10 @ 10: Jude Rogers - The Future Of Journalism

14 May 2013

Credits: flickrarbyreed

The future of music journalism?  Ahhhh. It’s a subject I’m asked to speak about so much these days, and, to my mind, for two reasons.  The first: people think music journalism is dead or soon will be, so I’m being wheeled out for the obituaries.  The second, which I prefer, and isn’t unrelated to the first: people really care about it, and don’t want it to disappear.

10 @ 10 – To celebrate our tenth anniversary, over the next 10 months, MusicTank is commissioning a series 10 of short essays from free-thinkers and experts-in-their-field who will tackle some of the perennial issues faced by the music business and ask them the $64,000 question: what does the future hold?

I’ve been a music journalist for ten years this month.  Whenever I say I am one to people – I’ll admit this – I feel twinges of embarrassment.  I’m 35, after all, and still writing about pop songs for a lot of my living.  Before doing this, I worked as an administrator and project worker for the NHS and a charity.  People close to me have jobs that exist to make differences to people’s lives.

But every time I start feeling awkward, I tell myself off.  After all, isn’t culture important?  Isn’t analysing the stuff that surrounds us and moves us – in a proper, thorough way – important?  No, I’m not a heart surgeon or a social worker, and I would never, ever, compare myself to either.  And yes, what I do can be done by anyone today, as the brave new world of the web spins its dizzy spell around the world.

But when we start to believe that the consideration of art, in any form, by someone who has done the proper legwork, doesn’t have value – and I’m talking about value in economic terms, as well as those philosophical and moral – we’re in trouble. And that’s where we are today.

But first, an MOT for the form.

In terms of its visibility and quality, music journalism has never been better.  I know that many nostalgists will rail against this statement, but nostalgists rarely analyse any writing around now.  Or to put it in another way: people won’t delve into things going on around them as thoroughly and honestly as adults as they did when they were teenagers.  And if you look around, the stuff is there, and everywhere…in brilliant profiles by seldom-praised long-standing writers like Miranda Sawyer and Sylvia Patterson, in columns by intellectual thinkers like New York’s Nitsuh Abebe, New Statesman’s Kate Mossman and Maura’s Maura Johnston, in reviews by funny, clever individuals like Alexis Petridis and John Doran, and in magazines and websites that try and plumb the depths of music and musicians now and tell us why this stuff matters, from the recently dearly departed The Word, to Q, recently re-energised by Andrew Harrison, to The Quietus.

These days, people prefer to say “no good writing exists” rather than spend time finding out if anything does.  They will rarely spend money if they ever do the latter, too.

As a miserable consequence of all this, the idea that ‘Music Journalism Is Dead’ continues to prosper.  The first hefty stone thrown in this debate – in recent years at least – came from John Harris, in a, 2009 cover story for the Guardian Review.  Over a whopping 4,600 words, he bemoaned the decline in the quality of music writing after Lester Bangs.  He didn’t scrutinise any writing after Bangs.  Unsurprisingly, his argument failed for me there.  It failed further a few months ago when I spent a few days in the British Library, researching a retrospective on Kraftwerk for the Observer.  I was shocked by the stuff I read from thirty and forty years ago: macho, boorish posturing and ill-considered cod-philosophy, not incisive criticism.

What people miss really, I reckon, isn’t ‘good writing’ per se, but a certain white, male ‘rock and roll writer’ ego that isn’t dominant any more – writers that tapped away only for themselves and their brownnosing peers, and not for the genuine entertainment and education of others.

Today, there is such a wider chorus of voices in music journalism, helped along by the opportunities to blog, tweet and talk online.  But does the form have a strong future?  This is where things get complicated.  So much content these days – as it is often, soullessly, referred to – is commissioned to get people clicking back to comment.  As a result, it is often edited, or headlined, sensationally.  Good music journalism, surely, is much more nuanced than that.

Many music websites also don’t pay decent rates to writers.  This is sometimes because they can’t – the music industry, and the online advertising economy, isn’t exactly flush, after all –  but often, they just won’t.  This isn’t just the case with smaller companies, either.  Take The Guardian’s Digital First strategy, which prioritises publishing copy online.  Write a music piece for the paper, and you’ll get paid by the word.  Write a piece for the website alone, and you’ll get paid a small, set fee, regardless of the size of your copy.  In defence of this position, one editor told me that a post wouldn’t take as long to think about, or write.  If Digital First means less thinking about writing, then we’re definitely in a sorry place.

I’ve also seen countless “incredible opportunities” for unpaid positions at music websites and magazines – and it’s no coincidence that these are often filled by people who can afford to do them without doing other paid work.  If music journalism becomes the preserve of the rich or the entitled, then its value will certainly vanish.  I don’t know how this will happen, but we need to realise that paying for culture is a healthy exchange for our hearts and our minds.  We need to acknowledge that we live in a society where people will spend £4 for a quick treat – like a fancy coffee – without thinking, but not on an intelligent music magazine that would get us thinking.

Still, it gives me hope that intelligent music journalism still flourishes in many spaces and places.  It gives me hope that it’s never been easier to start posting your work as a newcomer, or get opportunities to write, or get in touch with good editors.  I also teach on a journalism degree, where my students have engaged with why music matters in such interesting, disparate ways – and they do so more and more when I direct them towards intelligent writing.

I think that we need more direction in culture, and what’s more, we really crave it.  So if our appetite for good music journalism is fed properly – economically, philosophically, morally – then it will sustain the future of the form.  It will sustain us too.  It’s not  time for obituaries yet.

Jude Rogers – Music Journalist

www.juderogers.com

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