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Best Music Scribing Awards, 2005

Jason Gross of Perfect Sound Forever Taps His Keyboard in a Virtual Salute to the Music Writers and Editors Who Made Reading Worthwhile All Over Again


    January 5, 2006
    In all of the pathetic, morbid self-obituaries that the print media's been cranking out for itself recently, the one thing they keep leaving out is that this has been happening for a while now. Looking back at last year's roundup, you'll see all the same plagues afflicting the fourth estate: tanking ad sales (siphoned by Google, eBay, and Craigslist), writers tangled in ethical scandals, newspapers cooking the books about their circulation, print figures down, layoffs everywhere. The only difference this year is that it's happening at a much more rapid pace, and you can bet that it's not going to get prettier anytime too soon.

    More and more, the action's happening online. At times, it feels like the Internet is a black hole that's sucking in all other types of media. Trying to battle this trend isn't an option--it's been happening for the last ten years, ever since the web left the realm of geekdom and became a big business cash-cow. But the right way to embrace and exploit the online world isn't clear either and will definitely take more than a few years to figure out. The problem with technology is that it never sits still: just as you discover ways of using it, hundreds of new ideas and challenges emerge in the interim. Music scribes are inevitably caught in the middle of these excruciating transitions, but the sooner they realize that they have a vested interest in all of this, the better.

    Along with the usual horrors that print pubs endure now, the music press has its own particular headaches. Not only are publications reigning in their use of freelancers (Rolling Stone, Red Flag), others are cutting their word count (Washington Post, Village Voice) or cutting their pay rates (the Voice again, which is also dealing with a recent takeover). And while 'zines are generally more open about accepting material, they're also feeling the crunch of ad dollars and the pressure from record companies to include more--and thus, shorter--reviews to make up for the space.

    As 'zines always have, blogs supplement and bite at information found in traditional media at a head-spinning pace that even one-time tech overlord Bill Gates can't keep up with. A common grumble about blogs is that they can only riff off of stories that they find in older, larger pubs and usually function as little more than online editorial pages. But since a big chunk of music writing is reviews, blogs allow more and more writers to share their opinions, and even to sometimes let the audience hear the music they're discussing. That's all well and good for discovering new music, but it doesn't address the above plaint about the lack of hard news. Some music blogs, aping their political counterparts, share or break news and others even try to stretch the dialog with think pieces, though those are in the minority and will develop over time. Until then, it's great to hear about artists you wouldn't know about otherwise but if we lose out on a wider range of thought-provoking stories, we'll be the poorer for it, unless you count it as a plus that our collective dialogue shrinks to one-liners and SMS messages (even Craigslist founder Craig Newmark is worried about the lack of hard news journalism and is starting up a new project to reverse this trend). But if a blog reports an extensively researched story about an artist--one that would be checked for accuracy--can we really call it a blog anymore? Furthermore, blogs aren't at the point where they can financially sustain their creators--even a denizen like Gawker's Nick Denton has doubts about that.

    All of which isn't to say that blogs are evil incarnate but it's surprising that as these little online diaries rapidly accumulate online, there's not much thought about what kind of consequences they might have on journalism other than sapping click-throughs and small but crucial trickles of ad-dollars. It's a relatively new field (though online journals in one form or another have been around since the inception of the web) and no doubt its potential is only starting to be realized. But with the news cycle being reduced not just to daily, but hourly, editions, what's that going to mean for the future of monthly or weekly print publications? Most likely, they'll seem antiquated by the time they come out with each issue. Also, with music blogs, there's so much excitement about how quickly a buzz can be built up for a band. But doesn't it occur to any writer or the artists themselves that getting thrown in the spotlight so quickly (say after they've posted one song online) isn't always a good thing? Sometimes, artists need time to develop their sound and their songs; once they've been dispersed throughout the blogsphere, there's not a lot of wiggle room for that anymore. I also wonder how the average music fan/consumer is going to try to keep pace with daily hot tips and bands. Having more choices is great but that also means that you have to become more of a dabbler in order to keep up with things; either that or hide into your own little specialized groups, safe from outside and disrupting opinions.

    Along with certain well-admired blogs (Fluxblog, Music For Robots, and Stereogum), online 'zines like Pitchfork and Stylus can create much more of a stir for an up-and-coming band than Rolling Stone or Spin. Maybe because these 'zines were born online and exclusively reside there, they can more easily cater to a younger audience. But as with other types of publications, name recognition can be both helpful and harmful--if an established pub earns the trust of an older readership, younger readers will probably think it's too old-fashioned. The same holds true for any newer online pubs that stay around long enough to become recognized journalistic forces. The problem that comes out of this is that when the older readers disappear (croak or lose interest), the younger ones won't be ready to take their place. In a few years time, a new crop of online pubs will pop up and the teen readership will be complaining about the relatively new, established venues by that point: "Pitchfork??? That's SOOOOO '04..."

    Obviously, print music publications aren't just going to dry up and go away but their online counterparts are evolving so quickly they're leaving a lot of casualties behind. The fact of the matter is, with the online revolution moving full throttle ahead, almost every part of the entertainment/communication field is in turmoil now: movies, radio, and book publishing (especially fiction) are all on shaky ground.

    One useful correlation to all this is the trauma that the music industry currently faces. As with music, more and more people want to get their music news for free and not with any useless, time-consuming restrictions. You could also draw a connection between newspapers and vinyl--there's always going to be some kind of hardcore audience out there for it in surprising numbers. Also, where there was once an established set of gatekeepers and a media hierarchy, a new one is emerging online, even though a relative minority of online users are actively involved.

    Maybe the best lesson to be learned from the music biz is the tale of the i-Pod: all of Apple's competitors are straining to match its sleek, sexy design and clever features, never realizing that they will never beat (much less compete with) the champs by only playing a game of catch-up. The same problem is happening with many publications looking to harness a sizable online audience: though it seems good in theory, sometimes putting up blogs, readers' comments, and podcasts only makes a traditional publication look like an aging hipster trying to squeeze into a pair of tight leather pants. Remember the Los Angeles Times' noble but disastrous Wiki experiment? Heard about the Washington Post's sometimes interesting but limited appeal "Remix" program?

    Which leads to yet another lesson from the music industry: user-friendly technical innovation is the way to stay in the game and that means going way, way beyond what the online juggernauts are already offering and finding new, innovative ways to connect with readers. Unfortunately, as the major labels have been discovering, when you grope around the tech world desperately looking for answers, you're usually running on ignorance and fear. No doubt that's going to rule the scribe business for years to come as answers to their problems come too slowly. What that's going to mean is that some publications are going to have to take risks and be willing to fail sometimes. As belts tighten in the media world, that's going to get harder and harder, but some online innovators--Salon and Slate, for instance--show that there are pay-offs to taking some chances. Just as Norman Lebrecht once advised orchestras to start leaving the concert halls and engage listeners outside of the usual places, writers and editors are going to have to learn to leave their newsrooms and their bedrooms (literally and figuratively) to better engage their readers.

    It may also be that, as writer Keith Harris says, "Arts criticism is undervalued at a mass level, so the only way it can be continued is if publishers think it's worthwhile in and of itself." That being the case, it's not just up to the readers to support the cause, as was suggested in this space last year. Music scribes should also remember that with publications constantly being closed down, cut back, or taken over, they have a responsibility to support the ones still doing quality work online or offline, not only for the all-important paycheck (which we all need whether we like to admit it or not) but also for the sake of keeping the field itself alive and vibrant. What's more, we've reached a point where everyone has a stake in the media because now we all have the opportunity to play a more active role.

    For now, it's amazing to see that, despite all the above-mentioned adversities and challenges, many of the so-called MSM publications still produce heaps of quality music journalism. Blogs and online media sites are definitely coming along, especially PopMatters (disclosure: I blog for them), Stylus, and also Pitchfork to a greater extent lately. But many of the finest music pieces are still coming from the places that are most under-the-gun now. How long that's going to last is anyone's guess but hopefully, that's at least one argument for their preservation. Now and then, we all need hip or snarky thumbs-up-or-down review outlets just for fun, but sometimes you need a little substance in your reading diet as well. Is it too much to occasionally ask for an interesting story, told in an engaging way? It shouldn't be that way and so, I tap my keyboard in a virtual salute to the writers (and their mostly unsung editors) listed in this round-up who show that they agree with that idea just by the work that they do.

    All the best in the New Year, and remember to keep supporting your favorite publication so that they'll be around next year.

    Jason Gross


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Introduction

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


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Read the previous year-end wrap-ups by Jason Gross:

  • 2002
  • 2003
  • 2004