Tuesday 23rd, 2009. In Philadelphia, the British journalist, poet and comedy writer Steven Wells takes his final gasping breaths, presumably while also putting the finishing touches to the first ever last will and testament to be scripted entirely in block capitals.
In a stunning coincidence, at exactly the same time, NME editor Conor McNicholas is using his biro to scribble his name on the dotted line of a contract that sees him, Gareth Barry-style, jump ships from the NME, where he’s been editor for the best part of a decade, to Top Gear Magazine. Presumably a press conference where he beamingly holds up a t-shirt with James May’s face on and goes “All credit to the lads, the ABC figures here are exciting and I’m just looking to take that next step.”
M y guess is that these two factors alone will lead to a slow and unnecessary bleeding of columns throughout the broadsheet arts supplements in the next few weeks where various tools will ask something to the equivalent of “Whither the new hip young gunslingers?” Maybe a couple of photogenic bloggers will be called out for being a lot more influential than they legitimately are, someone will postulate that Hype Machine and last.fm have killed off the classic music journalist, and then someone will mention Twitter. The world will continue to turn.
To me, all this is only worth pondering because this very moment in time is easy the least exciting British music criticism has ever been. Not necessarily the “worst” (the summer of 2002, when Petridish was running more riot than Hulkamania and resultantly every piece of music writing was a 2,000 word long article about how either dance music was dead or that Mike Skinner was going to cure cancer via mumbling), but just… inessential.
Is it wrong to blame the NME? Maybe. It’s quite clear they’re not producing the talent to take the leap into the monthlies and the broadsheets, but that’s a bit like blaming the failings of the England national team solely on the shoulders of Nottingham Forest. When a behemoth from the 70s falls on hard times, of course its gonna produce less-impressive academy graduates who aren’t capable of going beyond 80 word capsule reviews. I mean, a brief skim of the reviews pages of the NME… tell me what’s notable or noteworthy about any of these byline names? Who precisely is “Alex Denney”? What’s a “Kelly Murray” when it’s at home? What differentiates “John Doran” from “Kat Lister” (and if the latter really has come up with a nom de plume by combining the names of two Red Dwarf characters, it may be worth asking Swells’ estate if he has some tumour left over we can use). “Nathanial Cramp” and “Phil Hebblethwaite”: these aren’t the names of journalists, they’re the names of walk-on characters from “Pickwick Papers”.
Don’t get me wrong here: the last thing we need right now is a return to the days of Daniel Booth, Dele Fadele and Steve Sutherland dropping opinions4u all over the gaff. But it’s worth considering calico here: Italian football has always been based around the concepts of the abatino and the mediano, the “trainee priest” and the “water carrier”.
Let me clarify further, the philosophical ramblings of pissed-up racist Gianni Brera aren’t usually used to explain failings in the British printed press. Gianni Brera, Italian football historian and arguably the game’s greatest ever writer, used to refer to his “anti-hero”, AC Milan’s creative midfielder Gianni Rivera, as “L’abatino”, or “the trainee priest”. In Brera’s mindset, this was a way of showing that Rivera was weak, more concerned with fancy flourishes and crowd pleasing than the actual art of winning matches. To place an abatino on your team, you need to balance him out with hella “mediani”, or water carriers, players who would pick up the donkey work they’d made while taking on the entire defence with roulettes and dummies. The king of the mediani was Inter’s Sandro Mazzola, the architect of catenaccio, who Brera argued should not only pick up Rivera’s slack, but in fact replace him in the national team.
To come back off a diversion here: any successful music publication, be it print or online, is dependent on getting the Rivera/Mazzola balance right. Swells was a Rivera. Most of the dead dudes that people regularly refer to as “great music writers” (Bangs, Tosches, Morely) are Riveras. In the current game, Byron Crawford is uber- Rivera. Riveras get their praises sung regularly, but a football team with a creative genius and absolutely no muscle legwork are basically Southampton circa 1996, and due for a relegation battle. You need writers in the engine room.
This is why Pitchfork wins, basically. There’s a misconception that the guys who made PFM are Nick Sylvester, Brent Di Crescenzo, and those who followed in their footsteps. The men who were gimmick writers, wrote gimmick reviews, mixed elitism with reviews that spent the first 400 words talking about some timbale they had the other day, and then used a drawing of Lou Barlow in Speedos instead of a rating score.
Wrong. It doesn’t work like that. Pitchfork may have made its name off of reviews, pretension, being indier-than-thou, but that’s not going to make sure Ryan S’s daughter gets her own episode of My Super Sweet 16. No, that’ll take the engine room, the news section. That’s what brings the hits in: regularly updated, permanently up-to-date, streaming, old fashioned news wire service. You click on Pitchfork’s news, something’s gonna be there, there’s always newsgathering going on, even if it is just the rewriting of press releases.
PFM’s Amy Phillips made a ten-minute kerfuffle back in 2007 when she stood up at a dinner after the Experience Music Project and told the 300 assembled music hacks that they needed to shape up or ship out: people wanted short writing fast nowadays.
What stunned me about this wasn’t the arrogance that upset everyone else (she’s at PFM, they’re getting paid, don’t hate the player hate the etc etc), but the fact that she needed to say it at all. Remember: she was addressing professional music critics here, not some guy who posts 1965 Records YouTubes to his tumble account, and yet she still needed to tell them that “get the story, get it fast, get it kinda right, print it” is the “step 2” before the “step 3: profit” that all journalism has operated on since at least the 1800s. There’s a reason that, say, Nah Right, which has nothing in the way of original thought, analysis, or any hint that the guys behind it aren’t automatons, makes a lot more money than fucking “Music For Robots” or “Fluxblog” or whatever other piece-of-shit MP3 blog people were shouting out as the future of music writing in 2003.
Think of Pitchfork as operating like a pizzeria: people go to pizzerias for the pizza, even though they’re sold at cost, the owner makes no money from them at all. What they make money from is the wine list, with the 300% mark-up. Fancy schmancy reviews are the pizza, old school journalistic grind is the writing.
This is where Conor comes in. People were too hard on him, talking about how he was killing the NME, how he was a failure, they saw the declining sales figures and went “This would never have happened when I was a teenager, bring back Silver Sun”. People thought he didn’t get it. In fact, he “got it” more than anyone else in music journalism right now.
The key quote comes from the widely-mocked press release Conor shoved out on ascending to his new role:
“Anyone who knows me knows that my twin passions are music and cars. To swap one dream job for another is a huge thrill.
“From Arctic Monkeys to Aston Martin, I’m looking forward to being at the heart of another iconic British multi-platform brand.”
“Iconic British multi-platform brand”. Not magazine. The NME ceased to be a magazine about five years ago. It doesn’t matter if the sales figures are down, as long as the brand is strong. It doesn’t matter if the sales figures are down, as long as Wella is coughing up sponsorship dollar to brand their awards. It doesn’t matter if sales figures are down, as long as its their news stories people are linking to at the top of message board threads when it comes to “look at what crazy antics Lily Allen/Beth Ditto/Amy Winehouse/Pete Doherty is up to this week”. And that’s not Rivera territory. Rivera isn’t gonna go out there and politick with haircare companies, he’s not gonna man your content management system desk, he’s not gonna scour each and every single press release that drops into your inbox that week on the off-chance that one of them will have a zingy line that can bullshit an entire news piece out of. That’s Sandro Mazzola territory.
We had one shot at changing this in the 2000s, at creating a new music journalistic venture in the UK. That was DrownedInSound.
Now, no shots fired here, I wrote for DiS, all their dudes were cordial as anything in their time with me, I got drunk on their dollar on a number of occasion. BUT…
DrownedInSound was a website that fluked its way into a position of online power because it brought in enough hits via its message board to be deemed important. This led to them being given a fresh mill out of Rupert Murdoch’s own profits to go and do its own thing, the equivalent of Alexander Lebedev handing his chequebook to a student newspaper.
What did they do with this money? Did they use it to shore up the engine room, get the news reporting system in order, make sure that albums were reviewed functionally as soon as they came out? Nope, they used the money to roll out every more retarded “web2.0” innovations so their editor-in-chief could pass himself off to gullible broadsheet commissioning editors as a “new media expert”. End result: less than nine months later the entire DiS staff was laid off and they had to downsize offices. If the rumour that Sean Adams kept his PA on whilst firing the mag’s editor two weeks before said dude’s marriage, then… well, new lows. But the point is the engine room was denied in favour of fancy-schmancy abatino measures, and the world fucked up.
Can we draw any conclusions from all this? To be honest, no. The quality of abatino has dipped (insert obligatory “fuck Laura Barton” quote here), but even if they were amazing we’d probably be in the same place. It’s just a desire to fuse the worst of old media (clinging onto hierarchies, suit and tie networks, reluctance to change) with the worst of new media (the fact that nobody is qualified or has the slightest fucking clue what they’re doing). Put it this way: Swells isn’t the only corpse collecting royalties cheques right now, there’s about 2,000 of them out there, they just haven’t realised they’re dead yet.
Tuesday June 23rd, 2009. In Philadelphia, the British journalist, poet and comedy writer Steven Wells takes his final gasping breaths, presumably while also putting the finishing touches to the first ever last will and testament to be scripted entirely in block capitals.
In a stunning coincidence, at exactly the same time, NME editor Conor McNicholas is using his biro to scribble his name on the dotted line of a contract that sees him, Gareth Barry-style, jump ships from the NME, where he’s been editor for the best part of a decade, to Top Gear Magazine. Presumably a press conference where he beamingly holds up a t-shirt with James May’s face on and goes “All credit to the lads, the ABC figures here are exciting and I’m just looking to take that next step” is forthcoming. Read more…