The Magic Question

So today’s thinking exercise was going to a SXSW panel called Covering Music In New Media, moderated by my pal Jason Gross. The participants were Michael Azerrad from eMusic, Erik Flannigan of AOL, Amy Phillips of Pitchfork Media, mighty Mark Pucci (one of my favorite publicists) and someone I think was Nick Baily of Shorefire Media, another great publicist. The panel description ended with this sentence:

“Without a reliable and financially sustainable model for online media, what is a rock critic to do?”

Well, yeah.

Naturally, all the folks with dogs in the online media fight — Azerrad, Flannigan, and Phillips — sought to assure everyone that their online publications were as viable as the print ones, as opposed to the many unreliable bloggers and fan-sites. The talked about coping with the flood of product, the fight to maintain some sort of credibility in the face of illegal uploads and rumor-mongering. They said that discussing which online sites will eventually work and which won’t is like asking if Rolling Stone would survive in 1973 — a good point.

What they did not discuss is what every single writer I’ve talked to here has been talking about: there is no paying work. Anywhere. Rumors of magazines going broke abounded, and the most-spoken sentence was “Man, I can’t remember when it was ever this bad.” When I’d respond that I couldn’t, either, I got a shocked look, since I was writing about music something like 20 years before any of these other folks came on the scene. Nobody is making a living any more. Nice to have spent your life learning a trade you can no longer practice and can’t make a living at, eh?

“Great audience at this,” commented the irrepressable Jim Fouratt, who’s been in this business even longer than I have (well, by a year or two). “Half of ’em are dinosaurs and half of ’em are 18-year-olds.” And what we old folks had in common with our spiritual grandchildren was that neither of us can figure out how to make a living doing what we want to do. What we did not have in common with them was that once, we actually did, even if it was never a good one.

In a way, I’m lucky. Writing about art and culture for the Wall Street Journal for all that while liberated me from rock criticism, and I’m less and less interested in writing about (and listening to) music these days. Rock criticism has always paid less than any other cultural commentary, and that hasn’t changed: one major indie-rock mag pays its writers a dime a word. That’s what I got in the early ’70s, and those dimes were worth a whole lot more back then. If I can make the right connection (and getting out of Berlin would help me subject-wise), I’ve got a lot more to write about than ever before. A lot of the poor souls trudging around here are a lot more committed to one subject than I am, or they really don’t want to write about anything else. Or can’t. I’m itching to write about a whole lot of stuff, and I’ve already proven I can.

But where? As general-interest magazines die like there was a plague going around (and actually, I guess there is), the options get more limited, and there are more people competing for less space than ever before.

I sure don’t have any answers, but then, after an hour and a quarter, neither did anyone on Jason’s panel. You either wrote for a website with good writing that doesn’t pay, or you squeezed yourself into someone’s idea that 700 words is just about all anyone needs to write about anything and got paid commensurately. Blender, the reigning paper rock mag, doesn’t allow record reviews of over 80 words, for the most part.

I’ve currently got two book proposals out, neither for a music-related book. I hope one of them will give me the lifeline to make the changes I need in my life so that I can keep on doing the only thing I know how to do well enough to get paid for it. Neither has an agent who’s committed to it yet, though, so I’m living in suspended animation.

And posting on my blog.

Which doesn’t pay.

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