Music media is in a crisis in 2023. After a catastrophic Q1 as part of the greater “tech-cession” where tech companies and general advertisers slashed budgets, we saw major online publications like Buzzfeed News shut down entirely, and Vice lay off tons of staff and eventually go bankrupt. Many of the major properties that helped define Web 2.0 have now folded.
This has affected country and roots music coverage directly. NPR Music was forced to cut back its staff in February. In October, the legendary Bob Boilen who founded NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts among other achievements went into retirement. Rolling Stone Country laid off long-time reporter Jon Freeman. Townsquare Media’s Taste of Country and The Boot laid off key staff. It’s been a bloodletting that has let up only slightly as the year has gone on, and advertising budgets have improved ever so incrementally.
But in the incessant war for clicks, the largest local newspaper owner in the United States, Gannett Co., has made a rather controversial decision to help bolster its bottom line. After the publication consolidated ownership in the local newspaper space, it started gutting local newsrooms across the country, laying off veteran journalists in lieu of often young and inexperienced replacements, if those positions were repopulated at all.
Arts and entertainment positions have been especially hard hit, along with local beats with a low volume of readers, but high importance to the local community. Gannett notoriously tried to use AI to compose high school sports coverage in some of its papers to hilarious, if not dystopian results before pulling the plug.
The changes have also affected the Gannett-owned Nashville-based newspaper The Tennessean, which for years has acted like the local newspaper for country music as well. Now The Tennessean has made the unprecedented move of hiring a reporter solely to cover the world of Taylor Swift.
It’s not that an artist such as Taylor Swift could not justify a dedicated reporter. You’ve seen college courses composed around Swift’s career. In fact, Taylor Swift could probably justify multiple full-time reporters now that she’s crossed the billion dollar mark in personal wealth. She is like her own industry.
In one respect, this move speaks to the expanding commercial prowess and cultural importance of music in the streaming era. Despite the grousing of some songwriters about fractions of pennies as payouts, major labels and top music creators are making more money than at any other time in history. Warner Music recently just hit the $6 billion milestone for 2023, bolstered by streaming specifically.
The real problem with the current era of music is that it has never been move divided between the haves and the have nots. Hiring dedicated reporters to cover specific megastars will only compound this dilemma. Newspapers, websites, and publications across the United States are cutting back on coverage of the arts in all it’s facets in favor of more coverage of politics, sports, and pop celebrities. Positions dedicated to specific celebrity music performers would only exacerbate this.
Even further compounding the moral dilemma, the journalist The Tennessean chose to hire for the position is a self-described “Swiftie,” which calls into question his objectivity in covering such a beat. Named Brian West, he compares his position to a newspaper paying a reporter to cover a local sports team that they may also happen to be a fan of. This might not be a bad analogy.
But where the budgets for covering sports tend to be flush due to the attention advertisers and the public pay to this pastime, music and the arts have always needed local media for support due to the inherently less commercial aspect of the medium.
It’s not about what The Tennessean is choosing to cover with this Taylor Swift hire. It’s what the paper continues to not choose to cover. Recently, the paper’s current country music reporter Marcus K. Dowling won the CMA’s Media Achievement award that is voted on by the publicist members of the CMA. The paper continues to cover the music itself. But there has been a noticeable lapse in the paper’s coverage of more critical and investigative stories involving the music community that The Tennessean used to spearhead in the past.
The Tennessean and other local Nashville publications summarily ignored the details behind the police involved killing of Mark Capps earlier this year, taking eight months to report key details that could have put pressure on local officials. The re-emergence of accused rapist Kirt Webster within the country music community has also gone uncovered. Coverage of the closing of the Ernest Tubb Record Shop in 2022 was also scant.
Could we see similar dedicated media positions like the one for Taylor Swift open up for performers like Zach Bryan and Morgan Wallen in the future? It’s very probable as the cult of celebrity and Stan culture continue to consume the attention of music media, and actual music criticism becomes a thing of the past, along with meaningful coverage for local up-and-comers who may need such coverage to build sustainable careers, and deeper investigations into stories whose implications go beyond the music.
Gannett has also hired a reporter to cover the world of Beyoncé as well. For now, the industry of clicks is what is prevailing, widening the gulf between the haves and have nots in music, and making music coverage more in the pocket of celebrities and the industry as opposed to asking the hard questions, and taking a critical, and if necessary, adversarial perspective to the billionaires who now dominate the business of making music.