Music Critics 2017 Music Journalism in the Digital Age

Music journalism has changed – the era of critic-popes is over.
Music journalism has changed – the era of critic-popes is over. | Photo ⓒ Ralf Dombrowski

Music criticism today seems to be being ground down between ratings, business interests and the exploitation of trainees. The last greats in the field such as Joachim Kaiser are dead. What remains are prospects lying between aspiration and hobby. Or?

In 2009 Joachim Kaiser (1928-2017) responded in his video column to the audience question about why music critics are needed. “The world doesn’t need music critics”, he said, only then elaborately to explain why music critics nevertheless exist: in a world of excessive information, music criticism has the function of absorbing some of the disinformation that overburdens the citizen. This task has not grown slighter since Kaiser spoke, but the opportunities to accomplish it have.

Not that music journalism has not always been subject to changes, especially in Germany. A brief historical survey makes this clear. After a heyday of bourgeois music criticism in the 1920s, with figureheads such as Alfred Kerr and Alfred Polgar, and the great cultural rupture brought about by fascism (above all, in a Europe overrun by the Nazis), pluralism of opinion and the judgement of artistic work according to democratic standards and with professional competence had to be painstaking learned and practiced after 1945.

A re-learned cultural technique

In the case of classical music, the “re-learning” of composers such as Ravel, Bartok and Stravinsky, and works by others already known in the rest of the world and particularly those of the New Music, became the pacesetter for the reappraisal of the past, which got started slowly enough even in “free” West Germany. In addition to the interpretative criticism of the newspapers art section, a composition criticism developed on the radio, both linked by the re-appearance of the journals Melos and Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt, whose writings were banned under the Nazis, was installed at the Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung and became the pioneering doyen of West German music criticism, later followed by “star critic” colleagues such as Heinz-Josef Herbort in the Zeit and Joachim Kaiser in der Süddeutsche Zeitung. The marginal area of jazz was dominated by Joachim Ernst Berendt, as a kind of universal impresario.

Talking about music: the former critic-pope Joachim Kaiser, source: YouTube

With the 1968 movement at the latest, rock and roll and pop were established as expressions of a now market-dominating youth culture, which generation after generation was accompanied by changing hegemonial but clearly demarcated styles and which became part of the traditional, serious music journalism beyond fanzines and coverage by aficionados. The 1970s and 90s were accordingly not only the commercial golden age of the music industry, but also the heyday of a well-practiced and well-attuned music criticism.

Crisis of criticism

But since, at the latest, the turn of the millennium, the music industry has been in constant crisis, caught up in a process of radical transformation bought about by digitalization and the internet. The production process, the carrier medium, the exploitation chain and, to a certain extent, even the performance of music – all this has changed fundamentally. And within only a few years these changes also made themselves felt in the media landscape and so in music journalism. Even the object of its reflection has changed, and all the more its working conditions. If before the music critic was the privileged “doorkeeper”, who received albums before everyone else, had to share his impressions of a concert with comparatively few other listeners, and enjoyed exclusive access to the performing artists, music today is being released almost simultaneously to everyone. Live impressions may easily be had at any time and by anyone at YouTube and other portals, and most artists disseminate the items that reputedly everyone wants to know straightforwardly on social media.

The era of critic-popes à la Stuckenschmidt und Kaiser is over. The online society, accelerated in real time, produces not only more and more music with more and more genres and boundary-crossing styles, but also a well-nigh perplexing number of more or less critical recipients with their own homepages, blogs and postings. Because of this competition, music criticism in the old style has lost immensely not only in recognition, importance and influence; the professionalism of the entire field is on the rocks. And this applies not only to the quality of the texts or contributions. It constitutes a structural change, leading from experts to hobbyists, from journalists to bloggers.

No money, no opinion

The introduction of degree programmes in music criticism at the universities (for example, at Dortmund in 2015) runs parallel to the decline of traditional media. The circulation of the most important German music magazines has long been falling and, taken together, amounts now to less than half of that of Spiegel. Several magazines such as Klassik heute (Classic Today) and JazzZeitung (Jazz Newspaper) are available only in online editions, while others such as Sono and the Austrian Jazzzeit (Jazz Time) have been completely discontinued. The position of imported magazines is made all the more difficult by free competition such as Intro.

The magazine publishers, in turn, battered by the collapse of the advertisement market, have been economizing by cutting more and more positions for specialized music editors and specialist freelancers. And the public service media, although fee-financed, stare at the ratings and seek their salvation in the levelling “trimedial” cooperation of television, online and radio. Radio is in any case already increasingly oriented to mainstream format radio, where you now hear almost no instrumental music but only sung pop. Current example: the replacement of the broadcaster BR Klassik, which will disappear from the air onto online and digital radio, by the youth pop wave BR Puls.

The luxury of specialism

Most music journalists can hardly earn a living any more from their learned craft, whether in reviews, interviews or context and background reports; most keep their heads above water with secondary jobs or PR. What then does a stocktaking of the current situation look like? The crisis of the music industry and of music journalism is not a crisis of music itself. From classical music to jazz, and even from the currently creatively somewhat stagnant pop scene, there are more good musicians and exciting music than ever before on this planet. The problem lies in the communication of this music. The traditional media have let reviewing wither, bank on the mainstream and shrink even further the niches for everything unconventional. And contrary to what is generally maintained, the mass phenomena of online and social media make the tendency to pay attention only to the known and already noticed stronger. And yet the need for critical, quality music journalism amidst this new confusion – let us recall the words of Joachim Kaiser quoted at the beginning of this article – is greater than ever.