Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Death of the Music Magazine

By Evan Rytlewski
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Former Blender writer Jonah Weiner has a worthwhile piece on Slate today about the death of the music magazine, postulating about what's caused pubs like Rolling Stone and Spin to downsize so much in recent months. He avoids talking about some of the more obvious explanations—ad sales are down all over, blah, blah, blah—while making some interesting points about the state of criticism:

Meanwhile, with the proliferation of online music, sanctioned and otherwise, music f­ans don't need critics to play middleman the way they once did: If a fan wants to decide whether he likes a new album, there are far easier ways than waiting for a critic to weigh in, from streaming tracks on MySpace and YouTube to downloading the whole thing on a torrent site or .rar blog. The value of the music reviewer has always been split between consumer service (should people plunk down cash for this CD?) and art criticism (what's the CD about?), but of late the balance has shifted from the former toward the latter—answering the question of whether to buy an album isn't much use when, for a lot of listeners, the music is effectively free. It's a valid point that the professional critic still wields an aura of authority rare in the cacophonous world of online music, but between taste-making blogs and ever-smarter music-recommendation algorithms like Apple Genius and Pandora, the critic's importance is being whittled down.

The major music magazines have, frankly, been awful at this kind of intellectual criticism. Spin can write a well-reported, tell-all piece about the personal dynamics of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, for instance, but the magazine has a harder time writing about the actual music of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Rolling Stone is even worse, a magazine so brazenly afraid to take a stance on anything that it grades all albums on a bell curve as tight and predictable as that of an eighth-grade math teacher. Even at nickels an issue, I regretted every month of my one-year subscription. Reading that periodical was like watching your Moody Blues-loving dad live out his mid-life crisis in the most painfully misguided ways possible, suddenly taking interest, for instance, in Twilight and the Jonas Brothers.
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As I see it, there are two simple ways for magazines like Rolling Stone to become more relevant: A) Take a chance on breaking new music, not just reporting on musicians that are already popular or heavily buzzed. This, more than any other reason, is why Pitchfork is so successful; it boldly advocates new, worthwhile artists—it doesn't just lump them into 150-word "10 Artists On the Rise" features. And B) Write better. Well regarded print publications like The New York Times and The Onion A.V. Club may never break any new music the way its Internet competitors can, but their seasoned writers put 99% of the Internet to shame. It's a lesson Rolling Stone could learn from: Maybe people will start reading you once you have something to say.

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