Who watches the Watchmen: An Electronic Music Journalism Review

One of the most commonly used analogies about music journalism is that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture." The origin of which is often attributed to US comedian, Martin Mull. Many argue that its appropriation is misguided. But if writing about music is like dancing about architecture, then how does this relate to Goethe’s famous dictum, that “architecture is frozen music,” as pointed out by music scholar, Simon Reynolds?

Yet, no matter which way you look at it, music journalism always gets the final say, and should your music be denounced in the press, it could lead to disastrous consequences. But who gave journalists such influence and why can’t these editorial adjudicators be judged themselves? DJB spoke to several leading journalists about the current state of electronic dance music journalism, to objectively analyse what  we read about music today.

Ballad of a Thin Man
Many within the wider field of music journalism will argue that the industry is in no healthy state. Not because of a dearth in quality or lack of talented writers; if anything the quality of journalism has never been higher. As we discuss further, the consequences of moving into an online society has changed the way in which we interact with content. As Jason Gross states in his 2013 journalism review, it is just “another industry in desperate, confusing times.”

"...Shareable content is not about
finding new things. Shareable
content is about reinforcing 
already held positions
that you have..."

Far be it for me to comment upon the quality of others. This article is more a remark regarding  the ubiquitous nature of online editorial and how our expectations have been manipulated by societal changes. What makes a good article great, are we dictated to by supposed ‘clickbait’ and why have we suddenly become obsessed with lists? If you carry on reading this, what happens at the end might just change your life forever….

Over the past two to three decades there have been many comings and goings within the industry. Print magazines such as iDJ and Muzik absconded, while other more established names such as SPIN and XLR8R moved online. Meanwhile Resident Advisor began to dominate the online space, through, as editor Ryan Keeling describes it, “a more considered” and “intelligent” approach to dance music culture. More recently the well-favored German publication DE:Bug announced that it will soon print it’s last ever issue due to financial reasons. Spinmedia, who own among others, XLR8R, Spin and Stereogum, reported last year that they were to lay off around 20% of their editorial staff.

With such publications dying off and the style of online content in a constant state of fluctuation, how it will reflect on the quality of what we are reading? Or, are music enthusiasts referring more to the micro-bloggers and social media outlets of influencers to help refine their search parameters for new sounds?

An article published last February on Vice’s music website Noisey by David Johnson-Igra, argued that current music journalism is being devalued through online advertising. “As print publications move toward blogging, online advertising is becoming the lifeline of music journalism,” he writes. “As a result, sites like Spin and Complex are increasingly more focused on content that will garner traffic.” He outlines that content is now more focused towards SEO (search engine optimization) results. Maura Johnston from the Village Voice, another outlet that went through a heady period of redundancies, concurred in a separate interview, where she stated; "Shareable content is not about finding new things. Shareable content is about reinforcing already held positions that you have."

Although Johnson-Igra’s points are entirely valid, he concludes that Vice’s approach to music journalism, will become its very saviour. Many will have noticed that Vice has launched several more specialized platforms, including Noisey and The Creator’s Project, in an aid to connect “advertisers to a huge market spread across multiple verticals,” a strategy Johnson-Igra argues, will only strengthen the agency’s approach to “retain its racy, informative, new age, and satirical content.”

Many would argue to the contrary. Vice’s content is notoriously controversial, inane and contentious. The magazine can also attest to having Rupert Murdoch as a shareholder. Wired magazine refer to it as a “hipster bible,” and accuse the publication of being “built on lies,” publishing fake interviews and lying about their investors. (Something you might expect from a company affiliated with Murdoch.) More recently for an essay published in The Baffler, Anne Elizabeth Moore stated that “Vice Media’s primary, if not exclusive, responsibility is to attract attention,” in reference to it’s conspicuous and dubiously motivated editorial.

Yesterday’s Papers
In terms of print magazines, no one comes more established than Mixmag. It is the world’s longest running print magazine dedicated to electronic dance music. Having initially launched in 1983 the magazine is still going strong with a global circulation of around 20,000 copies. It also claims, to have coined the terms, ‘trip-hop’ and ‘superclub’.

To help us understand Mixmag’s relevance and longevity we spoke to the magazine’s Deputy Editor, Duncan Dick. “Music journalism is like music,” he explains, “and people don't want to pay for music anymore.” The magazine, he tells me, has managed to survive for over three decades by adapting to the market, remoulding itself into one of “dance music’s leading brands,” with the magazine spearheading the now, multifaceted organisation. “Just running a magazine now isn't a profitable business but we've innovated over the last few years to the extent that we're one of the leading websites and our digital advertising is really strong, which helps fund the company and the magazine.”- Duncan Dick. Mixmag.

The magazine was originally part of EMAP publishing, which after a few dubious acquisitions in the late 90s, began to fall under hard times. At this point the magazine was sold to Development Hell, who Duncan describes as “dedicated magazine people.” Mixmag’s new lease of life allowed it to change editorial direction, taking on a more global and comprehensive outlook. “We're very flexible and we can respond to the market and are lucky we've got someone who has a lot of faith in us and in quality journalism. Our publisher actually reads the magazine cover to cover. Its more than just facts and figures to them.”

Having a strong publisher to support you as well as an innovative business strategy will keep you in the game, but how has this affected Mixmag’s editorial quality? Through these product differentiation strategies, Mixmag has freed itself up, allowing it to specialize on specific subject matters in the magazine. Each month, the magazine publishes a 10-page centre-spread feature on their cover artist, who in turn, mixes their giveaway-CD. “It's very exciting for me to work every month very closely with DJs,” Duncan explains. “They choose the subjects they want to write about, they maybe interview one of their heroes or talk about one of the strange passions they've got, which I think really keeps the magazine interesting and alive.”

"...If you have the cart leading the horse,
you're just becoming cynical and people
can sense that and then you
lose your longevity...”

For Duncan and his team, this focus on quality journalism is key to the magazine’s survival. With a lot of editorial now existing online there is an ease of succumbing to clickbait material, however, he believes that the move to an online platform has given his editors a greater degree of “media freedom.” All of this depends on ensuring that they work with the right brands in order to monetized their work; ensuring that there is a passion behind the stories and that there is no conflict between artistic and advertorial roles.

“You have to have the horse leading the cart,” he explains, “if you have the cart leading the horse then it becomes obvious and you're just becoming cynical and I think people can sense that and then you lose your longevity.”

Going Digital
One of the biggest catalysts behind the shift into online music editorial was Resident Advisor. Originally launched in 2001 as an Australian focused online magazine, the website is now considered by many to be the leading editorial hub for electronic dance music, with a reported two million users visiting the site per month. We spoke to the site’s current chief-editor Ryan Keeling about its role in today’s editorial climate.

"...We placed the hedonism in the
background, and foregrounded
the music on pure sonic terms...”

“What you’ve really got to do is look at the kind of music journalism landscape when RA started coming into prominence,” Ryan details. “We were doing things at a time when there weren’t things like that out there, with the podcasts being an example. Print was still the medium through which people were getting their information, but the balance was tipping to an ‘exclusive internet world.’”

During RA’s rise to prominence, many print mags disappeared from our shelves. Those that went online were forced to alter their editorial strategies, as the internet was going to change the way the user interacted with content forever.- RA 'Fastforward' with Seven Davis Jr.

“What you had, was a conversation that was being led by the UK dance press; the Mixmags, DJMags, Ministry mags, Jockey Sluts – up until the mid 2000s.  What RA offered was an alternative. A slightly more considered, and I’m hesitating to use the word intelligent; something a little more specific to the music than the club culture at large.”

Resident Advisor’s editorial pays attention to various facets within the musical community, and its critical voice has raised many an eyebrow within the music community.

“I think people quickly gravitated towards the tone of the site. There are a lot of people out there who felt about music in the way that we were representing on the site,” he states. “If the conversation around dance music was more immediate and conversational, RA ushered in a new way of thinking about this visceral and hedonistic music form of culture. We put a slightly different spin on it. We placed the hedonism in the background, and foregrounded the music on pure sonic terms.”

It goes without question that Resident Advisor has been behind some of the more poignant and cutting edge articles regarding dance music. If, as an avid reader of music journalism you would argue against that, then at least you can agree that the standard of writing is extremely high. From Luis-Manuel Garcia’s Alternative History of Sexuality in Club Culture, or accurate portrayal of gentrification’s impact on the Berlin’s clubbing culture in Showdown in Spreepark through to his explanation of GEMA’s role in club licensing, RA has managed to create an incisive and informative narrative, that has stirred online and physical discussion among its readers.

“We tend to tread carefully around the wider think pieces because we felt that, when the order has been a certain way for a time, you always look to differentiate yourself.”

As the online scene evolved, further barriers to entry disintegrated leading to increased online competition, where established and recognized leading purveyors of dance music were thrown up against brash upstarts and attention seekers. “We live in an Internet climate and an age where people do feel like they have to shout,” Ryan explains, “it’s something I’m very cognizant of myself, what we do at RA is underplay things.” Is it something that Vice can be accused of doing though? “I don’t necessarily think so,” Ryan answers. “There’s always going to be a variety of ways to approach this thing. What maybe a site like Vice has done in their music coverage is surveyed the scene and gone against the grain.”

"...You rarely get the sense that the
writer is drawing on experiences
of going to clubs or raves...”

Bring The Noise
In terms of figurehead voices for the journalistic scene, there are very few who come more respected than Simon Reynolds. “He is someone who in many ways, literally influenced an entire generation with some of the stuff he does and that he continues to do this day,” Ryan Keeling says during our conversation.

After publishing Energy Flash: a Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture – the definitive guide to dance music, Simon Reynolds established himself as one of the most decisive names in electronic music journalism.- Simon Reynolds

“The main thing I’ve noticed since the rise of internet-only magazines and blogging is that the ‘journalism’ element has largely dropped out. By which I mean that it is quite rare you come across a reported story. There’s loads of high-powered, intellectual, vividly written writing about dance records, but you rarely get the sense that the writer is drawing on experiences of going to clubs or raves,” Reynolds remarks, when asked about what he thinks of the current state of dance music journalism.

“You get a lot of pattern-recognition: writers competing to detect the emergence of a new subgenre. Or you get producers treated as auteurs, their work explicable in terms of intent and concept and technique. There’s surprising little sense that this is physical music, of which meaning and impact is determined by the dancefloor. It’s very cerebral, considering that it’s body music first and foremost. I suppose I would be considered one of the people who pioneered this kind of approach, along with figures like Philip Sherburne and Kodwo Eshun.”

And the cause of this? As with most things in the creative sector, it was spurned on by the Internet.

“Partly I think Internet writing as a whole tends to become informationalized and ‘meta.’ You see this in writing about politics, there’s a lot of opinions and conjecture, articles about the ‘optics’ of political events, but very little reporting in online political journalism. The online outlets can’t afford to do that kind of reporting, but they are parasitic on it to some extent. So basically they are analyzing data flows, opinion patterns. And music journalism of all kinds, not just dance music journalism, is going the same way, for economic reasons it is dispensing with a reported, out-in-the-world dimension. Indeed most of the writing is criticism rather than journalism.”

“...Journalism on the internet in general is getting distorted by the need to
get those clicks...”

The next paragraph will change your life completely….
In what ways then has the Internet changed music journalism? As Simon Reynolds puts it, there is more critique, with information becoming compartmentalized. There is no arguing that online editorial needs to monetized, as Duncan Dick alludes too in our conversation, but does this mean pandering to advertisers and increasing online click-rates through brash titles?

Resident Advisor has been scrupulously transparent about their commercial partners. The site has produced various documentary programmes alongside Bench, Puma and Sonos Studios as business partners.  “To enter into an agreement with a brand that was based on the viewing figures,” Keeling states, “I get that that stuff exists - but it’s not a way we’d be able to work.”

Simon Reynolds however has a sterner viewpoint. “Journalism on the internet in general is getting distorted by the need to get those clicks,” he states. “So you get all those syndromes, like endless takes on the same currently hot topic, wringing out every possible permutation and angle. You probably had that with print journalism to some extent, but it’s gotten worse with online media, because the results are so instantly measurable.”

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
So let’s accept the fact, that people aren’t paying for music related editorial nowadays, and that in some way or another, we’re reliant on it being financed by another corporate entity. Let’s also take account that the articles we read may in some way be driven by the desire to acquire online click rates. But there must be still some journalists out there we can turn to, to provide an objective viewpoint?

Along with Simon Reynolds, Ryan Keeling also lists Philip Sherburne and Joe Muggs as valued journalists. “I think that with the pace people consume music in the UK and, as such, UK music journalism - it can be dizzying at times and kind of nauseating,” he states. “The very best people at this job are those that are able to convince me to ask the question, ‘why should I care?’”

Duncan Dick also cites Joe Muggs as someone he admires, in addition to Thomas H Green as well as the current in-house writing staff at Mixmag. Reynolds pays reference to nineties writers Tony Marcus and Bethan Cole; “What they did was smart and analytical but there was a very strong sense of it based on being out in the clubs.”

“...It’s not like techno people to take
things too seriously...”

Taking it Too Seriously
When talking to Duncan Dick, I ask him what he thinks of the rise in satirical news sites which perpetuate fake news stories, narrating contemporary topics. Sites such as Wunderland and Equalizer have caused many a chuckle among casual readers, yet some stories, in particular the report in which Four Tet reputedly confirmed he was Burial, confused and perturbed thousands of internet users.

“I think they're brilliant,” Duncan replies, citing The Daily Mash as a site which is both intelligent, witty and relevant. However, he explains how Mixmag had to stop running fake April Fools Days stories as global audiences couldn’t tell whether the stories were true or not. “It’s not like techno people to take things too seriously,” he sarcastically joked towards the end of our call. Maybe he has a point though: can those in electronic music circles have a sense of humour?

It almost seemed  the answer to that was a clinical ‘no’ considering the online backlash that appeared in the wake of RA’s feature interview with Nina Kraviz (which was filmed while she was in the bath – had you not been aware.)

“I realize that ostentatiously looked like a move to somehow sensationalise the film, but if you look closely at what we do, there’s no need for us to resort to those tactics,” Ryan explains. “She made various suggestions and one of them was, ‘why don’t we shoot this in the bath?’”

“She spoke with the director for a long time and if you listen to the audio quality throughout the film, it all came from the bath [interview.] So we were in a situation where we knew it was going to ruffle some feathers, and it was going to look a certain way, but the fact remained that we’d captured the very best stuff in that one scene.”

Dancing About Architecture
The function of journalism will always be perpetuated by our changing needs. The Internet has provided a different medium for us to consume music, as well as adding a different platform to read about it. There will always be quality editorial, but as with most things in life, there will also be styles that don’t appeal to us. “The challenge is to keep moving the conversation,” Ryan concluded. And conversations, unlike architecture, will forever be moving. Whether that means it has to a certain narrative, like the one that Vice adheres to, is entirely down to the reader’s discretion.