On the Devolution of Music Journalism

This piece on the devolution of music journalism by Ted Gioia on The Daily Beast is really great. And I think it’s right.

But the lede…

Imagine, for a moment, football commentators who refuse to explain formations and plays. Or a TV cooking show that never mentions the ingredients. Or an expert on cars who refuses to look under the hood of an automobile.

These examples may sound implausible, perhaps ridiculous. But something comparable is happening in the field of music journalism. One can read through a stack of music magazines and never find any in-depth discussion of music.  Technical knowledge of the art form has disappeared from its discourse. In short, music criticism has turned into lifestyle reporting.

…actually raises two issues that the piece doesn’t really consider: 1) the audience for music and 2) the fact that music journalism has always been largely a niche endeavor.

Taking the first point, one needs to understand that the music industry wants to court the widest possible audience it can. And the industry has never cared whether or not this broad audience is educated in music. In fact, to a great degree, it hopes that you are not. The industry has never really branded music as something that is best enjoyed if you know something about chord progressions, or what melisma is, or even have a basic understanding of music theory. Music is emotional, visceral, subjective. All opinions are equal and no one should care that a lot of artists aren’t musicians in the strictest sense.

Or so they want you to believe.

The rise of the pop artist, which followed a time when the industry was supported by sheet music, was almost directly related to pushing the most simplified sounds on the largest number of people and marketing such a shift in a way that discouraged engagement with craft (particularly because the poppiest stuff was often overly simplified ripoffs of more complicated, innovative black sounds).

Which leads me to the second point, which is that, to a great degree, music journalism has not been marketed to the average consumer. It’s always been marketed to music aficionados who are largely thought of in the popular imagination as music snobs and purists (think John Cusack in High Fidelity or any depiction of a hip-hop head). These individuals could be validators when it served the purposes of the industry, but they could also be ignored if they were critical of big, popular artists (from The Monkeys to hair metal to boy bands).

That divide is a critical part of the way we understand music in America.

Football courts the widest audience, but a vital part of being a fan of football is to actually know what’s happening during the game. And a big part of how the football industry operates is to treat its consumer base as deeply knowledgeable people who are invested in the minutiae. To be sure, football fans can be casual, but the character of a football fan – both in reality and in the popular imagination – is of a person with an encyclopedic knowledge of both the mechanics of the game and history of the sport.

So while the elitist thrust of music journalism is even less financially viable than it was at the height of the appropriation of R&B and repackaging it as “rock and roll,” it is unlikely to change unless there is a deep cultural shift toward understanding the consumption of music as an artistic endeavor, in and of itself, that requires all fans to engage with the complexities of songcraft.

This is a worthy endeavor, but incredibly difficult to achieve. And unlikely.

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