Tag: journalism

Out of the Box: In Defense of Analog Criticism

Geeta Dayal

[Ed. note: This is our third installment of “Out of the Box.” For this series, which follows New Music USA’s tenth anniversary this past November and marks the start of our second decade, we are asking a group of deep musical thinkers to ponder what the landscape for new music will be ten years from now. We aim for this series to spark important discussions in our community as well as to raise important journalistic voices from all around the country. The previous installments of this series featured essays by University of Florida-based musicologist and bassoonist Dr. Imani Mosley and Brooklyn-based violinist and arts journalist Vanessa Ague. For our third, we asked San Francisco Bay Area-based music, art, technology and culture journalist/critic Geeta Dayal to ponder possible futures for music journalism.-FJO]

What will music journalism look like ten years from now? Will the role of the music critic be obsolete? The signs are not encouraging. Many of the best writers I know have left the field behind, embarking on more lucrative careers as lawyers, businesspeople, or professors. Many magazines and alternative weeklies across the United States have folded. Other publications have cut their staff, trying in vain to create the same publication with a fraction of the workforce, overworking the editors and writers that remain. Arts sections in newspapers are becoming thinner; freelance budgets are being slashed. For the past twenty years, I’ve continued to push forward as an arts critic and journalist despite the obstacles, because I believe that I can contribute new and useful ideas to the wider culture.

The prevailing narrative is that social media and digital streaming services have taken over the space that critics once inhabited. But I would like to present a more optimistic concept of the future, which we could build by reframing music criticism’s cultural value.

Consider that the analog revival is in full swing. In 2020, vinyl record sales surged 29% to $626 million, and that number continues to rise. Vinyl record pressing plants are overloaded, with wait times of several months to manufacture an album. Vintage analog synthesizers currently fetch eye-watering prices on auction sites like eBay. In other categories besides music, “bespoke” has become a popular buzzword, along with custom-made, tailored, and personalized. In a landscape that feels increasingly automated, consumers are quite understandably in search of things that feel special.

With this renewed interest in the charms of analog technology, I propose that we also renew our interest in another time-honored innovation: music writing. In this essay, I introduce the term “analog criticism.” Criticism is an art form, created by humans, not by AI. Analog criticism refers to long, perceptive essays and reviews, thoughtfully crafted by writers who have immersed themselves deeply in the field.

Spotify and other digital streaming services supply a quick fix. Users want to listen to a song, and they want it now. “If you like this, you might also like this,” these services suggest. This, in itself, is a form of criticism — automated, digital criticism, that tells you what to listen to next. This technology has made a very small number of people very rich. While streaming services might be convenient on the go, they can also lead to a diminished musical experience. Earlier this year, Spotify came under fire by prominent rock bands such as My Bloody Valentine for listing wildly incorrect lyrics alongside certain songs. Most listeners probably didn’t notice, because very little context is provided to the listener, if there is any at all. The perfunctory descriptions next to the albums are basically ad copy, not serious writing. Album credits are often missing or incomplete, and entire hidden histories of music are lost in the process.

Analog criticism means articulately explaining why you think something is worthwhile or why you don’t like something. Algorithms can’t do that; only people can. Analog criticism means presenting an articulate, persuasive argument. Analog criticism means drawing unlikely connections and doing real research. And smart, deeply felt writing builds a true connection with the reader. A lot of major publications like the Village Voice, where I got my start, were crucial forums where critics presented vibrant, intelligent arguments on a weekly basis. You felt like you knew these writers, even if you had never met them.

Mainstream magazines and newspapers have to step up, too. These days, most publications are too influenced by ad revenue, market research and page views. Their content is based around what they think people want, rather than setting a bold new agenda. It’s reactive — a defensive stance rather than an offensive one. The great magazines of the past took clear positions. They weren’t afraid of having a distinctive voice. That energy and vitality needs to come back.

Will arts sections in magazines and newspapers still exist in ten years? While there been a lot of talk about building new models for journalism, we must also put forth a strong argument for the value of arts writing, which is often given short shrift in the journalism world. In ten years, will critics still be able to find homes for serious articles on subjects outside the mainstream—and get paid enough to make a living? Crowdfunding sites are vital for sustaining writers through these uncertain times. For me, the ongoing support from readers through Patreon helps me to continue. I predict that more of these types of platforms will proliferate, giving journalists and critics new ways to fund their work.

Criticism, at its best, is the highest form of respect we can pay to art or to music. Instead of ceding ground to streaming services and social media corporations, we should regroup and reconsider the value we bring as critics and writers. Analog criticism gives us a deeper, richer experience. The world of music, and civilization at large, deserves it.

  • In a landscape that feels increasingly automated, consumers are quite understandably in search of things that feel special.

    Geeta Dayal
    Geeta Dayal
  • While streaming services might be convenient on the go, they can also lead to a diminished musical experience.

    Geeta Dayal
    Geeta Dayal
  • Analog criticism means articulately explaining why you think something is worthwhile or why you don’t like something. Algorithms can't do that; only people can.

    Geeta Dayal
    Geeta Dayal
  • Criticism, at its best, is the highest form of respect we can pay to art or to music.

    Geeta Dayal
    Geeta Dayal

Who Counts as an Expert?

When you read about music industry issues in the news, does it feel like it’s connected to your life? Do you see yourself reflected or hear your concerns included? These questions were on my mind most recently last week, as rapper Jay Z was joined by a crowded stage of pop superstars to roll out the music streaming service Tidal. It’s something I think about every time a big music news story bubbles up.

Tidal

Among the general population, there seems to be a sustained level of interest in the business of making music that extends beyond our appetite to understand other industries. It’s regrettably difficult to find news coverage about the people who grow our tomatoes, sew our clothes, or assemble our smartphones, but people are still uniquely fascinated with the people who make the music they enjoy.

And yet much of the public conversation about important issues in the music business seems light in nutritional value, or narrowly focused on the concerns and actions of a handful of superstars. If you’re working in a genre or music subculture that isn’t based around mass-market assumptions, your concerns may be absent. We can all read dozens of hot-takes on the latest celebrity copyright kerfuffle, but how many of them examine whether a young composer whose work has been infringed has any meaningful recourse, if she can’t afford expensive legal representation?

One reason for this dynamic is that journalism has been going through many of the same upheavals as other creative industries. Few publications have dedicated reporters assigned to the music industry beat anymore, let alone with a labor emphasis—such topics get passed on to arts critics, or business and technology writers. I’ve only ever really worked in music, so no one would expect me to be able to explain subprime lending or email encryption. But business and technology journalists are often tasked with explaining complicated systems and revenue models, without any specialized training or background.

While some have taken on this challenge and done an admirable job, it’s not surprising that others end up making basic errors—confusing record labels with publishers, or compositions with sound recordings, for example.

FMC Chart: money flow-radio

Infographic from Future of Music Coalition’s “Music and How the Money Flows

There’s also a reliance on faulty conventional wisdom; Future of Music Coalition has published research that squarely debunks common myths, like “musicians make all their money from touring,” but I could spend my entire work week trying to correct these myths every time they appear in popular media and I wouldn’t make much of a dent. Plus click-driven revenue models often incentivize writers to prioritize celebrity controversies over an examination of how non-superstar musicians (the vast majority of us) are impacted.

A parallel factor may be the trend towards “explainer journalism” sites, which “have built their core identity around explaining complicated issues or situations to a well-informed general public” as Henry Farrell, um, explains. The inherent claim to expertise in this mode of writing doesn’t exactly encourage intellectual humility or the weighing of different theories, but encourages boldly assertive claims as an exercise in self-branding and generating traffic.

This is an era that rewards simple explanations: TED Talks that prescribe neat solutions, the ability to learn “everything you need to know about X in one chart.” It’s nice when such things exist, but it’s easy to lapse into a preference for falsely totalizing narratives, and “expertise” is awarded on the basis of whether you can offer such a narrative (bonus points awarded if you can work in an affirmation of entrepreneurial progress that’s basically compatible with our prevailing neoliberal power structures).

But artists know that things are more complicated. You might even argue that making a life as a musician or composer is partly about getting comfortable with constantly navigating that complexity. We know that an approach that works for one kind of musician is not necessarily going to work for peers working in different genres, or different roles with different assumptions about scale. Strategies or business models that might work perfectly well for a chamber music ensemble may not suit a composer who doesn’t perform. We know that rather than the conventional story of an old model of the music business being replaced by a new one, there’s always been a range of many different models, and we choose the models that align with our abilities, skills, interests, and available resources.

But while adopting “it’s more complicated than that” as a default epistemological position will help you understand what’s going on, it can be challenging to find ways to tell these more complex stories. Not long ago, I was speaking to a TV journalist who wanted to know whether or not our copyright laws were “antiquated.” Now, it should be clear that this is kind of an absurd question to pose as a binary either/or. US copyright laws amount to hundreds of pages, assembled over decades, revised over and over again. I explained that while some current provisions might be due for revision, many others continue to provide important protections for creators and for the public interest. Alas, the journalist really wanted a yes-or-no answer, and when I was unable to give her one, she ended up not quoting me on that issue. It was hard to blame her—she only was allotted two and a half minutes.

Another example: the popular sci-fi novelist and tech blogger Cory Doctorow in his mostly un-recommendable new book Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free suggests an axiom for aspiring artists: “Fame won’t make you rich, but you can’t get paid without it,” a variation on the “obscurity is the real problem” adage we heard endlessly during the file-sharing battles a decade ago. This is, of course, demonstrably false: most working musicians and composers have always been obscure by the standards of mass culture. In fact, there are thousands of professional musicians who will always remain ultimately anonymous to many of the consumers who enjoy their work: touring sidemen, session players, etc. Obscurity alone isn’t so much of an issue if obscure musicians and composers are able to obtain a fair price for their obscure labors, whether from the open market, from grants and commissions, or other revenue structures. But Doctorow’s willingness to speak in such sweeping generalities about an industry he’s never worked in hasn’t been a barrier to his self-positioning as an expert on the music business. It may have worked to his advantage, actually.

This leads me to another observation about perceived expertise: working at the intersection of music, technology, and policy means reckoning with the fact that each of these three arenas carries its own ongoing battles with sexism and racism. What this means for me as a white, college-educated man is my opinions are immediately given an assumed legitimacy in many forums. I can opine about technological issues in music and policy and no one will patronizingly ask me whether I know how to code, to borrow an example from Astra Taylor and Joanne McNeil. I may not be able to oversimplify complex dynamics, but at least I look like an “expert.”

If this all sounds rather disheartening, I do see opportunities to push back. Musicians and composers are always the best experts about their lives and livelihoods, and they seem to be more and more willing to tell their stories. As busy, frazzled, and overextended as journalists and editors often are, my experience has been that most genuinely want to get it right and like hearing the thoughtful, factually grounded perspectives of artists of diverse backgrounds, including the kinds of people who will never be invited to stand on stage next to Jay Z.

The need to hear those perspectives is also a reason why sites like NewMusicBox and others that allow creative workers to speak for themselves are so fundamentally important, and I’m delighted to be contributing this month.

***
Kevin Erickson is communications and outreach manager for Future of Music Coalition, a non-profit research, advocacy, and education group based in Washington, D.C. With roots in the Pacific Northwest indie-punk tradition, his experience spans many facets of the music ecosystem, including all-ages music advocacy, alternative interdisciplinary arts spaces, community radio, and brick and mortar independent music retail management. He remains active as a musician, producer, and engineer at Swim-Two-Birds recording studio.

Send Chutes and Ladders

fire escape
As part of the Chamber Music America conference in New York last month, I sat on a panel that discussed the ways in which classical and jazz are isolated from other genres of music and what we might do to help de-silo our work (a much more complex and serious problem than being cordoned off in our own glass room in Tower Records was in olden times). There’s a pretty large gap between how the jazz and the classical community see these fields and how the rest of the music community sees them (as a quick scan of the Billboard charts often makes painfully evident), and that has both cultural and economic repercussions.
Current delivery platforms and participation rates in the creation of new work mean music of any and all types is coming at us at a phenomenal rate. This then requires music makers to place a high priority on and devote precious resources to being effectively present in this general music marketplace—to being where music fans are, so that those who are interested in what’s available can find and enjoy it. This has challenges, for sure. Market share (or strange ideas about composition vs. recording date) can result in classical and jazz being left out of splashy mainstream productions such as Twitter #Music and the Google Music Timeline.  Services such as Spotify and iTunes don’t handle the more complicated metadata very well, often rendering music in these genres harder to discover and sort. But building a tailor-made private playground cut off from huge pools of listeners is an even worse attempt at a solution, effectively serving only to drain resources and build walls. Seen in this light, standing in a crowded YouTube field or Live365 index makes a lot more sense. On its own it’s just an open door, but at least that door is open and there’s active street life beyond its threshold.

From there, standing shoulder to shoulder with other artists across genres takes us a certain distance further away from being an untouchable “other.” NPR does this in their “Best of the Year” album round up, on which Caleb Burhans’s Evensong is followed by Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap. Here on Counterstream Radio, we did it through meaningful conversations between artists such as Meredith Monk and Björk.

Keeping out of that silo also requires keeping pace with what the major mainstream players are developing and how their work might help us entice more people to walk down our lane and visit our home. This made me reflect back on a talk I heard Tim Quirk, head of Global Content Programming at Google Play, give at the Future of Music Coalition’s Policy Day last October. He spoke about how new technology has allowed the development of services “that let thousands of potential masterpieces find their ideal audiences” independent of traditional gatekeepers. “Telling the world what it should or shouldn’t listen to has become far less important than simply making this overgrown jungle navigable…Context is more important than opinions.” On balance, that sounded like a powerful potential opportunity for classical and jazz music to me.

Later in his talk, however, the argument got a little more challenging. “Getting people to pay attention to something new has always been hard work and it’s only getting harder as the amount and, I think, the quality of the competition explodes while the ability to listen to something else instead becomes even easier. Capturing people’s attention and then hanging onto it is the fundamental challenge for artists and labels and their managers in the 21st century.”

It will be all the harder for those who find themselves stuck up a tower, never even making it to the party in the first place.

Between Sound and Science

The more I hang out with scientists and engineers—and this seems to happen more and more often these days—the more I feel like an incorrigible composer. No matter how much knowledge and lingo I absorb, it sometimes seems that our goals or areas of concern are fundamentally different. As a staunch proponent of collaboration between the arts and the sciences, this bothers me a great deal, and I’d like to get to the bottom of it if I can.

There are certainly artificial barriers between the two domains, built up over the years by mistakes and misconceptions. I’d like to place most of the blame for this on pop science journalism, usually created by people who seem to know little about science or music. For just a couple of recent examples, here’s one about pop music getting sadder and here’s one about the distribution of chords in more than 1300 popular songs. I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to properly deconstruct these. Okay, fine, a couple prompts: 1) Are “Paperback Writer” and “Help!” really happy songs? 2) What kind of insights could be gained from an examination of the distribution of words in more than 1300 popular novels?

I’m being a little flippant here, but the point is that most musicians are probably less dogged and stubborn than me, and have better things to do than nitpick an argument, or look up primary sources to see how they’re misrepresented. So musicians tend to believe that this is representative of how scientists look at music, resulting in a great deal of skepticism and mistrust.

Conversely, researchers in music often ignore music theory on the grounds that it’s not rigorous or verifiable. But many of these researchers have not experienced firsthand the explanatory power of theory for all kinds of musical events, and spend much of their time developing sophisticated methods to reverse-engineer theoretical understanding, occasionally with very strange results. For example, automatic music genre classifiers that do well on certain data sets can be thrown off by small tweaks in equalization, suggesting that they are paying more attention to surface features like production or mastering, and not what we actually hear when we distinguish disco from country. A little music theory here could go a long way; just because it wasn’t created with scientific research in mind doesn’t mean it can’t be incorporated into a scientifically rigorous model or experiment.

Even if we bridged this gap, however, I’m still not sure musicians and researchers would see things the same way. Geraint Wiggins argues persuasively that scientists are in fact creative, but I wonder if they’re a different species of creativity. Put simply, scientists are interested in directed creativity that tackles a particular research problem or goal, whereas artists are interested in exploratory creativity where the destination is much less certain. These are not hard and fast categories, and there’s certainly some bleed-through; it sounds like Wiggins believes that scientists could stand to be a little more broadly imaginative, and artists would never finish anything if they weren’t narrowly focused at least part of the time. (This comes through in writing style, too; I can never seem to get into the idea of stating my thesis up front, preferring for it to develop gradually over the course of several paragraphs.)

Perhaps this is the greatest benefit to be had from collaboration between scientists and artists, this productive clash of perspectives. Even now, though, it’s hard to imagine what this collaboration should ideally look like. Should scientists be technicians, making cool stuff to artists’ specifications? Should artists be subjects, providing data for scientists’ publications? Both of these approaches are valuable and valid, but neither of them builds respect and trust. Should scientists and artists educate each other until we’re all comfortable in both domains? If so, are the end products of these collaborations still research projects and/or works of art? If they are something else instead, what are they? I’d be curious to find out.

Repairing Musical Blind Spots

It seems the momentary topic of choice in the world of classical music journalism is musical “blind spots,” or rather, the music that you try to like—or at least appreciate—but somehow just can’t manage to get there. Justin Davidson writes about his ambivalence towards Philip Glass, while some staff members of NPR Music reflect on musical genres that simply don’t float their boats.

At the same time, a Twitter friend (and also a friend in real life) suggested that I subscribe to another unlimited, everywhere, all-the-time music service so she could keep up with new music by seeing my listening choices. My immediate reactions were, a) that I would be more than happy to just tell her what I’m listening to, and b) that if I sign up for another thing that involves a computer, my head will surely explode.

Little makes me happier than when people are naturally proactive about listening to new things, and especially about dipping into something completely outside of their normal experience. So many good things can come of that. While talking about whether or not we appreciate a type or a piece of music is not especially interesting, the deeper question it suggests is more compelling: Is something important being missed by succumbing to blind spots?

Undoubtedly the answer is yes. However, it’s not possible to listen to everything on earth (even though Frank J. Oteri is absolutely determined to try), so how can the task of keeping up with new music be managed? And how to avoid burying a personal experience of music underneath the weight and distraction of sheer volume?

Justin Davidson has devised his own “filtering” method in response to the comments from his Glass article, which you can find out about here.

Speaking of sheer volume! Have at that last link, people.