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Is Music Journalism Really in a Healthy and Sustainable State?
I will bring in a piece Dave Simpson wrote for The Guardian…
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in regards music journalism and its health. He argues, quite rightly, there is a wealth of wonderful magazines on the newsagent racks and plenty of choice for everyone out there. Let’s start with the print media and how it has shifted. Many have argued that music’s printed press and the hard copies we all grew up with are going strong – even if the market has changed and there are smaller publication. Whilst there is not the likes of Smash Hits anymore; there are plenty of options out there. I remember growing up around Pop magazines and popular publications that were shared around the playground and we would pour over the pages and read all the interviews and reviews; the cool news and great images of our favourite stars. I loved the writing but, to me, it was the colour and style of these magazines that got into the mind and stayed with me. Whilst some have bitten the dust, there are many available options for the modern consumer. The biggest change, I feel, is the age shift. Music magazines used to be digested and thumbed through by children and younger fans but I feel there are fewer modern options established for that age range. Maybe there are fewer younger music fans who are interested in music journalism or there are no real options on the shelves. Many are getting their news and fix from the Internet and a lot of the music magazines out there, bar the odd one or two, seem to be designed for the more mature and ‘serious’ purveyor…
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There are few of the glitzy and colourful magazines we used to buy as children. Now you have these more advanced and po-faced magazines that are as alluring and captivating as those we were raised around – even if there is a little less fun and humour to be found. There is a school of thought that suggested we do not buy magazines and the music press is irrelevant. One cannot make that declaration without frequenting a newsagents or shop and seeing the array of available mags. If anything, a lot of smaller, specialised magazines are popular and there is a wide range that covers all genres. You can buy magazines dedicated to Classic music or Metal; those for Pop and Rock and Folk options. If you want your fix of the coolest Indie out there then you have choices and affordable passions. One of the biggest losses in the music industry was the death of NME’s print edition. This is how The Independent presented the news:
“NME has announced that this week’s issue (Friday 9 March) will be its final print edition, as it attempts to expand its digital audience.
NME was launched as the New Musical Express in 1952 and began its 66-year career as one of the UK’s most recognisable music publications, featuring iconic artists on its cover including Oasis, Bowie, Amy Winehouse, The Libertines and The Strokes.
The free NME launched on 18 September 2015 and featured Rihanna on its cover. It has been handed out to commuters and students around the UK on a weekly basis since…
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Paul Cheal, Time Inc UK’s group managing director for Music, added: “NME is one of the most iconic brands in British media and our move to free print has helped to propel the brand to its biggest ever audience on NME.com”
“At the same time, we have also faced increasing production costs and a very tough print advertising market. Unfortunately we have now reached a point where the free weekly magazine is no longer financially viable. It is the digital space where effort and investment will focus to secure a strong future for this famous brand”
The end of NME’s print edition led many to believe this was a sign of a journalism apocalypse: the move from the newsstands to the Internet and a sign people were not buying music magazines any more. Many took to the Internet to share their disappointment and theorise why NME were struggling. Maybe there was an issue with the way the editor was taking NME or a problem regarding advertising getting in the way of the music. Whatever the reason behind declining sales; it was a sad day and the end of an era. Other publications have had to call time but, as explained, there are ample choices and a really healthy raft of magazines/papers for those who love their music journalism in printed form. Dave Simpson backs up this viewpoint:
“...And yet, to walk into any major newsagent in 2018 is to be greeted by a dizzying array of titles – far more than there were when Melody Maker, NME and Sounds shipped hundreds of thousands of copies. Today’s circulations are lower, but there are magazines for every niche or genre, from Classic Rock to Blues & Soul to avant garde title The Wire…
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“I’ve read thousands of words about the so-called ‘crisis in music journalism’, but your average punter would be hard-pressed to understand that,” says John Mulvey, who edits the 63,000-selling monthly Mojo, which celebrated its 300th issue last month. He argues that the ill-fated free NME was “a last attempt to court a general audience, as titles have realised that they are no longer mainstream but specialist publications”.
I love how Mojo and Q have survived for years and seem to have that loyal fanbase. There is no sign of end for them and it is clear, at its heart, magazines like that do their job very well. There are great reviews and interviews and it is clear people are not abandoning the printed form for the Internet. I will end by looking at negatives and ways the music media is suffering but it seems, for the most part, the visibility and variation of printed forms is evident. I am a fan of magazines like The Line of Best Fit and DORK. They are handy, cool editions that are colourful, really well-designed and informative. Each has their own style and you get these great reviews, articles and interviews. If you want a more mainstream option then you have the likes of Q and Uncut but there are these smaller rivals that seem to project a more geekish and cool element – they are the types you’d expect to hang around Hackney with really posh beer talking about the latest Wolf Alice album, Whereas one was a little limited back in the day regarding range and surprise; as music has opened and more and more choices are available for the listener; journalists have reacted to this and ensured that is reflected in print form.
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I would not say the printed form is completely out of the woods regarding safety. The more and more we turn to the Internet; the more some of the smaller and less popular options will fail. Look at the longevity of magazines like Q and Rolling Stone and it does provide hope and comfort for those who want to bring their own options out. Whilst I acknowledge the variety and vivacity of the magazines out there; one wonders how profitable they are. Back in 2011, there was a bit of a sales dip for publications such as Uncut and Q but it seems like they recovered quite well. Advertising and revenue from that means publications can be more ambitious and attract big artists to the cover; they can employ more people and there are options available. So many of the magazines I buy and read are either free or cost very little. It seems, although printed music media is stable, the profits available are quite slim. Advertising brings in enough money to cover expenses but there is not a huge amount of profit at the end – meaning there is always that risk of loss and decline. As I shall speak about later; one of the main problems with music media/journalism is the lack of employment opportunities and paid positions.
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What, then, is the reason behind the survival and growth of music magazines?
“Following what Mulvey calls a “recalibration”, today’s music titles are adapting to smaller circulations and more competitive markets by lowering overheads, using smaller teams and refining their core specialisms, emphasising quality, longform journalism in the face of an avalanche of disposable free content. Mulvey – an ex-NME staffer who edited Uncut until last January – wants to develop an ageing readership gently by covering new artists alongside the “evolving stories” of veteran Mojo favourites – so Paul McCartney can be on the cover and Malian star Fatoumata Diawara inside. Uncut’s current editor Bonner wants the 44,000-selling monthly to “celebrate the best of old and new” – so David Bowie retrospectives mix with passionate pieces on Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever or Moses Sumney”.
IN THIS PHOTO: Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
Whilst there are some positives to take away; it seems like appeal and stability is more important than sales figures and profit. We are not in a time when there are great movements like Britpop getting us racing to the stands. Fewer school children are sharing music magazines and the culture has changed. Music is more about individuals than it is genres/albums; we have changed immeasurably and, with that, there have been some bumps for a few of the bigger magazines:
“Q editor Ted Kessler has a tough job, turning around the so-called “world’s greatest music magazine” with its slightly younger remit spanning the post-Britpop era and contemporary pop: it sold 200,000 copies in 2000 but 37,000 in 2017. But the recent Christine and the Queens cover felt zeitgeisty and Kessler insists he doesn’t fret over sales figures. “I’m confident enough in what we’re producing appealing across the generations to not fear the readership dying on us. Every month I’m excited when we put the magazine to bed, which hasn’t always been the case at Q”.
Whilst there is that satisfaction, from editors, regarding their cover stars and their working lives; the fact sales figures are dipping and magazines have to retail for less/offer more means there is this struggle for survival and growth. I wonder, given the figures we just saw for Q if people are turning more and more to websites for their news and music?
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A lot of people sneer at music journalists and feel most people, with streaming services, can make their own minds up and do not need people telling them what to buy. There are so many music websites around so why would we need to go out and buy magazines? Whilst there is a range of magazines on the shelves; you wonder how many will disappear in years to come and how healthy their sales figures are. It is hard to tell just how well magazines are faring but, as Simpson explored, the dents and obstacles are affecting Internet sites too:
“Internet titles have been hit hard by a collapse in web advertising, following Facebook and Google’s greater ability to place advertisements right in front of any target audience – refined, by algorithms, to age, location, “likes”, music tastes and so on. “I’m constantly being shown ghost adverts saying, ‘All your readers could see this on Facebook if you pay us,’” says John Doran, co-founder of the Quietus. The esteemed left-field website recently turned 10 and attracts 400,000 monthly readers for coverage of acts from Guttersnipe to the Fall, but requires supporter donations and pays journalists when it can (many work gratis to assist what is seen as a noble cause). Doran admits that he and colleague Luke Turner are themselves “on less than minimum wage, forever five minutes from the dole. Today, I wouldn’t start a website. I’d start a free, bi-weekly, multi-genre paper, distributed in universities”.
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I feel the biggest market is those smaller publications that are newer to the market and providing a bit more variety, style and personality. Perhaps magazines like Q and Uncut need to rebrand or take a new direction but I do fear for their long-term future. Whilst there is a bit more stability with Mojo and Kerrang!; I still think the next few years will provide a challenge when it comes to keeping the sales figures up. Every music magazine/outlet knows they need that print edition and few out there can survive as a website alone. People do not pay to see a website and read their news so it is vital to have that paid option. Many P.R. companies and artists want to see their work in print and it has that quality they want to hold onto. It is like the clash between digital and vinyl music: we love the accessibility and speed of streaming but people love to have that physical product and have something in their hands! It seems a lot of new artists love the choice of online sites and they can get their music/words on there but the bigger, established artists prefer print and that heritage. As more and more newer artists come through; how long before websites take sales/attention from magazines and cause some problems?!
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I agree there is no need to write off the printed press – and many still want magazines and something they can read – but there is an inherent issue when it comes to all these websites sprouting up. I am a blogger and know there are hundreds of options out there. Not only do we have the problem with saturation and TOO many options but so many people are working in the industry for free. Advertising brings in so much but a lot of that is used for expenses such as gig tickets, travel and other costs. Maybe some of the bigger websites can pay their staff – people like The Guardian have paid employees for sure – but there are a load of websites that recruit freelance journalists who, for the most part, receive no fee. Journalism should be about passion rather than money but, if a young journalist cannot get paid and there is no easy route to paid employment; is that going to turn many away?! I have tried to apply for work at big magazines and newspapers and the route for people like me is either an internship or pitching to the editor. If you are lucky then you might get a bit of money for an article or interview but it is unstable and an unreliable source of finance in the long-term. Internships are unpaid, for the most part, and hugely competitive. Loads of people are going for them and there is no guarantee a job will await you at the end.
If you have been a journalist for a while and want to earn a wage, you cannot step back and do an unpaid internship. You will not be able to afford rent and travel and the fact you are battling so many others means long-term prospects are shaky and unsure. Not only is the lack of paid work a trouble but there is still problems around class, race and gender. Music websites are great but how often will you be able to earn some money from submitting pieces? You might get the odd bit of cash here and there but is that attractive to a journalist emerging? They will see the reality – you have to work for free a lot – and that is going to affect recruitment. People like me blog for the love of it but, naturally, we want to get paid in the future and make it a career. Even with a slightly upturn in magazines and choices, it does not mean a paid music career is a safe bet or guarantee. So many of these publications have small margins and is it realistic to be a journalist in this day and age?! If you want to work for free and can work a full-time job around that then that is an option but not one many are tempted to do. Another problem exists when you consider that issue with reviewing and public opinion. There are a lot of positive reviews out there and I feel a lot of journalists, myself included, compromise a bit of integrity and truth in order to seem warm and all-inclusive. Have critics, in fact, lost the art of being critical?!
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This article from earlier in the year explores issues around reviewing and some under-discussed problems in music journalism:
“This is an odd thing to notice at first, but since the turn of the decade or so, more and more mainstream, major label albums have been getting positive reviews by professional music critics. Is the overall quality of music getting better? Turn on commercial radio and listen for yourself. Okay, clearly the good-to-mediocre-hits balance is still the same as it has been for generations – so what gives? Are critics across all industries slowly loosening up and realizing that at the end of the day, it’s all just art for the masses and tastes are subjective? Strangely enough, no.
MetaCritic.com features an aggregator to add up all the review scores given to releases in movies, video games, TV and music by professional critics everywhere, creating a fairer average rating by balancing things with more voices and viewpoints. They use colour coding for consumers scrolling their listings to quickly identify if this release is generally considered good or not. Green means good. Yellow means mixed. Red means that the critical consensus is that this entertainment product should be avoided. Each year, about 10% of movies Meta Critic lists have red scores. So for every 7,000 or so motion pictures that get widely reviewed, around 700 are considered “bad” by the vast majority of professional critics. Music releases, in the mean time, fare a lot better. For example, from 2012-2017, out of the 7,287 total albums listed on Meta Critic, eight were given a red score (no red scores in 2017). That can’t be accurate! How can it be that only the music critics are getting soft and cuddly in the last few years, but other industries are as tough as ever to please!”
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“The print publication makes money on advertisements in between articles. It’s a formula: “if xnumber of people are subscribers and we average y number of sales from grocery store checkout lines this time of year, that’s x+y eyeballs reading cover-to-cover who will see an ad about your company. We think that kind of attention is worth z in cash.” Nowadays, most people read magazine articles online. The ratings are down for cover-to-cover zealous readers, and way up for clicking links to articles that your friend sent you”.
As a working-class writer; I feel there are fewer true and relatable voices in the press. Whilst a lot of the smaller publications seem to resonate; many of the bigger papers/magazines are still staffed by privileged and well-educated journalists. It seems easier to get your foot in the door if you have connections with a publication/record label and, for many, the reality is they will have to work harder is they are working-class. With so few working-class artists in the mainstream; are publications going to recruit working-class journalists?! Look at this article from a few months ago and it seems, in terms of the mainstream sites and papers; there is a long way to go until the class bias is reversed:
“The Sutton Trust, which seeks to improve social mobility, found that 51% of the country’s leading journalists were educated privately, and 80% of its top editors went to either private or grammar schools….
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Privately educated pupils are also more likely to go to Oxbridge, which makes more offers to one school – Eton – than all of those on free school meals, according to research by David Lammy MP.
There is more. Former social-mobility tsar Alan Milburn’s State of the Nation report found that 11% of journalists were from working-class backgrounds, compared to 60% of the population. A report by City University in 2016 found that the British journalism industry is 94% white and 86% university-educated. Just 0.4% of British journalists are Muslim.
The declining economic fortunes of the industry mean that cheap and even free labour, in the form of unpaid internships, are increasingly common, while expensive postgraduate degrees appear the best way in for many. Given this, the barriers to those who need to earn money to launch a career look set to get even worse.
Some will argue that this lack of income diversity doesn’t matter: only the best rise to the top, as though ratlike cunning and a passion for deadlines are taught alongside manners at public schools”.
Maybe Internet sites have more working-class working for them but look at the bigger publications and newspapers like The Guardian and The Independent and most of their contributors are either very well connected in the industry or from a wealthier background. They do have working-class contributors but I wonder, unless you have connections and contacts within the industry; how realistic is it for a working-class music journalist to get a foot-up and be noticed?!
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There are so few black and Asian faces in the music media and I get tired of seeing endless white faces starting back at me. Maybe this reflects a racial narrowness in music as a whole – fewer black and Asian artists are featured and celebrated – but I think there is more broadness and diversity in music than in journalism. I only know a few black music journalists and, for the most part, it is white journalists who you see. Maybe there is health in terms of availability of printed magazines and Internet sites but there is a clear issue regarding race and social class – the type of people recruited and the ease of being able to work as a professional is you are black/Asian or working-class. The last point I will raise is gender. It is a harder one to judge but there is a definite split between online sites and the printed press. It seems, when you read music news and reviews in papers; most of what you see is by men. Figures are improving but there is still a big imbalance. As Clash investigated in this piece; online sites have provided a bigger voice for women:
“But now the focus of music writing – and journalism in general – has shifted online. One advantage of this is that it gives everyone a voice, regardless of gender or appearance. Nepotism has always been rife in the media, and that’s by no means gone, but the theory is that online music journalism is meritocratic – everyone has access to the music and contacts they need and that allows the best quality writing to shine through. Where women may have been unwelcome in the past, barriers have been removed, and there are now even blogs and publications, such as Wears The Trousers – which look at music exclusively from a female-focused perspective….
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“Journalism is slowly becoming more female-friendly, which is a blessing because it’s one of the few places for women where people don’t judge you predominantly on your looks,” believe Rhiannon and Holly. “Diversity in editorial is so important, and most editors have realised that only providing the white male voice is downright boring.” Herein lies the key point. It’s a question of diversity, of making sure all viewpoints and attitudes are taken into account. The world of music is a fascinating place, a melting pot of countless cultures, races and backgrounds. To continue to limit those who write about it to one group – namely young, white men – would be to miss out on some truly exciting, not to mention under-heard, perspectives”.
For many black women in journalism; it seems like there is a real problem. A couple of years ago; Jordannah Elizabeth shared her experiences and how few black peers there are in Rock journalism:
“What drew me to psych-rock music was that the songwriters of the bands were still writing about love and mind expansion. I liked that the lyrics were potent and the music, whether neo-psychedelic or revivalist, had a euphoric and nostalgic style that seemed to bond the listeners and musicians together. But even after many years, I noticed that I remained one of the few, if not the only, black female writer in my circle. As my career grew, it became important to me to address the question of why diversity was not advancing in rock and alternative music journalism.
I don't feel like I'm a part of the industry yet. That's the beauty of the internet and the crack in journalism that we're experiencing. I'm a freelance journalist, and this month is my first year anniversary of getting paid for my writing. So far my biggest challenge has been getting paid on time and getting commissioned to write about things outside of what people think is the black female experience. Don't get me wrong, I love Beyonce and def had a review of Lemonade in my drafts, but I'd still love to be paid to write about the aesthetic of early-2000s emo music and MySpace”.
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Lina Lecaro, writing in 2015, stated that, whilst online sites give women a voice and identity; there are still doubts and a certain ‘image’ they have to project:
“Backstage and beyond, women music journalists must regularly navigate conflicted feelings and complicated gray areas that we face as both critics and fans. Our profession presents us with a distinct set of challenges and unforgiving double standards as we strive to be taken seriously, particularly when starting out.
What is true is that women are conditioned, and even encouraged, to participate in the more superficial aspects of music fandom when we’re young: to be screaming, crying, poster-kissing “fan-girls.” But female obsessives’ interest in music runs as deep in terms of sonic structure, tone, mood, and inspiration as it does for anyone of any gender. We can also be into the fashion, culture, spectacle, and allure surrounding an artist. These things aren’t mutually exclusive.
Female writers, just like female musicians, are clearly still fighting for our place in the music world. Self-doubt still creeps in. Editors sometimes don’t reply. Many still favor male writers, and now that I’ve been doing this for so long, there’s ageism to contend with. But despite lower pay rates than when I started, I finally know my worth. I know I don’t have to look or act a certain way, or keep quiet about anything inappropriate that happens to me in order to stay respected as a journalist”.
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I think there is change when it comes to sexism but there are still a lot of mainstream papers and magazines that are male dominated and have mainly white faces – this is reflected in radio and many other areas of the industry. It is harder to get a paid position and make your way through the industry if you are working-class and, although blogs and online sites provide valuable experience; the reality is that many aspiring music journalists will never enjoyed a paid career and be able to make a healthy living from it. I agree with Dave Simpson and the fact there are more publications available and the printed form is surviving but there are many other issues that need addressing – sales figures and gender; the long-term potential for music magazines and whether people still value critics and follow their word. This article shows that, even as recently as a few years ago, there is blatant sexism in the music journalism sector but, perhaps, there is slight improvement. I think online sites are growing and there is a definite place for the music critic and aspiring writer but I worry those who want to do it professionally will be disappointed. The rise of the Internet means more people get their music journalism for free and, naturally, there are fewer opportunities for paid positions. It is great to see so many options on the market and that balance between printed publications and online content but I feel long-term prospects for the printed option is limited and fraught. I am glad the Internet means female journalists can have their voice but that is not necessarily translated in mainstream publications and newspapers. Race is still a problem as is class. I feel, until we get all these problems addressed and thoroughly review the true state of music journalism; we cannot confidently and convincingly say the industry is…
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IN a healthy and promising state.