Dancing About Architecture: the slow death of music journalism

First published in Pan Magazine, September 2012

For context: at the time of writing this I had just been promoted from Music Editor of Time Out Sydney to a more generalist Associate Editor position, marking the final time that I was to predominantly be a music writer.  A number of music-focussed magazines had either closed or gone online-only at this point, a situation which has only gotten worse in the intervening years.  

Music writing chose me.

Or, more accurately, Alex Wheaton chose me to write about music, and he did so for three reasons: one, that it was 1992 and the relatively-young Adelaide street mag dB Magazine needed writers; two, that he’d spoken to me when I’d dropped my band’s demo in a few weeks earlier (which he reviewed, accurately and bluntly, if not unkindly) and had therefore established that I was both fairly literate and a bit of a smartarse; and three, because he did so during a Robyn Hitchcock gig in the basement of the now-defunct Big Star Records on Rundle Street, and Alex knew that I worked at Big Star’s equally-vanished Marion store a couple of days a week. “You didn’t pay to get in,” he said, economically summing up the greatest perk inherent in being a music writer, “so write me a review.”

I did. And so began my career as a music journalist, which has lasted for two decades and is now, in its own quiet manner, fading gently away.

Music: I still like it.

Music: I still like it.

It’s not because I don’t still adore music, I should add. I’ve yet to become one of those tiresome people who insist that music was amazing when they were 14, or 22, or 31, and that every year since has been a slow downhill slide into mediocrity. I still listen to dozens of new records a week and have yet to find more than a couple of days go by that I don’t hear something that I’ll thrust into a friend’s hands or inbox with evangelical zeal, breathlessly insisting “you’ve got to hear this, it’s amazing.”

The reason that my career is in its twilight is because, in 2012, being a great music writer is much like being a great masturbator: it’s a skill that’s a genuine pleasure to deploy, but the internet’s full of people doing it for free; and no-one’s going to be comfortable about paying you to do it in an office five days a week.

We are a dying breed, full-time music journalists, reflecting the death of the music industry – or, more accurately, reflecting the death of the bit of the music industry that bought enough advertising to make magazines find music a viable thing for which to dedicate page space and staff budgets.

The savvier of us have transitioned into “entertainment editors”, with music making up a steadily diminishing percentage of the television, film, video games and Tinseltown gossip that keeps a roof over their heads. Others of us got out of music writing altogether, moving into copywriting or publicity; and in the case of one particularly excellent writer, becoming label manager for an indie about which she used to write so entertainingly. In most cases we still freelance around the magazines and websites that still employ writers, or have bitten the bullet and started the sort of blogs about which we once snorted so derisively (ahem, http://www.andrewpstreet.com).

So, since this might be the last time I get to do so from a position of any sort of authority, I would like to speak out in defence of the near-extinct music journalist, even as we raise our unblinking eyes to the sky and watch the asteroid streak across the horizon.

Because you know what we did, at our best? We acted as gatekeepers, telling people who also cared about music about what was good and interesting and exciting, and either warning you off (or, more often, diligently ignoring) the music that was dreck. We were the culture’s spam filters, and like a spam filter we could occasionally block something that would, on closer inspection, turn out to be important – but far more often we would keep your exposure to music down to a manageable, high-quality amount whilst quietly disposing of the 98% of it that was the equivalent of YOU NEED V1AGRA? CANADIAN PHARMACY SECRETS!

Now, when I talk about filtering I’m not talking about eliminating music that’s not to my taste. A good reviewer can generally accept something on its own merits. For my part, there are certain genres for which I genuinely can’t distinguish quality from garbage (I can’t even imagine what would qualify as a good Hard House record, other than that it would be quiet, short and self-destruct mid-way through, killing everybody involved) but it’s not difficult to assess an objectively good pop record, say, from a terrible one.

But as a professional music journo, I’ve listened to 30-odd albums a week for over 20 years. That’s over 31,000 albums, give or take. In comparison, my home iTunes library has just over 4,000 albums on it, meaning that I’ve bothered keeping around 13% of the stuff I’ve heard. That’s just maths.

And I’m amazed it’s that much, to be honest. A good chunk of those years were when I lived in Adelaide, during which I was a tireless advocate of the local scene. I sought out local music assiduously. I was in bands and played on all-local bills often. I created compilations of Adelaide music for MISA, dB’s annual industry directory publication. I was active in the state government’s Contemporary Music Grants Program. I listened to literally hundreds of cassettes, demos, CDs, singles and albums. I bought my first Adelaide record at age 17 (Exploding White Mice’s ‘A Nest of Vipers’ EP, for the record) and was accumulating exclusive-to-A-town stuff right up until I moved to Sydney 18 years later.

Sitting in my apartment tonight, I can tell you exactly how many of those Adelaide artists are still represented in my collection: 15.

Do you know why music journos get so damn excited about local bands doing something great? You might have put it down to some sort of arrogant marking of territory, the journalistic version of pissing on a band and declaring you were there first. But it’s much, much more innocent than that: it’s that all local bands are awful, except for the ones that are amazing. And it is those few stars that shine like lighthouses in a vast ocean of shit and make one almost weep with pure, joyful relief.

That’s why every Sydney music writer lost their head over Royal Headache last year: not only are they objectively great (‘Pity’ is probably my favourite song of the last 12 months) but they’re contrasted against the hundreds of similar bands playing their shitty, shitty music to handfuls of indulgent friends in warehouses and front bars all over the country.

A great band – or a great record – is something to be cherished and celebrated and shared, to be pored over and gotten obsessed about. Music journalists, at our best, are trying to get you to share our excitement for that very reason – and also because we know that if you had to listen to half a dozen self-funded bedroom metal EPs or collections of suburban hip hop jams, you’d go “hey, music: fuck you” and go waterskiing instead.

And now, as I gird myself for my new life as an itinerant freelancer and part-time Contributing Editor, I look back on the above with a grim smile and think two things:

1. Our resources may be meagre and our spirits broken with press releases, but music deserves better than barely-literate bloggers and the expanding armies of youth oriented cross-platform marketing strategists rising to target them, and

2. “Canadian Pharmacy Secrets” would be a killer band name.

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