I already know what you’re thinking. Embittered music writer complains that no-one is reading, and blames the public for the crass state of the written word. Blame blogs. Blame sensationalist publications. Blame everyone else. Last week’s closure of international, online publication Thump by its parent company Vice - and the subsequent layoff of 60 staff writers and countless freelancers - was a somewhat inevitable chapter in the history of musical journalism. It didn’t happen because people weren’t reading it, or because that people wanted to watch more videos. The reason is far more sinister. It's something that betrays the very existence of free-will.
As the previous editor for DJBroadcast International, I now operate as a vagabond for exciting music causes, freelancing on the wings of request, and occasional payments, while working on the side as a full-time editor. I am occasionally approached by younger, wannabe writers wanting tips on how to get into the music writing sphere, and unapologetically I tell them all the same thing - to forget it. The amount of professional music writing gigs is declining fast. Many outlets today pay nothing - or very little - relying on the enthusiast, wordy donations of keen writers. With this being the case, many just simply can't afford breaking into this sphere, like in Almost Famous. This explains why most music writers are from middle class, or high income backgrounds. What does this say about the diversity of the gatekeepers, who are forever trying to cultivate the scene they are invested in?
In today's age, I now know very few full time paid music journalists - and out of that, a very small percentage make their livings without having to supplement their income through erroneous tasks such as marketing, bar-work, or even PR. (By the way, if you are one of those operating within the duality of PR and journalism, itself being a huge conflict of interest, you are a betrayal to the cause.) And this is a time when there is far more music to sift through - even Drake is releasing more than one album per year. And with more music, more gatekeepers and critics should be needed to provide critique, and point to and guide through an ever-evolving narrative of new styles, voices and globalism within music. Musicians are also ever-reliant on press for their shows. A lot of musicians won't get bookings without press, and for press they often need releases. So why is there less space decreasing?
Thump was far from unsuccessful. It had just over one million unique views per month on the day of its announced closure and was far from in decline. We can guess as to why the autocrats at the upper-echelons of Vice decided to cull it. Yes, EDM in the US is on the wane, and over one-third of the site’s traffic originated from there. Online ad revenue for editorial is also in decline, and with a shift towards mobile, video content is in more demand - because hey, it’s fucking hard to read something on your phone. But video is just one medium for pushing a narrative. A medium that is flawed, full of bias and fails to tell the whole story. Imagine if this piece was a video. How would it look? Videos are great documents for flashy, aesthetic, and dynamic storytelling. This is why the news works well in the visual field. Yet, creating timeless documents of conjecture are best done through the written word - as anyone who has ever held a copy of The New Yorker can extol.
Thump wasn’t necessarily a bad publication either. Controversial owners yes - and replete with clickbait. It was also built on the backdrop of the over-commercialised EDM trend - a scene without any substance. Amid the hubris, crap and drivel, some of the most adept writers (and they had quite a few - Michelle Lhooq, I'm looking at you) asked important questions, such as the role of cultural appropriation within the underground house and techno scene. Or how underground music values are becoming more conservative. They were also the first to write about Discwoman, dance music’s feminist league of awesome DJs looking to forge an era of greater diversity behind the decks. And through its reach, it was able to provide exposure for a wide wealth of talent who deserved to have their new records, mixes or shows discussed in the open. A window that is now closed.
The plateau of music outlets is now quite sparse - and the good ones that provide truly critical voices are often reliant on paid subscribers, or donations. As people stopped paying for press, corporate money stood in - which eventually meant hard criticism fell to the side. There are some great publications still around: The Quietus, The Wire are perhaps some of the most critical gatekeepers out there. As Luke Turner wrote for Crack Magazine, “A lot of publications rely on collaborations between artists and brands to bring home the bacon and, it seems, don’t want to offend marketing teams who are afraid of their product appearing in a ‘negative’ context.” And if we can’t have negative - or put in a different manner, experienced - opinion leading direction, then what’s left? A world where we have to accept that Hot Since 82 and Coldplay are considered good musical acts. That’s not a world in which I want to live.
In Mark Fischer’s Capitalist Realism, the role of maternal and paternal figures within contemporary capitalism, is discussed, especially in the role of modern society ."How are we to move beyond the culture of monotonous moribund conformity that results from a refusal to challenge or educate?" he asks. Critical thinking and opinions should actively be engaged, which is the whole point of Turner's article. Journalists should exist, not only as the maternal figures, encouraging new acts and styles to emerge, but also as the paternal figures to provide a voice, stating what is good and bad. Let's look at the success of Ed Sheeran, who although altogether is not a bad artist per se, he is but an average one whose lack of originality is being challenged by multiple songwriters for plagiarism. It's the kind of success that doesn’t happen to originators. People like Aphex, or Jlin, who are arguably pushing the envelope for music as we understand it to be. But yet Ed Sheeran, Adele, and Coldplay continue to smash sales records. Music which is banal, predictable, and dry. It's like a soft, grey wallpaper, we are forced to look at in the dank corridors of sad waiting rooms. It says nothing about me, my culture, or my existential role in an ever-complex, multi-cultural, evolving society. It does feel that as there are more music options, people are buying more of the mundane, in which contemporary pop is gradually marching forward towards its slow death, fuelled by the burning embers of capitalism.
Since underground dance music became ever more popular, more money has thrown at the commanding, folks on stage. As such, these DJs and acts began charging higher fees. Headliners nowadays can charge between EUR 10k and 50k, depending on where they perform. What Ben Klock, for instance, can earn in a week, I might earn in a year, if I’m lucky. Whereas many music writers produce content for free, and a lot of publications rely on donations, the acts that rely on press will forever earning more. And this is where the business model is wryly skewed. Musicians need to perform to earn an income. They release music on a label, who in turn pay PR agents to seed the content into publications. Yet throughout this value chain, very little of this income is funded into the media, because the media is in itself supposed to act as objective bastion of truth. Without funding, these outlets have to rely on either donations, online ad revenue, or commercial sponsorships, which again have a large influence on their programming and output. In turn, when these publications operate in the online sphere, the ad revenue that is bestowed upon them is based on their online traffic, which in turn is influenced by how big the artists they feature are.
This is not an outcry for artists to dig deep and starting paying off writers, or bankroll magazines. Again, there has to be a middle ground for all to be able to operate. If the current state of things continue, then we will soon be operating in a world, where acts are touring festivals and releasing records - that are only featured in non-profit operated blogs, and singular editorial outlets that are swayed by objectives beset on them by traffic numbers and/or corporate policies. The solution we need is a drive towards a more sustainable model in which artists, labels and PRs are providing a funding system that supports media outlets. Something that goes beyond paid-ads in magazines, and sending the odd donation over PayPal. How is it that in our unbalanced and unchecked system, an artist can make EUR 50k a gig, and then rely on an unpaid writer to produce an article to plug his or her latest record, in order for them to get more bookings? How is it that a label can pay EUR 2k to pay for a PR company to push an artist's latest record on websites and magazines that are reliant on favours and free labour? This is the ultimate end-game that unfettered capitalism works towards. A game that is un-sustainable.
In Capitalist Realism, Fisher goes on to quote Adam Curtis. "Our job as public service broadcasters is to take people beyond the limits of their own self, and until we do that we will carry on declining." As musicians, writers, and gatekeepers, the modus operandi is the same. More of something else, and less of the same.
This article, once again, was provided free-of-charge.
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