Best Music Scribing Awards, 2004

By Jason Gross of Perfect Sound Forever

In 2004, the only thing worse than being a Democrat was being a journalist. The battered profession had to contend with crises of confidence (not just Jayson Blair, but Dan Rather), newspaper circulation scandals, biting from bloggers, slowed ad revenue growth for publications, ever shrinking word counts and sections (review columns cover on average only 10 releases a week), and increasing consolidation of media outlets (something the record industry knows all too well). To top it off, an annual Gallup poll recently revealed that scribes get low marks for "integrity" and "honesty."

Just to ice the cake here, an October 3rd Los Angeles Times article brought it home for the members of the entertainment media, with a headline that said it all: "Newspapers Snub the Arts." And that was on top of current news that the Washington Post's new editor was looking for shorter articles with more pictures and that the New York Times was scrapping its Arts and Leisure Guide. No less an authority than the Chronicle of Higher Education concluded recently that cultural criticism is all but dead now, buried under a wave of snark. If you need another barometric reading to say how bad things have gotten, how about the reports of year-end company parties that have been severely scaled back at many publications? All of this would lead you to believe that there would barely be any kind of music journalism worth speaking about this year. There's only one problem with that conclusion though: it's totally false.

Despite all this gloom, you'll find about 130 wonderful articles cited below (not including dozens or hundreds of others that I missed), which leads you to wonder why or how this could still happen. I have a theory that's not totally bonkers, if only because I've seen it in practice many times: like the musicians that are the subject of these articles, the writers themselves are so obsessed with the subjects, the artists, the songs, and the albums that they have to write about them and spread the word. OK, that's pretty corny and romantic but don't discount it--I can attest that it's happened to me sometimes as well. Don't forget that the editors also make sure these prime nuggets get out and will almost never get credit for a great story finding its way into their section. With less space to express yourself and more competition for the smaller columns (not just other writers and non-arts sections, but ads), there has to be some kind of rabid commitment at play here. This is something we should all be grateful for because, in the end, we're all richer for having these great pieces of writing at our disposal.

And what about the online factor? A popular theory is that blogs are going to wipe out traditional journalism and render it useless and old-fashioned. It's a cute mantra but it ignores the fact that blogs rarely give you news and almost always serve up opinion. Even leaving it at that, this would seem to imply that blogs are still going to be strong competition for record reviewers. Maybe so, but think about this weird symbiotic relationship that's been going on recently: many bloggers hit the big-time when they cross over into other media like print, while many frustrated print writers use blogs to more fully express themselves in ways that they can't otherwise. Basically, what this means is that each side is always jealous of the other. I have to say that I'm still a little disappointed in the amount of quality discourse that comes out of music blogs in general but that's going to change, especially with MP3 blogs becoming yet another and more direct source for learning about new or unknown music. As for online publications themselves, the most successful ones (Slate, Salon) still don't have models that any sane mogul could follow.

I still think that the online world has only begun to have an effect on journalism though. Other than opening up the process to opinion-makers who would never have had a forum otherwise (through blogs or 'zines), the Net holds much more promise for this profession. The web was made for interactive communication and its potential has barely been realized in many arts and news sites; some great examples of where it has been used well are the reader forums and comments that New Music Box and the Guardian add at the end of many of their articles. I also believe that the Net's spread of communication means that we'll see an end to the domination of America and Britain as the sole arbiters of art. I've worked with a number of brilliant, inspired writers from South America, Africa, Asia, and mainland Europe, and know that their perspective is much needed by all of us in the West and is inevitably coming. I'm sure that many of the 'liberal elite' won't like hearing this but the decentralization of media sources will also inevitably mean that more conservative music criticism is coming our way. Instead of a knee-jerk disgust with such an idea, I think it would be much healthier to actually welcome this (as long as it has some quality to it) because journalism should thrive on healthy debate and different perspectives. Truth be known, I'm not even convinced that the web is going to be main online mode of communication five or ten years from now--as connection speeds keep increasing and other portable devices are used more and more for communication, there'll inevitably be faster, easier ways that we'll all converse and transfer information. I'd like to say that any entrepreneur out there would do well to steal this idea and run with it but I guarantee you it's already in the works.

In terms of content itself, it's worth noting how conflict plays out in so many of these pieces. This isn't just the obvious red state and blue state wars but also fights about the FCC, censorship, ill-advised police crackdowns, record companies vs. downloaders, highbrow vs. lowbrow, U.S. vs. Europe, cynics vs. true believers, rockism vs. teen pop, online music services vs. jazz history, bombs vs. good-will ambassadors, editors vs. political-minded writers, etc. These are all aesthetic (and political) discussions that are worth having in the public realm and should continue to be debated. Since the American government has turned beet red, the fourth estate remains ne of the few checks and balances that we have left. As bad a rap as the mainstream political media's taken for being White House stenographers, I think the issues tackled in the articles below mean there's still a healthy skepticism in many publications, which isn't about to ease up any time soon. That's something we should all be grateful for.

I have enough faith in all of these ideas that I'm actually optimistic about the prospect for music/arts journalism. As I said, writers are a strange breed; they'll go through a variety of publications, editors, and mediums to get their story out one way or another. The best we can do is compliment their work, tell others about it, and let the publication that released it know how much we appreciate what they've done, so that, hopefully, we'll see more of it. So try this little trick: when you find a great music article, contact the writer and the editor and say how much it meant to you. If they hear enough of that, maybe you'll get your ultimate reward of not just being a good Samaritan but also the selfish satisfaction of getting more great work thrown at your feet. Hopefully, I've done my part below, but why should I have all the fun?

Thanks to Andy Flynn, Kandia Crazy Horse and Carl Zimring for their help in gathering material, and to all of the writers below for their wonderful, inspiring work (except for most of the IgNoble winners).

NOTE: Some websites linked to here may require registration. Every attempt was made to make sure that the links are accurate and up to date but publication websites change constantly. Raspberries to the CNN website for doing such poor archiving of their articles and to the Globe and Mail, New York Times and Los Angeles Times websites for offering overcharged access to not-so-old articles. Any comments, complaints or oversights (I'm sure I forget a lot of worthy articles) are welcome at

-  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -  - 

Jump to the section of your choice:

1. Super-Scribing Awards: Best Writing of the Year

2. Superior Scribing Awards: Other Great Pieces of Music Journalism

3. Non-Music/Musical Stories: Great Writing About the Other Arts

4. Amazing Stories in and of Themselves

5. The Ignoble Prizes: Worst Music Writing of the Year