Rock is the new jazz and vinyl’s misleading revival: five things I’ve learned as Guardian music editor | Michael Hann

Im leaving the Guardian after 11 great years covering music years during which a great deal has changed in the way music is created and sold

Today is my last day at the Guardian, after 16 years, the last 11 of which have been spent covering music, and most of them running the Guardians music coverage. I started covering music at a point when downloading was the big threat to the music industry, but physical sales were still dominant; when guitar bands were still dominating the conversation, and still huge; when almost all of the Guardians coverage was in print, rather than online. Oh, how things change. So, if youll bear with me, Id like to offer some brief thoughts on what Ive picked up.

1. Music writing still has a place, but it needs to change

Its a myth that critics could make someone popular. As Sid Griffin, once of the Long Ryders, told me in the course of an epic piece I wrote about the Paisley Underground scene: If press sold records, Captain Beefheart would be a big star. And the influence of critics is less now than ever, simply because people can hear music before they buy, if they have the slightest interest in buying at all. Now, more than ever, what makes or breaks an artist is their music being played, but its no longer about getting on Radio 1: a place on a Spotify playlist will make a bigger impact on a new or little-known artists visibility (and income) than anything else.

Reviews, now, serve the music industry more than they serve readers. Their main purpose, so far as I can tell, is to provide star ratings for press advertisements and to enable artist managers to feel content their client is getting coverage. But music writing itself, I think, is in good health. In print and online, more differing stories are being told than ever before. Terrific writers are finding new ways to tell those stories. That, I believe, is why music journalism will survive, because people will never tire of hearing the stories behind the songs that make them feel alive.

2. Rock music is in its jazz phase

And I dont mean its having a Kamasi Washington/Thundercat moment of extreme hipness. I mean its like Ryan Goslings version of jazz in La La Land: something fetishised by an older audience, but which has ceded its place at the centre of the pop-cultural conversation to other forms of music, ones less tied to a sense of history. Ones, dare I say it, more forward looking. For several years, it seemed, I was asked by one desk or another at the Guardian to write a start-of-year story about how this was the year rock would bounce back. But it never did. The experts who predicted big things for guitar bands each year were routinely wrong. No one asks for that story any longer.

Making rooms go bonkers Catfish and the Bottlemen. Photograph: Andrew Benge/Redferns via Getty Images

Thats not to say rock and guitar bands arent still popular. Plenty of youngish bands can fill decent-sized rooms when they tour, and elicit a febrile response Ive never seen a room go bonkers the way Koko did for Catfish and the Bottlemen a couple of years back, for example. But guitar bands now feel as if they are at the periphery, and I dont see much likelihood of that changing.

3. Dont believe everything you read about how music can make money

Vinyl sales may be increasing every year, by large percentages. But a large percentage increase on very little is still very little. Whats more, as Nat Cramp of Sonic Cathedral wrote on this site, vinyl doesnt make money for many small labels, whose audience doesnt want to pay that much. And thats before we get into how major labels take over pressing capacity in the run-up to Record Store Day, forcing indies to change their release schedules because they simply cant get the records made.

Live music has been widely reported as the saviour for musicians. But while those who can charge a great deal to fill arenas and stadiums might be raking in the cash, hand over fist, that is a tiny minority of a large group of people. Below the top end, everyone venues, promoters, artists struggles. So if you have a local venue, support it. Take a chance on an artist you dont know much about. The future of music depends on people putting in, not just taking out.

4. People are too cynical about the musical industry

Of course, there are spivs and money grubbers, as there are in any industry that has historically promised large and fast returns. But pretty much everyone Ive met who works in music does so because they love it, and they dont make fortunes from it. Music is a remarkably uncorrupt world: theres an awful lot of trust and good faith involved. And it ignites the passions, still. The surest way to get an interview with one of the old lags of rock off to a good start is to ask them about the music they loved when they were 17. You can see their eyes light up as they recall how they fell in love with music.

30 seconds is all it takes music streaming. Photograph: Donald Iain Smith/Getty Images/Blend Images

5. But some cynicism is justified

Technology has vastly increased what record companies know about listeners and their listening habits, just as it has increased what newspapers know about their readers and their reading habits. And the results of this on both parts can be pernicious. At our end, its the reason why we get complaints about endless stories about Adele and Beyonc and Kanye West. Why do we run them? Because people read them. Whereas very few people read stories about the latest underground band we want to rave about. And in music, that knowledge has resulted in commercial music, more than ever before, being made to a formula. I recommend to you a terrific piece by Dorian Lynskey in GQ, of which this is a key section: For a stream to qualify as a sale, it has to play for at least 30 seconds. Most listeners will abandon anything too jarringly different before then, so theres an incentive for artists to draw on a small pool of bankable writers, producers and styles. I call it the shit-click factor, says [Chart UKs James] Masterton. If a record is too challenging, then people will say, Whats this? Its shit, and click on to the next one. There used to be room on the charts for something dynamic and exciting such as the Arctic Monkeys. I cant see the circumstances right now where that could happen.

About the Author

Leave a Comment:

Terms and Conditions | Privacy Policy | Copyright Notice | Anti Spam Policy | Earnings Disclaimer | Health Disclaimers | Terms and Conditions | Privacy Policy