‘It is being devalued’: Manchester festival reveals music journalism is ‘not well’

To celebrate something that is dying a graceless death in the minds of many may seem a strange thing.

And the strangeness of such a celebration is only intensified when local poetry group Bad Language label the subject a ‘hegemony of beige best-ofs’, a ‘caramelised gloop of sickly bullet-points’ and ‘internet puke’.

Attending literature and music festival Louder Than Words – which returned to Manchester over the weekend of November 13-15 – it was clear that the state and relevance of music journalism today was of paramount interest.

The overriding conclusion was that all is definitely not well.

Mention the topic of music journalism these days, as I often did at the event, and you’ll most likely provoke a lament for the increasingly populist and music-shy NME, a modern symbol for a once-influential industry forced to change beyond recognition.

Bad Language’s Fats Roland – in his typically hilarious and yet nigglingly poignant way – pinpointed, with just one comedic poem, the issue at large in much of the discussion at Louder Than Words; the impact of the democratisation of music journalism made possible with the internet.

How can anybody now hope to become established as a veritable source of music criticism – and to make a living out of it – when there is such an enormous amount of writing online for free?

Does this mass of free material, to which anybody can contribute, regardless of opinion or skill, nullify the role of the professional music writer?

Fats Roland made a very good point, saying that the internet has given rise to the list as an alternative to an article and the churning out of such pieces seemingly to fill space is frustrating.

The drive for speedy updates to fill the boundless space provided by the online platform means that there is sometimes very little quality control.

On the Saturday at Louder Than Words, a panel which comprised a selection of professional journalists and editors got together to scrutinise this issue.

Speaking of the impact of amateur internet music journalism on the professional aspect of the genre, journalist and author Richard Balls said: “It’s unquestionable, it is being devalued.

“The bottom line is not that it is just about critics being devalued, it is about writing being devalued.

“Writing is a skill and should be recognised as a skill just as other skills are.”

It was made clear that the financial impact of the internet on music journalism is at the root of the change in the service that music journalists provide.

With so many people willing to write about music as a hobby, and provide the content online for free, sales of music magazines have declined and with that so has the payment of music journalists.

Richard said: “Many of the magazines we see on the shelves I cannot see being around in ten years and I think that is a great shame.”

It was this demise of music writing as a tangible product that was spoken about with sadness.

Festival co-organiser Simon Morrison was one of a few people who mentioned ‘that feeling of pride in picking up something you have written’.

There was very little doubt in the fact that such a feeling was being discussed as something increasingly of the past – something young people with interest in music writing have diminishing hope of experiencing for themselves.

However, Louder Than Words was not a festival dedicated to moping and pining for the past.

What it did effectively was exhibit a different side to music writing, one that is in fact growing, and is doing so by going against the current trends of summarising and condensing into lists.

Many of the writers at the festival had recently released full-length books about music – in depth explorations into a particular subject that went way beyond the level of detail available in an article.

Specialist music publisher Omnibus Press publishes over 40 new titles a year, which is a remarkable achievement given the state of the publishing industry and the fact that other independent publishers publish far less than that annually without being limited by genre.

Asked if this was indicative of a change in consumer preferences in line with the growing demand for gatefold vinyl and music box sets, Mr Balls was uncertain in his response.

“It’s incredible what vinyl’s doing, it’s a real renaissance,” he said.

“It seems that this may last a long time.

“Whether it will be in time to save some of the print publications I don’t know. But once something’s gone it’s gone.” 

Although many questions about the future of music writing were left unanswered, Louder Than Words exhibited the passion that comes with professional music writing.

Those in attendance provided a level of personal expertise attained through a dedication to the form only possible if done as more than just a hobby.

The fear is that, as music writing becomes increasingly owned by everybody, it is this expertise that is being lost.

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