Meet the Press: Journalists on Music (and Surviving the 21st Century) by Willa Rohrer
Sandow introduced the topic for discussion as “changes in culture over the last couple of decades and their effect on music and on criticism,” noting that one could spend an entire day (“and get into a lot of fights”) merely attempting to describe those changes. But a humorous comment by Daniel Webster, who wrote for the Inquirer from 1964 to 1999, cut right to the heart of the matter. “Since I was only a classical reviewer/critic,” he confessed jokingly, “I was a little worried when I came in because there was an enormous dumpster put on the street right in front of Curtis, and I wondered if it had my name on it.” Turning serious, he added, “Because I certainly worry about the future of criticism in this field. As the field has its own problems, so do the critics who are writing about it.” Despite the somber tone of this statement, Webster described in optimistic terms two recent pieces (each about an interdisciplinary, experimental classical performance) by the Inquirer’s two remaining classical critics, calling the articles “an interesting effort to broaden the field, to find perhaps the crack in the wall that will lead them into the next step in classical music.” He added, “Because I still believe that classical music has an enormous future as well as a glorious past. I hope the dumpster is only for me and not for the music itself.” Webster’s hypothetical dumpster dive raised a question that would recur throughout the discussion: what is the relationship between the critic and his or her public? If the wider culture marginalizes (or “trashes”) certain forms of music, does the critic have the obligation—or the ability—to change public perception? Ben Ratliff, who has been a jazz critic at the Times since 1996, noted that advocacy is something certain readers expect: “I hear all the time from people who are essentially saying, ‘You gotta help jazz! Jazz is like a baby seal dying on the beach!
On May 21st, 2007, PMP convened four prominent music journalists for a panel discussion about recent trends in arts criticism. On stage, former Philadelphia Inquirer classical music critic Dan Webster, Associated Press editor and critic Nekesa Moody, and New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff were joined by moderator Greg Sandow, a composer and former critic who has written about classical and pop music for The Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly, and the Village Voice. Do something about it!’” He continued, “I understand the need for advocacy, and definitely sometimes I function that way. But on the other hand, I’m conflicted about it, because I don’t trust a critic who comes across to me as a blind advocate. I feel that the critic really has to have some room to say, ‘Well, you know, I support that in theory, I’m really glad it’s happening, but yeesh, I don’t like it.’ “And yet at the same time, I really do believe in how important it is to have a kind of community around jazz, or around other kinds of improvised music. Stadium rock will take care of itself; I’m not talking about that. But the community is important and worth fostering. I’m just not sure if it’s my job to always stand up and wave the flag…” Ratliff said that jazz music itself is doing fine—he is continually encouraged by what he hears being played—but agreed with Sandow’s suggestion that its audience needs to be replenished. Ratliff attributed New York jazz’s “audience problem” to the way the city’s demographics have shifted in the past several years: “Entire neighborhoods are changing rapidly because normal people are being priced out. That gives a whole new crowd of New Yorkers who may or may not be interested in going to see jazz, right? They can certainly afford the cover charges, but are they going to go? And this is where we’re running into trouble.” This crowd, said Ratliff, would be willing to go see Jazz at Lincoln Center, but is probably not likely to spontaneously “catch the second set” at a club. Of course, as Sandow pointed out, the cultural changes discussed by Webster and Ratliff have affected more than music: in the digital era, newspapers themselves are facing an audience crisis. Leaner revenue means leaner mastheads, particularly PMP 52
Left to right: Dan Webster; Ben Ratliff; Nekesa Moody; Greg Sandow
05.21.07 in Arts & Entertainment sections; there seems not only to be less and less space for arts criticism, but fewer staff critics to write it. For Nekesa Moody—who first joined the Associated Press as a general assignment reporter in 1992 and is now its music editor and writer—space is not in short supply. Nor does her beat (pop) have the same “audience problem” as Ratliff and Webster’s. However, she observed a certain reluctance on the part of her editors to take chances on independent artists, or to provide more nuanced coverage of musical genres with a “specialized” audience. For instance, though Moody knew her focus would be pop, she had also hoped to do a greater variety of classical music features. But she noted that most of the classical stories she finds herself writing have an obligatory “human interest” angle, and are geared just as much towards Oprah viewers as classical fans (The 5 Browns, whom Moody profiled, were indeed featured on Oprah). AP’s Internet division is growing rapidly—and along with it, editorial demand for stories with multi-media components. Moody expressed concern about how the shift in focus from print to Internet changes the way we read, and the kind of expectations that we bring to bear on a piece of writing. “I’m a little bit worried. For journalists these days I think there’s going to be more of a push, first of all to do it all—to do the audio, do the video part—but also I think that especially as we move more online things are becoming shorter, less in-depth.” Moody noted that her short pieces get many more hits on the Internet than her thousand-word features, which leads her to wonder, “as newspapers shift and space becomes smaller, and people have more of an online shift, are they going to want the thousand-word feature on even, let’s say, a 50 Cent or a Michael Brecker?” Sandow agreed that the issue of depth represents a “major sea-change” in the way the arts are covered. But is something besides depth and length being lost? As communities of listeners become more fragmented, are communities of readers, too? Reflecting upon his career, Webster said, “I think that I left when classical music was still an essential part of life in the city, and part of the intellectual conversation. And I think the joy of my writing was that I was part of a very active daily conversation about the meaning of music in the community. We had space, we had time. I wrote every day. And I thought we were simply laying another stone every day in this mosaic that would show what classical music meant in a city and a country.” And yet on the whole, the panel seemed wary of engaging in any histrionic hand-wringing about the death of serious music and serious writing, the disintegration of America’s collective attention-span, the corrupting influence of the iPod Shuffle. Though the discussion revealed certain anxieties about the future of music and criticism, the panelists seemed to agree there is also
something to be gained from these changes. In Ratliff’s mind, “There is one sense in which criticism is dying or whatever. But there’s another sense in which there’s so much of it that we can’t keep track of it. And my feeling, especially with jazz and pop criticism is, it’s gotten to a point where I often read a review of a new record or a concert or something and think, ‘Yeah, that looks pretty much like a jazz review.’ And I’m instantly bored and I just want to move on. And I feel like this is the lesson that we should all be learning: that there’s got to be something new that we can do. Either just in prose and the way we’re hearing music and translating it through our fingertips, or conceptually, in how do we cover something, asking different questions of it… coming at it from a different angle. I think that’s all useful and good and… inevitable.” “Maybe the Holy Grail,” mused Sandow, “is to be able to do the fast hot stuff and the slow cool thoughtful stuff together. And the Web certainly ought to make that possible.” In short: do not go gentle into that good dumpster, Mr. Webster.