Jesus of Cool: Don’t Believe “Don’t Believe the Hype Machine”

Written by Jesus of Cool, Music

Is the raging debate over the quality, value, and legitimacy of “democratized” music journalism merely the death rattle of the old-line cultural gatekeepers?

Amid the music-biz turmoil of the last decade — as opportunities to release, publicize, consume and critique music have increased exponentially, thanks to the internet — a fascinating debate has raged concerning the quality, the value, and even the legitimacy of “democratized” music journalism. Has the proliferation of music blogs and other online outlets, many created by writers who have rarely or never been published in the traditional media, provided a vital new outlet for exposing new artists and contextualizing popular music? Or is the blogging community — which admittedly includes a lot of “untrained” writers whose work typically isn’t vetted by esteemed supervisors (or even copy editors) — a bunch of armchair quarterbacks who have dumbed down music journalism, destroyed the earning capacity of “real” critics, and drowned out the smaller community of well-trained, respected writers who should still be serving as our primary tastemakers?

A leading exponent of the latter view is Village Voice/rollingstone.com/Spin/Blender contributor Christopher R. Weingarten, who last week delivered his second annual profane rant about the bleak future of music criticism to the 140 Characters Conference in New York. As you might imagine, the conference is a Twitter-centric event — and Weingarten, apart from his recent pair of tirades, is most famous for reviewing 1,000 albums on Twitter last year. Here’s the video of his head-exploding performance last Tuesday:

Now, let’s leave aside the irony of a man who chose Twitter as his forum for a thousand-review stunt — why not Haiku? — railing against the inanity of contemporary rock-crit egalitarianism. Let’s just deal with the substance. Having myself served as a half-decently paid music and arts journalist in the mainstream media, I can sympathize with the core of Weingarten’s problem: that, in the internet era, music journalism has become simultaneously a less lucrative and more democratized “profession,” while the sheer volume of both new music and new-music coverage has become overwhelming. (The same is true, to a greater or lesser degree, for film, theater, dance and visual-art criticism.) That said, he points his upturned middle fingers in all the wrong directions — at the expanding numbers of writers and alternative outlets for criticism, at the marketing tricks of indie labels and unsigned acts, at the eyeball-catching strategies of the music blogs, and at the popularity of “aggregating” software in our list-happy, statistics-driven media universe.

Weingarten’s real issues are with cultural changes he can’t control, because they’re related to technology and public taste: the new ease of recording and releasing music, and the internet platform that has offered thousands of writers the ability to skirt traditional media gatekeepers and get ourselves heard, even if we don’t get paid for it (enough, or at all). He’s railing against the end of the era when a few prominent gatekeepers at music magazines and major newspapers paid a small number of writers a (sometimes) decent sum of money to produce (hopefully) intelligent criticism that was influential in part because there simply wasn’t that much of it. He’s also railing against a music business that has expanded from a couple dozen respected label gatekeepers to hundreds of indies with hard-to-gauge cred (not to mention artists marketing their own work through MySpace, eMusic, CDBaby and other websites).

It used to be that just a couple hundred releases a year had any hope of gaining traction in the marketplace; nowadays, thousands of artists with new releases are begging for recognition from whomever might offer a review or accept an exclusive MP3 or video embed. Weingarten suggests that “indie labels need to recognize they have the power in [their] relationship [with blogs]” — really, Chris? Maybe that was true 15 years ago, when there were fewer indies with any credibility, but now there’s a Tower of Babble of labels and independent artists. They’re marketing, often on a shoestring, music that is cheaper to record and easier to release than it once was — yet simultaneously much more difficult to earn money from. And they’re desperate for some scrap of media coverage that might result in a dime going into their pockets. Sure, the bloggers are desperate for more attention, too — who wants to answer the question “What if they launched a website and nobody came?” Still, only a handful of oft-visited blogs are getting the high-profile MP3 or video exclusives that Weingarten criticizes — and besides, what’s the difference between this new strategy and those flexidiscs that used to be stapled into copies of the totally legit Trouser Press, or the cover-art choices that Rolling Stone‘s editors have always made with an eye toward selling the most copies on the newsstand?

Weingarten says this new structure of internet gatekeepers is ruining rock criticism, creating a new heirarchy of hype via aggregating sites and encouraging fan-based writing that he views (not always incorrectly) as less-informed and inferior to the critical titans of the past. He even whines that web-based critics rarely write negative reviews! It’s not an unreasonable complaint — some great critics have built their legacies as much on their hostility toward the bad as their rapture for the good, and Weingarten clearly enjoys a good f-bomb-laced gripe-fest. But when a blogger is getting paid little to nothing to indulge her passion for music, why should she bother to flame a mediocre release when she can just ignore it instead? (Unless there’s a vendetta involved, which often makes for fun reading.) In the new world of democratized criticism, inattention — not negative attention — is frequently the unkindest cut.

Still, the real root of Weingarten’s ranting is that his own chosen gatekeepers — a few major music magazines that decided which releases would be reviewed for the masses, and a few prominent indie labels that could be counted on to put out the supposed best and most innovative music — have seen their monopolies buried under an avalanche of product and writing.

We live in an era when music journalism has become less a career choice than a hobby, for all but the luckiest few — partly because nowadays those who aren’t the luckiest (or necessarily the most talented) few don’t have to give up their desire to write and be read just because the Village Voice or rollingstone.com don’t want to pay them a buck a word. One hopes that readers can continue to discern the difference between great pop-music writing, whether it’s by Joe Levy or Ann Powers or one of us Popdose schmucks, and lousy criticism. But that doesn’t mean it’s an illegitimate form of gatekeeping if 50 joe-schmoe music bloggers, aggregated on the Hype Machine, are all jizzing over the same new band’s MySpace page. After all, as I believe an Elvis album cover once noted, four dozen guys in bathrobes can’t be wrong.

At the end of his tirade, Weingarten suggests that his listeners go peruse a magazine they don’t usually read, or go listen to a radio station outside their usual demographic, instead of checking for the most-blogged new act on Hype Machine. What he’s really doing is asking us to patronize his preferred gatekeepers — the traditional makers of musical taste — rather than the ones to which the music-consuming public more and more is turning its attention. His beef with the plethora of writers hoping to get our voices heard on the internet is sadly misplaced, not only because there are plenty of skilled, insightful and passionate critics out here, but because a lot of them are calling attention to worthy music and artists who can’t break through at the traditional media.

In short, Chris, if you’ll climb down off your high horse you’ll recognize that your problem isn’t with writers, but with the internet-fueled shift toward democratized reading and listening habits that have destroyed the monopoly of old-line gatekeepers. If Rolling Stone and radio were providing a product that was riveting enough to keep people away from Stereogum or Idolator or Popdose, you wouldn’t have anything to complain about — and your freelance paychecks would probably be bigger. And isn’t that the true source of your dyspepsia?