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Music journalism is dead

…long live music journalism

Lesson to all prospective journalists: don’t let yourself be swayed by press releases. They’re lying and – trust me – that’s not something you want to learn the hard way. And that’s coming from a guy who did, last weekend at the Pop Montreal panel on music journalism.

It was a classic PR bait and switch. The press release was utterly tantalizing, adorned with promises of unbridled intellectualism, delicious free food, and a titillating cast featuring at least one Pitchfork staffer – a rare breed I felt lucky to catch sight of.

And though I suppose it could have turned out much worse – as the food proved delectable and the Pitchfork staffer satisfyingly pasty – the intellectualism seemed mostly absent. To put it nicely, the panelists often mistook questions for dance classes, sidestepping issues as they were raised and barely distancing themselves from the organizations they were speaking for.

The problem comes into sharper relief when we consider the issues music journalism is facing these days. With music available for free and the means of communication fully democratized online, it might be worth asking why authoritarian music nerds continue to get paid. In other words: ousted from their ivory tower, what can critics do that amateurs can’t?

For Patrick Baillargeon, head of the music section in Montreal’s Voir, it’s a concern that strikes through his heart, right into his wallet. The “hyper-democratization of music,” as he puts it, isn’t just threatening his career – it’s driving print criticism toward extinction. The most music magazines can hope for, he says, is the sort of wildlife protection vinyl records are currently enjoying.

Yet one can’t help but think: in a cultural context where musicians have learned to rely on themselves to get exposure, music magazines like Exclaim and Magnet may well have lost their place in society, especially considering that thousands of bloggers already help fill their taste-making function for free. And excluding a fetishist fondness for the feel of newspaper, I can’t see why even the best free publications can’t run their operations online. As far as I, and perhaps many of you, are concerned, the salad days of full-time music criticism are over, and rightfully so.

But what does that leave our starving critics to do? Well, one of three things, should we listen to Pitchfork contributor Douglas Wolk. To make ends meet, for example, one may consider writing advocacy criticism – that cautious praise retail websites like Amazon use to help sell CDs. But as far as honest work goes, Wolk thinks young writers ought to hone their skills at generating critical discussion, something he’s convinced the Internet is lacking.

Worded a certain way, it’s a neat idea: music journalism would revolve around the exchange of controversial ideas in Internet forums and blogs, challenging our established aesthetic standards. But worded a bit differently – e.g. “massive Internet circle-jerk” or “unprecedented navel gazing” – the conversation idea loses some of its lustre. To put it bluntly, the only class of people benefitting from these conversations would be the critics themselves, to everyone else’s flagrant disinterest.

So with conversation ruled out, it seems like today’s aspiring critics are left with a single viable function: that of providing genuine, insightful criticism. As Wolk bemoaned, it’s something that has always been present in the industry in some form or another, but in perpetual short supply. And though there doesn’t seem to be anything to thank for it, recent times have seen a resurgence of this more constructive, less subjective variety of journalism.

Case in point, the 33 1⁄3 series of books – those short, systematic studies of legendary albums – and the success its enjoyed has indicated that the market for this sort of discussion exists. It’s a promising trend, one that has the potential to demystify the creation of music itself, disassembling great works into forms that non-musicians can understand and – perhaps – recreate.

On an endnote, it’s somewhat ironic that the hyper-democratization of means is less of a revolution than it is mouth-wash, ridding music journalism of its self-righteous critics and abject subjectivity. And though it seems like it’s ripping the practice apart at the seams, at least we’ll have something clean in its place.