Best Music Scribing Awards 2008

Jason Gross

The sloppy arrogance and search for ideas in the music scribing world. Gross presents the seventh annual edition of his picks for the year's best music writing sans PopMatters.

The year 2008 will be remembered in the world of journalism as the year when print took its worst hits ever, leaving it reeling and uncertain about its future. But in spite of circulations shrinking quicker than page space, ad dollars atrophying, publications perishing, and legions of layoffs, music journalism still managed to find a way to sink itself even deeper into shit as it got sloppy and arrogant, bloated, full of bad ideas, and proved itself much better at sniping at itself than showing support among its ranks (resembling the GOP more and more nowadays). As always, there are some glimmers of hope and some promising ideas that the biz should pursue, but you still have to wade through the bloodbath of job and magazine losses just to get there.

The amount of bad news is staggering, even compared to the pitiful previous year, which also had its share of cat-fighting and pink slips. Among the print publications that sank in '08 are No Depression (which didn't dip in circulation), Harp, and Resonance. In addition, the Tribune Company (which includes the L.A. Times and Chicago Tribune) and Creative Loafing were forced to declare bankruptcy, The New York Times had a number of staff buyouts (including noted music industry watcher Jeff Leeds), Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone instituted layoffs (Rolling Stone alone had three rounds of it), XXL fired its editor-in-chief, Maxim became vulnerable to creditors, and both Blender and Rolling Stone had to find new publishers. Even the online world wasn't spared as the Paper Thin Walls collective shut down, the promising online Juke Service didn't even get a chance to open, Gawker had to cut its pay for staff, and Yahoo instituted lay-offs as well. UK music magazines didn't fare any better, with many of them dropping in circulation or barely holding on to their previous numbers. And all of that is still a drop in the bucket compared to the industry as a whole -- in all, it's estimated that over 21,000 jobs were lost in the publishing biz in 2008.

It's easy to blame the souring economy (which did precipitate massive layoffs in the fall and winter), but the problems go deeper than that. Even before Wall Street tanked this fall, there was already less ad money going around, even for the biggest contenders (Rolling Stone, Vibe, Blender). Part of the problem is that even as publications beef up their online presence, the online ad dough is still much less than what these magazines were getting for their print versions. Even online darlings like MySpace and other social networks were having trouble selling ads, and web banners weren't faring that great either.

Along with Madison Avenue's pull-back, there were other troubling trends threatening the industry. Way before the housing meltdown hit its stride, Wal-Mart announced that it was pulling 1,000 magazines from its racks in January '08. A late February Zobgy poll also showed that a majority of Americans thought that traditional media were way out of touch with their own concerns. Online audiences were turning towards social networks for music picks much more often than critics. And as AdAge revealed, having a solid print brand name didn't ensure a solid online presence.

For print scribes in the music world, the biggest headache came in the form of disappearing advance copies. Weeklies usually need at least two weeks lead time, and monthly publications need about two months or more, but Nine Inch Nails, the Raconteurs, Gnarls Barkley, and Beck sent many editors scrambling when they put out their new albums without any advance. The film industry has fallen prey to this trend, with some studios denying pre-screenings for flicks they think will get bad reviews. But in this case, the four music acts already had a built-in audience, so maybe they figured that throwing out their goods to the public immediately wouldn't hurt them and perhaps be seen as a dynamic, innovative way to be fan-friendly. The fact that their albums did just fine sales-wise may only make other big artists wonder if they should try the same thing. The other likely effect is going to be for print publications to have to shift major reviews online, where they can be posted much more quickly, and then maybe play catch-up in their later print editions. It may also mean that the whole way that these publications approach reviews is going to change if there's less time to digest the music and come up with some thoughtful copy about it.

Even with all of these problems, the music scribe biz didn't exactly react with grace. Conceit was in as Vanity Fair's Lisa Robinson decided that she was above un-solicited material and Vice decided to suspend their letters to the editor section, supposedly because they weren't getting any real feedback (which, if true, says a lot about the magazine). Then there were the questionable-at-best ideas like Blender melding Microsoft ad-space into editorial content and Paste squeezing ads into the page number area (kudos to Folio magazine for jumping on both of those stories).

And if you thought that the publications would close ranks and prop each other up, you were disappointed. It wasn't just Idolator, Wired and Boing Boing all launching spit-balls at each other, but also the indifference seen in the turn out for the Village Voice's Pazz/Jop voting (with 577 participants as of last January, which was an increase from the previous year but still well below the 800 participants from 2005), the Music Press Report's Press Awards (which had less than 10% participation among its members), and the silence about Jim DeRogatis being forced by the defense to testify about his sources at the R. Kelly trail. With Pazz, the numbers may go up since the rival Idolator poll (which had 452 votes last January) won't be around, but it'll be instructive to see how much it does increase. With DeRogatis, he thankfully wasn't forced to testify, but a case like this should have garnered support from the larger journo community, if not other music writers. The fact that it didn't is disgraceful. Maybe the only instance where music writers did circle the wagons is when Don Rosenberg was reassigned at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, supposedly because he was too harsh on the subject in question, the Cleveland Orchestra. Along with a lawsuit from Rosenberg, the Music Critics Association of North America (for classical writers) protested CPD's actions, demanding that Rosenberg be reinstated to his previous beat. When was the last time you heard of such comradeship for a down-and-out music writer?

And then there was the sloppy copy which proved to be huge embarrassments for the writers and publications involved. How about Maxim reviewing a Black Crowes record that wasn't finished (and which they obviously didn't hear)? Or how about Pitchfork first giving its lowest grade to a Black Kids record, then changing it half-way up its grading scale, and even then only including a picture of sad doggies and saying "Sorry"? (And in the last two cases, the writers crawled into the Idolator comment boards to explain themselves). Or how about NPR's Carrie Brownstein (formerly of Sleater-Kinney) and later the L.A. Times incorrectly reporting that the Grateful Dead were angling for a story on the band in exchange for using one of their songs in an online mixtape? And then there was the Los Angeles Times scoop about Tupac's murder that was revealed by Smoking Gun to be bogus. One of the worst offenders was the San Antonio Express-News scribe Ramiro Burr, who was so 'overzealous' he had over 100 stories credited to his byline which were actually penned by a ghost-writer at a PR firm. (Given the state of the publishing world, he should be able to crank out a six-figure deal for a confessional book soon enough). But the door prize for slimiest copy has to go to the Huffington Post for swiping numerous copy from other sources without attributing any of it, as detailed by the Chicago Reader. Arianna and friends should know and act better, being one of the leading lights of the brave new news world.

Admittedly, all of this crappy news made me wonder if I should be doing these year-end round-ups at all, handing out bouquets on a sinking ship. But I like to support this trade that I've followed for so long and enjoyed so much, plus there are actually some brave souls who refuse to give in despite the odds, and they deserve all the recognition they can get.

Ultimately, what's going to save the music scribing biz, and the journalism biz in general, is ideas -- big ideas, small ideas, all kinds of experiments, some of which will flop while others will soar. Some big plans have yet to bear fruit, but should be watched -- in particular, Paste's tentative distribution plans with Starbucks, Vice explicitly asking for subscriptions (which they had been doing quietly before), and Salon's tip-jar blog experiment, Tippem (which they haven't touted lately). One idea that was an undeniable success was Spin partnering with MySpace to put all of its print content online at the beginning of '08 -- the net result was that they saw a 50% jump in subscriptions. The lesson might be that, as with music, giving the product away may not be a bad idea, but it's also questionable whether this is a useful long-term strategy -- even Radiohead doesn't think so.

Other promising signs are to be found in some publications resurrecting themselves online. After shuttering with its May/June issue, No Depression ramped up its online site and continues to publish there. Though Harp is gone, its editors revived their work in the form of Blurt Magazine. And after being long-dormant, two legendary publications came back as websites: folk bible Broadside, and one of the first 'serious' rock publications Crawdaddy (now aligned with Bill Graham Productions' online concert streaming service Wolfgang's Vault).

Meanwhile, blogs were showing even more promise as a viable scribe outlet. They've been gaining even more ground than before with the prestigious Polk Awards recognizing political powerhouse Talking Points for its work, and even the staid mainstream media realizing that blogs weren't for niche audiences anymore. And though it admitted that it was only an early study, Hollywood Reporter reported that blogs may be more important than even MySpace in helping out album sales.

And file under miscellaneous a group of other online ventures that are worth watching:

And though they're outside the realm of music scribing, there are a number of other intriguing ideas floating around the publishing world that demand serious attention:

  • Dial-a-mag -- putting web content on iPhones

  • Maghound -- pick and chose which magazines you want to see each month.

  • Yahoo's APT program might be a way for magazines to expand their ad reach

  • The New York Times bolstering their Facebook page and seeing good results from that.

  • The fascinating news feed EveryBlock, which gathers news localized to specific areas of cities and could/should be used in a similar way to cover music.

  • Chicago Reader chronicled some publications that are getting by thanks to advocacy and donation drives.

  • YouTube's Adsense program is making some money for canny video artists, so why couldn't a publication set up shop there, load up their own videos, and do the same?

  • Hearst Publications is selectively offering up its material from various magazines to social networking sites.

  • Not-For-Profit like Poynter Institute might be an idea worth duplicating.

  • The ever-sage Folio magazine argues that in the fragmented, customized world that the Net has brought about, niche publishing might be the wave of the future.

You'll notice a few trends with all of these initiatives: partnerships can be a good idea (especially when it comes to ads), and spreading your content around online doesn't necessarily hurt you.

If you need a source for more ideas, take a look at Music Ally's exhaustive listing of 200 digital music startups from 2008. There are a couple of important things to take away from that list. First, they have a number of music recommendation sites there, which at first would seem to be competition for currently active scribes, but these could also be manned or used by writers to reach new readers (or maybe a new site could be launched with noted writers to attract some attention). Also note that the sheer number of sites on the list means that you have all of these dreamers, entrepreneurs, nut-bags, visionaries, and kooks are trying to make a name (and money) for themselves. Why isn't the same thing isn't happening in the world of music publishing? We need people like this to start taking chances and risks as well.

It bears repeating that publications and magazines can actually have a future even in these depressing times if they bear down on a serious online strategy for themselves. As I explained in a PopMatters article about reviving the publishing biz, the scary news is that easy answers and long-term answers don't exist anymore -- in a Net age, things just move too quickly. Any idea that works today ain't necessarily going to work next month, or even next week. Unless magaziness/publications get serious about online experimentation (and that means some home-brewed ideas, and not just buying out other hot/new companies), trying to reinvent themselves, and reaching and maintaining an audience, they'll never survive. This might mean rethinking fundamentals like 'What is a newspaper/magazine and what should it supply people with?', or 'Is the idea of one review per album per publication an anachronism?', or 'What kind of stories do we need to cover?', and especially 'How do we best reach out to readers?' (hint: look at what the social networks are doing). I'd also say that they should give Twitter-length reviews a try (i.e. Musebin), but word counts in print publications are dropping so much that it'll soon be the de facto norm anyway. It also means that sloppy, arrogant work and back-biting ain't no way to survive, and these publications and editors are going to have to get serious about their trade and stop wasting time with this kind of useless crap.

With so many great writers and editors out of work and, sad to say, many more laboring precariously at their jobs now, lots of them are going to be wondering if newspapers and magazines are worth sticking with. Some, perhaps many, of them are going to conclude that it's not the way for them to go anymore, and while that's understandable from a practical point of view, it's also a loss not just for the news business, but for the readers who look to be informed, involved, and a part of national and local conversations. These discussions are happening online now in less formal ways, but there also should be room for more formal, structured publications to thrive as well. That goes back to these same publications trying new ideas constantly, but it also points to the message I always like to end with here: support your favorite publications/magazines and let 'em know you care if you want them to be around tomorrow.





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