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The Crisis of Music Journalism

Andrey Gorokhov By 1990s, in addition to the completely altered face of music, the phenomenon of independent journalism practically disappeared. Today’s music magazines don’t have a slightest trace of what could be called “critical opinion” (we mean here the popular, mass-circulation magazines, which, as the German saying goes, “are sold in a kiosk”).

The guitarist-solitary man. Perov V.G.

At the moment the music magazines, judging by the amiability of the articles published and the absence of wish to at least try to understand or analyze anything, are hardly different from the glossies. On top of that, they have acquired purely formal resemblance as well: even such an intellectual and independent German magazine as SPEX has been publishing photos of fashionable clothes for several years now. Whether a music magazine is going to survive or not fully depends on the advertisers, i. e. the people who buy magazine space for advertising new albums. Who does that? Sound industry concerns. Are they interested in supporting magazines that criticize their products? No. Any magazine aims to be read by as many people as possible, while people are interested in popular names, and the popular names are under the protection of sound industry. So, whenever a magazine wants to get an interview with a popular musician, the concern has the right to refuse if the journalist writes “biting” articles or if the magazine has a tendency of being dissatisfied by the concern’s production. The opposite is equally true: supposing that a concern, or, to be more exact, its marketing department, wants to publish an interview with a musician and thorough praise of a new album, it is always welcomed by any music magazine. However, music magazines themselves keep flatly denying the fact that the best magazine space is sold, insisting that their staff is only made up by independent reporters who express their own opinion.

Either way, we are faced with a situation: the press has ceased criticizing, to say nothing of expressing disapproval of anything or anyone. An atmosphere of surprising political, or should we say musical political correctness prevails.

Among other things, this atmosphere of not-offending musicians and their fans was brought about by the change of music reporters’ generation. By the end of 1990s German music magazines were already almost devoid of any journalists whose tastes and views were formed back in 80s or even later. The new generation took their place. And it’s quite clear why it came – techno, drum-n-base, as well as the DJ’s/club culture in general, ambient, trip-hop seemed to require new people to write about all those things, the people who personally had something to do with these phenomena, in other words, the witnesses.

“New people write in a new way about new music for new listeners” – this is, obviously, a marketing slogan. Here, a well-know idea is used, that the most effective advertisement is what common people tell each other. If you tell your neighbour about a good film you just saw, he will most probably want to watch it himself, and if he likes it, he’ll tell someone else about it – and so the story will go from there. So, it’s not particularly important what is said, but who says it and how. The speaker should make an impression of a close person, your best friend, but not even resemble some journalist, or reviewer, or critic! That is the reason why he should speak simple, intelligible language. He doesn’t have to know something all the others do not. it’s not about knowing – it’s about being convincing! The speaker must be able to convince everyone that he indeed loved a certain movie or a CD. This way the following effect is created: the speaker is absolutely like me, he speaks the same language, he’s just like me in every way, and he thinks this CD is awesome, I can see he’s not lying about it, so it probably makes sense that I should like it as well. Any kind of critical approach, or analysis, an attempt to understand and sort it out for oneself, or even a mere play of mind turn out to be absolutely not necessary, instead, you have to show two things in your text – first of all, your being close to the folk, and second – all the sincerity of your delight. Obviously, this kind of understanding of the music journalist’s craft as “telling how much I like this music” is just a development disease, that’s the way most of the beginners write. But when texts of this kind start to form a dominating style, when there is almost nothing else left in the music magazines – that’s where we deal with a marketing strategy. A girl who has been trusted to write the main article of the issue – about Bjork herself! – trembling and losing her breath, tells us how much Bjork meant to her when she was a child, which was so recently, how wonderful Bjork is and how happy we all should feel about the new album of the fairy lady… I personally by no means doubt the sincerity of the author, but I just can’t help imagining the polite smile of a spin doctor.

It looks like the new wave journalists honestly think that their task is to advertise the sound carrier in question since they seem to think exactly like the marketing department staff: “The autumn’s salvation! This music is for those who cannot find the inner strength to go out to the wet balcony on a rainy Sunday morning…” or “This is the music for a lonely passer-by lost in the streets of a night city…” and so on and so forth. Hence, we deal with the direct address to a target group of consumers. “Music for those who…”

But is it that important who the interviewer is? Isn’t what the musician says the most important thing? No, it’s especially important who is interviewing. The musician himself does not say anything at all, or says something not very clearly, but very carefully and not at all interesting. A journalist should have his own ideas, his own viewpoint, not only on music, but on life, too, he should consider what his interlocutor is holding back. That is why what we think are the witty words of a musician in a text is in fact nothing but a result of a far-from-neutral position of the journalist. The change of the generations of reporters can clearly be followed by the interviews of the musicians who in 1990s arose the interest of the mass media, like Bjork, or Chemical Brothers, Marylyn Manson, or Jimmy Tenor. A few years ago it suddenly started to seem that they have grown foolish and grey, as well as many others, that they have nothing to say. My guess is that there’s just nobody to ask anything at all.

OK, maybe all those flattering and uninteresting non-professional interviews, reports and reviews are just the unlucky exceptions? Still, there are some people up to their ears in music? Unfortunately, the fact that there are competent reviewers does not solve this problem of flattering amiability. The thing is, there have appeared plenty of various types of music, and with them – the narrow-field music specialists, which, in turn, led to the disappearance of those people who would still remember what happened 5, or 10, 15 years ago, and could get, so to say, a bird’s-eye view of the present musical events. In the new situation we are facing now it’s these narrow specialists who write about music – and can you see what they are writing? They are trying as hard as they can to praise it. They might knit their brow at one particular release, but as far as their own circuit is concerned, whatever the truth may be, they value their narrow music field higher than anything else. If you criticize something, then you just don’t know it, you haven’t heard this and that, and it doesn’t matter that you have heard enough of other equally important things. It’s not allowed to criticize anything, but – mind you! – you can express your satisfaction even if you are an absolute stranger to this or that specialized field – you can praise it to your heart’s content.

The strongest influence of the music industry on music journalism, which for some reason is left practically unnoticed is the mere format of the music magazine, its inner arrangement, its periodicity. I’m not even going to discuss here the length of texts, or the people who are granted with an interview, or those who get a story or a review on CD. It seems utterly strange to me that in the September’s issue of a magazine there is plenty of information about the Peaches’ project – a huge interview, to say nothing of mentioning it in various contexts in different articles. Of course, the Peaches is a great project that people have to know and think about. However, strange as it may seem, in October, or November, or December there is not a single word written about this phenomenon. If we flick through different magazines for a period of two years prior to that , we won’t find anything either. The same is also true about other musicians in other magazines. That’s just the way it is, any other way is just impossible. Music magazines have grown a lot like scientific journals in maths or astronomy: the topics do not develop from issue to issue, a problem that arises once is bound to stay unsolved for years, there are absolutely no general reviews, each of them only describes one particular case, no one even reads the whole of the magazine, instead only looking for the familiar names. Why at all does all the music journalism work only in the format of discussing this month’s new compact discs? What else could there be? Well, lots of things, really. They can publish interesting texts sent to the editor’s department. Thematic reviews, situational analysis, discussions, different thoughts on issues connected with music, as well as telling old stories or expressing a modern view on the old things. Now that we’ve mentioned the word “old”, we understand why the today’s music magazines cannot boast anything of the above mentioned: a music magazine talks about the new music, the new things instead of music in general. Those who read these magazines, to say nothing of those who write articles for them, very quickly is “infected” with this worshipping the new, fashionable, up-to-date. That is the reason why now we talk about today’s CDs, and in a month the situations will be changed radically, there will be new actors on the stage, and we will talk about them instead. Moreover, we will not go back to the previously mentioned things in the next few years.

Besides, I don’t believe that this kind of situation was created accidentally. Here we are dealing with a policy of sound industry. The few still existing magazines for fans are stubborn enough to go on publishing various texts, like they do not see the belt conveyer of the new CDs. Well, ok, maybe the sound industry concerns adroitly forced their own view on music as a constantly renewing sphere upon the music magazines, together with the atmosphere of amiable non-criticism. This, in turn, led to the fact that in the last few years the music itself has become flatly terrible. Looks like everything is clear, doesn’t it? Well, in fact, not completely clear. The matter is that we just do not have any chances to be deeply critical any longer. The question is: what would the critics look like? What does the critical opinion look like now? And what did it look like, say, ten years ago?

Ten years ago independent music, and consequently journalism as well, was characterized by the idea of a sharp confrontation with the System, bourgeoisie, capitalists, police, the state, mass media… Music was one of the elements of the culture of protest, or counterculture. Certainly, any music has its own message and image, not only the underground guitar rock. But even the first-rank stars (in 1980s it were, say, Pink Floyd, Madonna, U2) had their own message, very distantly related to that of the underground’s: Don’t give way! don’t obey! the world is bad! you are different! The whole of the grand body of music, from the hardcore- and deathmetal-underground to the MTV-pop was an idea of a conflict installed into it. In other words, there was a break going “from the underground to the TVs”, and a lot of musicians actually considered this conflict to be even more important than their own music. Of course, “the message of the underground” formulated by me is just a caricature, since the protest culture was extremely many-sided, and it was this culture that “fed” the music critics. In the first half of the 1990s the guitar counterculture entered the period of a crisis, with the help of the sound industry which bought part of the groups and handled their marketing (Nirvana, Soundgarden, Henry Rollings), as well as the marketing of the previously unknown groups (Rage against the Machine). The underground rock started to be shown on the MTV, but everyone’s joy about the fact that rock-n-roll is the music of rebellion did not last very long. By 1995 it was suddenly clear that “rock had disappeared”. That is, it was its counterculture that disappeared. (Starting from that moment, everything that would appear on the place of rock, would most probably be nothing more than a pretentious pose, a fake – including the texts of the songs, and the pictures on the TV-screens, and the discussions in the music magazines). In this exceptionally interesting moment the musical thoughts were transferred, in general, from the guitar hardcore to the electronic ambient, whereas the journalists took to discussing the sound instead of talking about the social confrontation. in Germany this transference was clearly seen. For the whole of the 90s SPEX remained the leading German magazine for intellectual public. It analyzed everything that it could see from the high sociological position, saw capitalistic alienation, symbol game and strategies of opposition in almost everything. If sociology hadn’t been your major in the university, you would hardly understand anything from the SPEX texts. The British magazine Wire wrote about a different type of music, and from an absolutely different position. It floated in the ocean of the Sound, that is in an enormous space of various sounds and different ways of treating them, which had nothing to do with fighting against the repressive state. Martin B?sser – a German punk-journalist – declared war on SPEX, defending the position of the Wire magazine (which, though, did not satisfy him either), and created his own magazine Testcard, which started a discussion of various strange music. In the process it turned out that there is a great quantity of such music. As a matter of fact, rather unusual topics were discussed (the topic of the first issue of the magazine “Priest and Destruction”) giving the completely unexpected examples of music. It was all about the change of the journalists’ paradigm, that is a completely new approach to what music should be talked about, what should be listened to and appreciated in it. Besides, the process of creating history of this or that phenomenon by the critics was shown, and the histories of different concepts or the musical phenomena was demonstrated as well, together with the discography and the comments. The history of the sound culture was obviously presented, too. What’s more, one of the issues (there only two of them in a year’s time, so they make a book 300 pages thick) was all devoted to the topic of “the Sound”. By the way, it was this discussion, the lists of recommended albums, and in general – the ironic style of writing about music shown by Martin B?sser and his colleagues that inspired me and defined the topic and style of my work. To be more precise, I was not the only one influenced by Martin B?sser. It’s just that things had reached the point of a revolution.

Music was now devoid of words, the sampler allowed to integrate almost anything, there appeared interesting musical phenomena without a trace of a message (like the Oval group), which led to broadening the horizon and resulted in a victory of the position of tolerance and permissiveness. Music was no longer discussed in terms of expressing protest against anything; the word “sound” seemed to clear it all up. An opinion that “sound took the place of the message” became rather widespread. Starting at that moment, people would be thought serious and responsible if they seriously worked with the sound. Like a real artist. By the way, in punk and hardcore-underground the words like “art” and “artist” were considered derogatory. Time goes by. The fact that the computer appeared as a user-friendly sampling machine meant a real revolution, meaning that the old underground and the critical position were buried – irrecoverably. Words were granted with another meaning. I really do not want to interfere into the jungle of the left discourse, but, to put it simply, I shall say that the idea of counterculture was in fact the idea of freedom. Liberation was the aim of the riot, and all those protests against the dictatorship, the pressure, against the lies, the injustice of the society, – all those ideas only have one purpose – freedom. A hardcore concert aimed to reach the sense of separation from the reality, to feel real freedom at this very moment, hence the speed, and the loudness, and the hardness. And suddenly the next generation had their own view on freedom, as a chance to create samples of any CDs, run any programs and make their own music without even getting their ass off the computer chair. “Your only limitation is your fantasy!”. You are free! “The Ocean of the Sound” where everyone is floating today – is freedom. So, in any case, the inexhaustible, attractive acoustic world is a positive factor. It has granted freedom to everyone – musicians, listeners, and journalists as well.

Melancholy. A.Djurer.

Naturally, if you want to, you can find a message in anything that man is surrounded by – say, the house is bending – this must have a certain meaning. Maybe the ground waters are the reason (nature gets its way), or maybe the constructors were just hack-workers, or the state affairs are too bad. So it’s evident that the mere audio design might also have plenty of messages: electronics opens the world of feelings and emotions, takes us back to the world of childhood and so on. What is sound? A movie has its plot, and the mood, the atmosphere. Sound is an analogy to the atmosphere in a film. Dramatic events can be analyzed or felt, while the atmosphere cannot even be described – it can only give food to your fantasy. And arouse your delight, of course.

I’ll allow myself to quote a small passage from my book “Music Glimpse”, published by a Moscow publishing house Ad Marginem. Now it’s impossible to clearly and honestly answer the questions: “What does this music express?”, “What is its message?”, “who is there behind it, after all?” When Wolfgang Fogt in his album “Zauberberg” (1997) of his ambient project Gas made a sample of the Wagner’s operas, the string parts, which created an unprecedented sensation. The verdict was disapproving – the musician clearly went too far in the game. Recognizing Wagner in the monotonously ringing and rumbling, the noise of the trees and base thrust wasn’t an easy task, because the music sounded quite technoid. Anyhow, the samples of Wagner’s and Schonberg’s passages sounded absolutely the same. Why did it give rise to a scandal? In fact, having made a Wagner’s sample, Wolfgang underlined the German origin of techno, turned to the traditional German romantic values, the topic of the fairy German forest, thus admitting himself to be a chauvinist. Of course, it’s rubbish. But from this example we can understand that the message of the music is created by the way it sounds. A similar example: the thesis “minimal techno is the esthetics of a new financial market”. Why is it so? Eckehard Alers says: “Modern techno’s favourite clicks, cracking and crunching are the sounds of money, the register, a pressed button on the computer keyboard, a sound of a command shouted out.” This way, it turns out that the minimal techno of Wolfgang Fogt is at the same time the German empire chauvinism, and the cold calculation of the modern stockjobbers.

Even the seemingly easy question “Is there any protest or not?” cannot be answered. Today even the aggressively fast and noisy music does not presuppose the position of a protest. However, we can take some evident example of protesting music of the 90s.

Take, for instance, Manu Chao – the Orpheus of antiglobalism. The ideological position of this musician was talked over and over again by the mass media, so there can be absolutely no doubts about the adequacy of the message interpretation. However, the ears of the 90s cannot but notice that Manu Chao is just a skillfully made and, what’s more, rather light-minded songwriters’ pop, which is obviously orientated towards the later collages of The Beatles. All of them – Manu Chao, the songwriters’ pop, and The Beatles are created for the neoyappies, that is the purely globalist public. Manu Chao and Buena Vista Social Club make the music for not-tied-by-the-marriage-bonds, well-paid but modestly dressed, keen on Toscana wine rather than sports young (about the age of 30) men and women. The same could be referred to the Portishead, though their music is apparently designed for a provincial mentally disturbed.

However, if we look at this from the point of view of a subcultural search, we’ll reluctantly have to admit that both Manu Chao and Portishead are the music for the readers of the glossies. What message are you talking about? What kind of mental diseases?

So, what conclusion shall we draw? Assuming that there is no global conflict, or a global split, dissatisfaction or a global system of values, then, generally speaking any kind of criticism becomes mere fiction, since there is no position for critical judgements. Of course, it’s not really that bad, as the music journalists will take the fake conflicts into use – say, the confrontation of the new and the old: the new album turns out to be uninteresting due to the fact that we have already heard something like this before. Or another conflict of “amateurs against real, professional musicians”, or “live music against the dead one”, “the predictable against the unexpected”… As a matter of fact, if we are inventive enough in using these or thinking up new conflicts, we can keep on discussing music in the critical sense in the future. And we cannot hide the sadness that the only thing that kind of matches the mood of the moment is saying “I love you”.

December, 2003
Translation from Russian from the kind sanction of the author.
Author’s site:
The primary source in Russian


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