Thursday, 17 December 2009

DECADE


When I began writing about music online just over eight years ago, there were perhaps four or five really good music blogs on the go; well-written, thought-through and genuinely passionate blogs which told their readers something about their writers and provoked or persuaded them to go out and find the music about which they wrote so evocatively.

The field was open, and for a while we had it all to ourselves. Free to invent styles, formats, approaches, with real interaction – probably because there were far fewer bloggers with whom to interact.

Come 2003 or thereabouts and the sphere inevitably expanded; new names came on the scene and it was livened up considerably but in the increasing clamour there developed a tendency to shout, just to be heard. A tendency towards argument for argument’s sake. The setting up of defences, hostile relations, a distinct aggressiveness. The urge to stamp one’s feet in the hope of getting the lion’s share of the job market oil.

The mp3 blogs – all function and customer service, largely minimal critical input - pretty well took over, and Facebook, MySpace, Twitter et al have all done their bit to regress blogs back to a state where the tired trope of blogs as vanity publishing for writers who can’t get a proper job may at least in part be justified (Twitter, if nothing else, demands concision; twenty consecutive 140-character streams of a semi-written article clogging up my inbox are unlikely to keep me following you).

At the opposing end of this decade many music blogs appear to be written by bitter and resentful people. But the same could be said of most music writing, whether online or in print.

What’s more, most of the music blogs which matter – i.e. those with interesting, well-conceived and genuinely informative writing – tend to specialise in niche markets. There’s a blog out there to satisfy every individual. But there are precious few capable of standing back and viewing the whole picture, putting everything together, coherently or otherwise. And again, it’s the same story with music magazines.

The depressingly regular air of negativity, usually undertaken in the venerable old student magazine manner of sarcastic satire – because it absolves the writer of any need to believe in anything – pervades 2009 music writing like a recalcitrant virus. It is of course the tried and tested route to popularity, helps make your name as a critic or helps re-establish your name if you’re getting to a certain age and the work’s beginning to dry up. And to be fair, many of the writers in question have families to feed and there’s a recession on.

But a life of slagging stuff off is the easiest of all lives. It’s child’s play to sit down and scribble 300 splenetic words on so-and-so or such-and-such, or else utilise statistics (since any set of statistics can be manipulated to produce the outcome you desire) or school debating society level strategies on behalf of the writers who will argue, with plenty of substantive evidence, that it’s Monday when actually it’s Thursday. Easy to pen a slag-off. And it feels good as well, doesn’t it? Cleanses you, as though you’d just been to the bathroom. Takes a load of responsibilities off your back.

Trouble is, the difficult stuff takes skill and talent. That is, constructing a well-written, properly-argued piece, taking all available evidence into account and remembering never to take your own views or prejudices for granted. That takes time and effort and is therefore not encouraged in today’s must-have-80-words-by-yesterday marketplace. Also, quality writing takes time, patience, dedication and not a little skill to read. If it’s ambiguous or densely layered, then it doesn’t make headlines and thus ends up unread.

Message boards too. There are message boards and fora for every prejudice and passion and they all end up the same; populated by bitter and resentful people who have found a target for the inner fury, rage and pseudo-authority which they are unable to project in their normal lives. The kind of person to whom tetchiness is as natural and instinctive as breathing. Not the sort of place for the sensitive and troubled type who will most likely be bullied, ridiculed, driven out of the “community” and, in extreme cases. perhaps a little closer to suicide. Or the ordinary reader looking for creative exchanges of ideas and information.

What I eventually realised, years after I ought to have done, was that far greater rewards are to be gained by transferring the time and energy spent contributing to message boards to your own writing. Build your own castle instead of squatting in others. You’ll be happier and much more fulfilled in the end. And I haven’t regretted leaving the message boards behind at all.

I do regret not posting more about the music of now – or indeed of any time – on this blog but Then Play Long has become my priority work, and rightly so; I’m extremely proud of it and what it has achieved, even though I fully realise that this will be the work of a lifetime and that I may not live to tell the full story (unless, by the time I reach 2009 in approximately seventeen years’ time, albums have long since absented the market). In addition, of course, there has been the book of this blog to put together – fifty or so of its best/most representative posts – and various other projects to consider. Not to mention my actual life.

As far as this year is concerned, there will definitely be a list to come, probably soon after the New Year (but, with any luck, much sooner than February!), and as with last year’s it will be distinctly different from any other list doing the rounds. We have no plans for end-of-decade lists. This is in part because there is a crucial year missing within me – 2001 – and I need to address that time in belated detail. But there is also the fact that the various lists which have emerged are pretty dreary and identikit. The trouble is that everyone seems to be voting for records which they think will get in the top ten, rather than their ten actual favourite records – which of course would make infinitely more interesting reading – and the inevitable mass consensus culminates in the predictable and unrewarding results.

Oh, and one more thing. Comments boxes. I would estimate that approximately 90% of comments which get posted to my blogs get rejected. Even allowing for spammers and trolls, it’s an unusually high proportion but the reasons for my hardcore approach to comments are simply that I don’t consider my blogs to be brick walls upon which any passing gimp can spray whatever they want. I have the final say in what gets published and really anything that doesn’t have an element of punctum to it, regardless of who posted it, gets binned. In particular I’m keen to dissuade the type of commenter usually referred to as a “nitpicker.” The blind man finding fault in the elephant. The person obsessed with finding the one wrong thing in an argument rather than celebrating the thousand things that are right about it. Nothing wrong with correcting misconceptions or facts if they’re wrong, of course, but if the information is delivered in a tetchy manner – and you recognise that after eight years of dealing with it – then I’ll simply incorporate corrections (if of course they are actually correct) into the piece and not publish the comment. This demonstrates respect for the time and intelligence of visitors to these blogs, and encourages commenters to raise their standards. Blogging is still in its infancy, and arguably still learning to walk, talk and think; but its best examples have I feel proved themselves to be as profound and life-changing as any great literature of the past.

And to any new visitors, I say; if you come to my blogs with an open mind (since music writing is currently being suffocated by writers who won’t or can’t change their minds), a keenness to learn and a willingness to question your own opinions and feelings (as well as mine, provided that it doesn’t get personal or hurtful), then I think you’ll enjoy them.

And finally, from someone who has in the last eight years been guilty of all of the above sins, and far, far worse, I wish you happy reading, and an even happier 2010.