FEATURE: Hard Pressed to Explain It: The Decline of Drowned in Sound and Future Worries for Music Journalism




Hard Pressed to Explain It


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The Decline of Drowned in Sound and Future Worries for Music Journalism


THERE are a lot of messages on social media at the moment...


 PHOTO CREDIT: @thomholmes/Unsplash

mourning the end of Drowned in Sound. Whilst the site has faced some troubles before, it has survived and grown and, sadly, it is no longer. To be fair, not everything is disappearing but the Drowned in Sound we all know and love is unable to fight on. It’s founder, Sean Adams, posted this message to his Facebook page:

As mentioned elsewhere, with a heavy heart, I have some professional news (or whatever the meme-cliche is for these kindsa posts). Like At the Drive-In's hiatus (rather than LCD's "retirement"), Drowned in Sound will not be commissioning new reviews or features for the foreseeable future.

Our forums will remain (thank you for all the donations).

We will publish some pieces and festival reviews that we've committed to on our Medium blog (subscribe for alerts), plus I'll continue to do some music recommendations on our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I'm also really enjoying doing the weekly recommendations via Facebook Messenger, so I'll continue doing that for the foreseeable future.

I'm writing a proper explanation about what and why soon, but for now I'd like to say a massive thank you to everyone who's been involved in making the site what it's been for the past 19 years. Special thanks to Derek Robertson who's kept things going in recent years, and Andrzej Łukowskiwho's not only looked after our reviews since being forced to make everyone redundant 11 years ago, but built a team of eloquent music fanatics.

I'm going to take make a few changes and take some time to get things stable again financially, and then attempt to do some special activity as we enter our 20th year next year.

Thanks again for reading, sharing, indulging, exploring, engaging, and everything else”.


 IMAGE CREDIT: @DrownedinSound

The site has been going since, pretty much, the turn of the century and has grown into this mighty and must-visit location for music lovers. There is no word whether the closure/downscaling will be permanent but financial struggles/demands have played a decisive factor. Whereas some music sites like NME are seeing an upturn in their fortunes – able to revive their printed format due to increased demand and success their way – I am seeing too much loss in music journalism. There has been this discussion and debate as to whether music journalism is in crisis and whether it will survive. The Guardian wrote an article last year that showed a healthier side to the industry:

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.

“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”.


IMAGE CREDIT: @DrownedinSound 

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.”

Perhaps music journalism isn’t as central to young people’s lives like it was when information-starved fans waited patiently for the “inkies”, but now, with so much instant music and such sophisticated algorithms out there, perhaps the trusted navigators are needed more than ever. As L&Q’s Stubbs puts it: “Someone has to make sense of the noise”.

There does seem to be this split between smaller printed publications and Internet sites. Consider the fact that, largely, these printed editions cost something to buy and, if you sell enough copies and combine that with advertising revenue, then profit is easier to come by.

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Internet sites like Drowned in Sound do not ask for a fee and people can browse as they like without having to pay anything. It cost money to go to gigs and review them; there are people who work for them who need paying and it is hard to find balance and success when you have to work with such tight margins. It does seem to be the case that the biggest advertising revenue is reserved for a very small sector. With a lot of new websites coming through, it is tough to survive when the main source of income is from advertisers. I have mused whether people should pay a subscription fee to view sites but, with so many out there, would this backfire? It is great that there are big websites out there where we can get our daily news and views and smaller ones that cater to niche tastes. I do think that there is plenty of choice but I would not wish anything bad for any of these sites. I do not think we should send the message that Internet sites will struggle because they operate for free. It is hard asking for money and getting funding from readers but, at the same time, how are sites like Drowned in Sound expected to put out great-quality stuff all of the time? With such competition around, sites have to get ambitious and put out more work which, inevitably, means the costs go up.  

 IMAGE CREDIT: @RollingStone

I am glad that not all music magazines are suffering and people are still willing to go out and pay for something cool. People put a lot of work into these editions so it is rewarding to see that this is being reciprocated by passionate and eager fans. There is something pleasing about buying a magazine and digesting it gradually over a cup of coffee! Most of us want our music sustenance on the move and, therefore, we look to the Internet. More and more, we are flicking between sites and doing it for free. I do not agree – as The Guardian suggests – that music journalism is in rude health and there is no crisis. Some publications and managing and building but many others have razor-thin margins whereas others are closing. Look online and I do wonder how many of the smaller sites will survive and continue to operate. A lot of the big names like Pitchfork do rake in quite a lot of advertising finance and I feel this is why NME has managed to keep going – and get its print edition back up and running. This Europavox article examines advertising revenue in the Internet age and the state of music journalism in 2019:

For anyone harbouring optimistic thoughts about the future of journalism, it’s been a sobering start to the year. BuzzFeed and HuffPost, leading players whose viral content and revenue-per-click strategy were once considered groundbreaking, laid off over 1,000 employees, while Condé Nast, the media conglomerate that owns publications such as GQ, Vanity Fair, Wired, and Pitchfork, announced that by the end of the year all its titles will be behind paywalls. For sites and publications lacking in cred or venture capital millions, things are even bleaker; newsrooms and staff positions across Europe and the US have been decimated, with 2018 being the worst year for media redundancies since 2009.


Legendary titles that used to shift upwards of 250 000 copies a week have either disappeared altogether or have been forced to re-invent themselves; the iconic NME became a free weekly in 2015 before abandoning print altogether to focus on NME.com. The situation is just as grim for publications that were born on the web and never embraced print; with Google and Facebook tightening their grip on digital advertising revenue – by 2020 they’re expected to take more than half of global ad spending – the likes of The Quietus and Drowned In Sound struggle to survive, frequently relying on supporter donations and funding drives”.

Many say that it is sad that sites are closing and there are issues but, in this age, do we need music journalists? Many are giving us opinions when we can make our own. One can easily download and access anything without any hesitation and many do not have time to sit down and look at long articles and reviews. The fact is that music journalism is more complex and broad than mere criticism and opinions. There are vibrant articles and suggestions – music venues to visit and classic albums to check out – and so much one cannot get idly surfing the Internet. Many reviews are providing background and balance; information that has a professional perspective and insight that many do not possess. To write off music journalists are irrelevant and pointless displays an ignorance of what we do and how important websites like Drowned in Sound are to artists both new and established.

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The article continues and argues why we need to keep music journalism alive:

The formats may change – are changing – but music needs a vibrant, diverse, independent press to champion what the mainstream won’t – or can’t –, to be honest and fearless in its approach, and act as a catalyst for debate. Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll be running a series of articles looking at the above issues in depth, drawing on the experience of writers, editors, and websites from across Europe. Journalists’ role as curators, Big Data, AI, and algorithms, and sustainable business models are just some of the topics we’ll explore, all of which are, of course, relevant to Europavox.com and our ongoing project. We believe music journalism continues to be important, and are invested in its survival; we hope you are too”.

I do think that money is a big sticking point and, when we shut down sites and magazines, we are denying the world something wonderful and passionate; many lose their jobs and this creates a bad impression regarding music journalists coming through. It is a great thing to do but if we see such loss and argue the only way to make a go of things is working for free, how attractive does that appear?! I would hate to see a day when the public make up their own minds and feel the music media is a product of a time that no longer exists.


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New artists rely on sites and magazines to break them and get the word out; bigger acts need those reviews and release albums so, naturally, it is nice they get some feedback and good words from those in the media. There is a lot of competition out there and there is no obvious answer when it comes to survival and how to ensure great websites stay afloat. There are plenty of articles (such as this) that argue the importance of music journalism and how those who criticise it need to redress their views. The passion out there is clear but, sadly, many work for free and do so tirelessly. The physical and emotional debt is huge and, if you want to go to gigs and produce content that will surpass rivals, cash needs to be injected regularly. It would be good to see some sort of government initiative that provided more money for music media and ensured lifelines to those in trouble. It is heartening to see some magazines succeed and other websites continue without issue but that does not mean music media in general is healthy and safe. In fact, there are a lot of sites barely managing and people like me who work for free and cannot afford to travel/go to gigs through lack of financing. I get the odd offer regarding advertising and finance but this comes from betting websites and, a) I never know if it is a scam and, b) the sort of money they will bring me is negligible.


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I will end things here but I wanted to pay tribute to Drowned in Sound and I hope, down the line, they can be revived. The fact they have been going for so long means we need to preserve the site and understand how important they are to musicians and fans alike. It is impossible to say definitively whether music journalism is sustainable and solid right now as there is this split between online and print and the battle between the giants and everyone else. The fact so many sites have to rely on donations and appeals is really worrying but that is not to say one should overlook ambitions of becoming a music journalist. There are options out there and ways of getting advertisers interested in your site but, for a lot of those who have been around for years, it is tough competing and keeping afloat. Who knows what the next few years hold but I do know, the more people that come into the market, the less money there is for everyone. It is really tough to make a success of your website or magazine but don’t let that deter you. Musicians rely on the passion and dedication music journalists provide so I do hope money becomes available for music media in this country as it is tragic seeing beloved sites like Drowned in Sound struggle and have to downsize dramatically. As I said, I hope there is chance of resuscitation for them because losing them from the market after so long is…

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SUCH a crime!