Music criticism
in a mercenary world

By Beppe Colli
June 16, 2006

It was about one month ago that I received the news of another music magazine going belly-up: this time it was US monthly Circus. I really don't know whether this name will sound familiar to my readers (of whatever nationality). For this writer the name Circus is above all synonymous with a time when - with the exception of those three or four more "European-like" Italian cities - finding a newspaper or magazine written in English language at the newsstand was a very uncommon event. Though my knowledge of the language was at the time more an hypothesis than an asset, I immediately bought that mysterious object whose cover announced an interview with Jim Morrison, who at the time was about to go to court (the stars of the issue being Grand Funk Railroad). A lot of time passed (years!) before another issue of Circus arrived: this time the main attraction were The Jefferson Airplane, who had just released the album Long John Silver. (Wish I still had those mags... The Jim Morrison interview is still in my archives. On the back of the last page of the interview there is a Janis Joplin obituary written by a name that would became familiar to me in just a few years: Patti Smith.)

Just by coincidence, a complete profile of Circus magazine had appeared one month earlier on The highly reliable Steven Ward had explored the world of Circus, interviewing quite a few writers who for the most part had done their best work elsewhere but who had spent their formative years at the magazine. So it was thanks to the Ward article that I learned that - alongside Rolling Stone magazine - Circus was the oldest US music magazine still in operation: established in 1966 as Hullabaloo, it had gotten its definitive name in 1968. Maybe the magazine was not really prestigious (hence the scarce amount of attention paid by the media to its demise?), but if I have to judge from its late 70s covers it doesn't appear as that much different from the post Lester Bangs Creem. While in the 80s there were quite a few covers on "hair metal".

On the other side of the pond, United Kingdom mourns the death of Smash Hits, 28. A from-the-inside portrait of the "glorious weekly" (five pages, lotsa pictures) can be found in the April issue of the UK monthly The Word: the piece is by Mark Ellen, who for a time was Smash Hits' editor. By sheer coincidence, the cover story is about Pet Shop Boys (as it's widely known, Neil Tennant was a writer at Smash Hits). It goes without saying that when it's time to mourn the disappearance of something "national" United Kingdom is second to none; so, to quote Mark Ellen, "The story of the death of the title tore right across the media, partly because the media is now run by the generation that grew up with it. David and I - and many others - were bombarded with invitations from newspapers, radio and television to contribute to a national day of mourning, acres of nostalgia compiled by people who could still quote great chunks of its hyperventilating prose and recite photo captions from 1985. It even made the six o'clock news.". It goes without saying that the fact of having lived those times will colour one's perception. But - while perfectly aware of this - Mark Ellen's article offers a different perspective.

It's funny to notice that a lot of UK music papers that have ceased operations in the last few years - Sounds, Melody Maker, Smash Hits - were all weeklies. Funny how all the UK music papers that today appear to be in the black are monthlies (this in a country that - in so differently from the USA - had appeared to be not interested in the least in the very idea of a monthly): Q, Mojo, Uncut, The Word. The first being the oldest (twenty years old?), the second being maybe its "evolution" (about fifteen years old), the third being the real surprise story, while the last is the most recent of all (a bit more than three years old). It's obviously possible to trace a parallel between the predominance of "visual music" and the developing of conditions that are favourable to the life of a music monthly "for adults". We could also mention the fact that offering a "free CD" appears to have become an "indispensable feature" of any music magazine (for a long time Mojo considered offering a "free CD" like something that was to be done only on an occasional basis, while The Word, whose editor at the time was Paul Du Noyer, had presented the absence of the "free CD" as a distinguishing feature of the new mag). We could also speculate about how a monthly can nowadays act as a "(relatively) solid moment" in the increasingly accelerated flow of facts that the Web can make it possible for us to see as an endless line of dots.

To say that the relationship between the press and "rock" music (here an intuitive notion will have to do) has changed a lot in the last forty years is to affirm something that's for the most part self-evident. If rock is today one of the (co)defining traits of western culture, it's only logical that newspapers and general interest magazines will pay it a lot of attention. It's also quite common to see the names of music critics who used to write for the "specialized press" writing more and more for the "normal" press, for obvious reasons of job security and retribution. But this is a situation that appears to be undergoing a dramatic change, as I'll try to sketch below.

(Short interlude # 1. Poor Billy Preston is no more. Newspapers and agencies all write: "The only keyboard player to have played with both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones". Given the times, it's unfair to expect more, even if I still dream of a future when news about style and peculiarities will be a feature in a musician's obituary". Sure, something like "the only keyboard player to have played with both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones" is too good not to be mentioned, plus it saves the writer the effort of having to think about something to say. But is it true? Let's see whether we remember the name of another great keyboard player, Nicky Hopkins. He played a lot with The Stones, right? Now, who plays the electric piano on The Beatles' Revolution? Which is not just one of their tracks, but one of the most famous - and discussed! - songs written by Lennon, and the B side of the megaseller single Hey Jude.

Here we'll have to assume the eternal dispute about whether "rock" is really "other" from the rest (in the many meanings we can give to both "rock" and "other") for granted. (A very interesting approach to the notion of "cult musician", and the relationship that passes between a "cult musician" and the "mainstream", is the one argued by Greil Marcus in his famous essay on Randy Newman that appears in his book Mystery Train.) Today the problem is made more complex (but, in a way, also simpler) by the circumstance that "rock" - always potentially "inclusive", on its own terms - is today "potentially inclusive" on a world scale. This entails that while the famous musicians of yesterday did a lot of interviews (and, given the chance, also appeared on TV), their modern counterparts do only what gives them the maximum exposure. (I'm sure that the difference between "I'm gonna call Keith tomorrow" and today's interviews, where questions have to be written out beforehand and submitted for approval to the artist's manager, record company and what have you, the final text being checked for revision by the aforementioned entities, it's not too hard to understand.) So we have to say goodbye to those different "types" of interviews (when interviews were different both in topics and degree of complexity). We have also to say goodbye to the possibility of carrying the "Musician approach" to today, i.e. having people like Thom Yorke or John Frusciante on the cover, and inside the magazine artists such as The Ganelin Trio or R. Stevie Moore. (An interesting read is the interview with Matt Resnicoff by Steven Ward titled A Musician's Musician - Interview With a Former Music Critic, which can be found on

Whether or not we accept the notion of "rock" being "different from the rest", the notion of it being "different" has always been a necessary part of its identity; hence, those heated arguments when famous rock songs were being sold to be used in commercials - an argument that would make no sense outside that very framework. But it's a very different notion of being "different" that's practiced by today's hiphop (where it begins, and where "pop" begins, it's a matter that's obviously open to interpretation). As antecedents, we could mention the immaculate "stage uniforms" of famous vocal groups from the 60s such as The Temptations and The Four Tops, or the elegant dresses of The Supremes (we should also recall Sly & The Family Stone, and the change in the notion of "sartorial elegance" that they provoked). Absolutely not to be forgotten is the "extra-long" fur coat worn by a radiant Wilson Pickett in his prime. But the one that's in front of our very eyes is not a change of scale: it's everything that can be bought and sold that becomes now an integral part of someone's identity, from wines and liquors to shoes and all that can be worn, from jewels to watches, from motorbikes to cars (also vibrators: "right now I don't have a beau, so X and Y keep me good company, and Y is so practical that I always keep it in my purse").

(Short interlude # 2. Here's a little quiz, obviously reserved to those who are familiar with the album in question: What's the name of the song that's quoted at the start of the piano solo by Greg Phillinganes - starting from 1' 50" - on the cover of Ruby Baby that appears on the album The Nightfly by Donald Fagen? There are no prizes to be won, it's just for the sheer hell of it.)

Now is the time to talk about a topic that's so tacky that it gets to be mentioned quite rarely, but I really have to: money. Let's take the amount of money that one gets - under the table - to do one hour of absolutely unskilled work such as cleaning floors in the geographical area where I live: six euros, which more or less amounts to US $7. Assuming the average time required to do justice to a CD to be five hours (three listening sessions, plus two hours to write the review) we arrive at the minimum amount of money as proper compensation: 30 euros, i.e. about US $35.

Now, what's the amount of money one gets to write a review for an "established" magazine (a notion that I'm aware can change quite radically) in the real world? A few years ago the then-new US magazine Blender was said to pay US $100 per review (theirs are for the most part quite short, but their reviewers are often quite well-known). On the other hand, some sources that declare of having seen the spreadsheets that appeared by mistake on the website of Pitchfork magazine - said to be the one and only Web-only magazine whose revenues can be said to be "remarkable" - talk of a compensation of US $20 per review. (It has to be said that Pitchfork has defined those figures as old, and so not current anymore.) It's a widely known fact, however, that most CD reviews are written for free, with the sole possession of the reviewed CD as their compensation (hence the joke about the fact that as soon as reviewers will start receiving files instead of (re)sellable goods, the castle will come tumbling down). There are many different situations, and one doesn't have to necessarily assume that it's the largest corporations that pay the best! On the contrary, it appears that, in some cases, music or movie reviews are to be written as a "side job" that the company demands, with little or no compensation.

This could appear to be quite bizarre: whereas once, given the scarcity of available sources, attention was a given, today the single feature that should make all the difference for our choices should be quality. (A good example being Seeing and Nothingness, the excellent article by J. Hoberman about The Vision That Changed Cinema, the homage to Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, which appeared in The Village Voice, June 6th, 2006.) But reality is a different matter.

Whole libraries have been written about the various kinds of relationships that can link a work of art, critics and audience (at the stage where literacy is limited) and the cultural industry, a work of art, the critics and the audience (at a stage where literacy is quite common). The prevailing impression today is that the prevailing dynamics have been subjected to a process of acceleration. Which is quite apparent in cinema, where the number of movies that are distributed without being first shown to critics gets larger every year. (Here we have to take for granted the awareness that dozens of articles about big budget movies start appearing as soon as the ink on the contracts is dry.) And more and more we see workers used in a "factotum" position, contributing to more than one paper of the same conglomerate, in various guises. But if from a giant conglomerate we cannot reasonably expect nothing more than pure commercialism, we can still count on the tiny, independent magazines, right?

Well, it depends. It's a complex matter. As already written above, the almost complete disappearance of the "intelligent interview with a famous name" has forced the tiny magazines into the difficult position of having to practice a perennial trendism, where it's only those names that are (at that moment!) not famous yet that can be featured in their pages. On paper, we have the obvious alternative: quality journalism, rich with high quality criticism. Here it's usually said that the real problem is the low intelligence of the average reader. But the first problem is really the money: who could reasonably keep a high level of quality in their writings if all their work has to be done in their "spare time"? It goes without saying that there are still many more obstacles, the first being the notorious rapacity on the part of tiny labels, tiny advertisers and tiny distributors who when compared to the size of the tiny magazines do not appear to be so tiny anymore. (Let's recall for a moment that old, sad blues song which goes: "the phone lines may be busy/but when that o'devil calls/the phone always rings".) Quite often the tiny magazine tries to divert one's attention by pointing out the fact that big mags are involved in big crimes - here I remember (from memory) Charles M. Young, who about twenty years ago said something like "as if selling out for less could be considered to be more ethical" (if I remember correctly, the topic at the time being a beer sponsorship for US group Long Riders). What seems to be expected is that the fact of the advertisers running away from the tiny circulation magazines will show a picture of horrible agony.

A good example of how easily things can go horribly wrong even in the presence of favourable conditions is the way the press has dealt with Scott Walker's recently released new CD, The Drift. First, I'd really like to know why no critical retrospective on this "great recluse" has appeared in the eleven years that have elapsed since the release of his previous album, Tilt, and why the present rediscovery coincides with the release of his new album (this question may sound quite strange, so demonstrating that we have really introjected the mercenary way of thinking). The trend to dissolve the music inside the "character" is widely known, so the fact that the published profiles have for the most part chosen to deal with the "bizarre" side of things was to be expected. A quick look at the reviews that appear at Metacritic confirmed my worst fears: a lot of writers mention the by now famous "pork" used as a percussion instrument, but we don't get to know what other instruments are used on the album (except for a generic "strings"). The fact that quite a few reviews resemble each other a lot is also quite worrying.

There's a nice, tiny interview with Scott Walker by Graham Reid that appeared last month on Rock's Backpages. Some good points are made, which ideally I would have liked to see discussed at greater length. Talking about his attitude towards demos, Walker says: "No. I've never made a demo. If you think about it, you couldn't make a demo of my last two records. How would you start?" Well, here we have half an interview. The other half could use this sentence by Reid as its starting point: "In popular culture it is very much "we want and we want it now" whereas in art music people will take the time because they expect that they would have to take time".

I don't spend my days surfing the Web, so I don't really know how representative of the general state of things is the trend I've seen on the part of a few musicians, i.e. their having a page on MySpace (there could easily be more places like this, of which I know nothing about). At first, this appeared to me as being quite paradoxical: I think that nowadays it's possible for practically any artist to find a friendly kind of mag in the infinity of the Web. The "direct line to the fans" is OK, not sure whether those fans - being... well, fans - are really the right people when it comes to challenging an artist's certitudes. But opening a page on MySpace sounds a lot better than following the example of some Italian musicians who with each passing day behave more and more like those windshield cleaners who fry one's nerves while one is waiting for the light to change.

© Beppe Colli 2006 | June 16, 2006