Tara Joshi | Is There A Future For Music Journalism?
For the first in our "Long Reads" series we welcome Tara Joshi, a London-based freelance writer, journalist and editor. Her work focusses on culture, and has featured in the Guardian, Financial Times, New York Times, Crack, Dazed, Mixmag and more. She was the music editor at gal-dem magazine for four years, and co-edited the essay anthology Haramacy with Dhruva Balram (out in 2022 on Unbound).
“Fewer places to publish, to be professionally edited, to develop your craft as a young writer, and to develop a critical, literary community of peers and older veteran colleagues [..] The editing and writing back then [in the ‘80s and ‘90s] had more of an impact on the public conversation about the music then today.”
Over a decade later, all of these things have only become more pronounced. There are so many issues within music journalism in 2023 that, when aspiring writers ask me how they might get started, I am no longer sure what to tell them.
Could I really recommend it? While the once-pervasive attitudes of people like Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner (who was recently removed from the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame for derogatory comments about Black and women artists) are thankfully becoming less of a dominant issue, music journalism is not exactly a welcoming space.
In the UK, at least, there is a lack of space for new voices, very little range in the people in staff and editorial roles in the publications that do exist, poor and inconsistent pay and a more general sense of existential crisis for the medium.
If you’re an entry-level freelance writer looking for paid work, the platforms which will take chances on new voices and help develop them (while also paying them fairly) seem few and far between.
I spent four years as the music editor at a magazine called gal-dem – a platform which centred the voices and stories of writers of colour from marginalised genders. I had previously found music media to be pretty unfriendly and isolating – when I was starting out as a freelancer and working a day job in music tech, I was often the only non-white person in a room, and dealt with the jarring intersections of misogyny and racism (a white, cis-het male publicist once told me I was lucky and was only getting into these rooms by virtue of my identity ticking boxes).
So finding gal-dem was invaluable to my being able to grow professionally and meet like-minded people in an industry that can feel pretty lonely (at best), as well as helping to nurture new voices. But now, these kinds of spaces are few and far between – gal-dem has closed down, and places where I cut my teeth are disappearing: VICE filed for bankruptcy, The Quietus is consistently fighting against the realities existing as independent media. In general, this is happening across music media: hip-hop website OkayPlayer just announced lay-offs.
For marginalised writers especially, this is beginning to feel more precarious than ever. In the UK there are one or two editors of colour in music media, and it seems unlikely that many working class and / or disabled writers and editors could easily rise up the ranks in an industry that demands so much unpaid labour on the grounds of “exposure” and operates in a way that is not particularly accessible.
I am incredibly lucky that my parents could offer me financial support when I was doing my journalism masters – I recognise that is hardly an option available to the majority of people in this country.
It is also the case that, often, racialised writers are only asked to write about artists of colour – it is only in the last couple years of my career I have semi-regularly started to be allowed to write about white artists (while white writers are naturally allowed to be experts on everything). Pigeonholing sits alongside an uncomfortable framing that you should feel lucky to be in this industry in the first place, and therefore cannot rock the boat by questioning things.
There is a thriving community of interested parties and resources you can find via excellent newsletters like Todd L. Burns’ Music Journalism Insider (which in turn arguably highlights how the quality of the medium largely has the scope to be better in North America). Still, the impact of music journalism on public conversation also feels relatively negligible lately – give or take when social media is the platform rather than a publication.
This is perhaps because the purpose and relevance of the medium feels complicated in the age of streaming and stan culture. If music criticism was once a guide to what to listen to in a week of new releases where you might buy one album, the terms are innately different when, thanks to streaming, the consumer has automatic access to all the new releases anyway. This is not in of itself a bad thing, of course: given music media has disproportionately comprised of white men, there is historic bias in what does and doesn’t get serious coverage when only one type of person is at the helm.
But social media has its own set of challenges. Speaking about his decision to retire from his role as co-chief film critic at the New York Times, AO Scott told the Daily Podcast about how, in criticism, he had desired to be a voice independent from the hype around new releases, to guide people away from their comfort zones, but online fan culture had dulled conversations into something almost cult-like. He felt that film criticism had become less and less of a conversation or argument, so much as something to be taken in bad faith. Much the same can be said of the present state of music writing: critique is viewed as being a hater and can incur mass trolling and even doxxing.
While in theory, this might open the doors to different kinds of music-writing, there are relatively few outlets with the resources and financing to allow for in-depth reporting and feature-writing.
In much British music media lately, profiles are more often than not expected to be puff pieces that toe the line of PR – something which is not helped by growing whisperings of pay-to-play; I have heard about multiple incidences of artists and labels paying to feature on magazine covers.
Access to artists is more likely to be granted to social media influencers asking joke-y questions on video, or even another celebrity saying fawning things – and while I do think there is absolutely room for both fun and silly video interviews alongside thoughtful written journalism (maybe less-so the asinine celeb-interviews-celeb format), it feels telling that artists and their teams are seemingly less interested in being met with potentially discerning, highly-researched questions.
Optics so often seem to come ahead of nuanced conversation now. For artists, the photo shoot is much more important than the content of the interview. More than that, I have sincerely been told by an editor at a prestigious publication to cut a quote from a piece, because after the artist’s team got in touch asking to rescind that portion of our interview, the magazine was concerned that the artist wouldn’t share the piece on their socials. The power dynamics have shifted – and while I do not begrudge a change in “gatekeepers”, I am not sure what it will do to archiving and the quality of art if honesty is written out of the equation. As a writer, too, you’re often barely being paid enough to merit fighting back on this stuff.
For all that this is frustrating, at least I can be a music journalist – in some capacity. It is not feasible to solely be a music journalist in the way it might have been some decades ago.
I previously did journalism on the side of other jobs, then began my role at gal-dem, and became a full-time freelancer just over a year ago. At the time of writing, I make most of my monthly-income doing artist biographies for labels and copywriting for brands, rather than via journalism itself. The payment terms for some magazines are becoming untenable (often below minimum wage, often paid months after publication). I have spoken to so many writers lately who, like me, are having to waste significant time chasing publications to get money we are owed.
In terms of my own development as a writer, I certainly feel like there’s a plateau – there is no significant pay rise, and the opportunities I’m getting in music journalism are basically the same as those I had a few years ago (the staff roles that very occasionally get advertised have concerningly low pay versus the amount of work you’re expected to do, too).
I do not know what solutions exist to all this aside from a complete reconfiguration of the model. Music journalism, like journalism more broadly, risks becoming a hobby for those who can afford it. There are too many exploitative practices, too many uncomfortable (and impossible) situations for marginalised writers, and too much erasure of nuance and honesty in the name of pleasing fans, brands, and artists themselves.
Good criticism, documentation and interrogation of art ought to exist hand in hand with art itself: and if a new generation of writers is being shut out of the field entirely, I’m not sure this says anything good about where the quality of music is headed. And when publications can’t take a chance on new writers anymore, odds are they’re not taking a chance on new artists, either.
When people ask me about getting into music journalism, I want to try to help pull through as many voices as possible, because the field will become richer for it. But, in truth, I’m not sure what’s good for the field is necessarily worth it for an individual writer any more.
If we all act collectively to speak honestly about these working conditions in this constantly-shifting arena, maybe we can help alleviate some of these issues and make cultural journalism feel like a career with some longevity.
Maybe we need to create our own platforms, though I have no clue where consistent money for these things can come from.
Each generation seems to have thought, at some point, that media and journalism is in crisis, but it endures all the same: I am hopeful that this remains the case. I’m not ready to stop waxing lyrical on the artists I love yet, even if it feels increasingly thankless.
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