Music blogger heal thyself
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.
And that is to say: Be Yourself! When I read the first seven words of the post, there leapt into my mind another lady music blogger. When that blog first started, it was intimate, the posts fostered much interesting discussion - I loved it. I cannot now recognize that blogger. The tone is didactic, the posts more like promotional material, the discussion almost non-existent. The real blogger has gone. She has made alliances with big interests, and she presents her blog as they want her to.
I use the word stricly when I say that such as she have lost their integrity: their wholeness. In these days, people in all fields are required to do that, for allegiance to the employer, especially corporations, must come first. It is as if a part of you must be given to the company, and that part is your ethics and morals.
I'm taking a peek in Pandora's Box here, for the issue I touch on is a huge one. But to return to your post and An Overgrown Path, you are an exemplar of the rare person who must maintain their integrity, their ethics and morals, and that is the essence of your very real success.
Different bloggers have different paymasters. Some are paid by corporations such as Universal Music and the BBC. But my paymasters are my readers. I receive my remuneration not in cash but in satisfaction by sharing new paths, and I have regular appraisals with my readers that keep me on the straight and narrow.
That precious relationship with my readers is responsible for the enduring success of On An Overgrown Path. Thank you for paying me so generously in satisfaction.
I should also have said in my post that the move to mobile access of blogs discourages reader reaction in the form of comments. So don't be discouraged if less people are stirring the pot with comments - although this thread does seem to be a welcome exception to that trend!
I agree with everything said here - and with Pliable's followup post over at his place.
You mention the "kinds of musical discussions that used to be on blogs". I think some small part of that disappearance has to do with there once being more interaction due to:
1) several of the blogs I started following six and seven years ago have gone dark, in part for the reason Kyle Gann cited when he almost quit here a while back - that people feel they've said most of what they want to say and that after a while it gets to be much harder to seem fresh. (We can't all be as good as you and Pliable and Kyle Gann.)
2) commenting is so much harder than it used to be back in the old days. Everyone has had to turn on spam filters, which adds a step - and a couple of my favorite horn blogs went to WordPress which I find impossible to comment on.
I started my own blog only after commenting on other blogs, and still try to add to the discussion on other blogs whenever there seems to be something worth adding. But with the fewer (for me anyway) blogs and the increased difficulty of commenting there's not the zesty community feel there once was.