Aaron Gilbreath, a contributing editor at Longreads, recently published a detailed analysis of the evolution of music journalism that includes some hints about its future.
His reporting includes a visit to an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, where he finds 14 music magazines still left, including Rolling Stone, Maximumrocknroll, The Fader, The Big Takeover, DownBeat and JazzTimes.
Many of the titles were geared for working musicians and professionals, such as Guitar World, Fretboard Journal, DRUM!, Sound on Sound, Future Music, American Songwriter and Tape Op.
In looking through back issues of CMJ New Music Monthly, Option, Spin, Under the Radar and DownBeat, Gilbreath also found plenty of examples of why music journalism and criticism have been deservedly derided as lightweight, boring or excessively fawning.
How many times have music publications used superlatives such as “iconic,” “genius” or “legendary” to hype one-hit wonders? Who hasn’t felt cheated after buying music based on an “expert” review?
When I was in high school in the 1980s, my friends and I spent some free time at the library poring over a dog-eared copy of the New Rolling Stone Record Guide. We wanted to see how informed opinion compared with our sprouting teenage tastes and argue about which band was the greatest of all time.
The guide’s editors generally revered folk singers like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, and singer-songwriters like Elvis Costello and Carole King. None of us owned any of those records, although I was familiar with folk music. My dad had every Bob Dylan album up to "Nashville Skyline."
Unfortunately, the guide’s editors committed the almost unpardonable sin of disparaging Led Zeppelin and AC/DC, two bands that many American 14-year-olds held in the highest esteem. And not to sound too defensive, but those bands proved to be far more influential on a later generation of rock musicians. Teen culture still holds sway.
Now, as a parent of two teenagers, I can see the diminished importance of pop music in their lives. They go to fewer concerts than my friends and I did.
I begged my parents for my own stereo with a cassette deck and turntable. My kids listen to music on tinny iPhone speakers, and follow singers like Ariana Grande, Katie Perry, Shawn Mendes and Dua Lipa on Instagram. They are aware of when their favorite artists have dropped a new album or mix tape, but most of that news comes from social media.
Perhaps my kids will one day discover sources of music criticism and journalism, but they’re more likely to be online.
“The print magazine might be dead, but music journalism is continually evolving, impacting listeners on various levels,” Gilbreath writes. “People will always hold music and stories close to their hearts, which makes storytelling eternally relevant, no matter the medium.”