Why Is Music Journalism Collapsing?
This is a bigger problem that you can fix with a Pitchfork
“This feels like the end of music reviews,” complained a depressed critic last night.
That gloomy prediction is a response to the demolition of Pitchfork, a leading music media outlet for the last 25 years. Parent company boss Anna Wintour sent out the bad news in an employee memo yesterday.
It’s more than just layoffs—the news is much worse than that. That’s because parent company Condé Nast also announced that Pitchfork will get merged into GQ.
Swallowed up by GQ? Is this some cruel joke?
Ah, for writers it’s all too familiar. In music media, disappearing jobs are now more common than backstage passes.
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Just a few weeks ago, Bandcamp laid off 58 (out of 120) employees—including about “half of its core editorial staff.”
And Bandcamp was considered a more profitable, stable employer than most media outlets. The parent company before the recent sale (to Songtradr) and subsequent layoffs, Epic Games, will generate almost a billion dollars in income this year—but they clearly don’t want to waste that cash on music journalism.
Why is everybody hating on music writers?
Many people assume it’s just the same story as elsewhere in legacy media. And I’ve written about that myself—predicting that 2024 will see more implosions of this sort.
Sure, that’s part of the story.
But there’s a larger problem with the music economy that nobody wants to talk about. The layoffs aren’t just happening among lowly record reviewers—but everywhere in the music business.
Universal Music announced layoffs two days ago.
YouTube announced layoffs yesterday.
Soundcloud announced last week that the company is up for sale—after two rounds of layoffs during the last 18 months.
Spotify announced layoffs five weeks ago.
That same week, Tidal announced layoffs.
A few weeks earlier, Amazon Music laid off employees on three continents.
Meanwhile, almost every music streaming platform is trying to force through price increases (as predicted here). This is an admission that they don’t expect much growth from new users—so they need to squeeze old ones as hard as possible.
As you can see, the problem is more than just music writers—something is rotten at a deeper level.
“The smartest thing music writers could do in the year 2024 is stop trusting the system.”
What’s the real cause of the crisis? Let’s examine it, step by step:
The dominant music companies decided that they could live comfortably off old music and passive listeners. Launching new artists was too hard—much better to keep playing the old songs over and over.
So major labels (and investment groups) started investing huge sums into acquiring old song publishing catalogs.
Meanwhile streaming platforms encouraged passive listening—so people don’t even know the names of songs or artists.
The ideal situation was switching listeners to AI-generated tracks, which could be owned by the streaming platform—so no royalties are ever paid to musicians.
These strategies have worked. Streaming fans don’t pay much attention to new music anymore.
I’ve warned about each of these—but we are now seeing the long-term results.
This is why Pitchfork is in deep trouble. If people don’t listen to new music, they don’t need music reviews.
And they don’t need interviews with rising stars. Or best of year lists. Or any of the other things music writers do for their readers.
But this problem will get much, much worse. Even the people who made these decisions will suffer—because living in the past is never a smart business strategy.
If these execs were albums, they’d deserve a zero score on the Pitchfork scale.
A generation ago, this kind of laziness didn’t exist in the music business.
Before streaming, everybody in the value chain needed new music. The record stores would go broke if people just listened to the old songs over and over.
And the same was true for record distributors, record labels, radio stations, nightclub owners, and music writers. Everybody needed hot new songs and rising new musicians.
Of course, fans also benefited. Life gets boring if you just listen to the same songs year after year, decade after decade. But there was no risk of that. The music industry worked tirelessly to find exciting new music, and share it with the world.
That business model is now disappearing. The people who run the industry killed it—and now we live with the consequences.
The irony is that exciting new music is still getting released—but almost nobody hears it. The system actively works to hide it.
And occasionally an artist breaks through the industry inertia, and proves that fans still want exciting new music experiences. But here, too, entrenched interests do almost nothing to support this—and much to hinder it.
The success of Taylor Swift makes this clear—I note that she has battled with record labels over their obsession with her old tracks (even to the extent of re-recording them). And she has succeeded (enormously, I should add) by focusing on live performances, not the mind-numbing streaming model.
That’s the encouraging news I have to share—namely, that people still crave life-changing new music. And if you give them a chance, they will spend money on it.
But the major labels and streaming platforms will be the last to figure this out. They are actually adding to the problem by their investment allocations—into old songs, AI tunes, and passive listening.
In this environment, the smartest thing music writers could do is stop trusting the system. Stop putting their faith in editors and publishers and music business insiders.
A writer’s only hope is to connect directly with listeners and readers—and musicians themselves. And maybe a few indie labels that still care more about the future than the past. Everything else is just noise.
Stop listening to editors? Is that even possible?
I note that every editor who told me to dumb down my articles and write formula-driven articles is now out of a job. But the readers are still there. The musicians are too. In music writing, they are the real foundation, the ultimate bottom line, the surest sure thing in an unpredictable world—and always will be.
Put faith in the music, not the business.
Otherwise it’s time for music writers to get a better wardrobe. They’re not going to succeed at GQ if they’re still wearing those tacky band T-shirts.