Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Sick Marionette: How Corruption In The Music Media Has Destroyed Our Appreciation Of Music

It's pretty apparent to most people with even a vague understanding of the music media in this country that it is all run by commercial interest, using an iron fist of advertising money to enforce a policy of silence when it comes to real criticism.

Having worked in almost every facet of the music media, I couldn't tell you how many times my articles have been edited and rejigged to cast a more favourable light on a band because their label is threatening to pull ad spend. I also couldn't tell you how often I have written glowing articles of rubbish bands purely because in this industry it's hard to get ahead and have a well formed sense of ethics. Principles and poverty pretty much go hand in hand.

Again this is probably unsurprising to you. It's plainly obvious that most of the content in Drum Media or on FasterLouder is heavily motivated by keeping the labels, venues or promoter's happy. The Brag pretty much won't give you a second glance as a band unless you can afford to buy ads, and sites like Music Feeds or Throwshapes can only exist due to patronage from places like World Bar in exchange for blindly positive editorial.

From a business perspective this makes lots of sense. How can a publication or website afford to bite the hand that feeds? I agree. From my experience in the industry I know the editors of these sites would much rather work with creative and critical freedom to cover what they want how they wanted, but the commercial concerns get in the way of the journalism. the reason for this is the massive conflict of interest inherent in a music publication getting most of it's revenue from record labels or promotions companies and venues buying ads. I mean you don't see the liberal party sponsoring The Australian do you? At least not openly.

It gets worse though. When it comes to the really big acts, the one's where there is a lot at stake in getting the media coverage on message and in line, the record labels will actually conduct interviews themselves, paying an in-house writer over 10 times what the publication would pay a writer to write a glowing article that is then printed verbatim.

This is the music media equivalent of Fox News.

If any outlet raises an eyebrow at this the touring company or record label will then pull thousands of dollars of advertising, leaving the publication crippled and infirm. In my time in the industry I have seen Sony pull almost 200,000 dollars of ads, just because a certain publication didn't include some of their artists in an end of year best off list. They didn't even say anything negative, they just didn't bend over the barrel fast enough.

The real question is, why does the music media let it happen. Surely with the amount of readers these publications and sites reach they could find advertisers such as alcohol companies and clothing brands who would present no conflict of interest, whose ample pockets could keep them afloat while affording them the freedom to actually say something? The problem is that with this lack of opinion, this lack of principles, most people have lost interest in such media, and now their livelihood depends on suckling at the industry's diseased teet because it's the only industry out of touch enough with the public to patronise them.

With strength of principles comes faith and loyalty from readers, and no where does this now exist other than sites like Polaroids Of Androids, which are free from any advertising, existing purely out love for music. It seems that to make a living by offering honest and incise criticism of music is impossible today. I hope I'm wrong. I hope that one day this blog can somehow turn a profit, that my ramblings and ranting strikes enough of a chord to earn some remuneration, but I sincerely doubt it. For every blog out there, like this one, Polaroids of Androids, or The Au Review, for every blog that attempts to deal with music on as honest and critical a level as is possible (a goal I often fail to reach), there are hundreds of others trading in fashion and trends. With the death of the music media we have seen the birth of an even more menacing creature; fan critics. Uneducated and fashion obsessed teens with nothing better to do than rant on about how amazing Animal Collective's new b-side is or to discuss how cool Tame Impala's clothes are. Regardless of how sad this is though, it is somewhat fitting as it truly reflects the way most people appreciate music today.

It's very difficult these days to find a review that actually engages with the craft of the music, instead they all trade in hamfisted and whimsical description, myself included more often than not.

Where with literary and film criticism, critics understand the craft of the art-form, considering factors such as structure, plot, and character development to piece together a verdict on how well a film or book has achieved it's goals, its seems that in music we have all forgotten how to speak the language and are only left with nondescript hand signals and grunts to make ourselves understood. Even if a reviewer can discuss the music intelligently, the readers usually lack the education to understand the commentary.

Classical music and jazz aside, as well as certain exemplars such as Radiohead or The Drones amongst others, so much of today's music ignores the artistry of music, preferring to trade on an image of being artistic. The music media's bowing to commercial interest has played a big part in this, their lack of critical rigour resulting in a generation lacking the tools to appreciate the art of music, and that's exactly what the industry wanted. They wanted to destroy people's ability to objectively judge music as good or bad, hence giving them the power to tell the public what is good through their puppets the music media, and it's the journalists who let this happen.

When studying journalism you learn about Edmund Burke's description of the news media acting as a Fourth Estate of Government, meant to act as an impartial body holding the government accountable for it's actions. This is a view that is unpopular and uncommon today even in the news media, and one that never really took hold in the music media, but it is an idea that we would do well to take up, lest we allow the commercial interests of a few companies smother the most human and evocative of human art-forms, turning it's corpse into a sick marionette that dances awkwardly to entertain the masses as the world crumbles around us.


  1. A comment. In two movements.

    I’m not quite sure which windmills you’re tilting at here, Don Juan. Are you suggesting that music conglomerates aren’t the altruistic pedlars of pretty tunes that we’ve been lead to believe they are? Are you excavating a previously undocumented symbiosis between mainstream music journalism and the forces of darkness? Are you criticising your common or garden record consumer for their inability to understand that the article they’ve finished is a ridiculous puff-piece, and that the Katy Perry song they’ve downloaded is a slice of marketing’s cynical triumph over content, not the three minutes of shiny pop as promised on the wrapper?

    I mean, the points you raise are valid – to a degree, although there’s a naivety at play to imply that any commercial entity (whether media or aggregator) exists for anything other than to buttress their bottom line. To attack Sony for pulling magazine ad space is akin to criticising the tiger that loiters at the edge of the village, poised to drag yet another unaccompanied child into the bush. It’s intrinsically a part of their nature, it’s what they do, and there’s nothing to be gained from complaint (unless you’re suggesting a cull of record executives – and I may join you in that, although we’ll be irrevocably damaging the turnover of more than a few coke dealers).

    Multi-national behemoths own record labels to milk revenue streams – they’re hardly likely to let a couple of idealistic hacks high on objective criticism undermine their marketing spend (in the name of integrity, or anything else for that matter). Multi-national behemoths own music magazines, radio stations, TV stations for exactly the same reason – and most consumers couldn’t care less. It’s cosy, it’s too cute, but your average consumer wants to listen to Katy Perry product on their iPod whilst they read a glossy, gushing article about Katy Perry, then click onto YouTube to watch that clip of Katy Perry jiggling gratuitously on America’s Gratuitously Jiggling Celebrities; they’re too dumb to work out that they’re being told what to ingest, and even if they could handle the calculations I doubt they’d care

  2. Still, I don’t get it when you widen your argument to include the (mostly web-based) media that doesn’t take the corporate shilling, as if facile, semi-literate blogging is in any way representative (hint: if you’re not digging what teenagers vomit upon the internet, it’s probably because you’re not their target demographic). There’s clearly a market for credible music journalism/criticism without the toxic, incestuous taint that you speak of. However, you’re being disingenuous in thinking that the discernable reader doesn’t already hunt it down. It’s the same modus operandi that sees the discernable listener track down those slices of vinyl that the mainstream views as unprofitable, unmarketable or simply abhorrent. Sure, it takes time and effort, but both exist, loitering in the shadows, beyond marketing diktat and unsullied by the complicity of the lowest common denominator.

    I like your article. You should expand on it. Maybe re-record it above a phat beat, add a middle eight featuring a mumbled paean by Snoop Dog before piping it directly it into the cranium of every idealistic journalism student you encounter. But maybe leave out the stuff about not getting paid for what you really want to write about; it undermines your entire argument. You’ve seen at first-hand how cynical and morally bankrupt writing for dollars is. You’ve seen at first-hand how the music industry is populated by atavistic fiends who wouldn’t be out of place in the aquarium, around the time that the rest of the sharks are fed. Appealing to journalism’s better instincts only makes you sound bitter. Trust me, you’re preaching to the converted here. To get to the unconverted you’ve got to go native; the best writers subvert from the inside (…or become revolutionary Marxists … or throw their typewriters in the canal and start mainlining pool cleaner).

    Incidentally, I’d like it known that I have received no financial recompense whatsoever for this response, but my latest single, “I asked for a Howitzer but they gave me a Pulitzer” (featuring Katy Perry), is available from all good retailers.

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  4. I think because of the power the industry has to model culture a call for ethics and some kind of standard is a fair request. I realize there is a sense of self-righteous smugness that washes over me when I see a populist music fan make a some horrible fashion choices, based on a popular music video, that ultimatley snowball into booting heroin directly into her eyelids and ending up on Oprah; that duly validate my, superior, consumer choices in minor key feedback dirges by sunglass wearing self-destructive caricatures; but I dunno, a higher standard of journalism would mean a higher standard of wankers lined up to cater to their tastes and would mean that maybe us smug, music nerds whinging on the sidelines would have people doing better things to entertain us than leather jackets and eighties nostalgia modeling failure as the best alternative to success in a clownish venal vacuous industry; and John Tesh could finally shine as the genius he is.

    But what do I know I like the Waltons.