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Will music journalism survive the digital age?

  • 13 September 2020, Sunday
Piles of different magazines

One area that gets discussed less often is how printed music journalism has been affected by the digitalisation of the industry. The development of this segment of the music business has also seen huge changes. According to a recent report on BBC Radio 4, pop music papers in Britain used to sell over a quarter million copies every week. NME’s print sales figures have now shrunk to just 14,000 per week. What is the future of music journalism, and how will it survive?

Many major labels and artists are still picking up the pieces after digitalisation and illegal downloads shook up the music industry and changed it forever in the early 2000s. Streaming services like Spotify and WiMP have since been developed, to offer music users a legal alternative to illegal downloads. However, the way in which they pay artists, labels and publishers is still being fiercely debated. The more optimistic voices in favour of streaming argue that it will soon be able to generate more revenue than the golden age of physical record and CD sales. Whether or not this will come true remains to be seen.

History

Music journalism became popular in the early 1960s, offering people the chance to find out more about the lives of their favourite pop stars. The music weeklies would also advertise new singles and bands, helping passionate music followers to stay up to date with the latest developments in the industry. Melody Maker was one of the first publications, featuring the UK’s first famous music writer, Richard Williams. Melody Maker eventually had to merge with its historical rival, NME, when the music publication industry first began to struggle in the 1990s and 2000s. Williams still writes independently. He was recently featured on the BBC radio 4 production ‘Yesterday’s Papers: The End of the Music Press’, where he mentioned the happy parallel between working for Melody Maker in the golden days, and writing his own blog now: he can still choose which artists he wants to write about, as the internet offers the same kind of freedom as the early music press - just without the payment.

Jann Wenner founded the legendary Rolling Stone magazine in 1967, and is still its editor! Examples of longterm continuity in the music press are, however, increasingly rare. Rolling Stone still prides itself on its news features (originally written by Hunter S. Thompson who also contributed up until his death) alongside as music reviews and industry news. However, many people are criticising Rolling Stone and NME for their increasingly cynical methods of gaining attention with their front covers, which often feature old-school musical legends or politically controversial figures that are guaranteed to get readers’ attention. This seems to be the only way for publications to sell physical copies these days. For example, Rolling Stone’s sales soared in 2013, when they published a controversial picture of the Boston Bomber. David Hepworth (who presented the BBC radio 4 feature mentioned above) recently posted on his own blog criticising NME’s recent decision to put a figure as well established as Nick Cave on their cover, rather than staying true to their name and featuring new artists.

New formats

Social media platforms are becoming increasingly important as sources of music industry news and entertainment for fans. These platforms actually offer fans the same thing as traditional music journalism: an intimate glimpse into the lives of famous musicians, and tips on the next big thing in music. Fans still want the same thing as before, but their methods have changed. Instead of having to wait to buy weekly or bi-weekly publications, they can now use social media to find out about music and musicians whenever and wherever they like.

If you want to know what your favourite pop star likes to eat and who they’re dating, you can just follow them on Instagram, for example, because artists have become journalists of their own experiences. This is positive for artists in one sense, as they no longer need to rely upon being signed to a major label with a big marketing budget. Musicians can control their own publicity; with some savvy moves on Facebook, YouTube, etc., you can create your own media presence and hype. Of course, there’s still a lot of prestige and importance attached to being written about in the NME, for example, but artists do have a new-found freedom to reveal their secrets directly to their fans in the way that they want to.

Fans can pretend to be journalists too: John Doran, founder of the online music magazine The Quietus, is one of the professional music journalists who has successfully adapted to today’s environment. He observes that: “there is really good, sharp, incisive, clever debate about music going on” in chat rooms, blogs, and other interactive and user-based platforms on the internet. There are many high quality examples of modern music sites that are never printed, including xlr8r (a blog that features electronic artists and offers users a mix of podcasts, reviews and downloads), I Love Music, a forum where users share music news and reviews, and The Needle Drop, a video review site by the self-proclaimed ‘biggest music nerd’ on the internet, funded by PayPal donations.

The quality and tone of these sites is different from that found in the traditional articles written for the music press, but how much does this matter? Many fans don’t seem to think it matters at all, although this development must affect professional music journalists and publications that are used to being paid for what anyone can now do for free.

Music journalist Rob Fitzpatrick creates content for Spotify these days, showing how music writing and the streaming industry are becoming interlinked. The creation of podcasts and playlists has become a particularly popular new way for journalists to continue to be tastemakers in the industry, and offer their expertise to fans who want some guidance navigating the sea of millions of tracks available to stream. Specific platforms like Nordic Playlist offer niche journalism and advice to their followers and subscribers. They invite expert curators to make weekly playlists featuring Nordic artists, which can then be listened to via streaming services Spotify, Deezer or WiMP.

Conclusion

The fact is, these new methods of music journalism combined with social media and streaming services are often exciting and inspired, but they do not make up for the declining sales figures of publications. The number of people buying music magazines has dropped drastically. Artists and the music press face similar challenges in the digitalisation of the music industry: the new abundance of free sources of information and music online has made it harder to make money via traditional routes. Perhaps the role of the professional music journalist has in fact become more important because of the huge amount of music out there that needs to be sifted through, as Laura Nineham argues for Drowned in Sound.

Websites like Pitchfork, Line of Best Fit and the 405 still earn respect for their commentary on the music industry’s latest releases, without needing to make sell out moves on their front covers to cover the cost of being published. One benefit of the internet is that the music press no longer represents another gatekeeper that musicians have to battle. It also means that aspiring music journalists don’t have to fight for the few positions at the major magazines, but can start their own blog with articles about bands they love and want to share. However, the increasingly popular list format featuring ‘the top 100 albums’, ‘songs that will break your heart’, or ‘pop stars you never knew had famous dads’, does make you start to wonder if this is an age of increasing desperation for the music press. Magazines will surely continue to lose money on printed sales unless there is some kind of retro appreciation of physical copies, in tandem with the industry’s tentative movements back towards vinyl.

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