Why Lists and “Exclusive” Content are Killing Music Journalism

jack-whiteOn Wednesday night (9-17) at Fenway Park in Boston, independent music god and vinyl barron Jack White went on a tirade against Rolling Stone magazine. It wasn’t the first time the pale-faced White Striper has twisted off on the periodical. After Rolling Stone ran a cover story about him in mid June where they allegedly overblew his hatred for rock duo The Black Keys, Jack called called the magazine a “tabloid” from the Bonnaroo Festival stage during his headlining set. This certainly isn’t the first time Rolling Stone has been criticized for making a mountain out of a mole hill by a music artist. In 2009, Toby Keith went on a rant after they posted a supposedly fictitious story by actor Ethan Hawke saying that Toby Keith had chewed out Kris Kristofferson.

Jack White’s Fenway tirade took on an exceptional length and vehemence though. After taking jabs at The Foo Fighters and others for what seemed to be an argument for authenticity, Jack White said it was, “…something for rollingstone.com for tomorrow… make sure they get at least a million mouse clicks!” Jack then starting listing off lists that he characterized as ones people may see on the magazine’s website, pausing between each so the band could vamp.

15 outfits that will blow your mind that Taylor Swift wore this month, rollingstone.com!

10 reasons that rollingstone.com didn’t cover the Newport Folk Festival for 50 years straight!

12 reasons Rolling Stone won’t put a black and white cover on the cover of their magazine unless you’re dead!

Did you also know that Jan Wenner also owns Us Magazine? The tabloid capitol of magazines?

Keeping Paparazzi alive for more than 20 years, US Magazine by Jan Wenner!

Jack White’s criticisms of Rolling Stone, The Foo Fighters, and The Black Keys would probably be taken with a little more weight if they didn’t feel like they were so rooted in spite. But Jack raises a very important topic in how music journalism has evolved over the last few years, especially as print magazines have been forced to move into a more robust online presence, and what this means for the way music is covered moving forward.

No matter what Jack White and others might imply, the truth is Rolling Stone doesn’t represent even near the worst in music entertainment coverage these days. What’s so heartbreaking about what Rolling Stone has become is that it used to be on the cutting edge of in-depth and thought-provoking music reporting. Journalists and critics like Chet Flippo, Lester Bangs, Cameron Crowe, and Hunter S. Thompson helped set the standard of what music journalism was during Rolling Stone‘s formative years, and they became pop cultural figures on their own. Now like so many other online portals, Rolling Stone has to concern itself with how much traffic it draws to its website to stay financially afloat and relevant in the entertainment marketplace. Who are some of the famous Rolling Stone music reporters of today? Can you name any Rolling Stone music journalists? Is there any famous music journalists of our generation?

Rolling Stone recently opened a country music subsidiary located on Music Row—the first genre-specific portal for the legendary outlet. Like many sites, there’s a focus on lists. When sites like BuzzFeed, Upworthy, and other viral portals began to make massive inroads into the old guard monopoly of America’s journalistic space through list-based viral content, it began to affect the entire journalism landscape, including music. In April of 2013, Saving Country Music posted an article called “7 Men Who Could Immediately Make Country Music Better,” and of course, the post blew up. Though all of these artists had been featured individually on the site before, because it was a list, it was a received significantly better by the public. So then Saving Country Music posted “9 Women Who Could Immediately Make Country Music Better,” and that blew up too. Not to credit Saving Country Music for being the first in the music realm to post these type of lists, but at that time lists of this nature were not really seen in country music.

Then you began to see similar lists in larger periodicals, some with almost the same exact artists Saving Country Music featured, and the same type of style. PolicyMic for example ran a list called The 9 Real Country Stars of Our Generation in April of 2014. After Saving Country Music ran a list called “The Lessons Viewers Are Learning from ABC’s ‘Nashville‘” in October of 2013, PolicyMic ran a list called, “ABC’s Nashville Is Actually Saving Country Music.” Huh. I could have become spiteful like Jack White and call out PolicyMic. After all, by naming Saving Country Music in the title of their list they’re pretty much leaving the fingerprints on where the inspiration came from. Or I could be happy that these artists are receiving greater coverage and look at it as being for the greater good.

The latter is what I chose to do, but ever since this experience and seeing so many lists being used as a traffic crutch by so many other periodicals, I began to sour on the idea of lists in general as time went on. Saving Country Music has virtually abandoned the list format aside from when it really works to convey a thought or present a group of artists, like in end-of-year “Best Of” lists or Saving Country Music’s popular “10 Badass Moments” lists that highlight past greats of country music. In fact in August of last year, Saving Country Music published an article called 10 Reasons why Lists Suck. Of course, nobody read it. As time has gone on, even the lists Saving Country Music has posted have generally underperformed, probably because the demographics the site has fostered prefer their information in a more in-depth form.

But on other music outlets, lists have thrived, especially lists that go out of their way to highlight lesser-known artists like SCM’s “7 Men” and “9 Women” lists did. This seems to be where the music list works most ideal. For example ahead of Americana Fest this week, Rolling Stone Country posted a list of the 26 Must-See Acts. For a lot of these artists, it’s a big deal to see their name in Rolling Stone, and so they’re more than happy to post and repost links to the list on the respective social networks, and next thing you know the post becomes quite lucrative for Rolling Stone in regards to clicks.

Other outlets have latched onto the idea of covering independent artists in list form too, and discovered how lucrative it can be to creating traffic. LA Weekly ran a list called 10 Country Artists You Should Be Listening To in late June, highlighting some big acts like Eric Church, but mostly smaller artists like Caitlin Rose and Sturgill Simpson: two favorites of this list phenomenon. Tiered on three separate pages to get triple the clicks from the same reader, LA Weekly‘s list worked so well, they posted a second one, 10 More Country Artists You Need to Listen To in mid July. As can be seen on the articles, these lists were shared on Facebook 9,000 and 3,700 times respectively. That’s not bad traffic for any online outlet. Why so many shares? Because many of the small bands who were highlighted in these articles were so flattered that they took to Facebook to share this distinction, honored to be highlighted by LA Weekly, sometimes giving Facebook money to “boost” the post on their “like” pages so more Facebook followers would see it.

But the question is, what exactly is this “exposure” doing for these bands in this list format? Is there actually a measurable amount of music discovery happening from these lists, or is it more about established fan bases propping up lists by coming to a website to to have their opinions reaffirmed about the bands they already know about? Wouldn’t an individual, more in-depth profile of each band be better serving to both the public and the band if they’re truly artists “you should be listening to”?

One of the bands highlighted in one of the LA Weekly lists is a band that I happen to work with quite intimately. Though the article says that they included a photo “Courtesy of the Band,” no such permission was asked for, and none was granted. Even more troubling, the photo doesn’t actually represent who is in the band presently, nor who was in the band in its original form, nor who has been in the band for the last few years. In other words, little or no research was done, at least for that particular band in the article. It also didn’t result in any material benefit to the band. No new Facebook “likes.” No new booking inquiries or other opportunities. Though artists may be flattered to see their names in print, sometimes the results are negligible, especially when the exposure is so succinct, and the reach mostly just to the already-established fans of the respective bands. So then, what good are these lists? Are the bands really being exposed to new fans, or are outlets simply baiting rabid independent and underground fan bases just to drive up clicks to their websites?

Making this practice worse is the fact that some online content writers are paid by the amount of clicks they generate to a given article. Using independent and underground bands in your lists is beneficial because the grassroots nature of their fan bases. Florida Georgia Line’s publicity camp may not pay attention to a spot in a blog on LA Weekly for example, because they have bigger fish to fry. But an underground band will, and broadcast it out on their social network feverishly.

While exposure for any band is great,  a list really doesn’t equate to a professional review or interview of an artist, or a feature that really compels a reader to look deeper into their music.

– – – – – – – – – – –

Another trend plaguing music journalism today is the “exclusive” premier of content. Taking the form of song premiers, video premiers, and album premiers, this “exclusive” content has virtually replaced traditional album reviews and other artist features in many outlets. Instead of opinion and in-depth insight, readers are served with quick press release snippets followed by a SoundCloud player. And once again the question is, who is really benefiting from this exclusive content the most? Is it the artist, or the online outlet?

One problem with the exclusive content model is many times the outlets used are completely misappropriated for the artists being featured. Of course mainstream artists and labels have their pick of the litter when it comes to where they may want to premier their content, and have research and demographic data to know where the perfect place is for the premier. But independent artists, labels, and publicists almost seem to be happy to find any willing dance partner, as long as the website can boast lots of traffic. And for the website, it’s easy content. Maybe supply a paragraph or two of bio information regurgitated from a press release and call it good. This is much less labor intensive than conducting an interview or writing an in depth review, and the artist and label will point everyone to the “exclusive” premier to drive up the website’s traffic.

Websites use traffic statistics to lure independent artist to releasing their exclusive content with them, but many times it is not the right place for the artist. For example, Esquire has begun to do these exclusive premiers for country artists. But who is going to Esquire to discover independent country music? I’m sure Esquire‘s website gets tons of traffic, but a country artist might be better served going with a more genre appropriate outlet, even if it receives less traffic. Though Paste is a great supporter of the independent arts, they are another frequent exclusive premier partner misappropriated for independent country performers. And since many of these outlets do not know these bands, little to no love is put into whatever written content accompanies the premier.

The main ethical question about exclusive premiers is if it is truly a journalistic vehicle, or if it is an advertisement. One independent label owner I know recently did a premier for one of their artists on the music website No Depression, which allows users post their own content. No Depression actually took the post down, citing that it was advertising, not journalistic content. Many times the outlets that artists and labels partner with to premier content present a conflict of interest. This grey area between what is advertising and what is journalism makes it difficult for readers to navigate through content and figure out if a website is recommending the music, or simply advertising it.

Without a doubt, streaming albums, songs, and videos can be a great tool to spread the word about a new album release. But it should simply be just one tool in a more diverse music journalism landscape that also offers objective opinion and traditional media coverage to help music consumers cull through content in an ever more crowded media landscape. If exclusive premiers are simply replacing the true journalistic coverage artists deserve instead of providing an additional new tool in the digital age, then are artists and fans truly being better served?

Music journalism is sitting on the brink of simply becoming a promotional arm of the music industry, and it appears to be just as bad in the independent music world as it is in the mainstream. With all the challenges facing music of all styles, including how to monetize it in the streaming age, how to navigate through the breadth of choices, and how to recapture the magic that music once meant to people, true music journalism is not becoming obsolete, it is more important that ever.

Music consumers are feeling undeserved by snippets of bio info and quick song streams in lists and exclusive premiers. Like the “slow food” movement, they want to take a little bit more time to savor their musical experiences, to learn the stories behind their favorite songs and artists, to delve into the passion that inspired their favorite albums, and walk away from the experience not just enjoying the music, but feeling more fulfilled and understanding.

As everything is speeding up and becoming more concise in the world, music shouldn’t get swept up in the rat race, it should be the respite from it, as all art is meant to be. And it’s up to music journalists, websites, and periodicals to help bring this wisdom back into the music consciousness, and to fans to engage with this more in depth content before it disappears.