Monday, August 31, 2009

Print is Dead; Long Live Criticism

I rag on Pitchfork enough, so I need to acknowledge when they do something well. Eric Harvey's excellent The Social History of the MP3 ought to be required reading for music fans and sociologists alike. He persuasively discusses the impact of the MP3 and file sharing on our current culture, neither ignoring its obviously deleterious effects on the capitalist foundation of the music industry nor histrionically announcing that the sky is falling. It's a good read. I was particularly struck by this:

If, as so many newspaper trend pieces assert, the number of "tastemakers" has exponentially proliferated through unmitigated access to music, that means that, on average, individual tastes are on the upswing as well. It's hard to argue this fact, if only through anecdotal evidence. While the Internet does not represent "the world," and there are plenty of folks who are just fine keeping with their old habits, those who keep up with online music have the capacity to turn into bona fide musical dilettantes, and occasionally straight-up experts, in no time flat. But broadening out to the aggregate, this trend looks different, and less rosy. The ideal would have been that a new network of independent music lovers would have elevated different types of music, or even found new ones, the way nascent rock'n'roll, honky tonk, bluegrass, and R&B benefited thanks to the 45. But online, new genres risk being strangled in the crib before anyone knows they exist, and people are "done" with new albums before the cover art has been approved. This time-compressing aspect of mp3-based music culture does not flow naturally from the technology itself-- it's a result of a lot of people, at the same time, publicly failing to resist their most basic passions for acquisition. Experiencing music in small, never-ending bursts is exciting, sure. But it's far from sustainable.

Part of me wants to weep, as so many critics have, for "what could have been." Yet a wiser part of me knows that there's no point in crying over a utopian benchmark. As it stands, the musical public sphere created by mp3 blogs and filtered through the Hype Machine is more varied and open to taste-based audience input than the U.S.'s industrial model has been in recent years (though a far cry from what it was like throughout most of the rock era), and an increased amount of music from around the world is getting more exposure than could have been imagined just a decade ago. So I'm not sad that print magazines, or newspapers, are dying; I'm sad that music criticism and journalism are endangered. I'm sad that publishers, advertisers, and corporate owners have lagged behind so incredibly long, holding onto an outdated critical model out of blind faith, leaving so many talented writers in the lurch. People expressing their musical taste to an eager audience in the offtime of their day jobs is one thing, and by all accounts a very good thing. But alongside these folks, we desperately need people to get paid to listen, discuss, contextualize, and critique music on a full-time basis. Until someone figures out how to make this work, a music culture will continue to take a significant hit. Print is dead: long live criticism.

My kids -- one a recent college grad, the other midway through her undergraduate studies -- know a fair number of other kids who are studying Communications and Journalism. It's never been the path to fame and riches, but lately the path has been overrun by weeds. It's a challenge to see the path at all, and it's just plain hard to navigate. One of those idealistic kids, a budding music critic, recently asked me: "So, how did you do it?" He envisions me, I suppose, as some sort of Model Journalist, some flabby middle-aged dude with a receding hairline who has, inexplicably, managed to parlay his background into published articles and occasional interviews with kids with tattoos. Far be it from me to disillusion him. "Some perseverence, some luck, the grace of God, and a day job," I told him. "And lately the day job gig has been spotty."

The model presented to these kids in college -- start off at some small paper in Podunkville, U.S.A., write whatever and whenever you can, hone your skills, and eventually move up to The Big Time[TM] -- is so hopelessly outmoded that I don't even know where to begin. For starters, The Big Time is smaller than it's ever been, and it's getting smaller every week. Another major publication bites the dust every few days. And the survivors are barely hanging on. What used to provide a nice little boost to the day job income -- enough to fund, say, a vacation to Europe -- now provides nothing at all. How much is your time and energy worth to you? If you can't answer that question with "Nothing, Zero, Zilch," then I'd advise you to bail out of that journalism major.

It is what it is. But the notion of "full-time journalist," or, God forbid, "full-time music critic," is as quaint and antiquated as the eight-track tapes I used play in my Ford Pinto. Say bye-bye.

Here's the real problem with the MP3 model and the attendant fallout in music criticism: Consumers used to rely on music critics to steer them in the direction of what to buy. You found a critic whose taste you respected, who could articulate why a given album was worth owning, and you followed his or her advice and ventured out to buy the album. Now nobody buys music in the first place. If you download an album from a file-sharing site, and the album sucks, it's no big deal. You send the files to your trash can and you try again. It costs you nothing. You've invested nothing. And the music critics -- the ones who are left -- have earned nothing.

There is, of course, an art to music criticism. At least I would like to think so. And perhaps a few people will stick around for the value of a well-written review or feature article. But I feel bad for all the starry-eyed recent graduates. They've been fed a daily diet of assumptions and presuppositions and facts that became obsolete the minute some nerd figured out how to convert entertainment into invisible, free and easily shareable chunks. Mr. Harvey's devout desire to support full-time critics is a praiseworthy gesture. So was Antony's speech over the dead body of Caesar. Neither will bring something dead back to life.


Darren said...

A friend of mine, a recent graduate from a prestigious university, told me he just wanted to watch and write about movies -- not blockbusters, of course, but avant-garde films, revivals, foreign films that will only play theatrically in two or three cities in North America. I fought the urge to quote another friend, a guy who, like you and me, Andy, has a day job and writes on the side: "Most of the filmmakers I love struggle to earn a living making these films. Why should I expect to earn a living writing about them?" It's time for serious conversations about the difference between vocation and avocation.

cnb said...

That is a very interesting article. The point he makes about the role of criticism -- that it is of less value in a "market" where people can acquire the music for free -- seems sensible enough, until you remember that the sheer amount of music available is exploding. No matter how inexpensive the music is, I still don't want to waste time listening to music that is bad. I still want a knowledgeable and articulate guide to help me with sifting through the reams of music that are out there. I still see a role for a music critic.

Of course, the critic's job is much harder, since he now has to sift through a bunch of junk to find the jewels. And there's so much junk, and so many jewels, that two critics won't find the same ones. Thus it can happen that I read the "Best of the Year" lists from critics at AllMusic (for instance), and find that, not only have I not heard of any of these albums, but there is little overlap between the lists. Gee, thanks.

On a similar note, I just looked through Pitchfork's Top 20 Tracks of the Decade. I recognize only a few of the singers, and I have heard only one of the songs, by Arcade Fire. (And that only because I happened to be in the studio when it was being recorded. Long story.) Talk about the death of mass culture!

Joel said...

Ugh, all so true. I feel fortunate that I get any money at all writing about music. I don't know how long it will last.

Grant Wentzel said...

Speaking of print, I'm wondering where this will leave novelists. A friend of mine has taken to using a print-on-demand service for his tolkien-esque fantasy fiction. He figures if he can find 10,000 fans among the world's 7 billion people, that he'll be financially ok. I think he's up to about 20 readers so far, which is a shame. His stuff is really good. But between short attention spans and disruptive technology (the aptly named book-burner: Kindle) the odds that he'll make a buck commensurate with his talent is a looking like an ever-longer shot in the dark.

While printed books may never go away, there will be an Mp3 equivalent sooner than later that will have a similar effect on publishing.

Anonymous said...

Not only should we feel sorry for recent graduates, we should also feel for the career music journalists who worked hard and made a decent living for many years and are now out of work in the middle of a deep recession, with no prospects of jumping to another field and making anywhere near the money they used to make. Some of those people are going to crash very hard.