The music magazine death rattle


There have been a lot of different things written in a lot of different online publications about the slow, sad decline of print media, but this article by Jonah Weiner on Slate is one of the more insightful that we've read recently, and it focuses on music magazines in particular. Weiner has a good perspective on the topic--he was a senior editor at Blender until earlier this year--and in his article he gives three thought-provoking reasons why he believes music magazines are dying:

  1. There are fewer superstars, and the same musicians show up on every magazine cover.
  2. Music mags have less to offer music lovers, and music lovers need them less than ever anyway.
  3. Music magazines were an early version of social networking. But now there's this thing called "social networking" ...
Weiner sort of refutes his own argument in the first section--he starts out saying that superstars become oversaturated when they are featured on the cover of every single magazine, but then concedes that magazines could sell just as many copies by putting a larger variety of lesser-known indie star on their covers--but the second section is where it gets really interesting. Weiner says that the music critics' job has always been, in part, to tell people which albums are worth buying. And in this age of free, easily downloadable mp3s, the diminishing monetary value of a song is also diminishing the value of what critics might have to say about that song. Here's an excerpt:

The value of the music reviewer has always been split between consumer service (should people plunk down cash for this CD?) and art criticism (what's the CD about?), but of late the balance has shifted from the former toward the latter--answering the question of whether to buy an album isn't much use when, for a lot of listeners, the music is effectively free. It's a valid point that the professional critic still wields an aura of authority rare in the cacophonous world of online music, but between taste-making blogs and ever-smarter music-recommendation algorithms like Apple Genius and Pandora, the critic's importance is being whittled down.

All of which makes me wonder: Do people still rely on critics for tips on new music? Sure, there are millions of songs at a listener's fingertips at any given moment, but we still need to have people throwing down guideposts in all of this uncharted territory. Maybe those tour guides will crop up more and more in the form of music bloggers, message board users, and a listener's own personalized group of opiners (Twitter users, Facebook friends, etc). And while that's bad news for professional music critics, it seems to work out fine for listeners, at least in terms of short bursts of information and tips on new music.

But Weiner ends his article on a high note for us music writers, saying that while the internet may fill part of the void left my defunct print music magazines, we are still lacking in long-form, well-researched music essays and feature stories. "In the absence of the great feature writing that music magazines do underwrite," he says, "(and unless Web writing, video interviews, artists' blogs, and other new forms fill the void), we'll be hearing only part of the song."