If you’re a music journalist, a music fan, or anywhere close to calling yourself one, there is a high likelihood that you’re pining for the “golden age” of music journalism. There's a nostalgic sigh, a longing for a time when the music press had unparalleled influence—a time when a week-long tour with a band where you do coke off each other's backs could be transformed into a cover story, with the entire adventure splashed on the glossy pages of a magazine. You might look back at the time when music publications could make or break careers—your Spin's, Melody Maker's, NME's, and whatnot. They were bold in their claims, sometimes intrusive, and annoying to the point where Thom Yorke gifted us with this unparalleled quote:
Talking about the internet and the development of algorithmic discovery tools is certainly yawn-inducing, yet it’s essential to understand the state of the music press. Similar to how Napster shook up the music industry, the discovery tools on streaming services are doing a similar dance. The traditional gatekeepers, the journalist-profiled tastemakers, have lost their grip as fans can now explore and experience new music almost instantly. Smart playlists, tailored by AI to individual preferences, and weekly recommendations based on listening habits have replaced the need for a guiding hand from the music press. So, why write about music anymore? Why fucking bother?
I've been reading "Meet Me In The Bathroom" by Lizzy Goodman, and it made me think of the absolute joy that is writing about music and talking about it as if it's the most important thing in the world. It's a profound exploration of human connection to music: the four pints-in conversations around a band selling out, trying to mimic the frontman, messing up your brand new Converse for it to look more worn down. Amidst the portrayals of the bands during that period, there's a blend of pure passion and adoration, occasionally touched by hints of jealousy. Nevertheless, ultimately, it all intertwines with a personal connection to music—an experience that is both intimate and immeasurable by any metric. The connection to music lies behind the questions: "Hey guys, are you friends with The Strokes?" or "Interpol is my New York City.", as quoted directly from the book.
At the core of the music industry are the musicians, and the significance immediately extends to the fans. Fans, especially the more committed ones (I’m purposely avoiding using the term super-fans, as it has recently been a term associated with big music groups drooling saliva as dollar signs appear in their eyes), become active participants in the construction and circulation of textual and sonic meanings of songs. These fans engage actively, whether by producing remix interpretations of cultural material or by contributing reviews on platforms like RateYourMusic. Music press fosters a celebratory atmosphere of sharing, praising, or ranting, while algorithms pathologize fan behavior into quantifiable metrics and bullet points to further develop business models.
To presume that the sole purpose of music journalism is to guide purchasing decisions is a fundamental misconception. While fans may appear as consumer groups in their united vocal support, reducing them merely to their purchasing power overlooks the profound nature of human behavior. It reflects a lack of appreciation for the passion that drives one's connection to art. In human terms, a meaningful differentiation is to be made between, say, buying a record and dissecting lyrics and talking about them for hours with other fans, within a community, all the while generating new meanings and myths around the original product.
Fans need discussion spaces and that's more than something that algorithms can provide. While algorithms quantify fan behavior, the music communities transform it into a dynamic exchange of shared experiences. Hence the fights under Fantano’s comment section or the hateful comments under Pitchfork’s posts, saying that they didn’t understand the essence of the album at all.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with music critics, it's undeniable that these publications create spaces for fans to connect, discuss, and share their relationships with music. Music inherently demands to be shared, necessitating a collective experience. Writing about music transcends the act of promoting the next big record; it serves as a platform for fans to explore its contextual meaning within a broader cultural landscape. In this way, the music press pushes fans to think critically about the music they adore and fosters a communal appreciation that goes beyond the transactional act of purchasing albums or just passively consuming them.
We need the anger-inducing reviews alongside ones that help us discover our next favorite band.We need both controversial and tame takes for they can spark something within us, whether it's curiosity or disagreement. Writing and reading about music challenges perceptions, encouraging us to reevaluate our views and engage in discussions. Even when met with disagreement, these reviews serve as catalysts for fostering a deeper connection to the music we hold dear, elevating the enjoyment of music to a level that goes beyond individual tastes and preferences, creating a shared space where art can be explored, dissected, and celebrated together.