Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Magic Question

So today's thinking exercise was going to a SXSW panel called Covering Music In New Media, moderated by my pal Jason Gross. The participants were Michael Azerrad from eMusic, Erik Flannigan of AOL, Amy Phillips of Pitchfork Media, mighty Mark Pucci (one of my favorite publicists) and someone I think was Nick Baily of Shorefire Media, another great publicist. The panel description ended with this sentence:

"Without a reliable and financially sustainable model for online media, what is a rock critic to do?"

Well, yeah.

Naturally, all the folks with dogs in the online media fight -- Azerrad, Flannigan, and Phillips -- sought to assure everyone that their online publications were as viable as the print ones, as opposed to the many unreliable bloggers and fan-sites. The talked about coping with the flood of product, the fight to maintain some sort of credibility in the face of illegal uploads and rumor-mongering. They said that discussing which online sites will eventually work and which won't is like asking if Rolling Stone would survive in 1973 -- a good point.

What they did not discuss is what every single writer I've talked to here has been talking about: there is no paying work. Anywhere. Rumors of magazines going broke abounded, and the most-spoken sentence was "Man, I can't remember when it was ever this bad." When I'd respond that I couldn't, either, I got a shocked look, since I was writing about music something like 20 years before any of these other folks came on the scene. Nobody is making a living any more. Nice to have spent your life learning a trade you can no longer practice and can't make a living at, eh?

"Great audience at this," commented the irrepressable Jim Fouratt, who's been in this business even longer than I have (well, by a year or two). "Half of 'em are dinosaurs and half of 'em are 18-year-olds." And what we old folks had in common with our spiritual grandchildren was that neither of us can figure out how to make a living doing what we want to do. What we did not have in common with them was that once, we actually did, even if it was never a good one.

In a way, I'm lucky. Writing about art and culture for the Wall Street Journal for all that while liberated me from rock criticism, and I'm less and less interested in writing about (and listening to) music these days. Rock criticism has always paid less than any other cultural commentary, and that hasn't changed: one major indie-rock mag pays its writers a dime a word. That's what I got in the early '70s, and those dimes were worth a whole lot more back then. If I can make the right connection (and getting out of Berlin would help me subject-wise), I've got a lot more to write about than ever before. A lot of the poor souls trudging around here are a lot more committed to one subject than I am, or they really don't want to write about anything else. Or can't. I'm itching to write about a whole lot of stuff, and I've already proven I can.

But where? As general-interest magazines die like there was a plague going around (and actually, I guess there is), the options get more limited, and there are more people competing for less space than ever before.

I sure don't have any answers, but then, after an hour and a quarter, neither did anyone on Jason's panel. You either wrote for a website with good writing that doesn't pay, or you squeezed yourself into someone's idea that 700 words is just about all anyone needs to write about anything and got paid commensurately. Blender, the reigning paper rock mag, doesn't allow record reviews of over 80 words, for the most part.

I've currently got two book proposals out, neither for a music-related book. I hope one of them will give me the lifeline to make the changes I need in my life so that I can keep on doing the only thing I know how to do well enough to get paid for it. Neither has an agent who's committed to it yet, though, so I'm living in suspended animation.

And posting on my blog.

Which doesn't pay.


Bowleserised said...

Do let me know if anyone comes up with a solution.

Nick Baily said...

Hah... that was in fact me. Thanks for coming!

And nobody even mentioned pay and support for criticism, admittedly a topic I'm among the less qualified to talk about. It's a crime though, when I occasionally get copied on an assigment email or something I'm always shocked at how low the rates have dropped.

If nobody can make money recording music, selling those recordings, or covering it, that's not exactly a good sign for the future is it. Wish we'd delved into that a little more -- you're right that it's a real part of the story of music media retrenchment.

Anonymous said...

Well, first you got the culture-killing *Godzilla profit model* that settled into the system sometime during the early 80s (world-conquering bands take time and money to nurture, I'm afraid; and parent-company accountants were never meant to be de facto label heads)...and then you got the insidious loser-fication of dissent that confused kids of the 21st century with the idea that protest was geeky (or even 'Gay'), while the only cool form of 'rebellion' is shooting where does that leave the traditional place of popular music in the life-cycle of the misunderstood adolescent?

Kids didn't stop being screamingly devoted music fans due to the proliferation of new media distractions (as the labels would have us believe)'s due to the stunning dearth of obscenely compelling and durable new music (and visionary Dionysian band leaders), plus, again, the above-stated moratorium on rejecting the status quo. And don't blame illegal downloads (that other label scapegoat); when I was a young LP addict, I'd buy two copies of every record at a to play, the other to enshrine! That's what fanatics *do*, and it's never about saving money.

But hey, *our* loss is the totalitarian technocracy's gain! A generation without a unifying anti-establishment aesthetic will pretty much do as they are bloody told. In other words:

As ever, we lived through a vanishing *Golden Age* without understanding that at the time. Hey, I'm talking about The 20th Century, folks!

Ben said...

Ed, this is quite the head scratcher these days. It hit me last year when Robert Christgau was dropped from the new "new media" Village Voice. Come on, Christgau? I did a get a little excited recently when I noticed was looking for writers, then saw some nicely put fineprint to the effect of, "Oh, we can't pay you but hey! you get to write for our site! Isn't that enough?" Which reminds me: is currently offering real live money for a winning post in a writing competition that began yesterday -- the exception that proves the rule? As for Pitchfork, I'm pretty sure it's rise was all about interns, mad, drooling, still-living-with-mom interns. Not that I haven't had my own designs on that webzine since 97, but still.

Anonymous said...

The advent of the Net broke loose a near-universal expectation that everything should be free! free! freeeeeeee! Music should be free, news, photos, video, all free ... with nobody thinking about how those providing all this will make a living. I'm part of the problem: I don't go to pay sites. (But I never download music; I buy CDs.) Not to mention that so many people think nothing of taking others' posted stuff and using it as their own. It's all rather grotesque.

Ed Ward said...

Ummm, Steve, nice rant, but what does it have to do with the fact that there's no work for writers?

Ben: how much? The dollar fell almost a whole penny against the Euro overnight; I've got to play the lottery or else I can't even afford to live in Berlin!

And Brian: you ever talk to those people who think everything should all be free? They're amazing: they think musicians and filmmakers and writers all work for them. They must have had chattel servants as children, is all I can make out.

Anonymous said...

It's all about the 'Why', EW! There's no work for music writers these days because there's very little of real interest (in the mind of a paying audience) to write *about*.

Anonymous said...

Yes, that's the attitude I've encountered - along with great hostility at any suggestion that the folks providing stuff need to get paid. One such person told me, I've lost all these CDs and had to buy new ones - these musicians are ripping me off! Uh, WHO lost all those CDs?

Ed Ward said...

Steve: Although I tend to agree with you, few of my peers who were wandering in imminent pennilessness around SXSW would agree with you. They have topics they want to write about, and they believe there are people who want to read them. I may not be interested, but that doesn't mean anything.

Brian: Yeah, isn't that amazing? I wonder how these people get their money. Inheritance? They think that because listening to music/watching films/reading books is fun, people should do it for free. I've got Creative Commons protection for this blog, and I'm trying to find a way to ensure that the photos I've posted here (mine, at least), which are one of the top ways people find this blog, are protected if they're downloaded. Unfortunately, the Statcounter thingy doesn't note if they're downloaded or merely viewed. Gotta find someone who knows about this.

Anonymous said...

"the Statcounter thingy doesn't note if they're downloaded or merely viewed" I don't see the difference: it is in the nature of a browser that it has to download things to show them. You might want to enquire whether they are additionally saved by the user on his hard disk but even that distinction is spurious because browsers (or proxies along the way) will often automatically cache stuff (usually by writing it to disk) to avoid having to download it again should a new request for it come in. So you'd have to ask whether it was intentionally saved. Well, you get the idea. Just stop worrying about it would be my advice. The only thing you can stop and are justified in stopping your readers from doing is reusing your material elsewhere, passing it off as their own; what they do with it on their own computer is none of your business.

Anonymous said...

About users wanting everything for free: I can imagine the ravages among content producers (and it is affecting us software developers as well) but it is a bit churlish to blame users for it. What happened is that during the boom a lot of people with too much capital on their hands thought it smart to offer things for free as a way to gain market or mind share and, like the US guvmint when it invaded Iraq, did not pause to ask what would happen next. Well, what happened next is that although users had not asked for these freebies, naturally enough they did get used to them and are now loathe to go back. So, don't blame consumers: blame all the funny money sloshing around; it's the same money and the same people who next drove up housing prices 300% during the next (i.e,, present-day) bubble. Just apportioning blame where it's due...

Nick Baily said...

If I read another comment about how "music wants to be free" or similar I'm going to lose it.

My car stereo wants to be free. I'll just leave my window open in Brooklyn and see what happens. Oh look, it wants to be free. Let's find some more things to anthropomorphize.

Or maybe the more succinct way of saying it is that people don't want to pay for things. Somehow I feel like that explanation is more compelling. Great content should not be free, be it music, criticism, or anything else. Because the people who are capable of creating it deserve to eat just like the people that enjoy it.

IMHO of course.