Drowning in a Sea of Words

Nothing has hit the world of music writing harder than the social networking explosion. But the ways in which the writing has changed – and whether these changes are good or bad – are still very much up for debate.

In 2009, a man in Iowa stood up and told the world that he was doomed. That man was Christopher Weingarten, a music critic, and it would be wrong to suggest that this turn of events was entirely unexpected. Weingarten was a speaker at the 140 Characters Conference in Des Moines, an event which explored digital media and social networking. A writer with Spin, Revolver and The Village Voice, Weingarten took to the stage and proceeded to give one of the most inflammatory, hysterical and downright brilliant speeches in the history of music criticism. Possibly in the history of Iowa.

In his speech, Weingarten raged against the effect of social networking on his job; how he would soon be unable to make a living as a music critic; how the reliance on the knowledge of crowds was resulting in both mediocre music and mediocre writing. “Crowds are morons,” he said, to thunderous applause. “People have this open maw, this endless abyss … If it doesn’t fit into 140 characters, it’s not worth saying.”

Two years later, things aren’t quite as doom-laden as Weingarten would have had it. Social networking hasn’t killed music writing, but it has still had a huge impact on it. Weingarten remains one of the most polarising and complex figures in the debate; he seems to rail against what Twitter is doing to good journalism while actively taking part in the medium (he runs the @1000TimesYes feed, which reviews a thousand new records each year in 140 characters or less. And this is very much a conversation about Twitter – other sites like Facebook and Google Plus are powerful, but they simply can’t compete with Twitter’s immediacy or ubiquity).

Weingarten is cheerful, talkative and intelligent. He certainly makes no bones about the level of impact that social networking sites have had on long-form writing – that is, longer, more considered pieces usually found in magazines and newspapers. “Most of my colleagues thought it was a really good idea,” he said. “Some people have lauded it for doing record reviews that work with the speed of records, which is one thing that music magazines and websites haven’t been able to do. You want an 800-word review of [Jay-Z and Kanye West’s new album] Watch The Throne? Everyone already reviewed that over Twitter 45 seconds after it leaked. Some of the negative feedback was people thinking I was being really reductive and sometimes just cutting complicated records to one-liners and zings.”

One of the key issues that Weingarten raises early on is whether there is in fact any point to long-form record reviews anymore. Professional critics are no longer the arbiters of taste: when you can get an instant opinion on your chosen social network, why would you pick up the NME or The Word?

“There’s a lot of talk about what the point of a record review is anymore,” says Weingarten. “Long-form record reviewing for a paycheque is completely dying out. It’s not just MP3s, it’s everything else – why would I read 2000 words on this record when I could type in the name on Mediafire and hear it for myself and come up with my own opinions? Twitter is changing the way we read. It’s making us all a little bit dumber, and making us gravitate towards headlines, two paragraphs of weirdness. It doesn’t take us out of our day, as opposed to sitting down and absorbing something. The 24-hour news cycle is hurting long-form writing.”

He does, however, add that a lot of music writing – a lot of writing in general – certainly wouldn’t be hurt by a little economy. Of course, Weingarten has managed to straddle the best of both worlds, maintaining a full-time writing schedule as well as the active 1000TimesYes. But there’s no question that long-form writing is making less and less business sense. In the UK, the NME – once among the most successful music publications in history – has seen its circulation drop 14.3% to just over 29,000 copies a month in the first half of 2011. The New York Times – a title with a similarly august music section – dropped from 950,000 copies a day to 916,000.

There’s no quantifiable way to compare those numbers to Twitter feeds, but Weingarten and company have certainly been successful. 1000TimesYes sits at just under 12,000 followers at the time of writing, while the hysterical Twitter review account Discographies (which The Village Voice named as its Music Critic Of The Year in 2010) has over 29,000.

Twitter is changing the way we read. It’s making us all a little bit dumber, and making us gravitate towards headlines, two paragraphs of weirdness.

Of course, this still doesn’t answer the question of what social networking is doing to the quality of the writing. Weingarten says that the 24-hour news cycle is hurting it, but others aren’t so sure. Daphne Carr is the editor of the annual Best Music Writing anthology, published each year by Da Capo. She’s certainly no stranger to technology – she talks to us using Skype on her smartphone from a sunny Central Park – but she believes that there’s still extremely good writing available. She certainly hasn’t seen the quality of the stories she publishes plummet: “I don’t think quality’s an issue, honestly,” she says. “There’s great writing out there. There’s just as much or more than there ever has been in the history of writing about popular culture. The number of places it’s available has expanded dramatically, as has the number of audience members as people have more access to it. The question is: how can I find it all?”

Music writing’s form and availability is a product of its environment. MP3s and cheap technology for making music means that there is exponentially more music available, which means there is less time to consume it. Couple that with tough economic circumstances across the board, and it means that there is less money to pay writers, which means that there is less chance for quality long-form music writing. It’s still out there; it’s just, as Carr says, a lot harder to find, and one has to wade through an awful lot of bad (and sometimes very good) Twitter and Facebook opinion to get to it.

“I don’t want to undermine the democracy of the Internet – which is very empowering,” says Weingarten, “but when everyone’s a writer, everyone’s a writer. Instead of being confronted by a couple of writers, we’re confronted by an endless expanse of bad writers with a couple of gems peaking through. When we suck the money from all these industries and hand it over to hobbyists, the quality is just going to plummet.”

One of the big challenges that long-form music writing has to overcome is diminishing attention spans. In his 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (W.W. Norton & Co.), which was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize, the author Nicholas Carr argued that the always-on, constant-stimulation of the Internet was physically rewiring our brains and affecting how our memory works. Put simply: while it may not be making us stupid, it’s lowering our ability to deal with anything longer than … well, 140 characters.

Perhaps one of the things that got Weingarten and the people at the Iowa conference so riled up was that social media’s takeover is inevitable. It’s happening, and for young writers beginning their careers, it’s something they have to use – or they’ll simply become obsolete before they’ve started. Says Carr: “It’s definitely generational. Every generation of critics has a completely different engagement with social networking, and different [expectations of it]. I can say for people over 40 and in their mid-30s, we’re still using it primarily as a marketing tool for another medium, or for a place that is a home for our actual work. People younger than that are tending to take it not as a means to another end but as the end itself, and are therefore using the medium to its fullest potential. Instead of saying, here’s a link to my awesome article on Twitter, they’re actually putting it in the character count and having some critical engagement.

In many ways, the long-term effects of social media on music writing are still being worked out. Nobody really seems to know what’s around the corner. But what is clear is that social media will have an effect, and it will change the music writing landscape. But, as Carr says, it’s not necessarily something to be feared. “Twitter and social media can be a form of art, or it can be a conversation, or some place between those. But…it’s discourse. It’s talk. And none of that stuff was recorded or broadcast before. And now it’s all there as a permanent record, an enormous amount of writing and data that was just chat before.”

For more information visit @1000TimesYes and @Discographies on Twitter, and for the Best Music Writing anthology www.dacapopress.com

Rob Boffard