The ongoing need for a music media revolution
For the better part of the last decade I have spent up to fourteen hours a day staring at phone and computer screens in hopes of writing something people would want to read. Sometimes I have found success and other times I have not, but through it all one thing has remained unflinchingly true: Getting paid for writing well is incredibly hard. It doesn’t matter if your article or blog post got an artists signed or convinced several hundred people to buy a record they otherwise wouldn’t have given a minute of their time, unless you play by a very specific set of rules, you are going to have a hard time making anything other than memories as a digital music writer.
This makes no sense. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world, if not more, read music news online every day. Maybe they check out tour dates, or maybe they watch music videos when they should be working, but they all rely on people like me and my many writer friends to create content for them to consume. We, like many journalists struggling to pay bills in the digital age, feel there should be a way to harness their need for content to create profitable careers.
If you’re a reader and not a writer you probably assume advertising keeps your favorite site online, and that may be true, but depending on the size of those sites the income received from ads can vary from pennies to thousands of dollars per month. When that money is not enough to cover costs, and it usually is not, many sites will turn to marketing companies that supply paid content for the site to run in return for a few extra bucks. Some companies will pay sites $300 or more per month to run a handful of articles with links and SEO terms intended to help a third party company get more notoriety. Sometimes the content these companies provide is false, or at least incomplete, but in order to get paid the content must run more or less as it was received. Publishers agree to this because they, like their writers, need more to stay afloat.
When publishers find themselves in positions where they are entirely dependent on advertisers and/or paid content they inadvertently hinder their publication’s ability to grow (and by grow I mean cultivate more readers, increase digital reach, and generally raise their level of notoriety). Writers are no longer allowed to cover what they believe is important until they have met whatever agreements they have with their financiers. They are also unable to be as honest in their writing as they would like to be if their publisher believes a negative comment or review might cause advertisers to stop working with them. It’s not uncommon for a site or magazine to choose not to cover and album or event because someone at the top of the company food chain believes negativity may scare away potential advertisers. It doesn’t matter if that negativity is based on fact or if an opinion is honest because money is the ultimate deciding factor in what content gets published.
The restraints placed on writers do not stop at saying whether or not something is worthwhile. Many writers, myself included, have also been encouraged to place less importance on discovery articles because new (unknown) talent doesn’t drive clicks or ad sales. It doesn’t matter if the person you want to cover is the greatest songwriter of their generation or the next act to sell out Madison Square Garden until advertisers feel the same way. It’s a completely backwards approach to covering the best of what’s next, but it’s unfortunately become the norm. Publishers would rather cover artists who have found a way to make themselves known without the support of their magazine, and then hop on their hype train, rather than helping establish the talent’s identity in the first place because it’s more cost-effective to be a follower.
A perfect example of this approach to publishing in action is the career of Chance The Rapper. I cannot think of rap writer who hasn’t been following Chance for four years or more, yet many of the biggest outlets only started covering his career within the last 24 months. The reason for this is not a lack of pitching from writers, but rather a perceived lack of interest from people who negotiate ad sales. Online publications can be far more flexible than print, as all writing is often viewed as potentially good ‘content’ as long as it brings in clicks and doesn’t take too much time away from assigned articles. But you have probably noticed that is also beginning to change as the fragmentation of how and people consume media is more splintered now than ever before with no signs of reversing anytime soon.
And don’t get me wrong,the relatively recent burst of new ways to consume news and opinion is legitimately amazing. We are more interconnected now as a global species than at any other point in recorded history. The ability to express ideas to anyone willing to listen has never been easier or more accessible than it is at this very moment, which is why it is so important that we develop methods and platforms that allow writers of all varieties to find and tell the stories that really matter rather than the ones tied to someone’s click-generated bottom line. The corner of the internet populated by entertainment news and opinion may have been born from fandom before it was considered a business, but for countless writers, editors, site founders, and photographers around the world it is a full-time job that lacks any ability whatsoever to guarantee a return for time invested.
I wish I could tell you that I had a solution. For many months I’ve talked to friends and colleagues about these issues, and to be honest we haven’t made much progress towards finding a reasonable solution. Though we all yearn to see some shift in the respect and recognition given to those who cover the increasingly vast world of entertainment so everyone else can stay on top of what’s new we have long learned to not hold our breath. Things have gone from bad to worse, with the rates for advertising in all forms falling as the competition for those ads grows, and through it all thousands download software that prevents what ads publications can run from even being seen (and therefore helping the site).
Our culture seems to understand that following Star Wars on Twitter and calling yourself a supporter is not the same as buying a ticket to actually see a Star Wars film. Yet many do not understand the same logic applies to the sites and writers who deliver up to the minute Star Wars information on a daily basis. The same can be said for music, sports, or any other form of entertainment. Our culture demands access to the things we love 24/7, yet people seem to believe the people who service that demand don’t deserve much, if any, recognition. Even if a writer breaks a major story there is little to no credit to be found, in part because anything that goes viral is copied, screenshot, or otherwise duplicated and spread without any ties to its source. Remember ‘The Dress’ debate of last year? Buzzfeed was the source of that discussion (they found it on Tumblr), but as the picture went viral the person behind the photo didn’t seem to matter. I’m not saying that author deserve a pulitzer or anything of the sort, but some kind of recognition for creating a topic of global conversation should be given to them.
I’m not saying that every writer deserves minimum wage. The vast majority of people creating content online can barely string together sentences, let alone do so without more than one or two grammatical errors. That said, for those of us who have done the work required to be proficient in writing there needs to be an alternative to what we experience in the job field right now. Getting paid anything is a miracle, and getting paid enough to not have a side job is starting to sound like a feat equal to spotting a Sasquatch. We get the journalism we deserve, and by that I mean we get the journalism we deem worthy of our support. If you know a writer or a group of writers whose work you enjoy and want to see more of then you need to help us, the writers, find a way to continue creating without having to worry about whether or not our words will eventually leave us bankrupt. We can built a better future for everyone, but in order to make it a reality we must work together.
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James Shotwell is the Digital Marketing Manager for Haulix. He is also a professional entertainment critic, covering both film and music, as well as the co-founder of Antique Records (RIP). Feel free to tell him you love or hate the article above by connecting with him on Twitter. Bonus points if you introduce yourself by sharing your favorite Simpsons character.