The Blogger v. Critic Showdown
By Becky Wreski
Who gets the glory and who goes unpaid?
Let us have a moment of silence for Paste magazine.
As we sit here feeling sad for our paper-printed pal, our techy friend with his iPad is busy listening to Ra Ra Riot’s “Boy” in Paste’s music sampler and reading up on the latest news, reviews, and comments on PasteMagazine.com to even notice that its print companion left.
The ever-changing nature of the music industry (even iTunes reminds users of new updates from 10.0 to 10.1 every hour, on the hour) means that music publications, and their subsequent critics, must struggle to keep up. The immediacy at which people can buy or illegally download new albums surpasses the speed at which professional critics can write about the releases. Compared to music websites, monthly music publications seem like ancient artifacts filled with golden oldies.
“A lot of music publications in general are more successful on the Internet because music is such a hype cycle,” said Caitlin Dewey, the former editor-in-chief of 20 Watts. After the print edition of 20 Watts folded, Dewey became an editor for the 20 Watts blog. “By the time I get Spin in my mailbox, I’ve already heard of all the bands that are in it,” Dewey said, “and I’ve already listened to all the releases that they’re reviewing.”
The problem is further exacerbated when the magazine you work for only drops twice a semester.
20 Watts, the resident music magazine on the Syracuse University campus, stopped publishing its print edition after the May 2010 issue and has since transferred strictly to blogger central, aka Wordpress. But even the blog’s release of content halted this past August.
The Daily Orange reported that 20 Watts had problems receiving funding from the Student Association in the past. And while funding problems persisted, Dewey and the current editor-in-chief of the blog, Lorna Oppedisano, stuck with the theory that all print publications must head to a more immediate form of media.
“This is the faster way to get readers the information,” Oppedisano said. “The trend is to rely more on the Web, as is the trend of every form of media.” In fact, the 20 Watts team is working on a new website to replace its blog. Oppedisano said the website, which is coming in the near future, will be very similar to the blog.
This combination of immediacy and the everyone-is-their-own-critic mentality of music bloggers results in professional critics becoming sitting ducks, waiting for their paychecks to spiral downstream. In less than two years, three major music publications—Vibe, Blender, and Paste—folded, and an increasing number of independent music magazines dropped their print issues.
“Advertisers are shying away from print because you can target so specifically online,” said Ulf Oesterle, assistant professor in the Bandier Program at SU and a producer of KRock, a weekly indie rock program for the Syracuse radio station. “There is an ease to which you can really focus, and in a way, super-serve your real core fan. Online, you’ve got that ability.”
So naturally, as a brand’s print magazine folded, a beefed-up version of the brand appeared on the Internet. But then the blogosphere took over.
Enter Christopher Weingarten, a professional music journalist and freelancer for RollingStone.com and other music sites. He took the conversation of music-focused blogging and the death of the music critic to a new level. During the 140 Characters Conference in 2009, Weingarten mentioned that music lovers discover music in a completely different way following the evolution of music leaking, sharing, and blogs. “Music websites report on leaks, and they still don’t cover them fast enough because Twitter people cover the leaks,” Weingarten said.
Dewey also acknowledged the effect that bloggers can have on profitability of traditional music publications. “You have these legions of unpaid college bloggers writing reviews from their dorm rooms,” she said. “Having that type of unpaid blogger is the reason that music magazines are suffering, at least if you subscribe to Christopher Weingarten’s point of view.” Which she does.
“I think he has a point that you could have a million music bloggers, but they’re not going to replace having an expert on a certain type of music,” Dewey said.
According to Weingarten, consumers no longer rely on critics to discover new, fresh, and inventive music. They listen to the music on websites, blogs, and music-sharing sites, and then decide for themselves. Everyone has become his own critic. Then he writes about it, but not very well. “It’s not like music writing on the Internet is especially interesting, or good, or insightful, or worth reading,” said Weingarten. “People have this open mall, this endless abyss, and they just write for 3,000 words.”
Even if the blogs are well-informed and professionally written, they take away from the expertise of professional journalists. “In many ways, 20 Watts falls on the anti-music journalism spectrum in that we’re a bunch of kids, we’re writing for free but you’re drawing views away from maybe another music site,” Dewey said.
Oppedisano disagrees. “The pros will always have readers, and blogging is a great way for new critics to show their voice on the scene,” she said.
So in a way, 20 Watts helps its writers gain experience to become better bloggers—bloggers who steal views from the paying gigs at branded websites. Bloggers who came to SU to gain the experience to get paying gigs at branded websites.
Not only do blogs rob views from professionals, but they also deprive new bands of opportunities to be discovered and loved. In the 90s, readers of music critiques turned to Rolling Stone to learn about various genres and inform their tastes, said Weingarten. But when blogs really became popular in 2004 and 2005, music lovers kept revisiting the sites they were familiar with, ruling out any discovery of something new.
“I can always learn about stuff that is important to me,” Weingarten said. “That’s easy. I want to learn about stuff that isn’t important to me. I want to be exposed to things.”
Many music critics probably agree with Weingarten on one point: bloggers have changed the landscape for music publications. But professional music journalists haven’t gone away: they’ve simply adapted.
The power of a music publication’s brand and its writers can still be seen, even though it takes on a new face. “You know, Paste? Perfect example,” said Oesterle. “I got so many texts from friends, some music journalists, some not, that were like, ‘Can you believe that Paste is not going to print?’ They were a tastemaker, they were a trendsetter, they were on the cutting edge. And I think people—at least in the Paste market—were still buying the physical product, so they’re still developing content. It’s just on the Web.”
The immediacy at which bloggers discover new music is precisely why the music critic is out a paycheck. But the hype of immediacy also brings more music publications online. Popular brands stay relevant, and thus feedback is immediately available.
“Certainly you can comment to an editor by a letter [for print publications], but with the blogosphere, two seconds later, you’re seeing, ‘You’re a nut ball!’” said David Rezak, a professor in the Bandier Program at SU. “In a way, I think this is fostering better writing because you get such immediacy back.”
For Dewey, the Web also allows more leeway for a writer’s technique. “I think you get to experiment more on the Web,” Dewey said. “It varies by publication, but I think, in general, on the Web, more experimentation with voice, tone, and style is allowed than in print where you have a really established product.”
Websites are also more collaborative and interactive. “If you’re reading about a band and you touch something on your screen, and you can hear [the band], even if it’s a clip, but if you can hear the entire song, even better, or one click to purchase, even better,” said Oesterle. Music blogs and websites took on the “link economy” and ran with it. Looking up one band on Billboard prompts the user to news articles about the band, stations for their latest releases, new YouTube videos, and other similar bands.
People are consuming more music than ever, largely due to the fact that they can access it easily and quickly. Music journalism may be taking a different form, but it still exists for readers. “I think that you still have people that want information, that want good stories, that want photos, and I think you can be exceptionally creative with how you deliver that content today,” Oesterle said.
Rezak agreed. “I think that the blogosphere has honed a whole new generation of great writers,” he said. “Whether or not you can make a living doing that is questionable, but just the same, I actually think that everyone getting a chance to put their stuff out there—to be read, be crucified for what you’re writing. It’s such a good growing experience for a writer. I just can’t imagine there being as much opportunity to be read.”
Rezak also wants writers to see this change as a chance to grow instead of an excuse to grumble. “It’s a different style, but it isn’t bad,” he said. “It isn’t a bad thing. I don’t think we have to sit around and say, ‘Woe is us.’ It isn’t ‘woe is us,’ it’s an opportunity to explore new options.”
Paid music critics may be hard to find in today’s market when so many are willing to do the same job for free—or as Weingarten put it, “for a concert ticket and a pat on the head.” But for the professional music critic who finds the story, researches it well, and tells the story in an engaging fashion, the audience is not lost. The publications are there for them, just in a different medium.
“I think the cream rises,” said Rezak. “I think the people that are really great wordsmiths are always going to be in demand in some form. And hopefully that means that, you know, that they actually get to a more prestigious post, and there actually is a place that will pay you, even if it’s modest.”
Oesterle believes that these prestigious posts will still flourish even if printed music publications go down all together. “Certainly the offices of these long-standing print publications are more barren then they used to be,” he said. “But I think the content that you create is still important, and it may be that you’re streamlining the process, you’re cutting your costs—getting rid of the print publication—but I think the brands themselves, they hold value. And people will continue to go to them if they are bringing value back to the consumer.”
Blogs have altered music criticism, for better or worse, but the big-name brands like Rolling Stone stuck it out. Those who cry over killed print publications need to learn the same lesson.
“If you’re looking at magazines, newspapers as print publications circa 1990, you’re done,” said Oesterle. “You’ve got to look at 2014.”
Illustration by Molly Snee