The Slippery Path

By Dave Stelfox

It probably doesn't say much for my standing as a fully integrated member of society, but the most intense, enduring and exciting relationship I have ever enjoyed has been with an ever-growing collection of plastic and cardboard. Stacks of seven, ten and 12-inches, little silver discs and spools of electromagnetic tape chart my entire existence. Summers of love and winters of discontent: they're all there, burnt on my brain and encapsulated in sound. In short, my whole life is an open gatefold sleeve.

Running a close second in my affections, is music writing. Unfortunately, this is a rather more dysfunctional situation. Thinking back, I remember when it was possible to pick up a magazine once a week and KNOW that you were going to get something worth bothering with. Believe it or not, I actually used to look forward to Wednesdays. The best day of the week: running down to the newsagent and loading up on mags, holing up in my bedroom and poring their smudgy pages. Reading about records then was almost as good as buying them. The simple reason for this was that the writers were good and cared about what they were doing – in other words the absolute antithesis of their present-day counterparts. It's getting to the point where the music press may as well do away with journalists altogether, simply taking their stories direct from the record companies and PR firms. After all, such a move would both save money and radically streamline the editorial process. No longer would editors have to find idiots willing to read – and subsequently prostitute themselves, regurgitating in their entirety – press releases extolling the non-existent virtues of Modjo or Layo and Bushwhacka. They could cut out the middle man and no one would ever notice. So where did it all go wrong?

Well, it is a widely accepted fact that the inkies' day is well and truly done now that Melody Maker has closed and NME continues to plumb hitherto unimaginable nadirs of bad writing. (Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit – saviours of music? For fuck's sake, I preferered it when they were bigging up Daphne & Celeste.) However, no one is ever willing to break with convention and point out the failings of our peers in the 'specialist dance press'. This is a major problem as perversely this self-proclaimed bastion of cutting-edge counter culture is collapsing under the weight of its own ineptitude and self-importance.

Indeed as respected writer Simon Reynolds recently posited in an interview with San Francisco's consistently excellent XLR8R magazine: "The thing is, because writers still see this scene as underground, they feel like there is some obligation to be totally supportive. You hardly ever get a bad review . . . The media is totally compromised."

When dance music culture was in its subterranean stages, such unquestioning support was necessary to create a sense of community and inertia. However now that electronic music, in its many forms, has taken over the world, such a cretinous attitude is far from constructive, leading to an unquestioning non-culture in which crass banality is the norm.

Amid the rave reviews and 'Caner of the Week' competitions it is rare to see the faintest glimmer of real criticism or cultural analysis, as though intelligence and talent are undesirable qualities in modern-day music crit. In fact, as a veteran journalist friend said to me recently: "Publishers have taken Loaded magazine as the model they want to follow, with its irreverence and lad mentality, but employed writers and editors who would be lucky to get a job freelancing for Front!"

This sense of macho stagnation is widely agreed upon, with Kodwo Eshun stating in the introduction to 1998's sonic futurist manifesto, More Brilliant Than The Sun: "[Dance] press writing [invokes] a white Brit routine of pubs and clubs, of business as usual, the bovine sense of good blokes together. You can see the whole British dance music press – with its hagiographies and its geographies, its DJ recipes, its boosterism, its personality profiles – constitutes a colossal machine for maintaining rhythm as unwritable, ineffable mystery. And this is why Trad dance music journalism is nothing more than lists and menus, bits and bytes: meagre, miserly, mediocre."

The journalistic boys' club is far from an abstract concept, it is real and affects the way music is written about, who ends up on the cover and gets the reviews, and ultimately which writers work. In the current climate where most publications share the same journalists, features and target audiences, it is arguable that the UK market could be easily sated by a single generic publication, trotting out the usual turgid cobblers under the same old bylines. This stranglehold of a select few on the UK media stems from a number of factors.

Firstly, the relatively poor rates of pay offered to freelancers make it impossible to survive while working for one magazine. This inevitably leads to writers spreading themselves too thinly, turning in ill-thought-out, badly written copy to keep the bills paid. Secondly, writers and editors are no longer willing to take chances. Due to growing pressure from publishers to increase sales and advertising revenue in an already saturated market, there is little currency in dissenting opinions from uncontrollable contributors (after all, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time could cost a publication dearly in terms of ad space). Thirdly, and most importantly, in the current climate, thanks to the restrictions placed upon writers and the pitiful remuneration, many capable journalists are moving on to other careers, or writing for free 'zines and websites.

The shortsightedness of most publications' editorial policy makes a mockery of the freelance journalist's role as musical explorer and cultural tipster. Hence the lack of coverage of quality innovative music. While I personally would far rather read about Kid 606, Susumu Yokota or Vladislav Delay than Rui Da Silva, this is not solely confined to fringe-interest releases. Hell, the once mighty Jockey Slut resolutely refuses to cover UK garage. Widely regarded as the most credible dance music magazine in Britain, you would have thought the now Shoreditch-based rag would be rushing to cover this innovative form of dance music. No chance. So, are the likes of Wookie, El-B and M Dubs really of no value whatsoever? Or is it just their working-class, inner-city connotations that make them irrelevant?

In fact this curious mix of snobbery, arrogance and ignorance appears to be at work in editorial offices across the country. “Never overestimate your readers' intelligence,” is one thing I've heard said. But, reading between the lines, it is easy to interpret such statements as meaning: “Well, if I, in my exalted position of editor of such and such a magazine, don't know about this, then how can you expect our poor provincial proletarian readership to understand?" Well, all I can say is don't let them treat you like suckers. Vote with your feet. Log on to a decent website. Be discriminating in your choice of reading material, and if you're still disillusioned, why not do it yourself? After all, you couldn't do a worse job, could you?
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