Music journalism is now a redundant concept

Recent re-reading has included Jajouka Rolling Stone by Stephen Davis, a music journalist whose credits also include biographies of Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley and Michael Jackson. After only a few pages of re-reading Stephen's book I was struck by the quality of the writing. Now, good though Jajouka Rolling Stone is, it would be presumptuous to claim it is great literature; however, what struck me is that by comparison with much current music journalism, the writing is refreshingly competent and readable.

Elsewhere there has been discussion about the future of classical music journalism, during which Oliver Condy, editor of BBC Music Magazine, is quoted as saying that "music journalism must be recognised as the skilled profession it is, and should be respected and remunerated accordingly". Which implies that music journalism is no longer recognised as a skilled profession, a proposition that merits further consideration.

Music journalism, as practiced by Harold C. Schonberg, Ernest Newman and others, was once a profession defined by the skills of its practitioners, who were aided and abetted by the narrowband nature of the then dominant print media. But in recent years two things have happened: narrowband print has been replaced by broadband digital media, and the quality of music journalism has declined in parallel. It is not the purpose of this post to speculate whether the two are linked, but it may not be a coincidence that the 1993 publication date of Jajouka Rolling Stone predates the advent of texting and tweeting.

Despite Oliver Condy's assertion, music journalism does not have a God-given right to be recognised and respected as a skilled profession. Particularly when a leading music journalist is described by a senior industry figure in the New York Times in the following words: “For me it’s beyond belief how any journalist in five pages can make so many factual mistakes. It’s shocking. Also, he really doesn’t understand the record business.”

Paradigm shifts mean that print based ‘music journalism’ is being replaced by digitally enabled ‘music knowledge’. At the apex of the music knowledge pyramid are today’s leading writers such as Paul Griffiths and Alex Ross, who are there because they are good writers, not because they are members of a recognized skilled profession. While across the broad base of the pyramid is a mess of bloggers who may be unskilled and, incidentally, unremunerated, but who contribute in varying degrees to the sum total of music knowledge. Music journalism as a profession is a redundant concept within this new knowledge pyramid, and a large part of the blame for that lies with the very people who are now telling us that that music journalists deserve recognition, respect and commensurate remuneration.

 * Read my discussion with Stephen Davis about Jajouka Rolling Stone here.

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Andrew Morris said…
In this age, it seems to me that the only thing we deserve is to be judged by the quality of what we write. With that in mind, I find it heartening that the gossip-monger you mention above seems to have had most of his mainstream outlets closed to him, in no small part I think because of his dodgy book.
Pliable said…
"In this age, it seems to me that the only thing we deserve is to be judged by the quality of what we write."

Andrew, I could not agree more. And recognition, respect and remuneration must be based on that quality, not on being a member of a sadly devalued profession.
Pliable said…
"...the gossip-monger you mention above seems to have had most of his mainstream outlets closed to him" - except, of course, the BBC.

Talking of which, coincidentally the following has appeared in the news feed on Gordon Brown's appearance into the Levenson inquiry into the role of the press and police in the the News International phone-hacking scandal:

"1259: There is a real problem about how quality journalism can flourish and be financed in the next 20 years with the growth of the internet, says Mr Brown."
Mark Berry said…
I was at a concert last night in which I noticed, indeed heard, a national newspaper critic asleep snoring during the best part of a slow movement. It will be interesting to see what his review has to say of the performance he dreamed...
Andrew Morris said…
Mark, he wasn't from The Times, was he?
Mark Berry said…
He was indeed from The Times, which, given its lack of accessibility online, means I shall have to go without reading his interpretation of dreams...
Pliable said…
Careful guys, this is starting to sound like a certain other blog.
Philip Amos said…
Splendid and very timely post, Bob. It called to mind at one point an occasion when another ton of bricks descended on Tom Service. In a rather incomprehensible post about Wagner and Apocalyse Now, he referred to the former's Valkyries zooming around the world killing warriors. I think the comments become increasingly strident because Tom Service, Ph.D (Southampton) -- and there's another issue in there -- simply would not admit he was wrong about the labours of the Valkyries. One of my comments didn't appear, and a certain blogger with a particular interest in opera was banned.

But then, and here is the link, Service's editor turned up and said there was no cause for such vituperative comments -- people may have different views of the Valkyries, and Dr. Service was entitled to his. This left me unsure whether Wagner, whose opera was entwined with that movie in the post, was entitled to his. Not many are quite as bad as Service, but this is an exemplar of both the state of music writing and of the editors responsible for its publication. Condy is right when he says it should be respected and remunerated accordingly. Between the Guardian and the BBC, I dread to think what Service is raking in, but he and his editor can forget about the respect.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the interesting post. Can you expand on the meaning of music knowledge and its distinction from music journalism? Why does it render music journalism redundant?
Pliable said…
Scott, by ‘music journalism’ I meant Oliver Condy’s concept of a clearly-delineated and ring-fenced profession with a membership defined by recognition, respect and remuneration.

By ‘music knowledge’ I meant a wide-ranging and ill-defined aggregation of all forms of information and opinion which add to our appreciation of music.

My hypothesis is that ‘music journalism’, as defined by Oliver and Condy and others, is being subsumed by ‘music knowledge’. A case in point in this blog. I make no claims to being a music journalist, and my lack of remuneration excludes me from Oliver Condy’s definition of the profession. But, for better or worse, On An Overgrown Path carries a degree of authority within the ‘music knowledge’ pyramid.

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