A closer look at music writing in 2014

by Dillon Riley / Beacon Staff • October 15, 2014

The music landscape is in a near-constant state of flux, and at the heart of all this activity is music journalism. Though the field has retained most of its core DNA, it has seen its influence within the industry landscape change dramatically. Instead of waiting for musicians to make the news, publications have started seeking stories proactively. Today, artists are largely reliant on media organizations to succeed, not the other way around.

A prime example of this shift in power dynamics is in the the news cycles between the announcement of a record and its actual release. The newest trend to build further buzz around an album’s launch is called “pre-streaming,” a practice in which artists allow listeners access to the record up to a week before its release. These are generally exclusive to a certain music publication, and the largest publications are obviously more likely to draw the biggest news-making pre-streams.

While fewer artists are releasing songs as “singles,” more have begun publishing individual tracks from their upcoming records as previews well before they hit the proverbial shelf. These digital previews—often embedded exclusively within blog posts—then garner their own articles from major music publications. Because of all this preview work ahead of the record’s release, publications now often produce several different pieces of high-traffic work, helped along by social media shares from the band and its label and publicist. Often times, this multi-faceted approach to music coverage can help artists break out while increasing readership. 

New York City’s Greta Kline, a lo-fi pop artist who performs under the band name Frankie Cosmos, operates on the micro-indie label Double Double Whammy. Her record from earlier this year, Zentropy, was helped along from a pre-stream and subsequently favorable review on Pitchfork. The band has since seen itsrecord sell out of stock more than once, along with having its presence within the independent music community increase dramatically. 

Adapting to new technological developments is not the only way music journalism has been able to stay relevant. Music writing itself has managed to evolve alongside the massive industry changes that the internet brought forth. The internet has exponentially increased the public’s exposure to music and made it much more accessible, but out of that comes a key aspect in music journalism’s continued growth, the categorization of music.

For starters, with the power of search engines, it’s become far easier to track trends in genre, sound, and aesthetic within music scenes. In many cases, this has led to better-informed music criticism, as writers and readers now have ample opportunity to interact with the data. It’s also led to the expansion of genre-specific music reporting, a market that’s seen its stock increase with the advent of the internet. For every larger publication like Rolling Stone, Spin, and Pitchfork, there are multiple smaller magazines and blogs that focus on particular genres of music like metal, hip-hop, or indie rock. With these niche focuses, organizations say their reporting can provide more insight than the average full-scale media outlet.

Today’s ease of access to music and music journalism has, in equal parts, been a help and hindrance in distinguishing good and bad music writing. It would be easy enough to write off work posted on smaller outlets as lower-quality or underdeveloped in comparison to that of the bigger publications, but it’s not that simple. While Rolling Stone still remains the authority on classic rock staples, its opinion on less popular music movements is often called into question, and publications that lean toward the underground aren’t sought after for their opinions on pop hits. Thankfully, music consumers aren’t confined to one editorial voice, and the multitude of options provides space for expertise in virtually every musical style.

While this all appears to speak to the idea of music writing being reborn as an undirected field, free of corporate influence, that is not exactly the case. While smaller, niche operations can successfully participate within the cutting edge of music culture, they often lack the manpower, brand presence, and technological dexterity necessary to influence within the industry.

Without a large team, recognizable brand, or platform for specialized coverage like the pre-streaming devices used by NPR, Pitchfork, and Rolling Stone, smaller market publications are still operating on a massive disadvantage. Just as before, these smaller guys won’t likely sway the opinion of the casual music listeners or music writing readers, but the internet has ensured that niche work is well within the reach of those that are savvy enough to look elsewhere.