Best Music Scribing Awards 2007
Cultural wars, hard news dies hard and a female voice of a generation, Gross presents the sixth annual edition of his picks for the year's best music writing sans PopMatters.
If I told you that the music journalism industry might have had a slightly better year than last year, in the end it's still as cheery as hearing that you've have genital warts instead of brain cancer -- either way you look at it, the patient's still got a lingering illness without a definitive cure, which might be a number of years in the making. Which isn't to say that there aren't cures or hope out there but there definitely ain't anything definitive yet.
Let's get the bad news out of the way, OK? First off, you had publications which crashed, including Arthur (which was later resurrected), Punk Planet (on "indefinite hiatus"), Premiere, Associated Press' ASAP service, Premiere, Stylus, The Source (bankruptcy filing) and Scratch. Then there were the games of top-level musical chairs where the Village Voice went through no less than five chief editors in less than two years, while Rolling Stone went through two publishers in one year's time and Dennis Publishing put its holdings (including Blender) on the bidding block. Smaller mags are gonna to be feeling the pain too as postal rates went up for their mailings. And along with book reviewers and movie reviewers, classical writers were also getting the boot from many newspapers, meaning that sector will get filled in by the same reprinted wire services (assuming there's coverage at all). Unfortunately, that also means that there's going to be less writers, but you'll get used to them because you'll be getting their opinions over and over again. Welcome to the critics' tiny echo chamber. The general trends weren't exactly gleeful either: Forbes named "journalist" as an "endangered species," magazine launches were down for 2007 and ad sales steadily fell for papers, made even worse by a stumbling economy. It's enough to make you running screaming to grad school.
But don't sign up just yet -- everything wasn't hopeless either. Spin and Vibe seem relatively settled for the time being, with the former bearing down and tightening up on their business and selling well on their issues with Amy Winehouse, Punk '77 revisited and Rilo Kiley cover stories. Also, the big names that were shit-canned last year for no sane reason (Robert Christgau, Chuck Eddy, Chuck Klosterman) landed on their feet elsewhere, thanks to their reps. In general too, the scotched earth policies at the Voice and Spin seem to have subsided, hopefully for good. Slate has also been on an upswing as of late, if only because they've been roping in good writers from other publications to do round-tables. There were even some signs that despite all the free-falling numbers for readers and subscribers of print editions, some publications might be able to takeup the slack with their online editions.
Maybe it was hopeful or maybe it was just pathetic desperation, but this past year a number of interesting experiments were tested out to revive publications. Last year, I detailed how publishing business problems reflected lots of the same woes in the music industry as the Internet seemed to suck up revenue from each, leaving each business floundering. As it turns out, the music business might have latched onto a model that could help mags/papers. Radiohead made a splash with any new release, but what shook up the whole music model (at least temporarily) was how they released their latest album In Rainbows this past October, letting it go online for whatever price people wanted to pay for it, including zero. While the band's guarding how well they did with this gambit, even conservative estimates are that they came out way ahead, but more importantly they not only got other major artists to consider doing the same, but got the other arts thinking about the same idea.
Two cases in point prove that there's something more than a gimmick going on here. First there was Paste Magazine, who told its readers "Name Your Own Price" for a subscription only a few weeks after the Radiohead bombshell. The end result? Their web traffic soared, they scored good press coverage, plus the magazine pulled in 30,000 new subscribers, which translated into an impressive 25% increase, according to editor-in-chief, Josh Jackson. Also, the new subscribers were ready to pay up quickly, which is a much better showing than the mag's usual mailing drive. Think that's a fluke? Premier Guitar decided to try the same pay-what-you-like-for-subscriptions tactic not long after and did impressive business also. According to editor Peter Sprague, using a fraction of names from their database to do a test mailing, they got a more than 15% response, which is five times more than usual, plus an average payment of $12.31, compared to the regular $14.95/month fee. Even Rolling Stone got into the act last November, offering the entire contents of their 40th anniversary issue online for free, in a "one time deal" according to an editor there, though it's not known if that brought on a sales boost or dip.
The question then is, can this be repeated, even by these same magazines? Radiohead themselves said that they weren't planning to try this again and past the initial excitement of trying this pass-the-hat system, it's hard to imagine that this is a long-term fix for any publication. Will these magazines also follow other alternative music models and sign up with Starbucks or Live Nation for licensing/distribution deals? (Paste is actually looking into the former possibility now)
Compare this to the opposite trend where you're told that you gotta pay up for content at a fixed price. The New York Times got rid of its customer-paid Time Select model and the Wall Street Journallooking to also do away with their online subscription model, betting that the increase in web traffic will make up the difference in ad revenue. That leaves the online-only portal Rock's Backpages as one of the few models of the pay system and with 200,000 web hits a week, they're not exactly a small player, but who else is gonna follow their lead now?
But in addition to the good and so-so ideas to boost circulation (which might also include Spin's Xmas shot at Blender's subscription numbers), there were also crappy ideas that were auditioned and deserve to get panned. It wasn't a coincidence that these bombs involved advertising deals as they're the lifeblood of any commercial publication. In its September issue, XXL chief Elliot Wilson appeared on a back cover ad in his own mag, blurring the line between editorial and advertising that raised some hackles. Similarly, Rolling Stone crouched several indie band profiles in a cigarette ad supplement, promptly not just the bands (who are now filing suit against Rolling Stone), but also several of the labels involved to flip them off. Then there was XLR8Rmagazine who set up bands in a Greyhound ad only to have several of the bands later complained that they actually hate the bus company.
Maybe least impressive was Amplifiermagazine, which was not only forced to go online-only, but was also accused of selling adspace to labels in exchange for reviews. Are publications so desperate for ad revenue that they're willing to piss off bands and labels and get bad press for this? Guess so. Obviously, this is the wrong way to go, but expect to see more experiments that push the boundaries of ads creeping into content. The trick will be to find the sweet spot where the musicians and readers can live with the tie-in's or at least they won't get too mad about it to raise a big stink. As such, expect to see a lot of bad ideas flowing around, which will only get squashed if there's an outcry. And so, in another tie-in to the music industry that they cover, mags and bands are both figuring out how to snuggle up to advertisers without looking slimy.
Along with declining ad sales, part of the vexing problem for publications continues to be blogs, which potentially cut into the attention that mainstream magazines usually enjoyed exclusively. More and more though in the last few years, these same magazines have wisened up and jumped on the bandwagon with their own blogs. But just like any other tech trend, what's hot this month isn't gonna be trendy a few months from now. In December 2006, Nielsen/Ratings estimated that newspaper blogs got triple the amount of visits from the year before, but only a few months later, the Guardian cited another study which found that blogs' popularity hit a plateau. And blogs aren't immune from the same kind of questionable practices of paid-content that magazines are struggling with now. Also, as Maura Johnston points out in Idolator, too many blogs are turning into cheerleaders for certain releases and providing less objective opinions. And even as someone who's got two blogs himself, I still have to agree with Jeff Waye at Ninja Tune Records who said in a mailing list post that instead of blogs, it's still mainstream media that "for the most part delivers more insightful and better written pieces when not under the gun to deliver daily content and trying to beat everyone else to the story". To wit, I list a number of blog entries in my favorites of the year, but I still would have hoped there would be more.
But despite these problems and the fact that there's still limited prospects for anyone looking to become a full-time blogger. As much as traditional journalistic gatekeepers spit at bloggers any chance they get (especially for honing in on their territory), blogs aren't going to fade away. The temptation is just too great to become the next break-out sensation among the millions of bloggers out there, especially when it's so easy and cheap (usually free) to get started. As an encouraging sign, the Guardian, in particular, has fielded a great selection of terse, thought-provoking arts blogs. Another good sign for blogs is that along with cheerleading favorite acts, some are also starting to include interviews, including Nerd Litter and TurnIt Down (note how blogs get cooler names than many print pubs?).
The blog dilemma also zeroes in on a huge divide in the music scribing sector. With the exception of Brooklyn Vegan, most blogs don't break news. They're mostly providing op-ed, reviews or music downloads. That leaves many bloggers in the same position as many journos at print-based publications, as Tuesday-morning quarterbacks (as that's the day when new releases come out and reviews have to be ready about them in advance) or serving up singles as teasers for full-length albums (or the cheeky ones that offer the full monty, at the risk of getting busted).
When it comes to reviews versus news, the former usually gets more attention unless we're talking about tabloid tidbits. As such, the hard news gatherers (Billboard, New York Times' Jeff Leeds) don't get the credit they deserve because instead of providing sexy stories that get notice, they instead provide important straight-forward information about the business. To put it another way, even many of the pieces I honor here are hashing out what new records mean or are artist profiles, which are much easier to be creative about. But hard news is something we ignore at our own peril because the places that usually provide it are the publication in precarious situations now and, without them, the Net isn't ready to take up the slack. That's not even mentioning the overall trend of cutbacks and buyouts that leave news staffs smaller and forced to do more work with a smaller staff. That leaves less room for the already tiny percentage of investigative stories about music and as David Simon of the TV show the Wire explains, that doesn't translate into better reporting.
But don't start feeling sorry for traditional reviewers because even though bloggers present some competition to them, "old media" still have plenty of pull in this arena. Exhibit number one is Pitchfork, who still provide much sought-after reviews for all manner of indie and major labels, even though it's worth pointing out again that their influence isn't all-mighty all the time. Another important measure are the writers with regular beats at large newspapers who've told me that they still get a good amount of reader feedback, even if many times, it's insults about their mamas. Even then, it still means that at some level, their readers are engaged and care about what these scribes have to say. A number of them elaborated that as much as they appreciate the correspondence, they can't find time to engage in all the conversations that they'd like to with readers, whether it's Simon Reynolds trying to keep up with his blog correspondence or Jim DeRogatis fielding questions about Christmas albums. Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune went as far to say that his pile of reader mail beats out the amount that the other arts-section writers get at that paper (even the movie people). Still, the only writer who's come close to showing the clout that striking TV/film writers have in changing how the industry does business was Wired chief Chris Anderson and his fall missive against what he considered PR spam (hell,some PR folks even begged to get off his shitlist).
And though it's kind of understandable, it's still unfortunate that many freelancers don't get the amount of reader feedback they deserve, even including supreme gadflies who have bylines everywhere. Also, though I make a point to contact as many writers as I can to compliment them on their stories (hope you do this too sometime), much too often I find that they're so grateful for the kind words that I wonder how much correspondence they get for their work, good or bad.
One sure attention-getter for readers inside and outside the journo world are inter-publication dog fights. This past year it wasn't just Spin vs. Rolling Stone or The Source vs. Vibe, but an all-out culture war between the Village Voice and Idolator. The Voice's annual Pazz and Jop poll took a strange twist when, after running it for years, Christgau (who founded it) and Eddy, who both ran P&J for years, were fired. There was speculation whether they'd be another P&J poll at all. Before that could even be settled, Idolator stepped in with its own smart-ass-titled Jackin' Pop poll, headed by Michaelangelo Matos. But P&J did comeback and so war broke out. Who will be asked to vote in each poll? If asked, would anyone vote in both polls? How well would each of them do? Was this going turn out to be a cultural or class war?
It turns out that compared to their 2005 poll with 795 voters, Pazz & Jop had 494 votes for the 2006 poll, which was barely topped by Jackin' Pop's tally of 508 voters for 2006. Just skimming over the results, it looks like Pazz voters generally leaned towards old favorites while Jackin' voters leaned toward newer artists. You can see a more detailed analysis at the War Against Silence site. Despite the odds, Voice editor Rob Harvilla provided himself in the Pazz poll with the help of some good essays by voters though like Jackin' editor Matos, his essay included egg-tossing at his rival. I voted in both polls myself because I think it's healthy to have more than one sampling of what the overall critical mood is out there. What's going to be interesting is to see how the voting and voters shake out over the next few years but, you can bet that there'll be more rivalries and spitballs hurled in this war, which will surely generate a lot of arguments.
Unfortunately, what also still gets attention otherwise is the high profile, wrong-headed shrill piece that gets everyone squawking. In 2007, that would have been Sasha Frere-Jones' October indie rock article for the New Yorker. What was interesting about this particular bunch of malarkey was that it wasn't exclusively attacked by indie rock fans, but also by "poppists" like Carl Wilson. Though many harsh words were hurled at Frere-Jones for this, I just thought it was an ill-conceived, poorly thought-out blip in an otherwise impressive writing career. And though an article like this will no doubt spread his name around even more, it'll also carry some notoriety with it. He meant it to be provocative and start a dialogue about race, which is really commendable, but he definitely didn't antipate getting buttkicked all over the place.
Speaking of long overdue dialogues, I was happy to see that at least one publication was looking beyond the usual suspects in the US and UK for its writing pool. All Music Guide sent a call out to writers from other countries, not just in a mailing, but through their own banners in the spring and summer. Editor Chris Woodstra said that AMG snagged almost three dozen writers in this first pass and were planning to find more in the future. He added that he was impressed with the quality and expertise of their work and that ultimately, this drive would have long-term effect: "(this) increased our diversity by adding different perspectives from around the world. Ultimately, our hope is that we can help people discover new music that they wouldn't have normally been exposed to." While that's really commendable, you still have to wonder when other publications will get the hint and do the same. Rolling Stone has different editions in countries around the word for instance, so why not rope in some of those writers for the US edition?
That's not to say that some scribing here in the States isn't worth praising. It's worth pointing out that there is one writer in particular who's been setting a high standard of work -- even with many years in the business, she's actually been writing her best pieces recently. So for a change, I'd say that there's a good candidate for the title "voice of a generation" and this time, it doesn't happen to be a guy (sorry Chuck Klosterman). Impressive as her work was the New York Times, it's safe to say that Ann Powers is now doing even better work as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. What makes her work special isn't just that her enthusiasm for her work is so damn palpable in her writing, but that she also puts so much thought and effort into figuring out the intricacies and significance of her subjects.
If anything, maybe I didn't list Powers in the article tally this year because there was so many good ones to chose from (peep her Grammy nominations article for a fine example). When I pointed out to her that my only complaint about her writing was that sometimes she tried a little too hard to frame a zeitgeist moment in what she was covering, she not only agreed, but vowed to be more cautious about that in the future. You can add to that her early New Year's resolution to cover more acts that didn't rule the charts. I have no problem with her pieces on best-selling artists, especially when she has such insightful things to say about them, but if she wants to give some indie artists space in her column too, I'd say it's time to call the Vatican and get her canonized.
So how do all these pluses and minuses add up in the end for music scribing? No doubt that you'll see more publications shutting down next year as the economy slinks along and the news industry keeps trying to figure out how to stay alive. Related to that, you'll see more interesting and more piss-poor experiments with ads and readers' information as these venues pan for that ever-elusive ad sales gold. Sad to say, the same problem of technology surges will haunt all these efforts as each solution that comes up will gets dogged by the next tech break-through that changes the rules again and again. As such, these publications need to take tech more seriously and stop piling on the fear and loathing about technology and Net innovations. Instead, they must start roping in the Net geeks and take chances with a variety of ways to involve their audience.
In terms of number of articles, when I did a quick count, it looks like it's about the same number of good stories and bad stories I found last year, except for the "Stories in Themselves" section, which was a little lower this year. That's not bad, but the fact that there aren't more good pieces out there that I found despite the increasing number of outlets (especially blogs) is kind of a bummer.
In the end, maybe the best news is that readers are still hungry for content. As a summer Reuters article explained, "half of web time (is) spent viewing content,"even though they didn't break that down into news or reviews. With less traditional venues or less writers at the remaining left standing, new publications and blogs will have to pick up the slack, while citizen journalism has potential even though it's in its infancy. As long as readers still care and writers are jazzed enough about their work to say something interesting, there's always hope, but it ain't gonna add up to anything substantial unless the publications (meaning the owners, publishers, editors and even the writers too) keep pushing new ideas and initiatives not just to keep ahead, but also to keep afloat. That means treating blogs as a boon and not a threat and taking advantage of new innovations in mobile technology and using burgeoning social networks to also spread the word.
For your part, please keep reading your favorite publications and maybe some new ones and, yes, keep letting your favorite scribes how much you appreciate their work. They'll be grateful and you'll be grateful when you see more of their work. And if you don't like what you see out there, put out your own work in a blog or zine and give something back. The music scribing biz ain't too proud to turn you away and you have zero to lose, except maybe your humility.
As always, I want to give a heartfelt thanks to the inimitable Mr. Scott Woods who started me into doing these year-end lists for rockcritics.com some five to six years ago.