Jason Gross of Perfect Sound Forever Detects Glimmers of Hope in a Year's Worth of Music Writing.

Presenting the Fifth Annual...

Best Music Scribing Awards
(2006 edition)

    Hey kids, do you want to be used, abused, overworked, underpaid, under-appreciated and under-the-gun? Then you might be ready for the unglamorous world of journalism and its ugly step-child, music journalism!

    Yes, it's been another horrible year for the scribe world. Layoffs, cutbacks, consolidations, fire sales of publications, ever-shrinking print space leading to more work (but usually never more pay) for those 'lucky' enough to survive are all part of the day-to-day life of the biz where both the culprit and also the possible savior is online technology. While this gloom-fest has been choking the general media for the last few years, it's trickled down to the arts sections and promptly kicked butts all around there as well. So does that make the scribes who stick with it serious about their work and admirably committed to it, or insane masochists? A: a little bit of both.

    It should be no surprise that these apocalyptic scenarios opened up the way for scribes themselves to start doubting their own field with a bunch of "critics don't matter" articles. Of course, it doesn't help their case when the some of 'the stars' getting headlines are disgraced fabulists like Nick Sylvester (Village Voice/Pitchfork) and JT Leroy (previous editor of Da Capo's Best Music Writing series).

    Meanwhile, in a show of frustration, everyone's favorite whipping boys in the "mainstream media" (MSM) felt threatened and sometimes struck back at their upstart brothers and sisters on the 'Net. That left media-watchers wondering if the gate-keepers were headed for a dirt nap, but in the end that's about as likely as Jann Wenner willingly giving up Rolling Stone while he still has a pulse. There's always going to be gate-keepers and hierarchies of some kind, online or offline. Sure, there's some sadistic pleasure to be had in seeing the established critics get their comeuppance (see the recent Time Out cover story about turning the tables on the critics), and it's nice to see the scribing field open up more to an online readership. But that doesn't always mean it's a good trade-off--especially when we start to lose some of the old guard who actually know what they're talking about and still have something worth saying.

    robert christgau, in waning days as editor of the Voice

    And that's just a teaser of what happened at a number of publications where the bloodshed reached the level of a Tarantino movie. Traumatic shake-ups happened at many locales in '06, but particularly disconcerting were the scorched-earth policies put in place at the Village Voice, Spin, and Vibe. In the last case, it was probably for the better considering how management was falling apart and threatening to take the mag with it, but in the other two cases, it was nothing more than self-mutilation. In particular, senior editor Robert Christgau being tossed out (mere months after the firing of music editor, Chuck Eddy), by a publication chuckwhose arts section he helped build up for decades led to a lot of head-scratching, soul-searching, and anger among scribes--at that point it seemed that no one was safe, and that a long-standing reputation meant squat. More likely, someone who was so vocal about writers' predicaments and unwilling to bend to new management wasn't going to keep his job under an overly rigid management regime (though not surprisingly, his rep led him to new gigs at NPR, MSN, and other venues). And if that wasn't insane enough, when Michaelangelo Matos took the lead on a rival critics' poll at Idolator (opposite the Voice's yearly Pazz & Jop poll), Village Voice Media banned him from one of its publications and told its own writers not to participate in the Idolator version. Which leads you to wonder why such viciousness was warranted. Muscle-flexing? House-cleaning? Suicide? Time will tell if a name-brand trumps the follies of new management but if the letters' section is any indication, the all-important readership is pretty pissed with the maybe not-so-improved re-branding of the Voice. Also, a number of writers have already decided that they're not buying into the new Voice, indicating that they wouldn't participate in the 2006 edition of Pazz & Jop.

    If that wasn't enough to give the profession a collective headache, there were the ups-and-downs at Spin. After reportedly being sold for only a few millions dollars (chump change for a nationwide magazine), former Blender editor Andy Pemberton was installed as editor and lasted almost as long as he did at his old publication, which is to say not very long. But as at Vibe, it did lead to the ascension of a better set of caretakers after him. Before that happened, the new owners also decided that some house-cleaning was in order, giving the boot to one of the best known name-brands in music scribedom, supposed "voice of a generation" Chuck Klosterman (who isn't as bad as his detractors think but isn't the V.O.A.G. either), along with some other quality editors. Which again begs the question--why?

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    But even without the pink slip mania, lots of other publications were looking around to redefine themselves and find a surefire identity. The Blender/Maxim frat-boy template became sought-after not just because it was fun to do or easy to imitate but also because it's been so popular (a.k.a. profitable). Meanwhile, the much envied (and, not coincidentally, scorned) Pitchfork made a leap in quality with an invigorated and more widely quoted news section led by Amy Phillips, even though its perceived power was still its supposed king-making review section (which is actually a partial truth). On the down side, while Arthur covered its coveted freak-folk scene well, it's also gotten a little too cocky for its own good, breaking its arms with back-patting, and Slate has been sliding deeper into sensationalism and contrarianism for its own sake. And sad to say, venerable long-time record release tracker Ice Magazine died in '06, despite publisher Pete Howard's best efforts to keep it financially afloat. Harp magazine remains a quality publication (disclosure: I sometimes review for them) but also puzzling as it's transformed only in the last year or two from a rival to alt-country bible No Depression to a rival to alt-rock haven Magnet (where Harp's current managaing editor, Fred Mills, had been working). Former avant-music haven, Signal To Noise, did just the opposite, returning to its roots, much to the relief of its old readership. It's no coincidence that there's so many identity crises going on for music mags when there's so much at stake now.

    Identities were also being staked out in the ongoing battle between "rockists" (boosters of authentic rock values who are nostalgic for decades-old music) and "popists" (who are against musical canons and who question the rigid idea of "authenticity" in music). The latter group has been trying to stake their ground--as Carl Wilson described it to me, popists argue that "the literary-style 'meaning' of a song is less important than its immediate emotional effect." Part of the problem might just be semantics of the word "pop"- any association with it is seen as dirty in some circles and doesn't necessarily connote any deeper truths about it--changing this perception is part of the mission of the P-folks. There's no doubt that they make a valuable point: all current chart-toppers aren't necessarily mush, and some of it should be taken seriously no matter how 'manufactured' these artists might be--after all, all musical periods have had their share of garbage. At the same time, I sometimes suspect that the pop-heads are getting a little too full of themselves and their lofty mission. It's interesting, for instance, that some on the popist divide spend less spending time propping up their own musical heroes than lobbing hand-grenades at supposed knuckle-dragging opponents in the scribe world and their 'rockist' values. I also wonder if the popists realize that they themselves might be unwittingly creating their own musical canon and that even some major label bean-counters admit that part of the problem with music today is that they do indeed put out a lot of aural waste products. Slate's Jody Rosen summed up the two most important points about these ongoing skirmishes: having these battles is just plain stupid and a lot of this bickering is in the realm of "music-wonk circles" almost exclusively--what if we had an MTV Celebrity Deathmatch for music scribes and no one watched? (There's a deeper truth here as well, in that 99.9% of us are invisible and unknown to the general public, but that's another story.) Ideally, all of us could appreciate artists good or bad for what they are, regardless of what type of music they do--but we ain't quite in that world yet.


    One large chunk of the outside world that pierced the music bubble was the ongoing war of a pigheaded, war-mongering, unpopular President. A slew of stories noted the continued presence of anti-war songs after being bogged down three years in Iraq with thousands of casualties, or wondered why Generation Y or Z wasn't coming up with anthems to match those from the era of the Vietnam War. Better yet, a few articles wisely noted that no amount of quality music will end the fighting, not to mention that, the reason you don't see more protests or opposition is that there's no draft yet.

    And while on the political tip, I'll throw out a journalist's name as a role model for younger scribes, and proof to the older ones that it's still possible to do good hard-hitting, fearless work. Even more than the brilliantly hilarious Stephen Colbert (who hosted an already-classic oldies-rock meets indie-rock showdown), or the constantly-unearthed Lester Bangs, Keith Olbermann is an exemplary role model. Olbermann's Bush barbs are unflinching in a way that you rarely see in any kind of commentary and unlike many of his MSM colleagues, he's got a sense of humor.

    And it just so happens that other parts of the supposedly stuffy MSM still hold on to many of the benchmark periodicals that continue to turn out quality pieces: the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, the Guardian and (thanks in large part to the addition of critic Ann Powers) the Los Angeles Times. But even though most of these publications aren't bleeding as badly as the Voice or Spin--yet--each of them still face a heap of confusion, doubt, and worry about their well being, often as a result of unrealistic expectations from Wall Street.

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    Over on the other side of the pond, it's interesting to see that British music publications don't seem to be suffering nearly as much. As ex-pat Simon Reynolds noted in an e-mail discussion with me, "NME and Kerrang! seem to be jostling for #1 in their age range; Uncut went down quite a bit last year as MOJO went back up (a year ago, the trend was the opposite); Q stays well ahead of everybody; The Wire chunters along with its niche; Mixmag contracted but (is still) stable." On the downside, Reynolds also explains that for the writers themselves, the opportunities at these mags aren't going to be self-sustaining, in a financial or career way--and, dare it be said, not very spiritually-fulfilling either. In other words, UK music publications are not so different from their American counterparts, and in the end, the same problems are cropping up all over the place.

    In some way or another, music publications, regardless of locale, were all reeling from the same challenge: the threatening-yet-promising specter of technology. Just as with the last few years, the biggest perceived threat to established writers were blogs (the biggest threat to the bottom-line of the papers themselves were ad dollars lost to Craigslist). But was this really the threat that it was made out to be? The BBC reported that 200 million blogs have already died and a Pew survey pegged the number of entertainment blogs at about seven percent of the total, which, according to some estimates would still put that number at a few million. Even discounting how many competing bloggers are out there, the fact remains that, even with the benefit of editors, there's still plenty of bad writing in MSM. And needless to say, there's even more crap floating around the blogosphere. And the symbiotic relationship continues where established writers use blogs to express themselves more than they could in print while many beginning bloggers use their sites as launching pads to find bigger audiences.

    Unlike politics, which takes up a much bigger slice of the blog world, the music world ain't necessarily tied to MSM reporting--they can review the same material and even provide quicker news scoops (as Brooklyn Vegan often does), making the idea of a monthly or even weekly print publication harder and harder to justify (the idea that the more thoughtful analysis that monthlies provide will save these magazines' hides is, sad to say, pretty dubious). Even with advance releases, labels big and small are looking more and more to blogs for tag quotes, making them more competitive with the MSM writers. But because there's such a huge field of blogs out there, the pecking order system comes into play again where the top tier sites get the most preferential treatment. Brave new world my ass.

    Looking past the blogs, there's still the larger technology question of how the 'Net is changing the scribe business. Too many writers and editors act like they're living in a corny 1950s sci-fi film where the evil robots are going to take over the world and enslave all of us. But as composer David Behrman explains about the big bad machines, technology itself isn't good or bad--it just depends on how we use it. Many print-based writers don't want to admit it but they don't resent any particular blogger per se--they just hate the idea of upstarts honing in on their territory and their livelihood. No doubt they also resent that, in addition to all of the other work they already have to do, they now also have to become techies by trade and necessity. Even more galling is the way print writers get the same paycheck while asked to do more work, often including (not coincidentally) blogs.

    And that's not even close to the worst of it when it comes to the tech world's impact on journalism. Once upon a time, tech changes would roll around every few years and publications would slowly adopt. Nowadays, we live in an age of quick-time evolution where the next tech breakthrough or website that will turn the 'Net on its ear is being hatched right this instant, and will sweep its way through cyberspace in a matter of weeks (or less) and switch up the whole game: it's no coincidence that one of the best magazines covering music today isn't a music publication per se, but rather, tech-bible Wired magazine. Nowadays, we live in an age of quick-time evolution where the next tech breakthrough or website that will turn the 'Net on its ear is being hatched right this instant, and will sweep its way through cyberspace in a matter of weeks (or less) and switch up the whole game. To some people, it's an awesome prospect, but to many who like to feel stable ground under their feet now and then, it's as terrifying as being told you have to relearn how to reuse your fingers and eyes a different way every month. That leaves writers with two choices: embrace your inner geek or die.

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    What's amazing is that beyond all of these upheavals and uncertainties, one style of music that's even more under fire than rock these days remains a bright spot in the world of scribing. I'm optimistic about classical music and not just because I found a lot of quality journalism about it this year. At an NEA program at Columbia University, I had the chance to meet a group of 25 bright writers from around the country covering the classical beat against incredible odds (detailed in a New Music Box article). Many told the story of how they got their job because a stupid editor saw them covering some other art beat and decided that they should just cover classical music too. Nevertheless, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more motivated group of writers--even though Reynolds made a persuasive argument in a compelling Frieze article that the lack of great music means less great writing, this group cheerfully contradicted that. Maybe the secret was just gathering them together to share experiences and commiserate, but whatever it is that keeps these writers enthused about their work, it's definitely something needed elsewhere. Paging the Jazz Journalists Association? EMP? The non-existent music journalists' union?

    Hopefully, reading over this selection of articles is also something to enthuse about, not just for readers but for scribes. Sure, it's a well-deserved pat on the back for the people listed here (except of course the cast and crew from Ignobles), but let it also serve as an inspiration to other writers--proof that great work still happens in atmosphere of adversity.

    But in the same way that it's impossible for any scribe to listen to every album that comes out in a year, it's unrealistic to catch every article that comes out each year. (Note that I included a few late December '05 articles here that were glossed over previously.) Though I somehow manage to read hundred of pieces every month (ouch), I know that's still a tiny fraction of the whole pie. And like many Western scribes, I froze out most music writing that occurs outside of America and England, something I'm trying to change with an anthology of non-US/UK music scribes.

    As for the future, like Einstein said, it gets here soon enough, or perhaps in our case, too soon. Don't be surprised if you see more grim news throughout '07 (and '08 and '09...) about the publishing world. What's going to be interesting and exciting is how various magazines not only cope with all the changes but also thrive (as some will, rest assured). To do this, it won't just be a matter of embracing every new technology that comes out (that's an old consulting trick to sell clients on anything new) but also finding out the best way to use what's out there. It also means experimenting with different ways to connect with readers, on and off the 'Net.

    Succeeding in our blazing tech-world might also mean capturing mega-niche markets, as detailed in a brilliant Wired magazine article by Clay Shirky. As he points out, the 'Net's proven to be such a humungous watering hole that it's possible to appeal to a small slice of it and still reach millions of people. It's a place where Paul Westerberg's "Let's Not Belong Together" or John Prine's "We Are the Lonely" ("all together/we're all alone") actually begin to make sense. Now that's a brave new world you wanna believe in.

    I'd like to end the same way I did the last few years and encourage you the reader to take some action when you see a good story: make sure you forward it to your friends, even if you think they might have seen it already, and get in touch with the writer and editor to tell them what a fine job they did. It might be the only uplifting piece of news they get nowadays. They need you more than ever and we owe them our support.

    Jason Gross, January 17, 2007

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Choose a Section:

  • Super-Scribing Awards: Super-Scribing Awards: Best Writing of the Year

  • Superior Scribing Awards: Other Great Pieces of Music Journalism

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

  • Amazing Stories in and of Themselves

  • The Ignoble Prizes: Worst Music Writing of the Year

    Previous year-end wrap ups by Jason Gross: 2005; 2004; 2003; 2002

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    Jason Gross is the founder and editor of Perfect Sound Forever. He also writes the Crazed by the Music blog, where he covers the music scribe beat on an almost daily basis.