This is an article written for Walkley magazine examining the present situation of music media – and the challenges and opportunities of the future
Facing the music
by Craig Stephen
Like a spoilt child, music fans want more, more, more. But just because they can get everything when and where they want, it doesn’t always lead to a happy soul.
As with all other forms of media over the last decade, music journalism has been reacting to the digital age. But the reaction has often been more of a tantrum, with a lot of mess being made along the way.
The fans demand because they can. A music website can’t establish any semblance of a following if it doesn’t contain links to new or old music or tries to swing viewers away from YouTube.
Some of the more popular websites appear to be nothing more than a screaming match of graphics and multimedia; some of the less popular ones focus purely on the words. Some have their own face-to-face televised interviews. The competition is intense, but the quality is debatable. Meanwhile, many newspapers have devolved their coverage of music, relegating it to sidebars and frothy interviews.
Music journalism’s heyday is generally regarded as the ’70s and ’80s, when scribblers such as Nick Kent, Jon Savage and Charles Shaar Murray themselves were often the story. Some took as many drugs and slept with as many groupies as the bands did to live the rock’n’roll lifestyle, to really feel how it was to be a popstar – or at least that’s how the story went.
In the UK, music papers such as NME, Melody Maker and Sounds offered huge, in-depth features. In the US, Rolling Stone – established in 1967 – was an icon. In 1976 a 200-word live review could break a band – as Neil Spencer did with the Sex Pistols in NME.
Down Under, the selection in this era was less legendary – Rolling Stone had an Australian version, of course – but otherwise there were low-circulation, city-based publications such as RAM, Juice and Juke in Australia, and Rip It Up (which is still going) in New Zealand.
They tended to feature a lot of in-depth material and had a real connection to the artists. But while they were influential within the music industry, these magazines and fanzines were largely irrelevant to the bulk of music buyers, who found what they liked on the radio. They were, however, a launchpad for many writers. One of those, Bernard Zuel – now with The Sydney Morning Herald and one of just three full-time music writers for newspapers in Australia, he reckons – was a product of RAM. Although he views the music papers he worked on as being fairly insignificant, he does empathise with those who look back on the time as a productive one for music journalism.
“There is an element of ‘in my day things were better’ because the mags of the 1970s and ’80s allowed broader coverage and developed a strand of writers who learned their trade,” he notes. But he also points out that when he first joined the Herald in the mid-’80s, its music coverage was limited to “two small things in the back of the television guide”.
“There are pockets of quality, and not a lot of it,” he says of music journalism today, noting Robert Forster’s 1500-word column in The Monthly as an example of where good writing can prevail.
Veteran New Zealand freelance writer Graham Reid pinpoints the great era of rock journalism as being from 1975 to 1995, when writers had more opportunities and freedom of movement.
“You would see writers out with bands on the road, artists being interviewed when they didn’t have an album or tour to promote, etc, etc. There was far better access.
“These days you get ‘phoners’ with artists, which used to be about 30 minutes [and] now they are usually 15, and you have to ask yourself just how useful they are. They are just promo devices and the artists give the same interview each time.
“Quite often I feel I am not writing up an interview but merely transcribing.
“There is nowhere near as much give-and-take/conversation as there used to be. Artists just say their bit about the new album and that’s it.”
In terms of the current state of music journalism, two things stand out: the lack of depth in the print press and the fickleness, and fast flow, of the internet.
Reid is particularly scathing of the current attitude of the press towards features, having to drop his word count for articles on artists from 2500 words to, if he’s lucky, 800 words. Album reviews that would have once contextualised the artist, album and music now limit the writer to a stifling 100–250 words.
Clearly you can’t dissect 12 tracks and/or an hour or more of music within such perimeters. How on earth would the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, an album about the state of England in 1977, or the Beatles’ groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band be given a proper examination in today’s climate?
But while some sites lack articulate writing and deliver only graphics and images, there are also some good music journalism websites out there. Among them are Pitchfork and Mess+Noise, which I am delighted to see has, as I write, an article on why not all good music is limited to Sydney and Melbourne, and investigates what Adelaide has to offer.
The digital age has also brought with it a greater degree of freedom, allowing sites to focus on what they like, and for blogs to zoom in on particular acts or genres and give them a decent run.
As well, digital streaming means music journalists now have a quick, easy way of listening to new releases (although that may be on a laptop with tinny speakers and scrappy sound quality).
“There is a lot of music that is being heard by a lot of people without any major support behind it or money, and that is being promoted by online recommendations and alternative sources,” says Zuel.
And while the money-grabbing corporate labels have been buying up small labels to maximise their profits for decades, Zuel notes that new acts can now use digital technology to bypass such routes altogether. “Diversity is better now than it’s been for a long, long time,” he says.
This article first appeared in Walkley, the magazine for journalists in trade unions in Australia and New Zealand, in the July-August edition.
Thanks to Bernard Zuel and Graham Reid for their enormous help.