The never-ending slough both the people who deal with music directly (making it, releasing it, booking it) and those of us who cover it for a living have been dealing with is made even worse by the simple fact no one likes admitting: we’ve seen this coming. For years. And those of us who are starting to feel the pinch—not to mention my many peers and colleagues who’ve lost their jobs outright in recent months—are to some degree kicking ourselves for not, you know, getting out of the business earlier. I can speak only for myself when I say that I haven’t because I still like doing it better than anything else in the world, and that I’ve been lucky enough to keep going with it for a while, but I have no idea what’s around the corner, and neither does almost everyone else I know.
It’s hard to write about this kind of thing because you don’t want to sound like you’re complaining. As noted, I’ve been anticipating the situation to reach its current, bleak state eventually, and I count my fortunes every day. That’s not even counting the financial crisis, which even though I wouldn’t have been able to predict the particulars of, I wasn’t a bit surprised by. (Too many new or unfinished condos in my neighborhood for the bottom not to drop at some point, I figured.) The sense that a writer is on an adventure with readers has been diminishing for a long time. The work that is there, among people who review regularly, is either bite-sized or, when meat is required, pays lousy. The alt-weeklies contract, the dailies no longer replace the departed, magazines fold like envelopes, start-ups shed staff shortly before materializing. If this piece were in any other publication I’d expand on these, get specific, but chances are if you’re reading now—and if you’ve been reading this site regularly—you know exactly what I’m talking about, and chances are just as good you know because it directly impacted someone you know.
Music people are not special, and many of the cannier ones have been dealing with this kind of shit, and occasionally thriving, for years. One thing that makes music so much fun to keep your eye as well as your ear on is that you never know who will be the exception. It will never be an exact science, and while that makes it a bit unstable, that instability added to the excitement of being a fan. When everything’s unstable, though, keeping up can feel like a chore. The many layers of ears an act needs to get through—to get gigs, to get signed, to get reviewed, to get shelf space—isn’t perfect, but it’s been reliable. The fewer ears, the more morass-like it is likely to seem. It’s like the way newspapers that have lost staff accidentally print typos and TKs, and we lose out on the pleasures of seeing writing presented as a finished product rather than a work in progress.
I wonder what the loss of criticism as a lofty-ish perch will mean—I can’t imagine much good. I became a critic because I was inspired by other critics, the way a musician is inspired by what she hears. I’m not dystopian enough to fear that there will never be music criticism that is paid for and disseminated to an audience beyond a message board or a mailing list. We can’t all be aggregators all the time, you know? People are still drawn to those doing the legwork. And the cult of personality in blogging and journalism alike has been spiking for a while—particularly in music writing, with the use of youngish novelists to write music-magazine profiles, or occasionally, reviews.
But I worry about those of us in the middle: not just writers but record store clerks and label folks. I live in Seattle across the street from an excellent indie store, Sonic Boom; last year its presence shrank from three stores to two. The store has been having a harder time getting certain items, something I’ve noticed a few places; over Christmas in Minneapolis, I paid a visit to the Electric Fetus (one of my favorite stores anywhere) and the shelves were stocked but more thinly than usual, and a lot of stuff looked like it had been there a while. I asked about a title; they hadn’t ordered it because it was an import. I felt for the guy telling me; once upon a time, the CD I’d been looking for (the new double-disc Franco anthology on Stern’s) is precisely the kind the store would have had in stock from day one.
I don’t have much more of an overview to offer. I just hope the damage isn’t too great.