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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.

From → More Cowbell