Gaps in music journalism coverage

Inspired by the content we’ve gone over the past few weeks I decided to look more into the type of journalism that most interests me: music journalism.

As I was deciding on which field to go into during my senior year of high school I looked at what interested me the most. Music, specifically reviewing and studying it, was the first thing that came to mind. However, since I hadn’t played an instrument since the 8th grade and couldn’t sing a note I figured writing about it would be just as great.

Now that I’ve become a more critical consumer of journalism it’s both interesting and disheartening to see how little solid music journalism coverage there is these days. Beyond Billboard, Fuse, and Pitchfork there’s not much left. This is likely due to the larger issue of music becoming so widely available that there is no longer a real need for consumers to read reviews before deciding on supporting an artist.

Prior to the introduction of mp3s and music-sharing softwares finding new music and artists was difficult. In a class I’m currently taking called “Music and the Media” taught by Peter Rothbart we have discussed the changing forms of music and how with the evolution of technology people have changed how they listen to it. It went from being a social activity to an individual one, from families sitting around listening to a phonograph to a college student plugging in headphones isolating themself from their surroundings.

With this change in the way people listen came a change in how they found out what to listen to. In an article titled “From weekly to weakly”  from The Guardian, journalist Fiona Sturges discusses this shift in consumption,

“Pop has become an extension of the entertainment industry and acquiescent music journalists have become its cheerleaders, content to stand on the sidelines rather then wade in and get their hands dirty.”

I agree with her sentiment entirely. If an artist reaches the Billboard Hot 100 chart they’ll never see a review below a 7 out of 10, and even if they did, what would it matter? A bad review won’t harm their ranking as most consumers are reading these reviews after already deciding on their opinion of the piece. It’s more beneficial for an outlet to write up glowing reviews to hopefully get noticed by the artist managers to possibly lead to an interview, than to piss them off by sharing how they really feel.

Further on in the previously mentioned article Sturges griped about this sentiment,

“Certainly, the market is now more competitive than ever with writers and editors less preoccupied with promoting quality music than trumping their rivals with big-name interviews. Nowadays everyone from the Daily Mail and the Sun to Marie Claire and heat magazine carries album reviews. You can’t switch on the television without finding some empty-headed pop star plugging an album.”

Indeed the market has also changed by more and more outlets including their own sections dedicated to music coverage. These “reviews” are more basic write-ups of what the songs sound like than any real analysis of content.

This cultural shift from caring about music quality to caring more about what the musician eats for breakfast has also dealt a serious blow to the industry. Former Billboard editorial director Bill Werdes wrote an open letter titled “Letter From the Editor: A Call to Focus on Music—For Music’s Sake,” that focused on what he perceived to be a lack in coverage quality.

It’s a sign of the times that celebrity trumps actual culture on TV. If Miley Cyrus cavorts with a foam finger, I’m a talking head on the topic for the next three months. If she does a superb job singing a great song like “Wrecking Ball,” producers start looking for B-roll of the Kardashians.

– Bill Werdes

Despite all standing in the way of proper music critique and journalism, I still believe there is hope for the market. As a consumer myself I’m tired of being spoon-fed popular music that someone somewhere got paid a lot of money to market properly. As a journalist I’m tired of seeing my soon-to-be peers stifle their real opinions on music so they don’t lose their jobs, or miss out on amazing interviews. The arts are just as important as any other aspect of popular culture and should be treated as such.



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