The benefits of subverting traditional norms within music journalism.
This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.
Antiquation is an inevitability in any line of professional work, demanding reactive updates as norms and practices evolve. How we collectively respond to the gradual changes in a given profession isn’t just a question of staying current, but also a question of ethics. On micro and macro scales, this has held true for centuries, across numerous fields. Labor laws have been introduced to curb working hours, employment age, and to further define acceptable conduct. HR and PR firms have repeatedly changed their guidelines regarding expectation based on public (and private) perceptions of moral behavior. In music journalism, too, we’re constantly challenged to question how we do things and the ethical boundaries we draw.
A basic long-standing expectation and rule of journalism writ large is that an author and a subject of a piece should not be connected. The assumption is that—if you’re friends with someone you’re writing about, for instance—bias will play a role in the reporting. Typically, this type of interpersonal author-subject relationship falls under the umbrella of “conflict of interest.” As with any journalistic norm, the truth is that publications enforce this differently and often selectively. Sometimes a publication’s overall scrupulousness is a non-negotiable identity marker, and sometimes an editor decides the value of the information in an article outweighs the concerns about a conflict of interest. Within music journalism, writers and editors don’t make these decisions with nefarious intent, at the core of most instances is a genuine reverence for the material or subject at hand. Often, the connections between a writer and a piece’s subject are beneficial to both the article and its readership.
Music journalism has been rife with debate over the incorporation, utility, and determinations regarding conflicts of interest for decades. Relationships between author and subject can get very intertwined in a music world that increasingly consists of small, insular niches. That’s an unavoidable case for local niches, especially in smaller markets like Madison. If you know enough about local music here to write insightfully about it, you will invariably have friends and acquaintances firmly positioned in that world. And more than likely, you play music yourself.
I have had friends and acquaintances write positively about the music I’ve made and I’ve written positively about the music my friends and acquaintances have made, though we’ve always made sure to disclose those relationships explicitly. In sections outside of music, these overlaps would register as an extreme taboo, given the obtuse expectation of total impartiality in journalism. (I cannot stress this enough: objectivity is a myth. Everything is political. Pretending that neither are true is an exercise in absurdity.)
In 2015, I wrote a piece for AdHoc that examined the disappearing borders of the author-subject relationship in music journalism. I spent the better portion of that year in Brooklyn, working at professional music venues, as a mailroom assistant for bands, and helping out at local DIY venues. Writers who had staff jobs at some of the more high-profile music publications would write about their friends’ bands and they wouldn’t always disclose their proximity. It wasn’t treated as scandalous because it had become the expectation: those publications wanted passionate writers who were actively involved in the NYC music scene. Liz Pelly, Matthew James-Wilson, Loren DiBlasi, Gabriela Tully Claymore, Meredith Graves, Zachary Lipez, and Suzy Exposito were all among the many, many people who wound up splitting time between writing about music and making music. Their work in both respects benefitted from their accumulated experience.
As the Internet expanded people’s access to music, it also gave people more opportunities to aggressively cultivate and differentiate musical niches. When the world got unfathomably big, people gravitated towards the pockets they found most suitable to their tastes. Circles shrank but were exponentially larger in number. As a result, experts in specific and generalized areas became harder to find, as the end result of that access encompassed a legitimate inability for anyone to keep up. (At the peak of my old blog‘s run, it wasn’t uncommon for me to get 150+ pitches a day, and it was barely a blip on the national radar.)
Writers who weren’t involved directly with the movements and sub-movements that were happening in their circles dropped in number. Media companies accelerated those changes with harsh and predatory business practices. Publications folded. Pay rates dropped. Everything got more cutthroat, for everyone. Artists remained invested, as did a small handful of exceedingly passionate writers who weren’t scared off by a daunting ritualistic grind that would result in, more likely than not, minimal return. Within that pool, the likelihood of those writers being musicians grew exponentially. Expertise within a niche became prized on both the local and national levels of music journalism because it offers a direct route to compelling, under-the-radar stories.
For example: there is no possible way I would have known that Colin Bares’ Short Songs For No One series was happening had our paths not crossed in Stevens Point’s local DIY music circuit many, many years ago. Bares is emblematic of the issues with conflicts of interest in music journalism: we know each other because I was a vocal fan of the music he had been making both as a solo artist and as a member of the band Good Grief. We’ve lived in the same city on numerous occasions, so I became intimately familiar with Bares’ career path, sharing numerous bills by virtue of both overlapping interests and proximal necessity. All of the information and experience collected during the time we spent in the same spaces allowed greater insight that I could directly apply to the piece. Similar conditions informed my February 2021 profile of Graham Hunt and have applied to multiple other pieces, from both myself and other Tone musician/writers.
Tone Madison has done its best to be mindful of interpersonal overlap as it relates to our music coverage. We’ve likely had to deal with it on a more frequent basis than any other Madison publication, given the number of active/current musicians in our freelance roster and on our editorial staff, myself included. We have been extraordinarily careful to avoid anything that has even a hint of potential self-promotion, with the potential exception of our Contributors compilation, in which our experience and involvement as active musicians in Madison was literally the point, and the recent To Grow A Garden compilation, which further underscored the communally equitable approach we’ve taken with our music coverage.
We will continue to be mindful of judgment and we will intervene in the cases where we suspect someone may be overstepping their boundaries. Our writers, to their credit, have been hyper-aware of these boundaries and killed pieces in the rare instances where they could no longer conceivably separate themselves from the subject. These instances have been incredibly rare but they have continued to raise the question of where the modern borders to interpersonal conflicts of interest lie. At this point in time, it has become abundantly clear that there’s more to be gained than there is to be lost in, questioning the decrepit, hardline standards that would scuttle a lot of today’s music journalism pieces before their first lines were written.
As Tone Madison moves towards ending the 2022 years and beginning 2023, we’ll continue to make efforts towards transparency. Consider this piece as a part of that whole. We will make a great effort to determine honest conviction on pieces where a music writer has a connection to the subject. If it’s a good fit for Tone Madison and coming from a place of truth, letting it go to waste would be a small tragedy. Madison isn’t NYC but there are things we can learn from how niche-focused music journalism functions in larger markets, especially with regards to these types of conflicts. Prioritizing tradition over adaptation is what leads to antiquation in the first place. Out with the old, in with the new.