#035: Music Journalism During COVID-19 [SPECIAL EDITION]

I’m Todd L. Burns, and welcome to Music Journalism Insider, a newsletter about music journalism. I highlight some of the best stuff I hear, read, and watch every week; publish news about the industry; and interview writers, scholars, and editors about their work. My goal is to share knowledge, celebrate great work, and expand the idea of what music journalism is—and where it happens. Questions, comments, concerns? You can reach me anytime at music.journalism.insider@gmail.com.

Today, we’ve got a special edition of the newsletter: COVID-19 has everyone terrified right now, and the music journalism world is no different. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a freelance writer, editor, podcaster, vlogger, photographer, PR person, or something else. It’s impossible to say what’s going to happen to the industry in the next few months, and if—or how—our working lives are going to change in the long-term. To get some perspective on what’s already happening, though, I asked Larry Fitzmaurice to write a piece about it. Read on, and be well. 

The coronavirus pandemic is in the process of upending literally every single element of daily life, and that certainly includes the music industry. Untold touring revenue that artists were counting on is lost and gone forever, and it's unlikely that the live music sector will bounce back any time soon; the closing of non-essential businesses in metropolitan cities means that record stores are shuttered with limited means to continuing to push physical product; and anyone who doesn't work for a streaming service will tell you that a potential increase in streaming during life-in-quarantine won’t mean much for artists.

If it seems certain that the pandemic is affecting the music industry negatively, the fate of music journalism is less clear, for now at least. Granted, for anyone who's tried to make a living as a music writer over the past 15 years, "Fate of Music Writing Unclear" might not make for the most compelling headline addressing a subset of journalism and critical writing for which supporting resources have long been in near-constant flux. "Everybody's already trying to find ways to keep things going as it is," City Pages music editor Keith Harris confirms. "It's not like we're coming from a stable way of doing business."

But a few outlets are allegedly already feeling the coronavirus crunch. An electronic music writer who requested anonymity claims that editors at a well-known publication have unofficially stopped taking freelance pitches for the time being, while another is set to announce this week that they're skipping their next print issue, which was set to focus on dance mecca Ibiza as a thematic bent. Besides sharing seemingly similar fates, electronic music publications cover a subset of musical culture predicated on communal gathering—a social phenomena that won't be taking place any time soon. 

As quarterly ad sales eventually decline, it stands to reason that music publications of all stripes will be financially affected in some way, from corporate-owned websites like Uproxx and Pitchfork to alt-weeklies like City Pages that have barely survived the media industry's woes over the past decade, only to face the threat of "total annihilation" as the pandemic's spread grows. "We're somewhat insulated by immediate shocks, at least," Harris claims, citing the Star Tribune ownership of City Pages as a temporary financial bulwark. "But it's hard to get people to advertise when nothing is happening. It's worrisome for us long-term, because we have no idea what the effects will be a month or two from now."

"Historically, economic dips haven't been very good to arts writing," Denver-based writer Sasha Geffen states, citing the beginnings of their own career at the tail end of the last recession in 2009 as well as the constant paucity of well-paying full-time staff jobs as reason for continuing to operate as a full-time freelancer. Although Geffen's early forays in music writing relied heavily on live music coverage, they've since worked much less in that form of criticism as their career has progressed. Currently, Geffen's more occupied with redrawing a promotional plan for their upcoming book Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary, after several events—including one set for the now-postponed AWP Conference in St. Antonio, Texas—have been postponed indefinitely.

"I think live reviews are becoming less important in general, so the fact that concerts are being cancelled en masse doesn't really affect what I do as much," Geffen admits, while making clear that they also anticipate more substantial changes to their workflow in the coming months. Alt-weeklies more typically provide live listings and coverage as a public service, so Harris found his desk immediately shifting to breaking-news mode in the crisis's early days. "The job became responding to things that were being cancelled," he explains. "We could tell we were covering things that were about to become irrelevant by the end of the day." 

After the dust caused by the wave of event postponements and cancellations settled, Harris then turned to covering the flood of livestreams that has taken the concert industry's place. "On Fridays we usually publish blurbs for the coming week's concerts, and now we're posting livestreaming listings with people's Venmo links so they can get paid. It helps repopulate our calendar and give people access to stuff."

But live coverage, for alt-weeklies and elsewhere, is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to navigating aspects of coverage in the era of the coronavirus pandemic. Obviously, in-person profiles—already hanging in the balance as social media has provided artists more direct ways to set their own public narratives—are off the table indefinitely ("There's only so much mileage you can get out of phoners," Harris says), and even music criticism—a core tenet of music writing, well before Pitchfork brought the decibel system into the fray—seems superfluous to some.

"It's a wartime mentality right now," he claims. "Our mission has temporarily shifted to a non-adversarial mode. This is not the time for criticism—it's time to get the word out there that people are trying to survive." Celebrities singing “Imagine” aside, Geffen, who claims criticism as their main beat, takes a slightly more ambivalent position regarding the subject: "I've struggled, as a lot of writers do, with the value of a negative review in general. But it's still important to engage with music that hits you, even as I'm in solidarity with all musicians right now, whether or not their music appeals to me. But I don't know whether it makes sense to not write negative reviews because of that. If anything, when I write a negative review I'm disappointing the publicists the most—but I feel in solidarity with them too." 

Of course, griping about full inboxes and "checking in" emails from music publicists is part of how many music journalists express themselves on social media—and Jacob Daneman, Senior National Publicist at Pitch Perfect PR, admits to feeling the heat a bit more than usual in the age of the pandemic. "Some editor at Teen Vogue or whatever tweeted something cynical and dismissive about publicists in general, and that sucks," he sighs. "We're just trying our best, and we still have a job to do right now—and we're lucky that we have one." 

Daneman is approaching his job with more caution than ever, especially when it comes to the emotional labor of continuing business as usual amidst so much large-scale uncertainty: "It's completely uncharted waters when it comes to how to navigate what people feel comfortable with, and what I feel comfortable asking people. It's like two people in the dark asking what works for each other." Publicists aren't the only professionals feeling their way around the emptiness at the moment. After SXSW was cancelled earlier this year, Brooklyn-based photographer Ryan Muir saw what he cites as a 75% loss of potential work, his schedule totally cleared of employment "for the foreseeable future." 

This past weekend, he linked up with Houston-hailing rapper Fat Tony to produce a livestreamed concert from yet-to-open Brooklyn venue Purgatory, which doubled as a fundraiser for the Houston Food Bank.  "I was already thinking about what I could do with all my equipment, and where my skills would be useful again when things settle down a bit," he explains. "You can make a compelling production—it doesn't just have to be some guy sitting in a living room with a guitar."

"All I can do is be responsive to the situations that keep changing around us," Muir continues. His outlook is a decent stab at optimism in extremely pessimistic times; for a veteran like Harris, the distant past alone is enough not to overdose on fatalism—for the time being, anyway. "If you had asked me in 2006 what media would be like right now, I would've thought it would be worse, honestly. I think things are bad, and I think they're gonna get worse—I'm just surprised they haven't gotten worse faster."

Big thanks to Larry for putting this together. If you’d like to read more of his work, a good starting place would be his Twitter

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