Prestige and Professionalisation at the Margins of the Journalistic Field: The Case of Music Writers

AKA SOME MORE INTERESTING RESEARCH WRITING FROM MY DESK JOB

Amateur_MediaA recent publication by Routledge caught my eye the other day as I scanned the shelves in the library. Inside, I was surprised to find a chapter on music writing in Australia. Put together by two other Melbourne academics: one of the book’s co-editors Ramon Lobato and occasional Mess & Noise contributor (and PhD candidate) Lawson Fletcher. Much like my entry on Clinton Walker’s piece in the Quarterly Essay, and for much the same reasons, I thought I might ‘pick the eyes’ out of this piece and post them up here.

The chapter mainly concerns itself with the state of music writing (i.e. criticism, reportage and opinion) in Australia. Drawing on interviews conducted with Australian music writers about their work. The chapter asks, ‘Why does music writing operate and read as it does in places like Australia?‘ and, ‘What do these people get out of this?’ Good questions that really benefit here by way of academia’s cautious, level-headed approach to reporting research findings.

So, a bit light on razzle-dazzle but pitch-perfect in places, I liked it and will no doubt be suggesting it to my students.

Here’s my notes:

On music writing as a living:

In smaller markets like Australia (the site of our study), securing an ongoing salaried position is near-impossible, even for the most talented writers.

On the balance of men and women writing about music in Australia:

Some brief comments on the demographic characteristics of writers are also in order. Most of the writers we interviewed are in their 20s and early 30s, with a tertiary degree of some sort, frequently in the humanities or social sciences (though few believe this contributes to their abilities or success as a writer). Music writing in Australia is a male-dominated activity: we estimate that at least three-quarters of practicing music writers in Australia are men, an observation which corresponds broadly with studies of the music writer workforce in other nations. The reasons for this are disputed by the writers we spoke to, but it seems likely that the imbalance is exacerbated by informal friend-to-friend commissioning practices, which reproduce a male-dominated writing culture, and the gendered spatiality of rock culture, which revolves around the pub environment. Though we did not observe deliberate policies of exclusion on the part of editors, the very high levels of social and cultural capital needed to do well in this field appear to be the result of informal networks, friendships and associations, the structure of which may exacerbate demographic imbalances that are already present in the rock and indie subcultures from which most writers emerge.

On blogging:

…if becomes difficult to equate blogs with amateur media in any meaningful sense, as the blogosphere is increasingly the site for entrepreneurial, careerist activity among writers.

Herein, music writing online becomes a means to step-into paid writing. The entrepreneurial, careerist flair they’re charting here is about a career in writing/journalism or music industry, period, in which music writing is only a means to an end. That said, while serving that apprenticeship (or conducting a blog as a hobby), the authors noted a few other side uses:

There is also the option of using one’s blog or column as a platform for other music-related pursuits which generate income, slender as it may be. One writer we interviewed runs club nights under the brand of his blog and another has established a small-scale record label. Others have made forays into public relations, writing bios and promotional material for record labels. Writing becomes one of a range of ways of engaging with a scene, and potentially making some money on the side.

This is a pretty interesting point, maybe a touch over-sold as a positive here. The idea that blogging is this pure and free writing pursuit located a million miles away from the world of incorporated music entertainment publications has always been a bit off. As noted here, there are other loyalties at work: to the small cash windfalls attached to side-work writing for industry, to the larger windfalls that can be attached to club events and to all the uses of cultural capital intertwined in why people blog in the first place. In short, judge what you read in these contexts and look for the bigger picture.

This is a fairly dense paragraph but it’s sophisticated point I think:

Critiques of creative labour sometimes assume a scenario of systematic exploitation by ‘big media’, in which labour is extracted from fans and non-professionals as a way for media companies to save on professionally produced content. The music media in Australia do not fit comfortably into this narrative. Unlike in the UK, where magazines such as NME are part of consolidated publishing businesses, most of the online and print-based music media in Australia is the province of undercapitalised small-to-medium sized businesses, many of which are not particularly profitable. This is not to say that the prevailing commissioning practices are ethical, or that publishers could not afford to increase their pay rates if they so desired. But the ‘free labour, big profits’ narrative is not an accurate representation of how the music media work in Australia.

Further to which:

The writers we spoke to are under no illusions about the nature of the industry. All have their own ways of balancing paid employment with other kinds of personally fulfilling creative work. Many of the unpaid writers do not see their practice as an income-generating activity – and some like it that way. Others have an informal moral code which shapes their professional practice (one writer mentioned that she only does unpaid writing for small non-profit websites, but never for commercial publishers). Hence we must be alert to the agency of cultural workers such as these, even in a context of extreme precarity.

And:

…music writers have a kind of split personality, suspended half way between art and public relations, cultural production and critique, the music industry and the content business.

The takeaway point for musicians is pretty simple: this is who is writing about you. These are not people living in opulence, writing about your struggle to be heard in the world. These people are a bunch of scrappy enthusiasts, writing about music for many of the same reasons you play it: it’s fun, it’s cool and it pays a little bit of cash back, not enough to live on, but enough to justify pressing on to the next gig. And as for ‘critics’, yes these people can be critical of what you do – that’s their job – but they make those criticisms from many of the same compromised and difficult positions in which you yourself try and sell your work. In short, we’re all in this mess together.

And make no mistake, in Australia it’s always going to get a bit messy. Always.

UPDATE: This blog has been a touch quiet of late. Why? Real life got pretty loud for me in January. During that month I moved from Berlin, Germany and unemployment to Melbourne, Australia and employment. I’m currently in a lecturing/research position at RMIT in their Music Industry program. Now that I’m settled, expect more frequent updates. Thanks for sticking around. If you ever need to reach me in a professional capacity here at RMIT, here I am.

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