When did music journalism stop wielding the axe?
As a result of changes in how we consume media, music journalism is increasingly in flux. This unstable climate, The Quietus’ Luke Turner argues, has all but stamped out the flames of negative criticism. Who are critics writing for today, and why should they resist the suppression of honest reviews?
It’s a curious sensation to watch something you love being bludgeoned to death in front of you. I’d not want to do it to anyone’s cat, dog, or gerbil. But albums are a different matter and, at the moment, there’s not enough stomping going on. At The Quietus, the online music magazine I co-founded, I recently wrote a hatchet on risible trip-hop nostalgists Public Service Broadcasting for their dire LP Every Valley, a tacky and inept album that turns the collapse of the Welsh mining industry into a gin-in-a-jam-jar musical turn at a bunting-strewn village fête.
The online reaction was not merely people agreeing or disagreeing with what I’d written, but surprise that such a critical review had been published. Bootings are, it seems, becoming a thing of the past – a relic of the print music press of the 80s and 90s. This is a troubled time for music-focused editorial websites generally. It’s recently transpired that writers for MTV News – which had undergone a politicised makeover not long ago – had their editorial freedoms restricted after Chance the Rapper and Kings of Leon threatened to no longer work with the channel. A new “reshuffle” has seen many MTV writers get the axe, while Vice announced the end of its dance music portal Thump. In both cases, writers have been laid off to prioritise video content.
“Bootings are, it seems, becoming a thing of the past – a relic of the print music press of the 80s and 90s”
So why has music criticism become so defanged in recent years? Print ad revenues have largely collapsed and online is on the way out too, with 80% of spending now going to Facebook and Google. With the tech giants hoovering up the money, there’s very little now coming to editorial websites – a problem exacerbated by illegal consumption of music and meagre streaming royalties meaning that labels hardly have any money to spend on advertising with music publications.
In this climate of fear, many publications have become worryingly risk averse. A lot of publications rely on collaborations between artists and brands to bring home the bacon and, it seems, don’t want to offend marketing teams who are afraid of their product appearing in a ‘negative’ context. I’m constantly hearing of pressure being put on writers and editors to change the tone of coverage to present a rosy glow that fits the notion that music is nothing more than a brand-friendly lifestyle accessory.
Yet writers themselves need to shoulder some of the blame. At The Quietus, it’s now rare to receive pitches for strongly-worded, negative reviews or opinion essays. In the shouty world of social media, there’s now the prospect of an instant backlash to anything you’ve written. At the same time, criticism itself has been dragged down into the gutter by its association with lonely sub-keyboard knuckle-shufflers with 17 followers and an egg icon. There’s an incorrect assumption that critics are acting on the same impulse, that delivering a negative review is, in some way, “bullying”.
“It is our responsibility as critics to join the rearguard action against the age of beige, to call out its musical enablers, and start fighting back”
There’s nothing more desperate than the popular image of some lonely geezer hack, dribbling lager down his Melvins t-shirt as he hammers out his own internalised rage and frustration on some poor unsuspecting fool who’s done nothing more offensive than pick up a ukulele. The best criticism takes the weaknesses within a piece of art and turns them against it, rather than personally attacking the artist themselves. The critic has a duty to the artist to treat them fairly, to not go in studs up with preconceptions. Yet beyond that the journalist owes them nothing – their responsibility is to the reader and to themselves, to be honest and fearless, to tell the truth, and to do it with flair. Criticism has always had a vital role to play in the relationship between art and the public, acting as a filter and a catalyst for debate. I remember back in the day being infuriated when NME or Melody Maker hacks would go after one of my favourite groups – but the negative review would always make me find new ways of appreciating their work.
Music reflects the society that has made it and, it can be argued, everything is in some way political, or is steeped in the sexual, gender, class or societal norms of the day. The music critic then can use their words to explore these issues, or critique artists who’ve made a cack-handed job of it.
In these unsteady times, the role of the critic in rocking the boat is more – not less – important. Contemporary trends in advertising and the corporate hollowing out of the media are so dire that in a decade you, the reader and consumer of music, are likely to be faced by an endless spew of clickbait and commercialised dross. It is our responsibility as critics to join the rearguard action against the age of beige, to call out its musical enablers, and start fighting back.