The Best Music Scribing Awards 2009

Editor’s note: These selections are the choices of Jason Gross and were not voted on by the PopMatters editorial team or writing staff.

“I’ve blogged, tweeted, shot photos and videos, and handled speaking engagements. I edited my section, managed my high-personality staff and then in my spare time, I wrote cover stories — something that very few other editors at USA TODAY do. I hustled and I cajoled and I ended up out on my ass anyway.”

— Chris Gray Faust, “Goodbye to All of That

Covering the media now is like working in the obits section of a small town paper — you know, or know of, everyone that’s gone and it kills you to write about it. Not that it’s been much jollier for the last few years, but even when one disastrous year after another happens, you’re still amazed at how worse things keep happening. Or so it seems.

How bad was the media industry in ’09? It’s gotten to the point that everywhere you look, there are articles about ‘the death of print’,’ the death of magazines’,’ the death of newspapers’, etc.. Drowned in Sound turned it into a necrophilia party with a whole series of articles on the subject, while Blurt chimed in with their own withering version. Christopher Weingarten’s already-famous conference rant (which was funny and incisive) mined the same territory along with a weepy interview with Chunklet’s Henry Owings. Slate‘s Jonah Weiner also weighed in, and while he was right about the lack of celebs and access to them, he was wrong about the lack of interactive media available in publications (blogs and Pitchfork have ’em for instance). It was all disturbing, not just for the subject, but also that such good writers were wallowing in such morose territory over and over again, spinning their wheels about it. Luckily, it also led to some much-needed backlash, like this round-up from Eyeweekly and this fine analysis from Tom Ewing, and Mark Anthony Neal’s smart take on the subject, plus a great push-back on the whole “death” watch from the Huffington Post.

To be fair, 2009 had more than its share of crappy news to report about the journalism world. The year started out with a huge distribution company trying to squeeze more dough outta magazines, followed by a not-so-cheery report that retail sales for magazines dropped over ten percent, a Pew study that revealed that only 43 percent of people thought that their local paper fizzling would impact their locale badly, and a Mediafinder tally (from April) that the number of new magazines was dwarfed by the number of magazines closing up shop. After only six months into 2009, the American media was out 10 billion dollars in advertising revenue. By September, Editor & Publisher (who themselves had to shut down) figured out that journalists were hitting the unemployment line three times quicker than most other jobs. The New York Times estimated that increases in Internet advertising (which weren’t matching the losses in print ads) were not going to help most print publications, including the Times itself. How bad was circulation? The Washington Post pegged it at the worst levels since World War II. In all, it was estimated that newspapers shed 15,000 employees this past year.

Mind you, that was just the general trend. There was plenty of misery on the arts beat, where staff cuts and retrenching were also the order of the day, many times done to please investors. Entertainment Weekly started 2009 with news that it might need to cut even more staff than it had before to stay alive. Vibe, who we’ll hear more about later, dropped its circulation and its number of issues per year in early ’09. Pitchfork, who’ve been one of the few music publication bright spots, cut down on their amount of weekly reporting. April saw Rolling Stone closing their original San Francisco office (what symbolism). Urb canned its staff in March, while Buzz Media shed one-quarter of their staff around the same time. In April, Idolator announced that most of its staff was let go. Paste managed to stay afloat, but only after the staff took pay cuts and the magazine pleaded for donations. Drowned in Sound circulated word in May (through a mail auto-reply) that they didn’t have “any full-time staff” and were “run primarily by volunteers”. Jazz Times was forced to suspended publication in June, while veritable metal bible Kerrang! was laying off staff around the same time. Even Wired, normally at the forefront of the electronic revolution and doing some great reports about the music biz, was forced to make cuts.

However, those poor magazines and papers were lucky compared to some publications that wouldn’t live long enough to see 2010. Blender magazine, which only a few years ago boasted a high six-figure circulation, shut down in March. After 13 years on the newsstands, dance magazine BPM was gone by May ’09. During that same month, Plan B magazine went under too. One month later, they were joined at the morgue by long-time publications Performing Songwriter (16 years old) and Radio & Records (which began in 1973). Also in June, hip-hop bible Vibe magazine, which rivaled Blender in circulation, was gone too.

Also, painful to report on are the publications that are still trying to hang on, even some of their print editions remain in limbo. Editor Eric Miller told me that Magnet magazine is still active through its website, but hasn’t been in print since December 2008 (their 15th anniversary issue). It was suffering from a combination of problems including long-time debts from advertisers and the illness of a long-time employee:

“Between those two things and just the general state of the music and magazine industries and the economy, it’s been impossible for us to do a new issue from a financial or production standpoint. We would eventually like to get back to publishing regularly, but I don’t foresee that happening any time soon.”

Similarly, Arthur magazine is still posting material on their website, including Adobe Acrobat versions of issues. As for print, honcho Jay Babcock has this to say:

“… (the) economic collapse, coupled with my fatigue as 100% owner/editor (a role I had never wanted), basically killed us doing print.”

He did vow a possible comeback though:

“We hope to resume print publication in 2010 in a brand new format that makes the most of being analog.”

And mind you, he wasn’t the only one who fought to revive themselves. Even after the cut-backs, editor Sean Adams reports that Drowned in Sound is still going strong, with site updates happening all the time:

“(This was) one of our biggest years ever. Over 410,000 visitors in Sept and Oct and around 380,000 on average a month (though) we’ve massively cut back on staff post our deal with BSKYB/Newscorp. My autoreply was merely managing expectations as we used to have five full-time staff and 10 additional staff working on theQuietus,, and our label, but we had to cut that all back… (We have) about nine new articles a day, 25-plus album reviews a week, etc, and over 10,000 followers at”

Along with that, there was even more good news on this front as some other publications came back from the dead or near-death experiences. Oxford American, which just came out with another impressive music issue, looked doomed until February, when they were saved by an anonymous $100,000 donation. In May, Relix magazine was saved by its own guardian angel in the form of an investment group (sadly for heshers, neither Metal Edge nor Metal Maniacs magazines were also bought up from the old publisher that they shared with Relix). Furthermore, only one month after shutting down, Vibe magazine was reincarnated in August by an equity firm that bought it up and planned to steer it mostly into online territory. That same month, Jazz Times was also bought up and able to publish again though there’s stories circulating that some of the staff are getting short-changed. (The end of the year also saw Billboard being bought up, though the effects of that aren’t clear yet.)

Believe it or not, that wasn’t even the end of the good news. In January, Vice magazine actually added seven employees to its masthead, while Country Weekly upped its publication frequency around the same time. Towards the end of the year, Folio was reporting that not only were there eventually fewer magazines dying off through ’09, but that in total, there were fewer magazine casualties than there were in ’08. Around holiday time too, the Wall Street Journal was saying that the trend of sinking ad money might be slowing too. Mind you, that ain’t great news per se, but at least it’s better news — we’re so desperate that we’ll count that as progress for now.

Even more encouraging was the rise of new ideas floating around for publications this past year, almost matching the amount of bad news. At the start of 2009, TV anchor Dan Harris started up an online program for ABC called Amplified where he showcased the most hyped indie bands around, occasionally partnering with Pitchfork and eMusic. Not to be outdone, NBC’s Brian Williams started up BriTunes (what a name), also leaning heavily on indie music, featuring playlists, interviews, and videos. I dunno if this hipster turn for these talking heads will rake in a younger demographic — the evening news crowd is pretty old — but it’s something of an encouraging sign, unless you’re a hardcore hipster who hates mainstream media honing in on ‘your territory’. In February, XLR8R hitched up with Fader to pool resources for ads and sponsors. Miller McCune also had an encouraging story about how laid-off arts journalists were picking up the pieces by starting new ventures on the web to cover their old beats. Wired editor Eliot Van Buskirk wondered “Can Device Integration Save Music Journalism?“, where we could subscribe to writers the same way that we do with music — not a bad idea, except that other than a handful of brand-name scribes, most writers probably wouldn’t find lots of fans (the same way that Radiohead and NIN can survive by going indie because they already have a really strong rep).

Outside of the music realm, there was also plenty of other brainstorming going on. Along with papers sharing editorial content and coverage, there were also ideas floating around about portals like Yahoo providing coverage (AOL’s Spinner is a good source now, and Robert Christgau’s Consumer Guide can be found at MSN) as well as ‘partnership subs’ where you get a magazine alongside another service (though as the Mediaweek article notes, this hasn’t exactly panned out yet).

But most of the thinking about how to move the business forward centered on ways to get readers in the habit of paying again, the same way that music industry is still struggling with this problem. The Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz noted some ideas involving micropayments, donations, and foundation money, though none of them are tested enough to provide long-term solutions. Along with all of News Corp’s outlets (including the Wall Street Journal and New York Post), Newsday and the San Francisco Chronicle were among a group of maybe-brave-maybe-foolhardy publications who were planning to charge for content. In a great cautionary example, Variety showed how pay-walls shouldn’t be done, asking every 10 online readers to pony up $248 (which is $100 more than a WSJ subscription) for a yearly subscription and to keep reading articles online.

Going back to the music industry model, there are plenty of struggling companies engaging in the fight to make consumers pay again for something that’s otherwise free, showing that it ain’t an easy thing to do. So, how much more successful are these publications going to be as they try the same thing? Time will tell, but it’s going to be hard for them to turn the tide.

As the music business sometimes figures out, the best way to get consumers to shove money back into the label’s pockets is to give some value-added extras, as Steve Outing suggests for publications to do in this Editor & Publisher column. Outing, who’s one of the most astute commentators on the news biz, also sees the possibility of turning publications and columns into phone applications (apps) as having some potential. In these articles, he also lists reasons why he thinks that the pay-wall idea won’t save the business.

Sad to say, I agree with him about pay-walls flopping, and you don’t have to look any farther than a music story for some proof of that. The Wall Street Journal had a December story about Apple buying up the Lala music service and how this might change the whole nature of iTunes. The article was not only a good scoop, but also a thoughtful analysis of the subject. Unfortunately for the WSJ, at least two other sites that didn’t require readers to pay for access (unlike WSJ) quickly carried the info in their own stories. The same thing will keep happening as readers see a pay-wall and just think “I’ll go somewhere else to read about this where I don’t have to pay.” As Outing provocatively claimed in the title of one of the above articles, “your news content is worth zero to digital consumers.”

So, if pay-walls might not be the cure-all for the news industry’s woes, what is? The answer might lie in the problem that the Wall Street Journal faced with their original story — if consumers can go anywhere for info, why should they come to you? The best answer to that is content. If you’re only quoting or reprinting AP stories or other material easily available elsewhere online, you’re useless to your readers. Your writers need to have a distinct voice, perspective, idea, or challenge to share with readers. That’s exactly why Idolator‘s community withered after editor Maura Johnston left, transforming a thorny, thoughtful forum for pop culture discussion into just some empty, riffing on the same subject, which you can find anywhere else on the Net.

Touch and Go Records’ collapses gives you another good music-related example of what a good writer can provide that many others can’t. In mid-February, when the news was breaking about the label and lots of writers (including me) were scrambling to report the story on blogs, Twitter, and elsewhere, usually getting the facts wrong (Pitchfork had to post at least two updates to correct earlier reports that they had on the story), Greg Kot of The Chicago Tribune got the real story, straight from the source. How’d he pull off this admirable feat? Kot actually took the time to get the story right, working on it diligently. That seems kind of stupidly obvious, but in an Intenet age where getting the story out quickly trumps getting the story correct, there’s definitely a lesson for writers to learn there.

Ideally, good writers can provide another important service, especially to online readers. As James Rainey said in the headline of a Los Angeles Times article, “With Information Galore, We Need News Judgment” — which is to say that writers can be news-sifters, going through the avalanche of online material and sorting out for readers what’s worth their time to delve into (which is part of what I’m trying to do here, actually).

Quality scribes also set themselves apart by picking apart the info that everyone knows in a way that other writers aren’t doing. Plenty of good think-pieces are found in Billboard‘s Biz section — even though their reports are full of tech jargon and sometimes based on limited surveys, in many instances they still provide useful analysis of music industry stories. Business looks pretty good compared to the other articles that only riffed off WSJ‘s Lala scoop. Unfortunately, those articles will still get some traction from news-hungry readers that are perfectly happy to pick up second-hand scraps of info about a story (without paying). Then again, some aggregators are perfectly happy to swipe stories, as detailed by Ian Shapira in “How Gawker Ripped Off My Newspaper Story“, complaining that as sites like Gawker or Huffington Post take ad money away from the sources they quote, there’s gonna be less and less for these same sites to report on, and even though there are other online sources than mainstream media, they’re spotty and hard to verify. While Gawker can’t be defended for what they did with his story, Shapira’s grumbling about news collection sites misses the point — ideally, they shouldn’t compete with source sites, and ideally, they’d drive some traffic back there. Also, as Rainey explained in his Los Angeles Times article, these collector sites can be useful sources of places to find good articles, like Shapira’s original that got ripped elsewhere.

However, the biggest problem that writers are finding now is how to do the Internet shuffle and survive. Going back to the Chris Gray Faust quote at the top of this piece, lots of writers are finding themselves in the same situation where they’re doing all of the right things in terms of social media and adding interactive components to their articles, but sometimes finding that it’s still not good enough. The answer to that is not to give up on these new Internet wrinkles, but to keep embracing them and trying them out in different places and in different ways — not just because editors expect it, but also because it really is the best way to engage with online readers today and tomorrow. Readers are roaming around these sites looking for interesting things, and unless you’re there as well, showing off your writing goods, many of them won’t care about or know about what you’re doing.

In the same vein, it’s pathetic to see writers cry about Twitter and how it’s destroying journalism — or even worse, all of human discourse. The same complaint was leveled at blogs a few years ago until mainstream media realized that these little things weren’t going to just disappear in a few years. They even started embracing blogs and utilizing them. The same thing is happening with Twitter as scribes have used it to point to their own work or other articles of interest, or maybe share a brief thought or observation. Some brainy writers like Mr. Weingarten have even used it to bolster their career.

The same way that a Net/tech savvy writer will keep plugging away in all kinds of online forums, magazines and publications themselves need to keep doing the same. I’m still convinced that there’s no such thing as easy, long-term solutions to how magazines and publications will survive and thrive, but once they get into the mindset that this is a slippery realm that they’ll have to keep adapting to in different ways, they stand a much better chance of swimming rather than sinking.

As for the music journalism trade in particular, like the rest of the biz, I think that it’s also on the ropes but not hopeless — as Frank Zappa once said about jazz, the trade’s not dead, it just smells funny now. Or as Sarah Lacey puts it in a TechCrunch article that notes the continued rise in journalism school applications despite the industry slump, “Journalism isn’t dying; it’s just in a period of extreme volatility.” Subjective survey that it is, this list of favorite music articles dropped in numbers by only a little bit this year compared to last year, which is actually pretty amazing considering all the lay-offs and closings that have happened since then. Ideally, that alone might be a hopeful sign. Good writers prove themselves not just by arranging words in a compelling way, but also by figuring out how to keep doing their work effectively. As Lacey also points out in her article, “… in any time of volatility, there’s huge room for opportunity.” In this ever-changing world in which we live in (to quote Macca), that’s the kind of healthy attitude that’ll keep you scribing away somewhere.

And please don’t forget this: when you read a good article, take the time to tell the writer and editor how much you enjoyed the piece. They crave some positive feedback and some bit of evidence that their fine work made a difference.

Call for Music Reviewers and Essayists
Call for Music Reviewers and Essayists