Paper Covers Rock No More

By Rob Patterson

It’s a strange feeling to watch one’s original avocation die, but that’s just what I see happening with music journalism as I’ve known and practiced it. As a teenager and then college kid obsessed with popular music, nothing seemed cooler than being a “rock critic,” as it was called. And by sheer luck I stumbled into the game, which led me into a range of other writing and dabbling in the business of music that has granted me quite an interesting life indeed.

But now, after three decades plus in the game, I seriously wonder if it’s all over, at the very least as I once knew it. And the cause of this change, like many others in our culture and society, is the Internet, at least for the most part.

People will continue to write and opine on music, but it doesn’t appear to me like it will be the same as what I got into in 1976 after years of reading such classic rock magazines as Rolling Stone, Creem and Crawdaddy. The death knell I believe I hear was amplified by the recent news that two of today’s more notable music publications, No Depression and Harp, are ceasing publication. (Disclosure: I have written at times for both.)

To its credit, No Depression attempted to ride the Americana music movement to a place where a serious publication supporting quality roots-based music could thrive, but found declining ad revenues and rising postal and printing costs a daunting obstacle to continuing to publish. I certainly had my differences with the way that it almost never ran critical reviews and had a tendency to mainly publish feature articles that read like linear artist publicity bios. Yet its devotion to a stylistic niche was admirable indeed and it’s a voice that shall be missed.

Harp also rested on a not dissimilar if broader base of quality music rooted in the best traditions, but also did its best to keep abreast of new sounds. And both magazines strived to publish quality writing that took music seriously. But today, even Rolling Stone, the granddaddy of rock journalism, is way too slavish to trends, stardom and the pop culture zeitgeist, though I must add that its political coverage and investigative journalism is as pointed as it has ever been, remaining critical and oppositional in way its music coverage once was.

The fact that writing about popular music seemed cool—I’d now argue the point even if it remains a fun pursuit—is probably part of what has killed it. The genre was really only born in the 1960s and even when I entered it in 1976 was hardly a normal career choice. It was something one ended up doing out of an unslakable love and passion for music.

I won’t doubt that the emerging music coverage today exemplified by the proliferation of music blogs on the Internet is driven by a parallel passion for music of some sort, but the kind of writing that emerged from rock magazines and what is found today online are different. Yes, music critics from the first and then my second generation of rock journalists were driven by an enthusiasm for discovering new artists and passing the word on to fellow music enthusiasts, something blogs have perfected to a very powerful new system.

My roommate is a music blogger and his zeal for music reminds me of my younger self. But what I find missing all too often in the music blogosphere and in many of today’s music magazines is a certain keen critical eye applied to the music that was a hallmark of rock journalism in its early decades.

Yes, there is a democratic aspect to music blogging one can’t help but admire, much of it being fan driven. But I also detect a near-obsession with championing the new and undiscovered that sometimes overrides critical thinking. To me it seems like the “coolness” factor in writing about music has shifted from finding the best music cool to being the first or earliest onto something new makes you cool. And the quest to be cool has overtaken the search for the best and coolest music.

A whole other column, if not lengthy treatise, could be written on arts criticism, especially about whether or not it’s elitism in action. I believe that there’s still a need for informed experts in all the arts to apply critical assessments to works of art and tell us whether it’s s**t or Shinola or something in between. And more and more in the new venues for music writing and in what I read of younger music writers, it seems that merely new is good enough, and references to what may have come before serve to merely describe and classify the music rather than say whether it measures up to the art form at its best. And then if an act does get popular, they can no longer be as good as they once were.

Times change, music changes, technology is changing us, and I don’t care to sound like a grumpy old fart who complains that things aren’t as good as they once were, even when I do. But I still love music enough to want to also hold its artists’ feet to the fire and expect them to give us their best and say so when they do or don’t. And I hope that coming generations of music scribes will somehow do the same.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2008

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