What is "music journalism," anyway? Who does it serve? And what is its purpose in an age when consumers no longer need critics — nor record stores, for that matter — to discover new music?
I have been writing about music, in both amateur and professional capacities, for at least 16 years — which, as of this counting, is one-half my lifespan. I have been reading about music for even longer: one of my earliest, fondest musical memories is purchasing the Wax Trax! Black Box (a three-disc compilation cataloguing the hits on seminal Chicago electronic-industrial label Wax Trax!) as a barely pubescent tweenager and, seated in the back seat of my parents' car, listening to all three discs in succession on my Sony Discman during a long road trip — reading voraciously the enclosed booklet all the while.
It was a meaty, detailed booklet, providing history and context for the artists included on the compilation. That was my earliest exposure to "music journalism," writing which increased my appreciation and understanding of music beyond the mere "this sounds good" versus "this does not sound good." (Not that those aren't crucial criteria, of course.) But that booklet taught me about the artists and the culture behind the music: it taught me that when artists support each other, collaborate, and are propelled by like-minded record labels, genuine scenes are born.
So it went in the '90s and early '00s — magazines like The Wire, XLR8R, URB, and others covered electronic and experimental music in print, while small, user-driven websites (like Brainwashed, one of the first outlets I published in) covered fringier material. As a music-discovery ecosystem, it functioned decently enough — listeners read about new music in print or online (increasingly online), then subsequently sourced said tunes by mail or at record shops, for those lucky enough to live in the proximity thereof. And then, by the mid-late '00s, everything changed.
If the mid-late aughts could be reduced to a single phenomenon in particular, that phenomenon would be the rise of self-publishing — and social media, the obverse side of the self-publishing coin. (In fact, one could not exist without the other.) YouTube launched in 2005; SoundCloud in 2007; and by 2008, mp3 blogs had become mainstream power players. By that point, many nodes in that aforementioned music-discovery ecosystem had already been rendered irrelevant — and if they weren't already so, the writing was on the wall.
At the time, many (myself included) believed that self-publishing would usher in a new world of possibility, in which artists and creators of all kinds would be free to share their work with the world, in which the crème de la crème would rise to the top, and those innumerable über-talented bedroom producers would finally get their shine.
Fast-forward to 2017 and suffice it to say that the experiment did not quite turn out as planned.
We live now in a world of infinite, never-ending profusion, where "keeping up" (with music; with art; with reading; with almost anything) has become a quaint notion at best — and a laughable, even absurd one at worst. Far from ushering in a world of limitless possibility where Bedroom Bob's remarkable homegrown talent stands on equal footing with Corporate Charlie's massive marketing budget, this onslaught of profusion has done the opposite, reifying existing power structures and gatekeepers and making it more difficult than ever to separate signal from noise, wheat from chaff.
Why? Simply put: pluralities of choice overwhelm us. This is a reality of the human brain that now, spoken aloud, seems patently obvious, but which the science of psychology is only just beginning to countenance. (An excerpt from this fine article whose headline, lest it dissuade you, perfectly demonstrates Betteridge's Law: "Iyengar’s initial study [demonstrating the paradox of choice] and her many follow-ups made a real contribution to our understanding, such that a principle that was once invisible — indeed impossible — a decade ago has become 'widely shared' by now.")
When faced with a deluge of choices, consumers (listeners) turn to what they already know. And perhaps more than ever before, "what they already know" turns out to be the players (record labels; publications; artists; etc.) with the most money. Here's a tweet shared last year by U.K. record label Modern Love, a mid-size label dedicated to experimental electronic music (whose banner artists include Andy Stott, Demdike Stare, and Claro Intelecto):
Deciphered, this tweet means that up-and-coming artists are discovered by small, boutique record labels (i.e., "first-order curators"), who then receive a bit of press, usually from independent (i.e., unpaid) online-only publications, and who then are snatched up by their much larger, much wealthier counterparts — the "mass-market curators" (like XL, Ninja Tune, and Warp, the closest thing to "major labels" in electronic music, or publications like Pitchfork and RBMA Daily, both of which are corporately funded). Without fail, the real groundwork and due diligence comes from labor that goes grossly undercompensated — or comes entirely free.
Which brings me right back to my original questions about the modern meaning of music journalism and its purpose: who benefits, who pays for it, and how these considerations affect every player therein. It’s questions like these — ultimately, all questions about how we might make our musical ecosystem better and more just — that keep me up at night. And it’s questions like these that I’ll be exploring regularly in this space, a new column for KQED Arts.
I'll still be writing about underground, under-the-radar artists, shows, and releases with a Bay Area focus. ("Old-school music journalism," if you will.) But I'll also be tackling these loftier topics, discussing conceptual conundrums that might not have answers, and — perhaps most importantly — I wish to involve both artists and fans in these discussions.
What do you want from music journalism? Yes, you: the bedroom artist, the small label-owner, and the avid music consumer. You are what makes music go round; you provide the energy that makes this artform so vibrant. Music, writ large, may not be quite as simple as it seemed when we were kids in cars with our Sony Discmans, but I’d venture it’s just as exciting, bewildering and absorbing as ever. Let’s talk about it — and try to make it better.
Chris Zaldua is a writer and DJ living in San Francisco. Email him here.