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Bhanuj Kappal
Music Matters
Bhanuj Kappal

Something rotten in the state of indie music journalism

very so often, a young writer, fresh out of college and with rose-tinted glasses firmly affixed to the top of his nose, will ask me for advice on how to get into music writing. A few years ago, I would tell them about how I stumbled into the world of indie music journalism and struggle to distil my experience into something resembling useful advice. If anyone asks me the same question today though, I only have a one word answer. Don't. Don't even think about it. If you really want a job that pays you in self-hatred rather than money, join an industry with more of a future, like the circus. Because there's something rotten in the state of indie music journalism, and nobody in charge has any idea how to fix it.

If you think I'm being overly pessimistic, just take a look at this month's cover story in Rolling Stone, the music magazine of choice for 30-something yuppies desperate for affirmation that their music tastes are still relevant. There's nothing wrong with the article itself, which looks at the various women in the Indian electronica scene — DJs, producers and event promoters. It touches on the lack of female representation on our festival line-ups and the challenges faced by women in an industry where "the decks are stacked against them". So far, so good. But then the cognitive dissonance kicks in. First, there's the curious choice to illustrate a story about women who have made their name "in spite of their disarmingly good-looks, not because of them" with... photos of two of them in their underwear. Talk about mixed messages. But that's not the worst of it. In their infinite wisdom, the powers that be at Rolling Stone decided to release a video of their photoshoot with Elektrovertz, the female DJ duo who appear on the cover. Sponsored by Calvin Klein, the video takes two fairly successful DJs and transforms them into... fairly incompetent underwear models. Soundtracked by the sort of uninspired EDM favoured by late night FTV, it shows the two women pouting their way to kingdom come as the camera lingers for far too long on cleavage and unbuttoned shorts so that we can all read the Calvin Klein brand name on their underwear. Excuse the vulgarity, but what the flying f***?!

The gratuitious sexism is obvious (profiles on male musicians aren't accompanied by videos of them cavorting in nothing but jockey briefs) and needs to be critiqued. But an equally disturbing aspect of the video is that it illustrates the victory of sales and branding over editorial integrity. When it comes to Indian indie journalism, conflict of interest is just a hard rock band from Las Vegas and (editorial) independence is just an old Pin Drop Violence song.

But an equally disturbing aspect of the video is that it illustrates the victory of sales and branding over editorial integrity. When it comes to Indian indie journalism, conflict of interest is just a hard rock band from Las Vegas and (editorial) independence is just an old Pin Drop Violence song.

To be fair to Rolling Stone, they're far from the only or the worst offender. One celebrated "youth media company" sells itself as both an online publication and a creative agency, not so much blurring the line between editorial and marketing as obliterating it completely. Music blogs refuse to cover events unless they get paid or get "branding presence", because piggybacking on the exposure of a big concert is easier than building a reputation through good writing. And then there's the listicle factories, websites with editors who think music journalism is all about that one click-bait headline that will send their page views soaring. Press releases are reprinted without so much as a proof-reading, and I'll scream if one more digital editor asks me to dumb down my copy because they're more interested in the "lifestyle of the musician" than the music. Even the more respectable outlets have had to make such compromises. The people who run Wild City have now started a PR firm, for example, and I wonder how that will affect their coverage of their artists.

Of course, this isn't a development limited to India, or indie music journalism. These trends towards PR-driven churnalism are widespread in a global media industry struggling to make money on the internet. But the lack of space for serious music journalism and the compromises music writers have to make is driving our best young talent out of the market. Disillusioned with the paid content paradigm, many young writers today are dropping out of music journalism in order to do jobs with more money and more integrity —like PR or advertising. Most of those who stay are no longer doing music journalism in any credible sense — "content writers" would be a more appropriate title. And the loser in all this is not the writers, but the indie culture they're supposed to cover and critique. Good critics put a work of music in context — both musical and historical. They look past the marketing and industry hype and bring to light new aesthetics and new artists. Through their writing, they engage both the audience and the artists in important conversations about where popular culture is and where it is heading. Without their honest voices, all you're left with is fluff and marketing. Our narratives about pop culture now come not from those who spend their time and effort studying it, but from the people who allocate marketing budgets. If you want an idea of where that road leads, just take another look at that Rolling Stone video.

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance music journalist who likes noise, punk rock and mutton biryani.

 
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