A few weeks ago, I was asked to write an opinion piece for the German daily newspaper Die Tageszeitung (taz) — the eighth installment in a lengthy “Future of Music Criticism” debate the paper was having. The debate had been touched off by the news that Spex — the most famous music magazine in Germany, sort of the German version of Spin — was axing its reviews section. This is the English version of the article, which originally ran in German last week, here. It also got discussed over at Der Spiegel‘s culture desk, here.
A few notes: I wrote this piece for a German audience, not an American one, so some of the references to German things might not make sense, and some references to American things may seem too simplistic if you’re from the US. I also wrote the piece in a way that’s different from the way I normally write for English publications. If my style seems a bit different, that’s because I tried to write the article in a way that could be easily translated, word for word, into German. I know German pretty well, but not well enough to write fluently, for publication, in it; the next best thing was to write the piece in English, but in a way that it would translate well into German text.
The Future of Music Criticism, Part 8
Die Tageszeitung (Germany), June 15, 2010
by Geeta Dayal
As an American music critic, I find the debate about Spex fascinating. The fascinating thing to me is that there is a debate. In the United States, there would not be much of a discussion. The current situation with print magazines and newspapers is far worse in the United States than it is in Germany. Whole music magazines have died here. And few people seem to care.
I’ve been visiting Germany on a regular basis for ten years. I was always impressed with how strong and vibrant the media scene in Germany seemed to be. For a country of Germany’s relatively small size, it was amazing to me that there were so many good newspapers: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Suddeutsche Zeitung, Die Zeit, taz, and so on. In addition, there were large, successful magazines like Der Spiegel, and lots of music magazines, including several specialist magazines that covered electronic music, such as Groove and De:Bug. Just looking at the typical newsstand in Berlin would make my head spin; there were so many choices, so many papers. I was also impressed that people seemed to really read and respond to print media. I remember visiting Cologne a few years ago and seeing people queue up for the newsstand in the morning, waiting to buy a newspaper. I don’t see that much anymore in the United States.
I also noticed a difference in the way that criticism was treated in a German newspaper. There was more emphasis on commentary in the newspaper in Germany. In the US, a lot of importance is attached to “journalistic objectivity,” and reportage. There are, of course, well-reported news stories in every major newspaper in Germany. But it’s more understood in Germany that commentary, and opinion, has a place in the newspaper too. And the whole concept of the “feuilleton” section simply doesn’t exist in the United States the way it does in Europe. Even in the arts section of the typical American newspaper, the emphasis is mostly on news and reporting, and less on criticism and commentary. I was also impressed with the larger cultural conversation in Germany -– the rapid-fire ways in which different publications in Germany would respond to each other in the papers. In the United States, this seems to happen more in blogging than it does in the mainstream press.
My favorite German city was always Berlin. For me, in a lot of ways, Berlin was like paradise –- a total fantasy world. But on my last visit to Berlin, a few months ago, I realized that the German media was going through the same painful changes that the American media went through five years ago. It’s just happening more slowly. In New York, print media is collapsing quickly, but in Berlin, it’s a slow-motion collapse. And that is why the news that Spex is closing its reviews section is not much of a surprise. In ten years, there might not be a Spex at all.
For better or for worse, most music criticism in the United States has moved online. For a band these days, a good review in Pitchfork is more important than a good review in Spin. Blogs and websites are massively popular. A band can become famous without ever being on the cover of a magazine. The hype happens via Facebook, Twitter, and other online channels. Music magazines are becoming more and more irrelevant in the United States. The record label system is collapsing; the record stores are collapsing. And the magazines are collapsing too.
I’m not saying that Pitchfork is the future of music criticism. But it’s not surprising to me that mp3 blogs and websites are so popular. People want to download the record right away. And people like a voice, a personality. If they read something, they want to see the person behind the writing. Many people I know rely on their friends for information on a new record — not on a magazine. They go to Facebook or to Twitter and they find out what albums their friends are downloading. Why do they trust their friends more than they trust critics? It makes sense to me. The whole principle behind Facebook is that people want to connect with other people. It’s the same thing with criticism. With a good piece of criticism, you feel a deep, personal connection to the writer, even if you’ve never met the writer before. In the first article in taz in this “Future of Music Criticism” debate, “Acht Stunden sind kein Tag,” Wolfgang Fromberg talked about the impact that Diedrich Diederichsen’s reviews had on his life. How Diederichsen’s writing inspired him to be a writer, too. The reason I’m a music critic today is because of a review I read when I was 20 years old, which inspired me to be a writer. The review was by Mark Sinker, who was the editor-in-chief of the UK magazine The Wire in the early 1990s. Simon Reynolds was also an early inspiration to me, and a good friend as well.
These days, with fewer outlets for critical writing in the press, there are fewer opportunities to make a connection with critics. And so my inspirations now come from blogging. If Lester Bangs was still alive today, he would be a blogger. I can’t think of a major print magazine today that would publish his articles on a regular basis.
Think back to all of the great print publications of the past. Look at how great NME was in the 1970s and 1980s, before it became the bad joke it is now. Rolling Stone in the 1970s, back in the days of Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe. Creem in the 1970s. Melody Maker and Spin in the 1980s and 1990s. Perhaps the most depressing decline of all was The Village Voice, which lost more than 70 percent of its staff in 2005, the victim of a horrific corporate buyout.
What did all of these publications have in common, in their golden era? Each of them had a strong, critical perspective and a distinct point of view. They weren’t afraid to broadcast an opinion. They weren’t afraid to have a voice. That’s what is missing with many print publications now. They became too afraid of their audience, too motivated by advertising revenue. They became huge, top-down organizations, with the inability to experiment and try something new and exciting. Album reviews kept getting cut in length, until they became so short that they were practically meaningless. The magazines kept getting more conservative in their coverage. In the UK, you have magazines like Mojo, whose whole purpose is to write about the past, again and again. No one I know in the US reads Rolling Stone on a regular basis anymore. To save money, many corporations are trying to run the same magazine with half as many people. They keep the business and marketing departments, but they cut editors, art directors, and writers. They cut the number of pages in the magazine; they pay the writers less money, and they cut their budget for freelance articles. They think that their readers don’t notice. But the readers do notice. And so these magazines ended up losing their credibility. Readers are smarter than they think. Eventually, if the quality keeps going down, they stop buying magazines.
The other problem with many music magazines is that they started trying to copy the style of the Web — filling the magazine with short news articles, photos, celebrity gossip, Top 10 lists, and so on — instead of concentrating on what magazines do best: well-researched feature stories and long reviews and commentary pieces. There’s a common misperception that people don’t want to read long articles anymore. But several magazines that still have cultural influence in the United States, like The New Yorker, specialize in long, thoughtful commentary. If I write a long essay for my blog about music, I know that a few thousand people will read it. If you try to do good work, people will see the effort.
There are print magazines in the United States that are doing well — magazines that everyone knows. Consider, for example, the American edition of Vogue. Most people don’t know who the editor of Spin is, but everyone knows that Anna Wintour is the editor of Vogue. It’s a magazine that is not afraid to set a cultural agenda.
Fashion and art magazines are, on the whole, doing better than music magazines. There are, of course, many popular fashion and art blogs. But for art magazines and fashion magazines, paper is still the medium of choice. Fashion photographs and reproductions of paintings both look better in big, glossy paper magazines than they do on the Web, though that will probably change in the future, as display technology improves.
These magazines also still have advertising revenue, because they rely on luxury commodities that cannot be made digital. People will always want advice on what to wear, and they will always need to buy new clothes. You can’t download clothes for free like you can download an MP3 — at least not right now. Rich art buyers need to know what artists are hip, what the cool gallery shows are, what paintings to buy. And so these magazines are more resistant to collapse than music magazines are. They can still set an agenda.
For the past ten years, I have been making a living as a music critic in the United States, but it has been a constant struggle, especially as more and more writing moves online. Websites like Pitchfork pay very little. It is nearly impossible to live in a city like New York and be a music critic. I don’t know how I managed to do it for the past ten years. German magazines don’t pay that much either, but the cost of living in a city like Berlin is much lower. Those of us with other skills are turning to different forms of writing — we write about science and technology, for example, or about art or fashion. Some of the most talented music critics I know have left for other professions, such as law or business. There should be a way to support these critical voices. There should be a way to make music criticism viable again.