The New Era of Music Journalism Requires Discovery

The idea that conventional journalism is more endangered now than in previous generations. Good journalism has never been conventional, and in all eras it has been shaped by new technologies and the demographics of the media we use to get our messages across.

It’s a given that we need to stay relevant to those new channels and those audiences. As writers and editors, we have to stay keen to what people want or need to know, and how we can deliver that to them.

But it sometimes becomes hard to balance this job with the higher principles of our profession that make it more than a good to be consumed but rather a public good. 

Misled by Page Views

Page views are naturally a measurement of what’s important to people – if people are reading something and sharing it, then it must resonate with them somehow. But I find that a lot of writers are getting trapped into writing pieces that are bound to get the most page views; writing about subjects because they can have a key search term in the headline, rather than create something readers want. In music, this often means writing about the top, industry-promoted artists.

It strikes me as more than a little ironic that the Internet, a technology that promised to make it easier to publish, has rewarded those who cover mainstream music in terms of pageviews.

So, we have most writers vying for the attention of a reader who wants to hear about the top artists, and very little about lesser-known ones.

Finding New Music

We’re moving from a world dominated by CD sales and iTunes downloads, to one of streaming audio services like Rdio, Spotify, and Last.fm.

Things like the Billboard Top 100 are both more and less important than they used to be. The top artists might be getting more album sales and media attention, but lesser-known artists may be connecting with people in ways that don’t necessarily translate into sales.

It should be little surprise that some of the most dedicated music audiences are streaming or illegally downloading music. And instead of relying on the industry hype around chart-topping artists, many younger people are discovering new music online through blogs like Stereogum and Pitchfork, and networks like SoundCloud and Bandcamp.

Music fans turn to these services because they’re interested in new music. Those who don’t want to listen to Billboard-approved hits can sift through countless releases – with no guarantee they’ll find something they like.

Everyone has a right to write a new take on Miley Cyrus’ latest antics or a review of Kanye West’s new album, but there’s a huge opportunity to discover and write about new artists.

Of course, mapping the unknown territory of music that’s beyond the mainstream is harder than relying on charts. And it’s harder to prove the legitimacy of a song or artist that doesn’t have millions of sales to back it up.

But at the same time, sites like SoundCloud and Bandcamp allow us to listen to thousands of bands for free – making it easier than ever to find new bands who might be eager for media attention. What’s really missing on sites like SoundCloud and Bandcamp is an outside editorial layer that explains what’s worth listening to and why.

Taking Up a New Role

It’s important to understand how the music ecosystem has changed in recent years in which some of the original taste-makers have changed. Indie record store managers would have access to lots of music and push certain non-mainstream artists they liked by carrying their albums in store. Likewise, small labels would often be able to pick acts that might not be commercially viable for larger record companies that need to turn bigger profits.

Of course, indie record shops and small labels may have become less viable as purveyors of new music, especially since many bands operate solely online and don’t seek label representation.

So, the demise of these traditional curators has created a vacuum that has been partially filled by music discovery sites and apps. But these tools really lack the knowledge and experience of a real-life music journalist – not to mention their ability to convey information in a compelling way to an audience. These sites often use statistics, just like Billboard, to determine what’s popular, and that isn’t the best way to find what’s new and interesting.

Going forward, I imagine that writing about mainstream music probably will not only be a more difficult place to make a mark as a journalist, but it will also serve less of a purpose. On the other hand, the most exciting music journalism of the next few years will likely come from the discovery of new music, and that the best way to stand out in the field of music journalism is to become both a discoverer of good new music, and a writer about new music.

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