This morning we attended a panel discussing the future of music journalism. Jan Uhelszki (Cream Magazine), Jim DeRogatis (Rolling Stone/Chicago Sun-Times/Sound Opinions), Ann Powers (NPR), Alex Gale (Billboard), and host Jason Gross (Perfect Sound Forever) were on hand to lead the discussion, and the first point everyone made clear was that there was no way we could cover everything in an hour. It’s true the role of music journalism is evolving, but what it’s becoming is still unclear.
Following introductions the conversation started with Jim DeRogatis opened with a comment regarding the preservation of music journalism. He believes that we as a community have done a poor job of preserving the history of our industry. Hundreds, if not thousands of zines have come and gone leaving no archives, physical or digital, for future generations to study and learn from. Even current publications such as Billboard and Rolling Stone have struggled to make back issues easily accessible on a large scale.
Gross then asked the panelists to define a magazine. The first response given was that a magazine is a community. It doesn’t matter if you’re a physical or digital publication, you need a real community in order to thrive. The problem with blogs, as DeRogatis was first to point out, is that they often lack the internal resources needed to develop a strong, quality writing team. There may be a bunch of people contributing content, but there is a difference between that and harnessing the intelligence and perspective from a group of like-minded individuals to create original content. Without that, developing a community is almost impossible, which creates a vicious cycle you can see repeated again and again through the numerous sites that launch and die within a few months time.
Someone eventually pointed out the fact no one addressed the question in the title of the panel, which was greeted with a laugh from everyone in the room. No one would say that they knew for sure music journalism was safe, but they all hope it will continue to exist and thrive. If that is to happen however, we as an industry need to adapt to the new ways people consume media while doing our best to maintain the old school way of running a publication. You need an internal support system in order to make writers feel comfortable and confident enough to push for better, more original content. When you can accomplish that you can also harness a community from your readership.
All that said, all publications need to find a way to fund journalism. As one panelist pointed out, “Journalism is damn expensive.” There is a limit to what you can do without substantial funding, and it falls far short of generating engaging original content on a consistent basis. That material takes time and research, both of which cost money.
Before the room got too depressed about the future, Gross asked panelists about innovative publications they had seen or heard about in recent weeks. There was mention of Patreon campaigns, as well as various Kickstarter campaigns that have been created to fund publications over certain periods of time. Alex Gale menitoned the fact many outlets considered influential online still maintain a print version of their content as well. He noted that there is something about tangible journalism that retains a certain amount of demand despite how often we’re told everything is going digital.
When the general discussion came to an end, the panel opened the floor to questions. The most interesting question came from a young man who asked if the critics were worried about whether or not people care about someone’s knowledge of music history and theory. Gale jumped to say that any editor who wants quality content needs to assign it to a quality writer. Not every editor is a good editor however, and not every critic is a knowledgable critic. That has always happened and it always will. Ann Powers seconded that point and told a quick story about writers at major complications struggling with smaller bands because some only concern themselves with current headliners.
A senior in college asked how he should take the next step in his career following graduation. Uhelszki quickly replied by encouraging the young man to try contributing to alt. weeklies around the country, but DeRogatis believes they are a dying breed. He thinks the best move would be to build the next phase of music journalism. One idea mentioned was a one-stop rock critic aggregator. Something akin to metacritic, but solely focused on music and people at all levels. The discussion closed with the comment that the best way to be a good writer is to write, write, and write. Whether or not you get paid for it, or when you will get paid, is something no one on the panel can answer.