Saturday, February 27, 2010

The narrative princess and the online ogre

Part one: Long story short? 

The following articles represent a series of reflections on the process of starting a music magazine. More particularly, on whether revitalizing long form music journalism might be a breath of fresh air or just a sad attempt to turn grandma’s wedding dress into contemporary streetwear. It might turn, as some point, intro a real-life product. Just as well, I may end up accepting that history never repeats itself, although it would sure love to.

If you’re here for the pictures, please excuse my wordiness and move on to the next post. Or the previous. Or wherever you want, there’s plenty of fun stuff to waste some time with around here. 

Read  part two
Read part three


In the first part of Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, Lester Bangs talks, among other things, about Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. After the introduction, he starts by describing three TV appearances that made him climb the walls and move the band from the earthly, crowded middle shelf of rock’n roll bands straight up to the heavenly upper shelf of rock'n roll gods. One leads to the other and he ends up talking about offering human refuse the ultimate respect that it deserves and about the redemption that comes from staring right into the eye of misery without trying to rationalize it.

The article (or, better said, the essay) counted around 3700 words. It was published in 1979 and reading it instantly gives you the feeling that you need to listen to that record, to be a part of that almost mystic experience – otherwise, you might miss some possibly life changing revelation. Some say you don’t need so many words for that. I’m wondering how anyone could squeeze it in 500 words or less.

It is still debatable whether music journalism has committed suicide by burying, year after year, increasingly more articles of the kind that treated writing about music like writing about more than just about music. That took into account the experience of listening and looked at the bigger picture, rather than being satisfied with the limited angle of summing up the latest releases of the band, future gigs, ticket sales and musical influences.

However, I think that the issue is worth discussing, from one simple reason: because in a time where information is flooding every waking second of our lives, the advantage of the scoop is no longer enough to differentiate yourself from the competition. You need to engage your audience, to make your readers feel that they are being offered more, that they are a part of something larger. As Jason Fry suggests, no longer being part of an Or World, but of an And World, where everything is interconnected, means any exclusive rights on information are long gone, which makes standing out extremely difficult. It’s no longer about how much readers get from you, but about how you deliver your package.

Some argue that you cannot fight the numbers. That whatever attracts large crowds makes for good business. And if the average internet user is the fast moving individual, who is reading the latest news during lunch, "while his boss is at the door and his voicemail light is on" (as Josh Tyrangiel describes him), then the battle is already lost.

But can we really limit ourselves to that? Can we imagine that all the people who would not skip to the next page after the first three paragraphs have been devoured by this shapeless mass of modern yuppies, leaving behind a lot of dead trees in form of books that nobody really touches anymore?

Gerry Marzorati argues that some people will always choose the long story over the short one. After all, it all depends on which audiences you're serving. Of course, this sounds like a sensible statement. But are the people still interested in good writing, thorough reporting, narrative pieces - that can compete with well written novellas - surfing the web? Or are they in fact the only ones that are keeping the print industry alive?

To try to answer that question, I think that we should return to something I’ve already mentioned: the need to differentiate yourself from the competition. To that I’d add the consequences of the passer-by phenomenon, that sometimes make the all-powerful numbers irrelevant, driving publications to focus more on their loyal audiences, a core of sometimes as few as 15 to 20% of all the readers. Sometimes, it's the people that come back more than twice a month and that remember what they’ve read that really matter, as opposed to the one time visitors who come across the website through Google or external links and the moment they close the tab they can’t even remember the name of the site.

Therefore, in these cases, less is more, and accepting that can help us take one more step into untangling the strings of the long form journalism dilemma, answering the question: who would pay for long form journalism in a time when most of the information on the web is free, while a quality cover story, for example, can cost the paper up to 40,000$?

The answer might lie in advertising. But if we take into account that long form journalism only appeals to a limited number of individuals, with a lifestyle that permits them to spend one hour in front of the computer reading an article of a few thousand words, then we have a new problem. Who would pay to advertise, if the message only goes to a small crowd? Well, it’s not all about how many people are exposed to the message, but also about how many of them react to it. Smaller crowds mean efficiently targeted audiences. This means that the impact of any form of advertising is stronger.

Then again, the relevance of long form music journalism nowadays is a problem that goes way further than answering these basic questions. Nonetheless, I believe that the first step in solving it is to understand the broader image, and then try to focus on particular aspects of it. Who is willing to read long form music journalism today - and pay for it, and how can this genre still exist in a world where people read the newspapers on their Blackberrys, is an issue that I will try to tackle in the next posts.

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