—you almost have to create a monoculture, because music is just so fragmented and segmented, there’s no real monoculture anymore. And you create a monoculture primarily by just chasing whatever is popular on certain mediums that a lot of young people are on, like Tik Tok. So you see a lot of, like—I don’t want to call it bait, but you see a lot of things that are cater[ing] to that particular type of audience. So for example, now there’s a lot of K-pop writing or J-pop music writing—writing about popular artists that, first of all, have the attention of young people, but also are seismic in the[ir] nations. It gives you a sort of a pop-cultural base to start from. 

As bad as I’m making everything sound, there’s also interesting things happening in music because of how segmented things are. There are rappers in Milwaukee that have way bigger audiences than you would think because they don’t have proper albums out or they’re not trending on social media, but they have built a sort of grassroots movement around their music, and it’s the thing that you as a reporter would want to cover, but no one’s going to give you the tools to cover it beyond, like, a local music blog, and they’re not going to pay you anything, if they pay you at all. That is, I guess, what a lot of music writing is now. It’s a lot of push and pull between what you are obligated to cover or feel obligated to cover because you’re trying to keep your company afloat and what you actually want to cover and want to give a larger platform to but aren’t always going to get the proper incentive to do so.

You also mentioned how journalism has been replaced with YouTubers and influencers feeding “slop” to their audiences. Can you describe what this is? 

I actually did write a whole thing about hip-hop media now, YouTube and podcasts. But there’s a whole ecosystem of just people who are catering to people’s most base interests, because it’s not even about an interest in music. 

I remember when The Needle Drop [a music review show by Anthony Fantano on YouTube with over 2.8 million subscribers] started, but my biggest concern about it was that it felt like it was designed to just make people mad. It wasn’t interested in music criticism. I don’t expect every critic to look at writing criticism like it’s some kind of art—for some people, it really isn’t, it’s just a kind of job. But the one thing that’s lost—like, as much as people want to paint us [critics] as wet blankets or haters—is the seriousness that should be required to talk about or criticize anything. I only want to say things that I can reasonably stand on. I never want to say anything inflammatory for the sake of getting attention. The post–Needle Drop era of YouTubers and podcasters, one thing they seem to have learned is that you get attention from being incendiary, and it’s cheap attention, but it’s still attention, and it becomes dollars in the way things are structured. So I think my biggest concern about all of this stuff is just that if the only way to sort of have a voice about something is by being reactionary and loud and anti-intellectual in your sentiment, it leaves a bad example for everyone that comes afterward.

There’s always going to be a need to counterbalance something [like traditional music journalism], but to only have one of anything is going to create a problem. There was a time when all we did was write things shitting on pop music, and specifically pop music that appealed to women. That was a problem. It made it so that you couldn’t be taken seriously if you were making a certain type of music, and that’s as much a problem in the other direction. We’ve never been good at finding a happy middle, but I think going in the other direction is going to be worse for all of us.

Why do you think listeners now detest being told that their favorites suck? How has that disposition among listeners evolved, especially with the struggles of music journalism? 

It’s such a complicated answer, because it’s not one thing. Part of it is [that] people just don’t have basic reading comprehension anymore, so anything that isn’t overt praise becomes negativity.

The other part of it is the end goal of commercial capitalism. It’s not enough to buy things; you have to identify with things, and those things have to be a part of who you decide to be as a person, because that guarantees that you’ll keep coming back to buy things. So you’re no longer just criticizing Beyoncé, you’re criticizing me personally. It’s sort of like an Instagram thing of: you like someone’s image, and so you decide to like them based on their image, whether you know anything about them or not. It’s not that every pop star’s fans don’t listen to their music, but how we treat music in general is—we’re very dismissive of it. And people who love certain things will listen to those things that they love, but they won’t venture outside of that and create a deep relationship with the music that they claim to love, because the point isn’t the music. The point is the image of the person, the point is the personality they derive from being a fan. It’s not like there was ever a time when people didn’t get mad at negative criticism, there was just more of an understanding that was part of your [a journalist’s] job.

How does the decline of music journalism affect artists? 

It doesn’t hurt the successful ones. The people who are affected by all of this change have always been the middle class of artists. The artists that are kind of doing all right, that are floating by but aren’t, like, a name yet. There’s this band called Home Is Where, and they’re an emo-rock band that does really good music, they have a good label, but they don’t have the big music industry machine behind them. And yes, people who love emo music really love it, but in order to sort of survive as that kind of a band they need a music press. They need a viable music industry. Otherwise, you’re just kind of hoping to get picked out of the crowd and given success. Like Taylor Swift decides she’s a fan of you and name-checks you, that kind of thing. That’s a tenuous place to be for an artist. And even if it does happen, that’s just as much of a tenuous place to be in as an artist. 

You’re seeing that with Ice Spice right now. She’s very raw, very new but has a good label behind her, and she got lucky. She made friends with Taylor Swift, and that is going to escalate her career a lot quicker than she was probably ready for. And I think she gets a lot of flak right now because [audiences] expect a sort of pop-star type of thing from her now, whether she even wants to be that or whether she’s even close to figuring out how to get there. I think that when you don’t have a healthy middle class, things like that become a lot more unwieldy. That middle class keeps everything afloat, and without that you’ve got, like, a country full of scammers and people who are just doing whatever they can to sort of get to the other side.

When I was a kid reading the music press in the nineties, it was obsessed with this idea of like: Should you sell out? Should you not sell out? And it was based on this idea that the important thing about making music is to cultivate your own fan base and not to chase celebrity and success. Obviously, we’ve abandoned that long since, but part of the reason we’ve abandoned it is that it’s just not a realistic thing anymore. The machine has trapped you into needing it, and people are fighting over scraps even more than they already were.

Can you talk about how publications like Pitchfork enabled music discovery and how that differs from the way streaming services do it? 

Pitchfork‘s music discovery was pretty simple: they would just review bands. They review the big stuff, but also the small stuff and everything in between, and it was kind of based on the writers [and] who [they] wanted to write about. If there was an album that you wanted to write about, and you had a compelling pitch for it, they would let you write about it and you could promote different kinds of music and different kinds of artists that way. Music journalists were constantly listening to random demo tapes that were sent to you or going to shows—and going to shows early, so you could watch the early bands and the opening acts. 

Spotify is very much based on engagement but also just based on record-label chicanery. The people that are on the front page of Spotify or Apple are there because they have the clout to be on there, not because anyone on Spotify was like, “You should listen to these artists.” It’s technically discovery, but it’s also an algorithm in a streaming service where instead of you teaching a streaming service what you like to listen to, it is developing an idea of what you should listen to on its own. Even the stuff you’re recommended based on your previous listens, a lot of that’s been based on a small pool of bands or artists that a computer decides are good enough for you to listen to, but it never goes completely left of the field, is my point. It’s always something that’s kind of popular already, something that’s already kind of successful. 

Where do things go from here? Is there anything that makes you hopeful? 

Small blogs make me hopeful, like Passion of the Weiss and No Bells. I used to write for Passion. I think it’s cool that Stereogum is independent again. I’m interested to see what happens over the next year, if more of those types of boutique blogs pop up.

People who aren’t in this industry or don’t pay attention think that what happened with Pitchfork was because it was not successful. But Pitchfork is a really lucrative brand. When we let billionaires and investors come in, everything becomes about growth and how much money will you bring in five years, ten years. If you’re looking at Pitchfork or anything in the media industry like that, it’s not a viable financial investment. If you’re looking at it as “How do we get to a billion dollars?” then there’s nothing they can do to be successful. So eventually, what’s going to happen is tech and Wall Street are going to have to just completely run this thing into the ground, because it’s not going to ever be the thing they need it to be—it’s not a website or an app they can turn into a billion-dollar thing. And then, depending on who’s still alive, they’re going to have to start over eventually. 

Feven Merid is CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow.