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Sunday
Aug212011

Push-Button Professionalism: The origin and evolution of the role of professional music critics

If you write on the internet, you’re blogging. There’s an indissoluble link between the two terms – if you have an opinion and have the means to publish on the internet, you are elevated into the “blogosphere” of online opinion. One can blog on virtually any subject they wish, including rock music. These bloggers offer music criticism with lighting fast rapidity and in some cases, keener cultural and intellectual insight compared with academically trained, and establishment-oriented “professionals.” Is there much truth to the charge of popular music academic Don McLeese when he asks:

"[C]ritical writing about pop music has grown steadily more irrelevant. . . . Pinning the entire rap on the Internet allows music critics to dodge some painful but necessary questions. How should journalists illuminate the zeitgeist at a moment when the dominant cultural narrative is that there is no dominant cultural narrative? Do critics have any special license to serve as pop music’s cultural interlocutors when anyone with an Internet connection can attempt to do the same thing? In other words: if anyone can make pop music and anyone can be a pop-music critic, do we really need professional critics to tell us what it all means?"[1]

If we can curate to our own exacting tastes, access music from a variety of sources and similarly the criticism – how can one delineate between “cultural interlocutor,” loud-mouth blogger or publicist shill? How did we end up at this (non-)critical juncture in the first place?

 

Music criticism and journalism lends meaning to the subculture or “communities of consumers” as they may be viewed and as an extension of itself. The bands characterizing themselves as artists address their fans through the “interlocutor” or interpreter of critic and rock journalist. However, the force of community building is at tension with the forces of commodification as rock journalism derives its revenue through label advertising in order to sell their own cultural product. Labels seek to reach their markets through magazines. Then we must determine the initial impulse for music writers to start writing about this subject as well.

Charlie Gillett of the underground magazine Rock File wrote in 1972 that “records are the reason most of the journalists are [writers], which is often as frustrating to them as it is to the readers who have to plough through their copy. Records are bait and currency for the rock 'n' roll journalist; he gets ‘review copies,’ free from the record companies, keeps those he likes, and sells or trades off what he doesn't want.” But in 2011 a “music critic” (as defined as someone who actively writes about music with some degree of critical positioning) can download an album, perhaps before its release date and write a review with as much import as a piece written by a critic that works within the traditional structures of the industry and is recognized by others in the subculture as such.

Of course, back in the 1960s and 70s the media ecology of the music marketplace was firmly in the grasp of the music industry. Record labels and their holding companies controlled the means of reproduction (vinyl records, 8-tracks etc.) and how these products were manufactured and sold. Similarly, music magazines controlled the sphere of criticism and music news reporting. In the time of Gillett, Roxon and Bangs, music critics were handed records by publicists or editors and encouraged, “bribed” or ordered to write about what they heard or were charged with finding new sounds or emerging trends in music-centric subcultures. In some cases, these journalists almost uncritically championed styles they favored.

On the whole, critics were charged to communicate to other readers using their cultivated disposition – perceived or otherwise - if what they heard was culturally significant or aesthetically creative; it was their job to appraise whether the music in question was enjoyable, to determine to what extent and why. A reader would have to buy, physically pick up or subscribe to a magazine or street press, read the review and decide whether to purchase the album or single based on the resulting content. In terms of criticism, there was a literal and cultural distance from the work being appraised and the work itself; the record and the magazine existed in two parallel and distinct mediums as opposed to non-critical music-as-content mediums such as radio or television.

Radio ever since its invention and mass adoption, likewise with television in the 1980s, has exposed cultures and subcultures to budding trends in pop and rock music. The content of radio primarily is music (or arguably the commercials that bookend the songs), not music criticism. Once a song was played, the listener was at the mercy of the DJ to spin it again (until the 1980s, when home taping became prevalent although this phenomenon was not as wide-spread as record labels would have us imagine.) Almost all music in rotation at commercial or even community access radio stations was almost always readily available for purchase in record stores or in other outlets. The institution of the radio station serves to actively publicize music (or rather, the records) as a commercial product for retail sale by presenting it as the content itself. When media critic Robert McChesney posited that “there’s no non-commercial part of MTV” in the mid-90s he could easily have applied the same assertion to commercial radio of the 50s onwards (especially in the face of cash-for-airplay scandals known as “payola.”) In the age of media convergence, new media and portable, digital formats such as endlessly duplicable CD or mp3, the once prevailing view of music as a controlled, commercial product becomes problematic. Thus the role and usefulness of the “privileged interlocutor” is thrown into question.

In the twilight of the last century, the file-sharing service Napster along with scores of others forced a usually reactionary music industry to transition towards the portable and online era. Musicians and labels discovered to their dismay they could not merely legislate or litigate the control of their products back to them and how they were covered or evaluated in publications. The age of monetizing the content by controlling the technology was at a close. The advance promo “bait” as a currency to entice music journalists to write favorable copy – or any copy at all – lost all worth virtually overnight.

Likewise, the “underground” publications such as street-press or fanzines, revered for their authenticity due to their autonomy and limited production in comparison to the “mainstream” could no longer maintain this physical distance from Rolling Stone or NME once these blog-zines were only one click away. In terms of music criticism, the dimension between “insider” or “interpreter” and “consumer” or “fan” collapsed. Industry publicists, fans, musicians, technicians and professional journalists could all don the persona of music critic with a few simple clicks of a mouse. We don’t even have to read reviews; websites such as Last.fm, Spotify and ReverbNation allow us to hear music on demand and allows consumers to individually decide whether to purchase (or illegally download) the content for themselves. So do we need professionals to tell us what it all means?

In Australia, there are many fanzines and blogs that have risen from the grassroots to later be co-opted by the music industry to propel mutual success. FasterLouder.com.au, Beat Magazine, KillYourStereo, MetalForge.com, MetalAsFuck.net, Mess+Noise, Collapse Board, the AU Review and various others are examples of fan-established and maintained blogs or street press that have risen to prominence significantly due to gaining artist access via official channels. Sites and street press such as these are privy to the sphere of cultural production (to be discussed in detail in another essay) in terms of providing the basis for content creation for these sites. For record label, it’s arguably the last vestige of content control they retain.

In the origins of pop music criticism, when pop was to be considered “art” by academia and eventually the mainstream (radio, television, newspapers and other widely consumed cultural products intended for a mass audience) it was pushed by students and university graduates occupying positions of influence in the media or academia. Alternatively, publications such as the aforementioned Rolling Stone, Creem or Melody Maker (after it went “progressive”) were created to lead the charge for pop music and its adherents as an artistically authentic subculture and not merely as pleasure-driven kids seeking vacuous entertainment. Pop music critic authenticity was conferred upon writers by writing for publications that others considered to be representative of the subculture it was reflecting or shaping. In the internet age, the “professionals” are not chosen by the public, but the labels.

The labels offer the interviews, the advance copies, the free concert tickets to writers they believe carry this authenticity or popularity and are able to act as “cultural interlocutors.” “Amateur” music critics that garner a significant amount of traffic or attention do not tend to stay “amateur” for long. Labels on the prowl for more avenues to publicize their content will seek to co-opt these writers or journalists into their cultural production “sphere” or circuit. Whether the writer publishes his own blog or is employed by conglomerates such as News Limited or Fairfax Media, the task that falls on the writer to “explore meaning” in pop music is granted by the fact labels allow the writer to test these boundaries through controlling who gains access to these artists and who does not.

There is no question there are shills, “hacks” and other fan-writers who write nothing but borderline hagiography when afforded an opportunity to meet or talk to their favorite artist. Others pride themselves on acting as “haters,” harshly critiquing almost everything that they hear. Despite either method (or even striking a moderate balance of coverage) that guarantees the initial access, once inside the label-content circuit, one’s inclusion is not assured indefinitely. If new, more popular writers emerge and the writer in question does not deliver a return on investment (writing negative copy in a publication with declining readership, for example) they eventually are excluded from the circuit. At this juncture, it becomes apparent who is granted "privileged interlocutorship."

It would be naïve to assume that the most popular music writers are considered the “best” writers; this essentially is a subjective position. In the view of the music industry, these critics and writers are given more access for the greatest return on investment. Even though music is stolen with more haste than it is bought, the intrinsic task of the privileged music critic is the same; to promote records through the discussion of it in mass media publications. But do we need them?

To answer simply, the co-opted critic may not be as insightful, incisive or knowledgeable about their chosen critic as one who is not. The “special licence” is conferred upon writer from without, by the source of the content being written about; not inversely as it did in the post-1968 moment until around 1986 and new media trends and transmission methods were integrated into our media culture. A critic that actively resists co-option may enjoy heightened authenticity through maintaining a critical distance from the industry cultural production circuit, much like those in the underground zine culture of the 70s and 80s. By rejecting the compromising “lures” of privileged interlocutorship may work in their favor in terms of shaping the musical zeitgeist in certain subcultures (such as punk and hardcore music for example.) This sounds like a romanticized authenticity rooted in the do-it-yourself punk philosophy, but ultimately the writer with the “all access pass” carries more authenticity and "legitimacy" as a music critic and journalist than the writer without one.

The simple, undeniable fact remains: the writer with the most reach is given that privilege and writes to sustain it; and that license is very much granted at the discretion of the labels and publicists. We don’t need these “privileged” writers, no; but in terms of getting the story and advancing the narrative of music criticism, we do seem to want them. The critics that elevate their craft as an art equivalent to music they write about are the ones that may be the most deserving of this privilege; but unfortunately may not always get it. As long as the participants of a subculture yearn for an authentic story behind artists and their products conveyed without deleterious industry interference from the mouths of the artists themselves - critically or not - the “privilege” is there for the taking and increasingly, exists for our continued consumption.

This essay is an early draft in a series of critical examinations of music criticism and journalism. The project is being co-written by Leticia Supple, blogger and founder of MetalAsFuck.net. Read her first essay here.

---
[1]: McLeese, D. 'Straddling the Cultural Chasm: The Great Divide between Music Criticism and Popular Consumption' in Popular Music and Society (Vol. 33, No. 4. 2010) p. 436.

 

Friday
Jul222011

Killing the Facebook - A Welcome Disconnection

On Thursday night, I made a pre-meditated, well-planned and spontaneous decision to deactivate my Facebook. Ignoring it wasn't enough. I wanted it dead.

When one decides to shut down Facebook, the cybernetic entity controlling its blue and white projection tries to guilt you into staying. It feebly attempts to convince you its privacy violations are ingenuous, the premise behind it is half-way useful and even resorts to emotional blackmail, insistent that certain real life friends will miss your cyberpresence. Despite the electronic pleading and bureaucracy it entangles you in (are you really, truly sure? Enter your Tax File Number and mother's father's aunt's maiden name to continue.) I pulled the plug.

Let me tell you, what a relief.

The last year and a half, I've experienced overwhelming, world-view shifting changes. Some are physical - I feel stronger and fitter. Others are mental - I know more that I did last year. A lot of them are intangible, yet bound up with my very being. Facebook does a disservice to our being. It labels it, it regulates it and alters our perception of it. It's not a window into our being. It's a map of it that's barely accurate at the best of times.

Prior to the advent of social media and my own return from the brink of oblivion, I almost wished I could use some kind of benign platform to convince myself that my friends were routinely ignoring me or were acting like sinister villains behind my back. My mind with paranoia's snakes coiled tight around it was convinced - convinced! - that these smiles masked a cruel intent.

Maybe they did. More rationally and overall, likely, they most probably didn't. Sure, by the time I'd reached the end of my tether with this colloquial monstrosity, I'd noticed a pattern had emerged when I'd made a post. Only about 10 or 15 "friends" seemed even remotely interested in what I'd had to say. Sure, I'd made some new contacts along the way but I'd also made some "indifferents." I was "hidden" from view by everyone else - or so it seemed.

But then I figured that my fatigue with Facebook stemmed from viewing an overabundance of useless and intellectually void information about people I barely knew. Yet, the otherness lay in myself: I made little to no effort to get to know the people - the real people behind the "book" obscuring their "faces" - and at that instant, there was clarity as I emerged from beyond the murk: I was out of integrity with my use of Facebook. It was all bullshit, man.

The last year I've made many lasting friendships. Brotherhoods indissoluble, loves everlasting. But they weren't made over Facebook. They were forged as sunlight beat down on our faces, as tears streaked down our cheeks, as frost billowed through the cadence of our breaths. Friends are made and re-made over cheap meals and cheaper laughs in second-rate cafes. Facebook, the great concealer of real, open and visceral humanity didn't let seeds of camaraderie take root and flourish; it kept them in stasis until someone decided to let it expire.

So I got rid of it. I was bullshitting myself if I chose to keep my interactive dossier of half-truths up and running. I'm not even remotely concerned that it's a great "tool" for promoting my journalism work or services as a consultant. I get enough rejection e-mails from editors and managers in my good old fashioned email inbox, thank you very much.

My once enthusiastic adoration for Twitter has all but evaporated too. The only "social medium" (although that's a contestable term) I'm rather enjoying is Tumblr - it's like running one's own pop-culture museum. There's a certain joy in stealing from others' small collections and discoveries to curate in one's own permanent exhibition. It's superficial, that's a given. But it's artifice does not purport to foster "friendships" in the physical sense. Online community, yes. "A place for your friends," not so much.

Will I miss it? I'm not suffering from any measure of withdrawal. But like the aims of my (numerous) social media moratoriums, the payoff is in rising to challenge of relying on it no longer. If I want to know what's going on with my social circles, I'll have to talk to someone and engage in a real conversation to find out. If I'm forgotten by fair-weather friends, then so what? I know who my brothers and sisters are on this magnificent journey. I'll love and support them as long as I'm able. In kind, they will support me, too.

So I give praise to Facebook precisely as I bury it (with the cumulative personal information I've fed it over the years clutched firmly in its cold, dead hands.) You've opened my eyes to see where my real friends truly are.

Saturday
Jul162011

Where's Our Google, Too?

I felt compelled to add my opinion to the billion-strong chorus of ill-baked and half-formed critiques and hagiographies of Google+ on the basis none of them seemed to catch on to some fundamental facets of media ecology. Media ecology put simply is the study of media as an environment and was pioneered by Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, Jacques Ellul and many others. In honor of ABC Radio National's week-long celebration of the life and work of Marshall McLuhan, I present my simple media ecological analysis of Google+ and why I don't feel it'll take off to Facebook proportions.

1. Because it's Google+, not Google 2: Electric Googleoo

The mantra of media ecology, especially that of the late great Neil Postman is that new media is not additive but transformative. You don't get a culture plus television, you get a completely new way of disseminating and interpreting information. 20 years ago, not everyone needed a computer. But in 2011 you go into someone's home, chances are you'll see a computer in residence with a connection to the internet. Computers hooked up to the internet are a material change to our culture that results in a behavioral change. Go to any restaurant and see the new table adornments: black rectangles that go "ping" when your date is talking about new boots or football or whatever.

Google+ only works on the premise that it will make a material or behavioral change to your life somehow. If you intend to own a Chromebook, then yes - Google+ makes total sense. Using Chromium OS, Google+ fits right in to the entire purpose of the operating system and the computer; making it a purely web-based machine and experience.

If you don't own one nor do you intend to own one, it has to offer something drastically new and something substantially more cooler than Facebook to kick the Facebook habit.

2. The people who give a shit about it give a shit already

I've noticed no one is pestering me for invites any more - partly because they don't like me and mostly because those who already want it, have it and those who don't give a shit...well, don't give a shit. Google+ has almost already hit a critical mass of people who give a shit about it and now that anyone can send an invite the give a shit factor has taken a nosedive. Those who do give a shit evangelize about it as the Facebook killer but inevitably hit the obvious roadblock:

"So what's it like?" asks the incredulous bystander. "It's like bringing all your friends together, but you can follow other people you think are cool and you put them into circles and it's AWESOME," replies the Google+ zealot.

"So it's like Facebook."

"Yes, but better."

But is it better? Faster? Harder? Stronger? In what way? Pick any one of the preceding and it's especially difficult to evaluate if that's even true or not. But there is one way, which I'll explain later.

3. Pitching something to everyone means you need to make a habit out of it

Facebook was revered by university students because it couched them in a sort of electronic elitism - don't go to uni? Well fuck you, you can't use Facebook. Before long it was available to high school students, technical colleges and eventually everyone. Then it opened itself up to the internet and segued into the background of the web experience, not as the go-to site of the minute. It became a habit.

G+ seems to work on the premise that it's ridiculously simple enough for the web-only Chromium set but also powerful and malleable enough for the media "gurus" and code monkeys. Where does it leave the people in the middle? Killing e-cows with their mafia goons on Facebook. It's difficult to change a habitual behavior and the reason has to be compelling for those to change. Facebook wasn't built on a new premise, but its advantage over MySpace? It successfully broke down an ingrained habit (for some) and facilitated other people to form new ones.

Your friend posts a photo of what they're eating, every day? It's the online equivalent of twirling one's hair or tapping one's foot, mostly unconsciously. (How can you spend 2 hours on that fucking thing without realizing, I mean, seriously.) Perhaps we all need an e-Gestalt therapist to ask us "Vat is the sik-niff-ee-kunss of zat what you are doing zere?"

Can Google+ achieve the same thing? I doubt it - at this stage. To get to Facebook or even Twitter status, it has to be come a lasting and integral part of our everyday experience. Right now it's like "Oh yeah, shit, I have Google+. I should post this blog post about Google+ on it, right now!"

Even those who signed up for Facebook and didn't make a habit out of it would probably log in and find their notifications area awash with red. If there's no sustained buzz, I suppose we can wave it away.

Saturday
Jul022011

Out of Commission

Just a small note to myself to say - don't leave drinks on tables with a reach over one's computer. Gravity is not your friend in those situations. I spilled some iced tea on my laptop yesterday. Miraculously - it still works! But that doesn't mean there were unintended effects.

The keyboard has some dead letters (including the spacebar. Of all keys, the spacebar! Why didn't it hit 'Q' or something just as useless?) and the LCD screen has a rather noticeable wet patch on/in it. Through using another, older PC I'm able to access basic "potato" functions but all my "meat" is left on my lappy's HDD.

So if you're a band or a contact that's asking me "where my article is" - don't. At this stage, it's not going to be finished any time soon. Also, I'm not here as a public service to you; I'm a professional writer trying to make a living from my craft. Not only is it unprofessional to demand, it's also quite irritating. Relegating my work to that of a cake in an oven is actually quite insulting.

So I'm out of commission for a few days until my replacements and thorough drying cycle takes its course. Bummer.

Saturday
Jan292011

Your Own Private Wikileaks

In October 2010, Facebook made available a downloadable zipped archive of your "sensitive information" to any user that wishes to access it. You make a query to the server to prepare your folder and it's available for download within hours. When I finally opened it, I was shocked at what I found.

At 33MB long, it contained all my profile information - past and present - likes, dislikes, comments, posts, photos and videos. Everything I had ever typed into a white field with a blue button marked "Comment" underneath. Interestingly, one can mark the dates of occasions, when significant people entered (and departed) one's life and retrace the origin and evolution of shitty internet memes.

That's all great, but what happens when it gets into the wrong hands?

The package is so convenient, any user that can at least "use" Facebook is able to navigate through it. It's akin to IRC or MSN Messenger chatlogs in that everything written is timestamped and all the links are clickable right from within the (very very) long homepage. If some kind of savvy private investigator or kid with a keylogger nabs your password they can access your complete Facebook record. They'd also need access to your email; but to be honest what kind of stretch is that from getting one's Facebook password? As great the trip down memory lane is, the more chilling it gets as you realize who else might be looking at this information - those we have "authorized" to or not.

Of course, all of this is used to aggregate "targeted ads" with parts of it sold to private corporations. I can't exactly criticize them for their advertising function since I have used it myself. But then again, I've never been privy to the exact information it uses.

Like the tagline of the Social Network suggests, you don't make 500 million friends without making a few enemies and your company most certainly doesn't get a market valuation of $50 billion without selling something. Of course, information is as much of an asset as an abstract financial instrument (like a derivative security - it is essentially ephemeral and may become worthless over time as the market shifts); Facebook will need to figure out new ways of goading new information out of you to keep its targeted advertising relevant. Newspapers and other marketers had to "guess" where trends were heading and who their target demographic was - now the verisimilitude of information that marketers possess to attract potential buyers is phenomenally heightened by Facebook.

So what can people theoretically do with your entire "wall" page, photos and videos? Well, who knows? Assuming you posted whatever you posted for a decent enough reason, you ought to have nothing to fear. Take some comfort if you plan to run for public office; perhaps in the future a "semi-nude Facebook photo" will become the new "I smoked pot but didn't inhale."