Saratoga with a Slice of Lime
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Why the American Music Press Is Ahead of the British Best
MANY might find my headline proclamation…
tantamount to a lack of patriotism and faith! There are many familiarities between America and the United Kingdom, We both have unpopular, ludicrous leaders (the U.S. are ahead of us) and both have incredible music scenes (I would give that win to us). In a modern-day, media American Revolutionary War; the Americans win the new-age Saratoga and Yorktown. It is not biased suggesting we have a better and more rounded music scene. I know America is larger and has broader geography than we do here. You can go from the Southern states like Arizona and Nevada and see no comparison to that of Tennessee or New Mexico. New York is a world away from California whilst Oregon and New Jersey have their own thing going on. Maybe the fact there are more musicians in the U.S. (compared to here) means there are more music outlets; greater mobilisation and better, finer-funded journalistic attack. I often search for ‘the best bands in…’ when looking at state-specific artists. The local media, except for New York and California, is not that active when highlighting their best acts to watch. Maybe Nashville and Austin (Texas) are exceptions. Here, we have the same issue: I wonder why there are few local sources scouring the floors for artists to watch. The national press is a different matter?
I will concede America is a lot stronger regarding other elements of the entertainment industry. I watched a new drama, Feud, for the FX network that tells about the rivalry bittern Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. The series was well-received and has been renewed for a second season – where the subject switches to the relationship between Princess Diana and Prince Charles. I watch ambitious and sharp U.S. drama and realise how far ahead of us they are. Look at the range of fantastic dramas on Netflix, FX and Amazon Prime and you can see how advances and ahead of us they are – despite the fact they have more money. I do not believe finance and greater resources is the reason the Americans leads us: finer talent and better writers, with great imagination, are part of the equation. That is the same case regarding sitcoms: the penmanship is finer, wittier and the series are, largely, much funnier. You can debate the odd show here and there but, when comparing scenes; the U.S. market is a lot stronger. Music is a much more evenly-balanced and competitive. The Americans have a better and dominant Hip-Hop/Rap scene. We have nobody who can rival the potency and genius of Kendrick Lamar, for example. Our Pop market is richer and we are pretty toe-to-toe regarding Punk, Rock and Indie. Look at the Folk market and we take an edge; the U.S. has better Country acts; maybe the U.S. leads the Jazz market – we regain advantage when looking at Electronic acts.
IN THIS PHOTO: The logo for Pigeons & Planes/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images/Pigeons & Planes
In spite of our shinier, tauter muscles; there seems to be a disparity that is quite alarming. I look at the list of best-rated music blogs and the Americans lead the pack. From Pitchfork and Consequence of Sound; BrooklynVegan and Aquarium Drunkard; The 405 and AllMusic; Pigeons & Planes to Metal Injection – all based in the U.S. Drowned in Sound, The Line of Best Fit and Louder Than War are situated here. Manchester’s Louder Than War – based on The Smiths’ Louder Than Bombs compilation – is one of the go-to sites for all the coolest and most current music news. I am a big fan of Drowned in Sound and what they produce. We have Too Many Blogs and other great blogs but, if you look down the list of the finest and highest-rated you find the majority are American. We might, in a list of fifty, not lose out by much but the top-ten/twenty is U.S.-heavy. Considering we here have a deeper and more vibrant music scene (in my view); I wonder why we are losing the war. There are more people in the U.S., for sure, so it is inevitable there would be a wider media scene. Quantity and coverage do not mean a stronger and better-quality market. Our best music blogs match the quality and importance of magazines like MOJO, NME and Q. We have a wonderful wave of underground/independent blogs (not including myself!) but the spotlighted, professional sites are not quite as striking and impressive as the U.S.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
If the Americans have us beat for drama and comedy writers: does that mean their music journalists are finer? I would say, historically, we have produced the most intelligent and passionate music commentators. Now, if you look at the music media, there is a less-visible and important scene. Gone are the heady days of NME – when every band lusted after coverage – and the writers who helped define and document our brilliant artists. Although we have passed the epic days of the 1990s; that does not mean a weakened music scene should affect the music press. A few years ago the BBC Radio 4 series, Yesterday’s Papers: The End of the Music Press, examined the downshift in media outlets and how writing has moved from traditional print to the Internet. It is a shame to see the cessation of weekly magazines – a few exist but fewer than years ago – and the digitisation of the music press. One of the problems we have here is a lack of governmental backing. We have a lot of talented writers – on the same level as America’s best – but there is less money set aside to find the media. Although recent reports suggested certain U.S. newspapers are laying off editors and copyrighters. There is structural weakening occurring and the need to minimise and centralise publications. Many sources are streamlining their workforce and trying to save money.
That said; there is still more money available in the U.S. and better financing to ensure the best music blogs/paper are subsidised and survive. I know most of our blogs have to rely on unpaid contributors and a shallower wallet. Many are closing because of the expense needed to produce great work. One needs to go to gigs and interview artists; publish pieces and, in order to compete; be as ambitious and prolific as possible. Free contributors are fine but there are still the issues around expenses and subsidisation. There is such a tight budget for our best writers and sites to expand and thrive. Maybe, then, finance is the big difference. A lot of other factors play in. The closure of music venues and changing genre-tastes – Pop starting to rise; Rock less prevalent and important; new music taking a bigger role than mainstream – means the lesser-seen, smaller blogs (who investigate new music) are busier and, in my view, more promising. The finest we have here are wonderful but there is something special about the U.S. I can trace a lot of the weakness to the way the government ignores the music scene. Venues are closing and the charts are not an accurate representation of our music culture; the printed press is dwindling and there is not the kind of explosion and genius we had years/decades ago. All of these factors combine and it means it much harder appealing to the masses; producing the same sort of work that made British music journalism the byword for quality years back.
The U.S. has its own problems but there are more paid writers and bigger numbers. If they can afford to hire writers and have bigger kitties for gigs and pieces – that means the journalism will be better and appeal to more people. More money can be spent on promotion and it seems there are differences between the way the music media is perceived and treated in both nations. I cannot abide by the assumption American writers are better than ours. The music scenes are even but with exciting young artists like SZA, Princess Nokia and Brockhampton producing terrific music – it is a ripe and rewarding time being a music journalist in the U.S. We have amazing hot artists coming out but I feel U.S. music, at the moment, is more adventurous and colourful. If the quality levels are even; there is a more eclectic scene. If you look at an average day at Pitchfork and Drowned in Sound you cannot really say the Americans are sharper, more detailed and innovative than our best. A lot of these polls are based on numbers and, when you have a bigger national population; the more people will visit music websites. America has government problems and faces the same trials as we do but I think our media and music scene is at greater risk than the U.S. Structural damage and shaky survival rates for venues is worrying; the way the mainstream is set up and the lack of affirmative, mass-inspiring bands compelling writers. Maybe, though, there is a general issue with music journalism as a whole.
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
Is the lack of money and digitisation affecting people’s dedication and concentration? The invention of apps. mean people can get their music news on the go; there is more competition and albums are released in different ways – less time for promotion and people refuting the media’s opinion and relying more on streaming services for musical guidance. I still think these issues exist more in the U.K. It is hard explaining why the U.S. are so far ahead of us regarding popularity and press dominance. I shall conclude by bringing in a piece by a U.S. journalist published on hypebot earlier in the year:
“Back in the day, music press got the word out about music before the music itself could get there. You could read about a record, but hearing it required hard work, happenstance or money you didn’t have. It could take yearsbetween seeing the name of some potentially-interesting band or song and actually hearing them. These days, of course, your chosen obscurity is likely just a YouTube search away.
With the rise of blogs, opinion is as readily available as the music itself. Approximately nobody is going to pay money for this stuff. Only the biggest blogs and sites can sell the ads they need to, and even they’re having serious problems. The New Musical Express is now an entertainment guide given away outside tube stations. The problem for professional music critics and press is competition from literally the whole world, the same problem artists have.
This is a special case of the problem with journalism in general: the money dried up with the exclusivity. About the only press that’s done at all well are the technology sites, who ripped down those tedious walls between editorial and advertising and gave up any reluctance to live off payola around the turn of the millennium, turning into utter and unapologetic shills. (Though it’s not clear those walls were ever up in music journalism.)
Even in the ’80s and ’90s, the pay was bloody dismal — I quit X-Press twice because of their widely-attested habit of asking for stuff then not running it, thus not paying you — and the main attraction was that it beat working for a living; but even that beer money level is now largely gone. Though I enjoyed it — even the tedious bits were pretty fun — I’m a computer system administrator primarily because there’s no money in writing about music. This Baffler story is me after I moved from near-unemployable nonprofit lifer to overpaid geek. I eat way better now”.
The lack of paid roles; dominance of the middle-classes in mainstream media; the lack of motivation new writers have to work for nothing; the fact people are finding out about albums before they come out – and less reliant on the written word – are all damaging and important. I have concerns about the music press in general and whether journalism is a profitable and desirable path. The only way we can make it attractive is by building our blogs/publications and considering how they are run/staffed. The U.S. music press is in trouble but I feel we face graver issues – fewer stunning writers and less money available for great and original content. With such a brilliant and growing music scene, our best and brightest talent…
DESERVES better than that!