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The murky parameters of modern music journalism

Trey Alston

 // Jul 5, 2018

Anyone can become a contributor to a website or start their own blog, and then write about the tunes that transfix the general public. Music pretty much dominates contemporary culture in all facets, with news outlets regularly reporting on the most minute artist updates more than issues of social justice that dominate our livelihood. Music journalism has become a prevalent force in the global community that is fueled by artists screaming about how it doesn't matter, and for the lucrative opportunities that many in the field go on to get into afterwards. There's so much that it encompasses nowadays, and with little to no barrier to entry, that hip-hop journalism is extremely murky and hard to traverse without casting away morals and keeping journalist integrity in shape.

Without journalism, the world as we know it would crumble. Although the industry is constantly changing, with words decaying away now that the presence of screens dominates the market, roots of the field have become apparent in everything — from social media websites functioning as news hubs that people utilize to remain in the know, to video channels that summarize stories for people too impatient to read a traditional news story. Music journalism is a branch of traditional journalism that reports on the whims of everything involving the sonics, whether it's reviews, criticism, or news hits. It always should involve a objective approach to the news being covered. It's uncompromising, bold, and unflinching — at least it should be, not necessarily at the moment.

In 2018, the lines are blurred to the point that there are nearly no barriers. Writers become artists, artists become writers, journalists have ties to the subjects that they cover; basically, the information that's being reported or analyzed on is untrustworthy. No area is this truer than in hip-hop journalism where the entire industry dances with each other, making it hard to find truly objective work that doesn't need to be taken with a grain of salt.

When Nicki Minaj exploded on a music journalist named Wanna on Twitter (@WannasWorld) for the latter's opinion about her immaturity, the internet itself went up in flames. In the ensuing chaos, the writer was let go from her position at Karen Civil (management said that the exchange had nothing to do with it, but others beg to differ). The Civil Brand was later revealed to be working with artists, all the while engaging in music journalism that frequently covers them. This situation was especially scary, seeing that the opinion was harsh enough to warrant being let go based on surrounding circumstances. If she would have kept her opinion to herself—which she shouldn't have to—would she still be a part of the team?

So is the plight of a music journalist in 2018. Treading waters carefully, and avoiding spitting rhetoric deemed as offensive by artists because there's always a chance that one or two of the genre's iconoclasts may take offense at what a journalist may have to say. The strongest ones are able to avoid this scenario because they're rewarded for their carelessness, but the more vulnerable ones often have to work towards this point, or they're deemed as unnecessarily harsh. On the flip-side of this, there are the writers that become entrenched with the glitz and glamour of literary notoriety, especially in the music scene, prioritizing gaining a good name and a network of connections over offering sincere opinions. They may not be tied to the artists outside of fandom, but this adoration works in tandem with the wish for fame and fortune, skewing their work towards being fluff instead of realistic analysis. It's a delicate dance that some are better at hiding than others, but when it's apparent, something that's universally panned that gets a glowing review from someone participating in the fandom is easily noticeable.

Throughout the industry that journalists cover, musical chairs change as soon as the music s-tops. Brendan Klinkenberg from Complex's Music Editorial Staff now holds a Senior position at Rolling Stone_. Noah Callahan-Bever, Complex's former Editor-In-Chief, now is the Executive Vice President of Brand Strategy & Content at Def Jam. Cheo Hodari Coker, former writer in The Source, pivoted to screenwriting and now is one of the writers and directors for Luke Cage on Netflix. Opportunities come smooth and fast, with knowledge of the culture that bleeds through the world holding more weight than a college degree in a specialized department. As much of a simultaneously scary and exciting meadow of possibilities entrances journalists, artists feel the beckon as well.

Kanye West extended invitations for an orgiastic celebration in Wyoming to many of the identifiable personalities in music journalism ahead of the release of his album ye in early June. With Kanye being one of the biggest names in music, undoubtedly, many of his famous peers (and other media figures that the public salivates to be next to) were in attendance. Inviting the journalists into his space, with this motley crew of celebrity deities was the opportunity of a lifetime for many, even when, in the process, providing a objective review of the album itself would become even harder. How would it be possible to accept an invite and party next to Kanye while being honest about an album that certainly wasn't his best?

The unspoken X-factor that dictates the narrative of the world itself and journalistic coverage is technology; it complicates any and everything. Back when newspapers and true reporting ruled throughout the land, taking pen to paper was the act of dismantling untrue opinion, isolating oneself from the subjects that they reported on, and generally destroying the concept of dated fame that came from television exposure. Today, technology has made fame accessible to any and every one — especially writers with the opportunities to meet their favorite artists. If not to achieve fame, at least, appear to. Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat — four platforms that provide carefully curated stories without background context — enable journalists to spill about their encounters and travels, often for communities of like-minded individuals that live vicariously through them.

Spotlight, the Academy-Award winning film that followed the Boston Globe's investigative unit "Spotlight" in its journey to expose a system of Roman Catholic sexual abuse in the Boston area, painted the newsroom as more than a physical location, but moreso an ideological space for bridging journalistic notions without physical limits. Personal clout was left at the entrance — finding the story became the only focus. But contemporary music journalism finds writers unconcerned with team-wide comradery, instead focusing on showcasing personal proximity to the covered subjects.

So, both artists and journalists are stuck in a pickle of weirdness, like swamp waters that need to be trekked through in straw-colored boots. Artists either disrespect or attempt to sway writers under their wing, while writers often fail to convey true opinion without influence or wish to expound upon their conquests in the pursuit of notoriety. True iconoclasts like Wanna exist, but their existence is a rarity instead of being prevalent.

When music writer Gary Suarez gave an unpopular opinion about rapper Lil Xan's artistry, Xan responded with a threat to get the Suarez blackballed from Noisey, a division of VICE, that is well-revered for its jovial coverage of music. Ultimately, nothing came of the threat, but Xan's readiness to contact Noisey's management personnel because they were good friends of his leaves a sour taste in my mouth. With the Nicki Minajs and Lil Xans of the world that will flex their authority to silence an unsympathetic voice, what hope does the future of the industry hold?

Suarez, through his frequent, unflinching deep-dives into hip-hop's weird relationship with its journalists, has become one of the leading voices calling for an evolution of its coverage. "This music deserves better than these hucksters, hangers-on, and shills," he revealed in a tweet concerning the fallout from Wanna's back-and-forth with Nicki Minaj. In a previous tweet, he summarized the events of the weekend, saying that much of what fans of hip-hop culture consume isn't even close to journalism. If the Karen Civil fiasco did one thing, it was that it revealed that companies often contain personal relationships with the subjects that they cover. It took a left-field situation to reveal that. Just how many more similar cases are out in the blogosphere?

Considering paid placements and journalistic coverage that can often be bought easily thanks to insulting wages and a lack of opportunities, along with the wish to use the convention as another avenue to gain success without an end goal (other than to be seen on social media), indicators of the dismal future of the profession can be seen. Think of it as a complex web of relationships that needs to be untangled before the message cut into the grass can be seen. In one corner, there are the artists that journalists cover, who often believe that they are above criticism because of their net worth or relationships with owners of publications. Then, on the other hand, there are a number of writers who prioritize personal gain and celebrity relationships over journalistic integrity. Identifying the true from the faux is a challenging task that shouldn't be necessary because, in an ideal world, everyone would be in it for the sake of delivering the objective truth or, at least, their version of it. But the sad reality is that the advent of social media and the ability to turn a journalistic career into a lucrative one has poisoned the genre, with artists often using this poison to bait and trap writers in an endless cycle that ends with skewed media like what is largely prevalent today.

There's a bleak future on the horizon for hip-hop journalism. Whether that involves a slow death at the hands of artists willing to extinguish careers, or a press that can be bought and sold to the highest bidder, that much remains to be seen. I'd like to think it will be a version that mixes both depressing methods, with the ultimate goal being that the opinions of fans on social media will be all that matter, thus  eliminating the necessity of music criticism. In a way, this future is coming to fruition — artists often ignore drawing attention to journalism concerning them while responding to fans and showering them with hate or praise. Of course, I might just be thinking silly, but then again, with everything we've been seeing from both sides, is anything really out of the question?


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