Perspective: Simon Price
Simon Price is one of the most respected, and loathed, music critics in the UK. His 1999 Manic Street Preachers biography Everything was the fastest-selling rock biography in British history, while his work for Melody Maker and The Independent On Sunday saw him become synonymous with frank and fearless reviewing. Here Price considers why music journalism matters.
In the late 70s, supporters of Millwall FC came up with a famous chant, in response to their media notoriety as a hotbed of hooliganism, to the tune of Sailing by Rod Stewart. “No-one likes us, no-one likes us, no-one likes us, we don’t care…”
In this sense, if few others, music critics are the Millwall of the written word. And if they aren’t, then they just aren’t doing it properly. This doesn’t mean a critic’s job is stirring up controversy and pissing people off for the sake of it. But there’s a lot to be said for the old motto, usually attributed to Lord Northcliffe: “News is what people do not want you to print. The rest is advertising.”
The last 20 years have seen a dispiriting slide towards the ‘advertising’ side of the equation, with ‘churnalism’ (the lazy regurgitation of press releases) and ‘advertorial’ (paid advertising features masquerading as regular content) creeping into the pages of the rock press. There’s been a simultaneous decline in the art of the epic slagging (something in which my first proper publication, Melody Maker, used to specialise, and in which I took a particular pride).
Genuinely harsh reviews are an endangered species, and a climate of cowardice prevails. The rise of the internet has given advertisers an almost infinite variety of alternative places to take their ad spend, leaving publishers in terror of offending anybody and losing what little revenue remains. Nevertheless, the spectre of the slagging is the reason bands, and their more rabid fans, instinctively hate hacks. And in some ways, that’s understandable. It must be galling to spend months, even years writing, recording and finessing your album, only to see it dismissed with a killer put-down. No wonder they bite back.
Any music journalist who’s been around the block will have a few tales for the When Bands Attack file. Boy George once sent me a bunch of yellow roses with a faintly menacing card. The long-forgotten Dylans sent me nine crates of lemons, their symbol, after a ‘bitter’ review (geddit?). Miles Hunt sent me a cheque for £35 to cover the cost of the Wonder Stuff merchandise I admitted I’d bought in my youth, in the course of demolishing their greatest hits album. (I had a sneaking admiration for his wit).
Less frequently, the backlash happens in the flesh. Pop Will Eat Itself sent one of their road crew to pour a pint of water over my head. (I think – I hope – it was water.) The singer from the Senseless Things grabbed my hat and threw it to the floor in frustration. Angry members of Ned’s Atomic Dustbin bayed for my blood at a music biz party, and were heroically held back by Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine (who had no reason to protect me, as I’d slagged them off too).
All fairly tame, though, compared to the golden age of band-on-hack violence, like The Stranglers kidnapping and gaffer-taping a French journalist to the Eiffel Tower, Kevin Rowland punching Barry McIlheney in the face or Sid Vicious attacking Nick Kent with a bicycle chain. Sometimes, the infuriated artist is even driven to respond in song form: see Nick Cave’s Scum, The Cure’s Desperate Journalist and Stereophonics’ Mr Writer.
But, whether the bands admit it or not, the critic-artist dialogue has been a vital one, and critics have historically played a crucial role in the progress of music, delivering the brutal truth when an artist’s material has slumped below standard, or sensing the moment when an entire movement’s time is up and it’s time to push things forward.
As a critic, you have a strict hierarchy of obligations. Your first duty is to your reader, your second to yourself, your third to your publication, your fourth to the artist. To the last of those, you owe an honest review, unclouded by personal animosity or shady self-interest, nothing more, nothing less. Having said that, a review is an informed but ultimately subjective and personal response to art, something bands would do well to bear in mind before they throw their toys out of the pram and act as if they’re on the receiving end of a gross miscarriage of justice.
As I write this, I’m preparing for a new sideline. Late last year, I was approached by the BIMM Institute, the chain of successful music academies Brighton, London, Manchester, Bristol, Dublin and now Berlin, to become a teacher on their new BA (Hons) degree course in Music Journalism.
A cynic would question the timing of this, given the shaky state of the music press and the increasing difficulty of earning money from any form of writing. An optimist, however, might invoke the cliché about the Chinese having the same word for ‘crisis’ and ‘opportunity’. We’re still in a period of turmoil as technology shakes up the industry, but when the dust settles, there will surely be a realisation that the one thing that drives readers to websites in the first place, to even be exposed to advertising, is half-decent content. And content-providers (an ugly term for ‘writers’) will need to get their rightful cut of the cash.
Maybe courses like the BIMM degree can turn the tide, and help create a new wave of writers who will make the music press worth reading again. Maybe another Golden Age of music writing is possible. Maybe that’s a crazy dream. Either way, we’re gonna have the best time trying.
Simon Price is a lecturer in Music Journalism at BIMM, The UK & Europe’s Most Connected Music College. For details visit bimm-institute.de