The Future of Music Journalism

The UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism recently hosted a panel discussion titled
The Future of Music Journalism: Computer or Curator?, with the following lure:

Critics and tastemakers have been talking about, reviewing, and exposing music to the masses for generations. With the advent of sophisticated algorithms, computer programs such as Pandora and Apple Genius are now suggesting new or unusual music for listeners.

Speakers included:

Tim Westergren, Founder, Pandora
Doug Brod, Editor-in-Chief, Spin
Joel Selvin, Senior Pop Music Critic, San Francisco Chronicle
Niema Jordan, Executive Editor, 38th Notes

The panelists debated “algorithms and blues,” wondering aloud whether technology has freed listeners from music journalists — or made them more valuable than ever. The discussion had a bit of trouble focusing on the topic at hand – many seemed more interested in the completely worn-out question of the impact of blogging on journalism. Fair enough – there are a hell of a lot of excellent music blogs out there, and there’s no question they soak up a lot of eyeballs/traffic that formerly went to Rolling Stone and Spin. But at the same time, very few of the music blogs have the expertise, or go into the depth that RS and Spin do. Still, it’s a pretty tired question by now.

The actual point of the panel – whether algorithms (recommendation services like Pandora) are having an effect on music journalism – was barely addressed head-on. Maybe that’s because it can’t be – where would you go to find hard numbers on whether people read less journalism because Ping or Pandora do a good job of suggesting new tracks?

My take is that the premise of the question is baloney. People read music journalism for a ton of reasons other than just finding recommendations. They read to try and grok the entire universe of music – to get the back-story, to trace influences, to absorb opinions, to color the landscape. Recommendations on what to buy, I expect, are pretty low on the list of reasons why people read about music.

In other words, music lovers love Pandora because it provides another avenue to discovery, not because it replaces the “role” of the music journalist.

Because the discussion wandered in so many directions, I won’t try and synthesize the rest. Here are loose notes and quotes from the speakers.

Joel Selvin was once the subject of a song by the Fried Abortions (a splinter group of the Angry Samoans) – raunchy, gritty, 1st-generation punk. Selvin proudly played the track… to show that the critic is down with his critics? Unclear, but it was funny.

Host Ben Manila: “When Ronald Reagan won re-election, I played The Ramone’s ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ 16 times in a row.”

“Critics are, by nature, criticizing something they can’t do themselves (make music).”

Music discovery: These days an artist either needs to be on Pandora or be on a TV commercial in order to “break through.” No one listens to music radio anymore.

Tim Westergren: These days we have more artists making a living, far fewer becoming rich and famous. The democratizing effect of today’s distribution is leveling the playing field.

Doug Brod: There are fewer people wanting to be rock stars these days. There’s a humility across the board. More who don’t want to be “personalities.” The “world” of music is broader now and involves TV and movies, pop culture in general – music isn’t a standalone thing anymore.

The DJ’s sycophantic nature: S/he very rarely says they don’t like the music they’re playing – DJs are almost never critics.

Joel Selvin: Part of the role of a critic is to let you know who’s bunk, who’s a charlatan. Algorithms don’t do that for you.

Joel Selvin on auto-tune: It would have ruined Rod Stewart, since his entire career was based on being a quarter tone flat.

Spin: We review dozens of albums per month. Why linger on the bad ones? Just let ’em rot.

Niema Jordan of 38th Notes: We focus on Bay Area music – Pandora can’t do that.

How do young music journalists find jobs? Blogs have opened up a whole new talent pool. Spin finds a lot of talent on web sites.

Tim Westergren of Pandora: Don’t try to make a living from your music right away. It saps out the joy.

Mark Twain: Wagner’s music is really much better than it sounds.

Quality is rewarded: If you’re a talented writer or musician, someone’s going to notice you.

Music writing has gotten a lot more personal since blogging changed the criticism industry.

Old headline: “Harvard professor says jazz, silent films are art.”

Spin is branching out into the iPad world – launching an app next week. They want to enliven the experience of reading with stories curated by the edit staff, plus videos of featured artists. Trying to bridge the magazine and internet experiences.

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

Spin: Music blogs aren’t putting us out of business. We’re story tellers, while most blogging is off the top of the head.

I disagree: No reader has ever said to a magazine “I don’t need you anymore because Pandora recommends music now.” People read for a lot more than recommendations.

Writers at major pubs now wait for stuff to percolate up through blogs and social networks – they’re not the discoverers anymore.

Zappa: Most rock journalism is done by people who can’t write, interviewing people who cant talk, for people who can’t read.

Niema Jordan: People still want to get a record contract for some strange reason. Maybe they don’t understand their contracts?

Q: Technology is creating more quantity in music. The tools you use to sift through it all have an impact.

Pandora: The broadcast world can handle one stream at a time. The web blows that pipe open – to infinite streams.

Spin: We have a love/hate relationship with Pitchfork. Some writing is great, a lot of it is turgid. But we don’t “chase” Pitchfork – we have our own ears.

Q: Why doesn’t Pandora recommend opera or something great you don’t know? “By definition we suggest similar music – users would hate having stuff totally out of left field thrown at them..”

Pandora: Focus on what you do, focus on your craft. Enjoy yourself, and talent will be rewarded.

About Scot Hacker

Scot Hacker is a web developer, teacher, and blogger living in Northern California. He is the author of Can You Get to That? The Cosmology of P-Funk and Understanding Liberace: Grooving With The Fey Heckler. He works by day as webmaster at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Knight Digital Media Center, and runs Birdhouse Web and Mail Hosting on the side. Hacker is the author of The BeOS Bible and MP3: The Definitive Guide, and posts near-daily on random stuff at Scot Hacker's foobar blog. He's ecstatic that we're sitting on 100 years of recorded music history. How I Got Stuck When was the last time you bought a record because of the cover? 25 years before MP3s, I used to make a weekly pilgrimage to Cheap Thrills in San Luis Obispo with friends, where we'd surf through dusty wooden bins, de-flowering ourselves in a mist of vinyl, grabbing piles of cut-outs about which we knew virtually nothing. Junior Samples, Temple City Kazoo Orchestra, The Buggles, Paul Desmond, Instant Chic, Smithsonian collections, Robert Moog, Dream Syndicate... didn't matter. If the cover was cool, we assumed there was a good chance the music would turn us on. And we were often right. In that humongous wooden warehouse, between around 1977 and 1984, my musical universe bloomed. There were also duds - dumptruck loads of duds. The lesson that a great cover doesn't tell you jack about the music inside was a long time coming (the inverse correlation - that great music was often hidden behind terrible artwork - came much later). But it didn't matter, because cut-outs never cost more than a couple-three bucks, and all the good shit we uncovered made it worthwhile. In high school, I (for the most part) ignored the music going on around me. The jocks and aggies could keep their Rick Springfield and their Jefferson Starship - we were folding papers after school to The Roches and Zappa and Talking Heads and PiL. But inevitably, some of the spirit of that time stuck with me. ELO and McCartney wormed their way (perhaps undeservedly) into my heart. No one escapes high school without an indelible tattoo on their soul describing the music of that time. When I went away to college, the alt/grunge scene was being born, and getting chicks required familiarity with The Pixies and Porno for Pyros. I couldn't quite figure how these bands were supposed to be as interesting as Meat Puppets or Cecil Taylor or Syd Barrett, but I went along for the ride for a while, best I could. But I never quite "got" alt-rock. Never understood why The Pixies were elevated in the public imagination over a thousand bands I thought were so much more inventive / rocking / interesting. What exactly was Frank Black offering the world that Lou Reed had not? In general, I like music carved in bold strokes - extremely rockin', or extremely beautiful, or extremely weird... I like artists that have a unique sound, something I can hang my hat on. I love Mission of Burma and The Slits and The American Anthology of Folk Music and Devendra Banhart and Bowie and Nick Drake and Eric Dolphy and Ali Farka Toure and Marvin Pontiac. If you were to ask me who was the last great rock and roll band, I'd be likely to answer "The Minutemen." I know it's not true, but I'd say it anyway. And yet, in a weird way, I totally believe it. Today while jogging, I listened to a long interpretation by the Unknown Instructors: "Punk Is Whatever We Made It To Be" - half-spoken / half-sung sonic collage of some of D. Boon's best stanzas. Boon's powerful words rained like hammers and I felt like I was back in 1980, careening down the highway in a green VW bug with The Stooges blasting. It was that spirit of amazement that I used to live for - the one I never got from the 90s indie scene. And then, just as quickly, I thought "God, I'm living in the past. I suck." I'm stuck. I have vast collections of LPs, CDs, and MP3s. I listen to music for hours each day, and yet I'm completely out of it, musically speaking. I confess -- I've never listened to Guns-n-Roses or Pearl Jam or Prince, and I've only recently heard "Nevermind" in its entirety. If it weren't for Twitter, I wouldn't even know Lady Gaga existed. I'm oblivious to the stuff that supposedly matters to "music people." It's not like I'm totally unaware of pop music. I just have a finely tuned ability to tune out whatever doesn't interest me. I don't quite know how to explain it. I can only say that my friends register shock when they learn that I've never heard of Elliot Smith. And yet I do not feel thirsty. I'm always open to being turned on. But I learned long ago that, unfortunately, you can't trust beautiful cover art to promise great music, and you can't always trust your friends to push your music buttons. I'm happy to listen to damn near anything. And every now and then, that "anything" will turn into something that will become important to me over time. Something that will last. I like music with staying power. Belle and Sebastien have a certain appeal, but I don't think they're going to occupy even the tiniest slot in my consciousness in 20 years. But the power and inventiveness of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, John Fahey, Robert Wyatt, Can, The Carter Family, The Clash, will never dissipate. I have little interest in the "new" factor. I could not care less whether this year's model is the baddest thing going on in Atlanta or a rare gem rescued from 78 rpm oblivion by Robert Crumb. It's all the same to me. Just squeeze my lemon / 'till the juice runs down my leg. Please. A friend once said that he felt lucky to have been born so late in history, because the later you're born, the more history you have to work with. I don't think I really understood what he was saying until I was about 40. It's not about being born late, it's about this massive archive we're sitting on - the entire history of recorded music under our butts, which we can either choose to ignore or to mine for all it's worth. Every hour I spend checking out the flavor of the month is an hour I haven't spent with David Thomas or Richard Hell or Shuggie Otis. Life's too short. I'm going to use this site to drift back and forth through musical history, modernity be damned. You turn me on, I'm a radio. Let me know what I'm missing. shacker's station at

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