[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.