Heartbreak No. 6: Everyone In The Music Business Losing Their Freakin’ Jobs

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.

80 ’08 (and heartbreak)

  • Anonymous

    well said, and too true.

  • Anonymous

    I know exactly what you mean…I began writing about music as a teen back in the stone age after reading Dave Marsh, Lester Bangs, Rick Johnson and such and thinking that writing about music had to be just about the coolest gig in the world! Turns out that it’s just another hard dollar, but it still beats either warehouse or factory work (both of which I’ve done — Loma Plastic Products in Fort Worth Texas ’76 and the Breeko Block factory, Nashville in ’78).

    Luckily, I’ve almost always worked a “straight” job while writing about music, taking freelance and various staff positions through the years as part-time gigs behind long tenures in restaurant management, computer systems and such. Even now, with the economy melting down and people being laid off in droves, I’m thankful to be in an industry where sales are booming (for now) and a regular paycheck is still coming.

    Still, I wonder, like Michaelangelo, where music criticism is going in the future. Perhaps the music blog phenom with its instant “experts” will shake out as people drift into other areas of opinion, maybe the music biz itself will finally implode and music will largely return to the streets and clubs where it began. I’ve been doing this a damn long time, and even I don’t know what’s going on (and my predictions have been fairly accurate for decades up ’til now).

    One thing I know for sure…just as there are people who have no choice about playing music (they have to do it), there are those of us who will be around to write about it. I’m just not sure where we’ll be writing….

  • whittlz


  • Audif Jackson Winters III

    Great post. Even though you depressed the hell out of me.

  • TimGunn

    Oh man, the music crit industry, too? It’s everywhere.

  • Antiheroine

    While I’m only a casual music listener/music blog reader, I’m a rabid film fan, and I see the exact same thing going on with movies. Small independent video stores are going out of business, film critics are disappearing by the dozens, and every other day someone cries the death of indie film. It’s like we’re in the middle of a larger art crisis in our culture, and, frankly, it sucks. It makes me sad we don’t collectively value these things more.

    Meanwhile, the Creed reunion tour is ready to roll!

  • Anonymous


    for your consideration.

  • Anonymous

    @Antiheroine: Same with books, and book publishing. Oh, and newspapers and magazines, as everyone knows. The Internet is killing everybody. I’m not sure how much carnage it’s going to take.

  • Jess Harvell

    i haven’t been home much recently, but whenever i’m there, i’m too…sad to visit the record store i worked at back in ’04. the last time it had shrunk to about 1/4 the size. hell, by now it may be gone completely.

  • Anonymous

    Amoeba Records didn’t have that Franco compilation either. That one’s hard to come by!

  • staciaann

    I work at the Electric Fetus in Minneapolis. We just shrunk our record department by an entire row and moved the imports/accessories in. We’re making more money selling candles and lotion than music. It’s really sad. We are still getting a lot of special orders, which is great, but it is sad when we’re unable to fill a customer’s desire right then and there. Especially when it’s one we used to carry all the time.

    I guess one positive is that we’re starting to focus part of the biz on vinyl. Sales are way up there, and we’re trying to get in things that not every big box retailer will have (although Best Buy’s decision to carry vinyl at all still pisses me off).

    Thanks for coming to the Fetus when you’re in Minneapolis. We love you! Hoping for 40 more years…

  • Michaelangelo Matos

    @staciaann: Of course! BTW, I wonder if you or anyone else who works in retail who might want to pipe in could say anything about this: I’ve had trouble finding a couple things lately because one-stops aren’t carrying as much as they used to. Is this true? Any insight is welcome.