Despite having interviewed hundreds of musicians over the years, I’ve rarely been on the receiving end of a music-related interview, the odd radio piece aside, so I found this experience quite interesting in terms of evaluating the industry in a way I wouldn’t normally stop to think about. This isn’t quite as self-indulgent as it may appear, I promise; Greg Synnott (he of the wonderful 7BillionPeople) sent me over a few questions for his Masters thesis in journalism, which will no doubt feature writers far more insightful on the subject than myself. Purely because I found it interesting, I thought I’d throw it up here (with his permission, of course)…
For the purpose of this interview, can you please detail who you are, where you are based in Ireland and what your role is?
My name’s James Hendicott. I’m a part time freelance journalist (part time teacher) based in Dublin, where I write largely about music, but also about other aspects of urban culture and about travel. I’ve worked (or currently work) with The Sunday Business Post, The Irish Sun, AU Magazine, The Thin Air, State.ie, Goldenplec, Phantom 105.2 (and a few more within Ireland that don’t immediately spring to mind) since I moved here in 2008. Outside Ireland, I contribute to The Fly Magazine and Notion Magazine over in the UK, and my travel work includes contributions to Lonely Planet, Museyon Guidebooks and a number of Asian government travel agencies, as well as articles in a few dozen other places.
What do you think defines the role of a professional music journalist today?
Without meaning to be obnoxious, the most obvious answer to this is someone who has something to say that someone else is willing to pay to publish (or read). There’s a huge difference in the current industry between a great writer and a professional, and it often comes down to contacts and what you choose to write about (i.e. mass market topics) as well as ability. Getting commissioned professionally, contacts aside, means being able to spark interest in your subject matter, an ability to be both critical and fair about what you’re talking about, and putting the subject matter in a wider context. You need to be hugely well read (and, of course, listened) when it comes to music history, but equally able to resist comparing everything to something else.
Of course, a large part of the role is in your ability to put pen to paper, but there are subtler aspects, too: the ability to pick out trends; an ear for something that’s genuinely fresh and special rather than just a good track (which requires a huge amount of listening); knowing how to get interesting answers in interviews, and sometimes to break down extremely well-trained media training in bigger artists that compels them to give chronically ‘safe’ answers. Above all, though, I think the key is in imparting interesting knowledge, information and ideas in an imaginative and engaging way.
Does this differ from the work of a music blogger and if yes, how?
The difference between the two isn’t huge: many of the more successful music bloggers are also paid music journalists elsewhere. Arguably Ireland’s most successful current music journalist – Nialler9 – made and continues to make his name through his blog. I think there’s one fundamental difference, though, and that’s in the curation: a journalist’s job is to present a story of interest to a specific audience, be that in a niche publication or the much wider general public. Blogging – and I say this with the utmost respect for a whole load of bloggers – is about presenting only the things you love yourself. That passion is what makes some blogs such good reads, and others amateur hour fan zones. But hey, there’s no entry requirement to blogging (whereas there are serious barriers to being paid for your opinion), and people are giving up their time for nothing but the love of it. If the weaker end of it isn’t particularly well written, who am I to judge?
What, in your opinion, defines a critic?
Someone who’s speaking both as an authority, and has stepped (temporarily) outside of their role as a fan of music (this may come as a surprise to some, but music journalists get into the area because we LOVE music!), and so is able to offer a slightly more balanced perspective than you might expect from your average music lover. The New Yorker says ‘to mediate stylishly between a work and its audience’, which I find a rather nice definition. Essentially, it’s the art of applying educated perspective to… well, art.
Do you believe you are more likely to get a balanced, impartial piece of writing from a professional journalist or a blogger?
The simple answer is probably I’d trust the journalist more. Having said that, there are some truly stunning and highly aware bloggers out there, and it honestly does come down to the individual involved. I’ve had a few experiences in Irish journalism that suggest to me that even those in the upper echelons of the professional game can have an agenda, or be chronically unprepared, or simply on a jolly. There are even rumours of ‘positive reviews for advertising’ exchanges. I’ve never witnessed one, but it would be wrong to suggest professional journalists never have less publicised agendas. Equally, some blogs are extremely even handed.
Do you believe digital streaming like Spotify is affecting how people consume music journalism?
Yes, in the sense that people are generally speaking more able to judge the merits of something for themselves without buying it, and for a certain group this negates the need for a journalist in the first place. For others, though, an authoritative journalist can add to the experience, point out aspects of a work that might have been overlooked and add context that a mere listen doesn’t offer. There’s undoubtedly an effect, but perhaps only on the more casual/ ‘anticipatory’ reader.
Do people still engage with music journalism? And if so, where?
Perhaps less than in the past, in part because the industry’s changed, and journalists don’t always have the advantage of previews, for example. From a PR point of view, sometimes going directly to the consumer makes more sense, which makes journalists slight middle men. I’m far more likely to get comments on my work on social media than in comments sections on websites – this generally makes up the majority of engagement – and also find those reactions more positive. People tend to engage when they either loved or hated the piece, by and large. I think it’s the nature of the internet that it polarizes a touch, people are ready to be offended or entranced, and if they’re neither they just surf on rather than connecting. Some sites take that to the extreme. The formerly reputable ‘Gigwise’ over in the UK – which has reduced itself to a series of ‘informative’ or ‘controversial’ images in the large part – is perhaps the ultimate example of the trend. You have to click ten times to see ten images, and every click brings in advertising money. The more controversial those images can be, the more clicks they’ll get. It’s junk, but it’s targeted at engagement rather than real connection. Sadly, in new media, it probably works. The idea of being first over being best stems from the same realm.
In your opinion, what effect does social media like Twitter, Facebook and The Hype Machine have on music journalism?
There are pros and cons. Social media can bring attention to great articles and vastly increase readership. There’s nothing quite like going viral. On the flip side, it encourages cheap routes to viral success, which reduces the quality of writing; favouring marketing focused hit count pieces instead. I have a particular dislike of the viral fishing side of journalism. But a modern journalist would be a fool not to try and make use of Facebook, Twitter and the like, and the information gleaned from those services (used well) can be the spark for articles aplenty. It’s about using the services well rather than abusing them, I guess.
Would Ireland benefit from more long form music journalism and a more competitive market when it comes to music journalism?
Of course. It’s a personal perception, but at times I’m disappointed with the lack of more in-depth, non-mainstream content in Irish music journalism to the point that I tried to start a print publication myself not long ago, and I haven’t ruled out doing it again. The best long form music and culture journalism right now remains the preserve of the States, and publications like Rolling Stone. There are occasionally moments of exceptional long form journalism elsewhere, but they tend to come from less obvious sources.
From a professional point of view, it’s really hard to sell an article at much over 1,500 words today. A braver journalist than me might take a few more punts, write a few more hugely in depth stories in the hope they’ll be picked up. But you’re asking for 10% of a magazine once you get around the 3,000 word mark, and that’s a big ask. It’s a huge gamble in terms of time that could be used elsewhere for the writer, and most editors really aren’t interested in that kind of thing anymore. With the exception of the really obvious cases – an interview with a global superstar like Beyonce, for example – even pitching extreme long form articles is a bit of a waste of time. Today’s trends are towards multimedia content instead. Personally I find most multimedia to lack the colour of the best in long form journalism, which can engage on subjects readers don’t even particularly like (allow me to offer up an unlikely example I was particularly taken with) but then again, I’m a journalist, so I’m biased!
How do you think PR companies look upon music journalists now?
Generally with quite a lot of respect, in my opinion, though there are always exceptions. Some PR folks seem to see journalists as nothing more than a way to promote their band, and almost sub-human beyond that. Then again for all but the smallest bands, PR control access, so journalists have to play the game to a certain extent to get interviews, early listens to records, etc. I work with PR people who are huge music lovers and genuinely have an influence over my work, not because of anything untoward, but simply because they know my tastes and they know what’s worth emphasizing to me. In return for their effort and lack of widespread spam, they get a lot more coverage. It’s almost like a personal recommendation service, and it’s hugely important, though so is uncovering new things for yourself, of course.
Some PR, though, is nothing more than spam, and I’d estimate around half the PR emails I receive don’t even get past reading the title my end, simply because they’re sent to a thousand people with no thought for targeting the artist to the journalist involved. If I get an email about X Factor or a Backstreet Boys reunion it just goes straight in my trash folder. It becomes fairly transparent fairly quickly when PR see journalists as a tick box for their job completion, though, to be honest. But the vast majority are far better than that, and treat journalists with a kind of persuasive dignity, whilst (usually) politely declining our more outrageous requests. I’ll never forgive them for turning down my Springsteen interview request… In all seriousness, though, music PR needs us and we need them, that’s the way music media works now. I think we’ve both grown to understand that, and mutual respect is the norm, largely, these days.