2. Rock music is in its jazz phase
And I don’t mean it’s having a Kamasi Washington/Thundercat moment of extreme hipness. I mean it’s like Ryan Gosling’s 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 each year were routinely wrong. No one asks for that story any longer.
Which reminds me of an article about something called the Shazam Effect
Billboard replaced its honor system with hard numbers in 1991, basing its charts on point-of-sale data from cash registers. “This was revolutionary,” says Silvio Pietroluongo, Billboard’s current director of charts. “We were finally able to see which records were actually selling.” Around the same time, Billboard switched to monitoring radio airplay through Nielsen.When that happened, hip-hop and country surged in the rankings and old-fashioned rock slowly began to fade—suggesting that perhaps an industry dominated by white guys on the coasts hadn’t paid enough attention to the music interests of urban minorities and southern whites.
Rock hasn't gone away but is not necessarily the prevailing style. If you think about how long a run rock had as "the" dominant musical style in popular music it had a pretty long bubble. Prior to the emergence of rock (vague though that term is) musical fads were still fads. Ragtime was hugely popular for about a decade and receded. Blues and jazz were immensely popular from about the 1930s through 1940s. But let's note that even as we look at the history of jazz there are epochs, suggesting that jazz may denote a musical heritage with crests and waves. Big band gave way to jump bands and bebop and bop and seeds of rock. Rock was a synthesis of elements from a variety of previously existing styles and idioms and that synthesis had a long run ... but it's a synthesis that was only going to go so far. Kyle Gann mentioned in a blog post that in this century he's come across classes full of students where not a single one of them has heard a Beatles song. When a commenter remarked on what a tragedy this was Gann's reaction was, if memory serves, to say he never liked the Beatles when he heard them in his youth and so he hardly misses them now.
It may well be the decline of the guitar-driven rock band as "the" popular musical style has been going on since practically the end of the Cold War for all we do or don't know.
So there's that but from 1. there's this:
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.
Maybe Hann undersold this part. A certain music critic/composer said that criticism ensures something written about music isn't just PR but in a lot of ways even criticism is a kind of public relations for musical work. A bad review is still a review, after all. But to the extent that reviews can establish where in the prestige ladder they can establish how people in the industry think or feel they should assess something. So while Ben Johnston's string quartets have gotten some friendly write-ups here in the United States since the Kepler Quartet recorded them for British classical coverage it's like those albums never happened. If you want to bathe yourself in the string quartets of Brian Ferneyhough on the other hand ... .
Except back in 2014 Scott Timberg (not too surprisingly) lamented what he regarded as the death of music journalism.
Maybe that was ... pre-Salon gig? I forget. ... yup. Well, maybe Timberg has felt slightly differently since landing a job at Salon?
For that matter, also in 2014, Ted Gioia lamented that, if anything, music writing is worse now than it's been in a long time because it's not really writing about music so much as it's become lifestyle reporting.
and earlier ... Gioia published a conversation with himself about the role criticism and writing could play in promoting the health of jazz as a musical art:
Of course, you probably think jazz writers are the good guys here? I only wish that were true. Jazz critics are key factors in educating the audience and keeping the art form healthy. But critics need to realize that their main responsibility is to the audience. Not to their friends among the musicians, or to other critics, whom they try to impress. How many jazz writers today really demonstrate that commitment to the audience?
A half-century ago, the critical function got corrupted. This happened around the time art critic Clement Greenberg found that he could make his name and reputation by jumping on the bandwagon for Jackson Pollock.
What was so wrong about that?
Nothing was inherently wrong about it—at least at first. But the rules of the game changed, and critics learned that they could enhance their reputations if they were the first to jump on the next new thing.
Critics have to make choices. Do they write about the serious artist who is quietly building a body of outstanding work over a period of years? Or do they constantly jump from fad to fad, trying to pinpoint what is going to be hot during the next six months. I would suggest that a critic frequently must make a choice between these two goals. Either you focus primarily on work of the highest quality, or you try to anticipate the next flavor of the month.
"Did you ever have to make up your mind," as the old song goes. Many critics eventually decided to do the thing that enhanced their own reputation the most. Guess which choice they made.
You make it sound so bad.
In truth, the jazz critics handled this dilemma better than critics in other art forms. At least for the most part. Jazz has always prided itself on judging music by how it sounds. But that isn't always the case in other forms of music. I recently met a scholar who had written a paper on John Cage, and found that it caused some controversy, because he analyzed Cage's music on the basis of how it sounded, rather than on the basis of its "compositional strategies."
How strange, that a music writer would get called to the carpet for paying attention to the sound of the music. Isn't music all about how it sounds? Yet this tells you something about the state of mind across the fence in the world of contemporary classical music. Fortunately things never got quite that bad on the jazz scene. The jazz critics still listen to the music, for the most part, and are influenced by what their ears tell them when they write their reviews. Of course, that begs the question of how much they hear . . .
Sorry to cut you off. But does it really matter what the critics say?
It certainly does. When critics try to impress each other, rather than fulfill their responsibility to the audience, the audience feels shortchanged. And, eventually, the audience shrinks.
How often have you bought a CD because of a critic's recommendation, only to find that it was almost unlistenable? More often than you want to admit, huh? If you are a dedicated fan, you might keep on buying more CDs even after that experience. But many intelligent members of the general public, who might have become serious jazz fans, got turned away by this corruption of critical standards.
Another way of phrasing that would be to say what Alex Ross lately said, that criticism is still journalism, even if it's a weird roundabout sort of journalism.