Two of the First Ladies of music blogging have sparked a useful debate on the future of music blogs. Elaine Fine started the ball rolling on Musical Assumptions with her generally pessimistic post The Gradual Fall of Musical Bloggery. In it Elaine candidly shares readership data for her blog, which shows an apparent decline of more than 50% over a seven month period. I say apparent, because in a comment on Elaine's post I raise the point that during this period many readers have migrated from desktop to mobile internet access, and the traffic monitoring services are very fallible when it comes to tracking mobile access. Which means the apparent drop in readership for Musical Assumptions may not be a drop at all, but simply a change in technology platforms. Lisa Hirsch takes a more bullish view in her response on Iron Tongue of Midnight, suggesting that readership fluctuations are simply due to the "ebb and flow of blogging".
Although Elaine's concern about the gradual fall of music blogging may be overstated I share them, but for different reasons. Music blogs have almost certainly lost some audience, but more seriously they have lost authority. Thankfully over nine years the idiosyncratic and non-aligned On An Overgrown Path has - using the generally accepted "least wrong" independent measure available - retained a surprising degree of authority. The uncalibrated graph of pageviews below - uncalibrated because I want to avoid a "mine is bigger than yours" bragging match with a certain other blogger - also shows that the readership figure remains reassuringly robust.
So here is my gratuitous advice on how music bloggers can restore a degree of authority and arrest the gradual readership fall; advice incidentally that is not aimed at Elaine or Lisa whose blogs are models of authority.
Be more transparent: Blog is an acronym for 'personal web log' and in the early days 'personal' provided a warranty against commercial involvement. Unfortunately, and probably inevitably, the commercial agenda now swamps the personal in the majority of music blogs, and the result is the erosion of authority. The new Sinfini Music website is a very good example of how the authority of music blogging is being undermined. Fellow music writers have argued persuasively that freebies in the form of free tickets and review discs are essential to their work. It can also be argued that many of the great music writers in the past have written for both newspapers and record companies - Edward Greenfield's advocacy of André Previn in the early days of his career is a obvious example. But Sinfini Music with its relationship with several prominent music bloggers is something entirely different. It is covertly funded and controlled by Universal Music which control almost 60% of the classical record market and is now moving into concert promotion, and is in direct competition with independent media including music blogs. If a blogger takes money from a corporation they form a relationship, and that relationship should be declared as an interest. If that relationship is not prejudicial to independence, what is the harm in declaring it? Transparency is a prerequisite of authority and there is more on transparency in Are classical music journalists above criticism?
Dare to be different: The acid test for a blog post is to ask if it adds anything new to the subject matter. Microblogging (Facebook, Twitter etc) is notorious for its echo chamber effect, and blogs are increasingly falling into the same trap. If a press release arrives from a record company or concert promoter it is certain that it will also have arrived at every other music blogger. So why should anyone read yet another reheated version of it? Without exception the biggest stories measured by readership On An Overgrown Path have been those that no one else covered, e.g. A Philippa Schuyler moment. One of the major added value opportunities for blogs over micro-media is the graphic element, yet this opportunity is invariably ignored leaving blog posts looking like long-winded tweets. And daring to be different also means experimenting - and being prepared to fail - with different styles and formats. Forget the received wisdom that readers are time starved, if you write it long and good they will come. And remember that a blog with lots of Facebook 'likes' and Twitter 'retweets' is bad news, because it means the blogger is not daring to be different.
Stop chasing audience: It is one of the ironies that the more level-headed blogs agree on the dangers of classical music chasing audience, but the blogs themselves are pre-occupied with chasing audience. Whether we like it or not, Lebrecht has proved that there is an audience for a certain type of journalism. But remember the Classic FM fallacy. The BBC saw the large audience for Classic FM and used cultural genocide to turn Radio 3 into a Classic FM clone. But that did not increase the size of the total audience for classical radio as they expected, it simply split the existing Classic FM audience between the two stations. Similarly, aping tabloid music journalism will simply split the audience for that particular style of writing. Music blogs should be worrying about quality not quantity of readers. The difference between tabloid music journalism and quality music journalism is the difference between a rifle and a shotgun. A shotgun - tabloid journalism - sprays shot in the hope that some of it hits the target. A rifle - quality journalism - takes careful aim and hits the target with one bullet. Yes, some of the trends in music blogging are depressing. But let's remember that one bull's eye makes it all worthwhile. I have quoted Libby Purves several times in the past, but make no apologies for quoting her again in conclusion:
'To run radio you must be like an old-fashioned publisher, a 1930s Gollancz or Faber and Faber, working on faith and idealism and wanting to share what you yourself love. All that you can do is to make - and publicise - the best and most passionately well-crafted programmes you can think of. Ratings have to be watched, but calmly and with a sense of proportion. You have to believe that if even one person is swayed, or inspired, or changed, or comforted, by a programme, then that programme has been worthwhile.'Quote is from Libby Purves' book Radio: A True Love Story. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.