Blow It Out Your Ear with Trevor Risk
Local man describes everything terrible about the music business in Vancouver.
The Music Media Is Pretty Much Dead
History is remembered incorrectly. As historical autodidacts like Chuck Klosterman like to point out, history is not exclusively written by the winners, it’s also heavily written by the critics. For instance, if you grew up in the 1990s and you ask someone way younger than yourself about what they know about music of that era, there’s always just one answer: “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. In fact, looking back, based on critics’ voices, you can probably make a case for everything being either post or pre that song. Now, ask the same person about Boyz II Men, and most won’t really know what you’re talking about. The grunge song peaked at number 6 on the Hot 100, and the boy band set crazy record-industry records throughout the decade (not to mention making a sweet cameo on an otherwise underwhelming Christmas episode of The Fresh Prince). What’s exciting for some (and nerve-wracking for others) is this structure is no longer functional. We are currently living in an age where critics have almost no influence on the music we listen to or industry itself and everybody involved is at fault.
Do you have the kind of friends who act like the sun shines out of your urethra no matter what you say or do? Those sycophants will turn you into a pinwheeling psychopath if you let them. As humans we need to know that we’re screwing things up, so we can navigate our own morality. Critics used to do this in music. They used to give bad reviews and good reviews and there was variety on the media spectrum. Now, 90% of all posts on music are just “This exists”. There is no good and bad to weigh in on. I worked for an American PR firm for three years, and I would write press releases every day, and every day I saw my exact words copied and pasted in major publications. This was infuriating but not because I wasn’t getting credit. It was frustrating because my press releases were not critiques. They were basic descriptions of the music, and as the too-often-repeated trope goes, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Since these posts didn’t offer opinions, the public mostly tuned them out. Readership of publications and blogs is lower than it has ever been before. All the best music writers of the late ’90s like Caitlin Moran have turned to larger issues with more depth and a higher click rate.
Back in the time before websites, promo albums went out to music publications about three or four months before the magazines hit the streets, so critics had to write their reviews without knowing how their peers felt. When these editorials were finally published they featured a wide variety of opinion and criticism that fostered the discourse and excitement from the readers and customers. It drove the industry. Now, it’s all about (hashtag) content. One big publication gets something up online, then they all do, and if you look closely most of the language is the exact same, save a few of the more established outlets. It’s a race to get something out first, or the most, or exclusive. (The latter of which hinders the work’s ability to go viral for the afternoon.)
It’s not just the critics and the infrastructure that have let this lapse. Musicians are equally at fault. Since the dawn of Twitter, if you are a musician, you can turn your fan base into a little echo-chamber army. Don’t like what some critic said about you? Well, your fragile ego can use the power of numbers to shame and doxx that critic, and your sycophantic pearl-clutching can continue, and you can be an ouroboros of self-validation. Or to use a more apt metaphor, you can piss in your own mouth all you like.
Think you, as a reader, are off the hook? Absolutely not. This is your fault too. Why would you read a 1,500-word nuanced critique of a new album by a veteran wordsmith when what you really want is to smash that share button on a video and virtue signal to your social feeds that you are aligned with either third-wave feminism or big, greased-up butts? (In the case of the Beyoncés and Iggy Azaleas of the world, both.)
It’s sad lately to see so many mid-level acts mortgage their lives to hire a snakey publicist because they so desperately want to be on Stereogum like all the other similar acts they worshipped in high school. PR doesn’t lead anymore, it supports. Obviously the pop stars need publicists, but they need publicists in the way Tom Cruise does. There was a time where I could see a band at Pub 340 with only 11 other people in the audience and then suddenly they’re “Best New Music” on Pitchfork and playing 800-capacity hard-seaters. Whereas last time I remember being a part of getting an act on one of those sites, all it ended up achieving was 36 SoundCloud streams. Young band, perhaps take that $2,000 a month and spend it on butt grease, because those sites have all the influence of a Facebook post at this point.