shock discovery continued: zines vs. magazines, writing vs. journalism

April 20, 2012 at 7:43 am | Posted in musings, no audience underground | Leave a comment
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This morning I discover that after posting the piece below about The Wire magazine, criticism etc. I had my second-highest daily ‘hits’ total since this blog’s inception.  You lot like a bit of poking-a-sacred-cow-with-a-stick, obviously.  It has also provoked some thoughtful and illuminating correspondence.  Chief amongst these missives is what follows.  It was hand-delivered during the night, unsigned and in a scented envelope, with a note attached saying I could use the contents as I saw fit, but that the author’s identity had to remain a secret.  I was quite taken with the further distinctions proposed so have decided to make this the first ever guest post on radiofreemidwich.  ‘Comrade X’ writes:

Hmm, I’m trying to think what I make of your distinction between reviewing and criticism.  Is that a thing? I suppose it could be.  For my sins, I’m afraid I rather like a good diss piece sometimes.  But the building up and knocking down of flavour of the months seems to have become a staple of music journalism, and it is depressing after a time, so maybe less of that would be a good thing, give the space over to things you like rather than things you don’t.  I can see that being on the receiving end of bad criticism is not pleasant.  In the fast cycling world of modern pop culture it seems a reputation can be made and destroyed in about 18 months.  But I feel to live in a world of total positivism is very twenty-first century,  and a bit of me longs to see the boot put in from time to time.  It’s entertaining.  What happens when an artist you always loved turns stale?  Do you just walk away? I presume you are aware of the irony that you have just performed a criticism of the Wire.  Which I have to say I enjoyed immensely.

For my part I too make distinctions, between zines (which I think is what RFM is) and magazines.  I see zines as the superior medium of criticism, or review, despite their supposed ‘lesser’ standing in the world of writing.  Zines are written from a standpoint of amateurism, in the sense of the lover, one who loves their subject.  They allow the writer freedom, from the restrictions of time limits, space, and the editorial concerns of their superiors and commercial backers, to say what they think, to create interesting writing, explore new ideas, to invent.

Magazines are commercial enterprises.  The veneer of criticism and commentary barely disguises the main fact that they are vehicles for selling the products contained within, and their interests are governed by those of advertisers, PR companies and A&R agents.  For this reason Billboard may be the most honest magazine in existence, it cuts to the chase, it is music journalism laid naked.

Some might say that the restrictions make writing into a serious discipline, and are necessary to avoid sloppy, rambling writing.  In answer firstly I’d say it doesn’t, in the reams of toe-curlingly trite prose that are cranked out every month.   This leads to the second distinction I make, between writing and journalism.

Writing, as I see it, is a creative endeavour, whereby language is manipulated to produce new ideas, arrangements of words, and viewpoints.  We have a sense of the writer’s personality embedded in the words.  Writing may eventually lead to a commercial benefit for the writer, but this is not the ultimate motive for its production. Journalism is producing a prearranged number of words to order, usually as a reaction to something that already exists in the world, to a time deadline, for the goal of procuring money.  People make the mistake of thinking journalism and writing are the same thing.  They are not.  You will not find much writing in a magazine.  Journalism is not writing, as it seldom creates any new ideas or experiments with new approaches to writing.  Its aim is to convey clearly why you should or shouldn’t buy something.  No room for experimentation, the meaning will get lost.  There is also what I call the ‘Earnestly Whimsical’ school of journalism, which attempts to shoehorn the euphoric zeal and skattiness of a ziner into a corporate rags column inches.  Never works for me as it always seems like they’re trying too hard to be kooky, and their voices always somehow manage to be indistinct.  I also think zine writing is generally only poor when it seeks to ape a ‘professional’ journalistic style of writing.

So again I think zines offer writers freedom to actually produce writing and not journalism, so they win.  I think for me the distinction between criticism and reviewing are not so important as the distinction between zines and writing on the one hand and magazines and journalism on the other.   I admire Idwal Fisher’s approach to reviewing music he doesn’t care for, long tangential musings that skirt the music entirely.  But they are entertaining and you sort of get what he’s getting at.  If you get me. So yeah, what Miguel said basically (Editor’s note: see Miguel’s comment on original piece below).

But I suppose you’re also asking, is criticism useful to outsider artists?  I think probably not, because most criticism of a ‘vision’ only seeks to rein it back into conventional notions of excellence or good taste.  And good taste should be avoided wherever possible.

Oh, and the sad thing is, there is no such thing as ‘critic school’.  People get thrown in there and suddenly their word is law.  Maybe there should be.  Or maybe critic school is a journalism degree, but do many people do one thinking their dream job is to write for the Wire.  It makes me suspect some people would be happy to write about Stockhausen or copy for a travel brochure, whichever pays better.

Anyway, enough from me.  I really should get my own blog, but I never find the time between replying to other people’s.

My thanks to Comrade X and I hope they do somehow find the time for their own blog – I would certainly be an avid reader.

shock discovery: no audience underground immune to criticism!

April 19, 2012 at 7:40 am | Posted in blog info, musings, no audience underground | 14 Comments
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Two weeks ago, a chain of thought I will partly explain below led me to buying a copy of The Wire magazine.  This may surprise regular readers as me whaling on this publication is almost a running joke here at RFM.  Wasn’t always thus.  From the early 90s, and for over a decade, I never missed an issue.  From discovering its existence I earnestly supported the only champion of ‘our’ music on the newsstand.  The full realisation that I had been duped by this nonsense was a long time coming but a blessed relief when it did.  I binned my final subscription copy with the same relish with which I extinguished my final cigarette.

However, since my return to music in 2009 I have felt the occasional twinge in the direction of The Wire.  “What is it like now?” I would wonder occasionally.  The omens weren’t good: a lot of interesting people I know dismiss it out of hand, the dull and unfinished ‘Splazsh‘ by Actress got 2010 album of the year and I was shown a review which asserted that Neil Campbell was the best solo improv guitarist since Derek Bailey.  Now my admiration for Neil as a musician and a human being is second to none, but this hilarious comment shows a woeful ignorance of at least three key things: a) Neil’s music, b) Bailey’s music and c) music in general.  Oh dear.

Despite all that, I intended to start this piece by talking about The Wire so I thought I should at least read it again and bought the April issue.  A photo of some dude who looks like a young Dave Grohl was on the cover, as was a CD affixed with the plastic snot that all magazines use for the purpose nowadays.

Alas, it is actually worse than I remember.  The layout is dismal, almost wilfully alienating.  A tiny unreadable font is surrounded by white space like a medieval book of days.  In ye olde dayes when paper (vellum?) was expensive leaving wide empty margins served a twofold purpose: it gave the text a gravity and importance and it indicated the wealth of the owner.  Interesting to see The Wire using the same technique to signify a not-too-different snobbery.

The content is awful.  So much for ‘our’ music.  Aside from a track by Neil Campbell & Robert Horton on the CD, none of the dozens of people I know making terrific music on the fringes are mentioned.  The magazine is as in thrall to ‘big’ names and respected labels as the most infuriating hipster.  Advertised on the cover is ‘We are all David Toop now’ an eight page (including dull photographic illustrations) article by Simon Reynolds on David Toop which begins:

The names of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari barely feature in David Toop’s writing…

Christ on a bike, eh?  This stuff is beyond parody.  Scything out the cultural studies (im)posturing you are left with a basic overview of (the admittedly interesting) Toop’s writing and an argument from Reynolds that seems to point to the conclusion that actually no-one is like David Toop nowadays.  Eight bloody pages.  The review section is similarly dispiriting.  Reams of forgettable writing so airless, claustrophobic and undifferentiated it makes me want to shred the magazine and throw open a window.

It pains me to write this – it does – as I want my blog to be as positive as possible, but I’m struggling here.  Think of the hundreds of hours and thousands of pounds that go into The Wire’s production every month.  It would be interesting to compare the latter figure with the combined total of all the extra ticket/album/download sales that positive coverage in this magazine generates.  I know from personal experience that it is virtually nil (or less-than-nil once you count in the cost of sending review copies).  I would bet, with confidence, that the two or three sales occasioned by the joyful wordsmithery you find on this humble blog beats the total for many of the reviews The Wire publishes to no avail each month.

I could go on but I don’t want to lend it too much importance.  Like the city in Christopher Priest’s Inverted World, The Wire grabs and distorts whatever is unlucky enough to get too close. Fortunately its reach is poor and is easily avoided.  The reason I mention it is that The Wire is the biggest, dumbest-whilst-it-thinks-it-is-being-clever example of the problem of criticism which I shall now elaborate on.

First, I need to make a face-saving distinction between reviewing and criticism.  Writing reviews is what I do here, most of which follow a similar template: the spec of the release (format, length, some pictures etc.) followed by an account of what it brought to mind, sometimes illustrated with anecdote or flights of fancy that I hope you find charming and not too self-indulgent, followed by details of where to get hold of it.  My humble desire is to bring stuff I like to your attention in the hope that you’ll check it out.  I am, of course, aware that there is such a thing as a bad review, and that bad reviews can be entertaining to read, but I am uninterested in writing such things myself for reasons that will become evident.  For me the essence of reviewing is positive and unapologetically subjective.

What I don’t do is criticism*.  Yes I know this is not necessarily a value-laden term – it can refer simply to the act of discussing or forming a judgement on the qualities of an endeavour.  However, I think that in common parlance it carries unavoidable connotations of disapproval and, interestingly, objectivity.  Roll the two terms around your brain for a moment and you’ll see what I mean: the reviewer is offering an opinion, the critic is pronouncing from a position of expertise.  Whether you’d prefer your work to be reviewed or criticised, you have to admit that the latter term implies a rigour that the former doesn’t.  Criticism, as commonly understood, involves finding fault, ‘constructive’ criticism implies advice on how to correct those faults, or how to otherwise better your work.  At its most daunting this is analysis, criticism with a university educated vocabulary, at its most positive and friendly this is criticism’s hyperactive cousin feedback.

And here is where the problem starts.  In two words: why bother?  We are undoubtedly as vain and needy as any bunch of artists and will lap up praise and validation with an obscene eagerness.  However, that said, the huge majority of the music I listen to was obviously produced mainly to please the producer.  I may consider myself something of an expert on these things (I’ve certainly put the hours in – see my imagined rejoinder ‘quoted’ in the Spoils & Relics piece) but am I really justified in saying that a piece is unforgivably meandering?  Or that the high pitched sounds are grating and would be better lower in the mix?  Or that the promise shown on their genius early recordings has yet to be fulfilled?  This is not music to be marketed via focus group.  It is profoundly personal, verging on solipsistic sometimes, and this needs to be respected for two reasons.

Firstly, people’s feelings are at stake.  To criticize their offerings is like telling a new mum that her baby is ugly.  ‘Awww… diddums,’ the hard-hearted amongst you might be thinking but I’m serious.  This is a small scene and the unit of currency is goodwill.  To strut about the changing room thrusting your ‘opinions’ into the face of other team members is childish and inappropriate.  Secondly, this is someone’s vision we’re talking about here.  The stuff I’m presented with is finished, complete – not just in the sense that a physical object, or even a download to a lesser extent, is immutable, but also in that the creative process has led to this concluding point.

This is why The Wire is such a flat, dry, saddening read.  It is full of critics who cover their shaming lack of knowledge with daft pronouncements.  They are determined to use the chops they’ve learnt in critic school no matter how inappropriate, detrimental or uninformative, no matter how forced the contextualisation, no matter how bogus the conclusion.  Perhaps what is most depressing is the thought of how much fun, how joyful it could be instead.

So, to conclude: shamelessly subjective reviews, ideally positive = good, criticism and analysis = dull and quite possibly pointless.  So there.  Anyone want to offer some feedback?  Just a little comment?  C’mon, man, I need some FEEDBACK!!

Heh, heh.


*That said, I will pull people up on two things.  Firstly, pretentiousness.  I am aware it is a fault of mine so I am hypocritically hyper-critical when I see it in others.  Secondly, easily solvable technical issues with the recording – unbalanced channels and the like.  Sort it out kids, you’re mugging yourself.  And works in progress are a different story: take it to Soundcloud and do what thou wilt.

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