Quality checks and better content: On the role and future of music journalism in India
Running a music publication or for that matter, any publication about culture without alternative sources of revenue is pretty much unfeasible in India.
This week, I was part of another panel discussion at a conference but instead of being a moderator, I was one of the panellists for a change. The topic I spoke about at the second edition of EARS on Mumbai, which covered the fields of film, music and performing arts, was the Future of Music Journalism.
Neither my co-panellists, which included delegates from the United Kingdom and Thailand, nor I were able to make any grand predictions, but we did have a lot to share about the current state of music journalism. It’s clearly a hot subject. British newspaper The Guardian ran a piece about it less than a month ago and suggested that contrary to popular belief, a number of music magazines, especially those specialising in niche genres, are fairing better than they were a decade ago.
The difference between the old days and now, according to the article, is that the excesses and indulgences of the music press are a thing of the past; today, most publications operate on a tight budget with only essential staff. In contrast, a little less than a year ago, this Medium post encapsulated everything that is wrong with the field these days, from writers toeing the lines of labels and PR companies for access to stars to the decline in the quality of interviewing skills.
In India, as I’ve written before, the music magazine is fast becoming extinct. At the same time, two industry-focused websites Loudest.in from Exchange4media.com and Musicplus.in from Tarsame Mittal, who runs TM Talent Management, were launched last year. Both, like the decade-old Radioandmusic.com, aspire to be India’s answer to US trade publication Billboard, both are part of larger businesses and both run conferences, Loudest.in organises Music Inc. while Mittal conducts All About Music (Disclaimer: I moderated panels at both events).
In other words, running a music publication or for that matter, any publication about culture without alternative sources of revenue is pretty much unfeasible. Yet I'd say music writing is thriving. I'd make a distinction though between music writing and music journalism because while I applaud the work that a handful of websites, bloggers and even social media handles are doing, I often wonder if any of them follow the best practices of fact-checking and multiple rounds of editing.
On the flip side, as pointed out at the Ears discussion, we are at a point when everybody has access to new music as soon as it’s released, and journalists are no longer its so-called gatekeepers. But even now, getting written about positively in a respected or reputed publication is a coveted stamp of approval. For instance, gracing the cover of Rolling Stone, even the digital edition, continues to be considered a career milestone for most Indian independent acts.
Nevertheless, these changing times warrant some introspection on the prime purpose of the music journalist. Is it, as it has always been, to separate the wheat from the chaff? In this age of information overload and algorithm-based playlists, are journalists who serve as curators needed more or less than ever before?
To me, at a most basic level, the responsibility of a music journalist is to track and chronicle emerging and exciting scenes and artists, something that is fortunately being fulfilled at least partially by a number of blogs and sites in India. On the other hand, the ability or even power of a music journalist to “break” an act seems to have greatly diminished. Astute venue managers and promoters can gauge the potential and popularity of an artist or band themselves, by tracking metrics such as social media followings and streaming numbers.
I think it’s also important to mention here that as a freelancer who works primarily with news magazines and websites that have culture sections, it’s increasingly hard to successfully pitch articles about new artists. My consistent complaint with upcoming musicians who cold email me about their releases is that most will write ‘Please check out my track/EP/album’ and little else.
For me or any journalist to click that link, they need to say what makes them different. Every once in a while when there is something fresh and unique, such as the stream of Indian independent hip-hop acts that have emerged over the last few years, even mainstream publications will get excited about it.
While I can’t play soothsayer, I do have some hopes for the future of music journalism in India. I’d like to see fewer gig previews and more gig reviews that help acts introspect and improve. I’d like to see fewer reproductions of press releases, and more articles that place news and information in the required context. I’d like to see less hype and more analysis. I know that this sounds like my wish list for pub gigs but they are essential if music journalism is to be taken more seriously in our country. And I’d like that perhaps even more than I want to watch a gig in relative silence.
Amit Gurbaxani is a Mumbai-based journalist who has been writing about music, specifically the country's independent scene, for nearly two decades. He tweets @TheGroovebox
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