Why I Love Music Magazines

Recording the latest season of the Drowned in Sound podcast has made me really miss accidentally smudging the newspaper ink from my fingers onto my nose

Why I Love Music Magazines
Inkie - Image by Midjourney

Every Wednesday, as a ritual, I'd pick up a copy of Melody Maker on my way to school.

Minutes later, my thumbs would be smudged with ink as I devoured every recommendation, every story, and even every upcoming tour advert. This “inkie” newspaper was like having a bunch of older siblings who knew everything about the world of music - a land of gigs and gin cocktails that I felt so near, yet oh-so far from being a part of.

In many ways, Melody Maker wasn't just a magazine, it was a gateway to a world I couldn't wait to explore. It felt like communing with rockstars (ok, some of them were quite twee and lots of them made weird electronic music), being at the best gigs, and eavesdropping on the conversations in the heads of “The Kids” in the cool band tees but rather than an icy demeanour, I felt welcome to join in... even if it was more like a parasocial one-sided relationship that would require finding messageboards and making friends at Idlewild gigs to feel genuinely a part of “something”,

When Melody Maker closed, I went through phases of obsessing over other mags from Kerrang and Rock Sound to Bang! and Under the Radar, but there was one magazine that sits in a special place in my heart. Careless Talk Costs Lives was like nothing else (the ink even smelt nice!). It seemed to be crafted by professional music fans whose love for words rivalled their love for music, which was unsurprising really, given Everett True’s involvement. ET and his marmite-y first person style (I love it!), had previously been a conduit for bringing Nirvana to UK audiences and was the force behind the brilliant short-lived '90s mag Vox. Then there was Steve Gullick’s photography, the honesty & hilarity & filth in MissAMP’s columns, the page after page of writing about noisy rock from Detroit or gentle pianos from Berlin. Every page felt purposeful, every editorial decision deft and delightful. They’d always be speaking to eloquent people who lived lives of principle or excess or an obsession with greatness or all three. It was a magazine that felt less like the flickerings of a revolution but a way into the flames that had been burning for years.

I was primed to be a music magazine geek (or should that be nerd?). From reading the Beano and PC Zone that had early pieces by Charlie ‘Black Mirror’ Brooker to devouring counterculture sports magazines like Adrenalin (their Filth issue introduced me to Burroughs), magazines had become a constant in my pre-teens, teens and early adult life.

From halfpipes to digital pipe dreams, I’d switch from Dirt’s enthusiasm for mountain bike jumps to Surfer's Path chill-bro twist on National Geographic’s travel writing. At one point I got into Wired, Stuff, Little White Lies, and I even had a weird phase of reading business magazines like Fast Company. However, all of these magazines didn't just cover their niche, they were often about experiences, a sort of holistic sense of curiosity and adventure, with sprawling pages filled with a broader culture.

But fast forward and the landscape has changed for all media but especially for music magazines in a time of YouTube, TikTok and Spotify - even Bandcamp’s editorial looks like it might be on the way out after a change in ownership and disemboweling of the team.

Meanwhile, even I can sometimes catch a train without buying 3 magazines for a two hour journey…am I the problem?

The early 2000s ushered in a new era for music publications - yes, like Drowned in Sound and latterly The Quietus, which I also helped to set up. There are definitely still some great print mags around like Loud & Quiet, Huck and the currently on pause Gold Flake Paint, but wander into most newsagents and you won’t find those. Head to the high st and there are fewer and fewer titles to choose from despite a burgeoning independent world of magazines documented by MagCulture’s blog and dripfeed into your postbox by magazine clubs like Stack (can confirm it’s a brilliant gift idea for the magazine lover in your life) (thanks Mum!)

Away from music, I’m still a magazine nerd (or is it geek?). I love New Philosopher’s themed issues, New Statesman’s deep dive opinion pieces with the occasional Ralph Steadman artwork, and Delayed Gratification's slow journalism, which is a refreshing change from the fast-paced, algorithm-driven content that floods our feeds. With a mixture of infographics and short essays, DG takes a step back from the rolling news and tries to make sense of stories in a far wider context with the benefit of hindsight.

Whilst AI is seen as the elephant sat on journalism’s future, right now it feels like the distraction of survival and forgetting who the audience is, is a far bigger challenge to music publications and most media as it attempts to avoid extinction.

Over the years, we saw a rush for print to compete with the abundance of the web, publishing wafer thin reviews and short profiles, but in the wake of closed print titles, we’re now seeing aggressive content farming sucking the nutrients from the soil, which if I remember right from geography class, if there’s no irrigation to provide water, it ends in desertification.

In recent months we’ve seen the closure of brilliant online publications like Gal-Dem and I’ve woken up today to the news that Jezebel is now following them into the pixelated deathpool.

It’s sad to see online magazines, follow down the path of their print predecessors. The change of approach will help but what we really need is an entirely economic infrastructure. A model that allows those who value something to give back more than just a like. And those who really love it, to purchase something to keep. This is why if you’ve heard the DiS podcast you will know my thoughts on magazines being due to have their vinyl moment. I hope…

Done well, print magazines are a simple but powerful format. I mean, can an algorithm ever replicate the serendipity of stumbling upon a story that seems written just for you? Do we really want to get our music recommendations from the self-service kiosk? Who and what will drive the first cogs of algorithm when the humans are gone… marketing spend? Instagram posts by The Kardashians?

In a time when a new sort of algorithmic music journalism (writing for search engines and social algorithms, rather than the music fan reader) is on the rise, the human essence that is the lifeblood of magazine culture is at risk, not of being eclipsed but left to die of exposure in the ice-cold shadow of the monoliths of progress.

I love technology and where we could be headed but I still find myself scribbling barely coherent nonsense in my notes like: The loss of print magazines in favour of digital content feels a bit like the fading outro of a Daughter song, where the last note hangs in the air, signalling the end of an era.

Algorithms, with their relentless efficiency, lack the nuance, marrying the disconnected dots and the narrative flair that human editors bring to the table (you should have seen the first draft that ChatGPT made from my garbled notes for this piece). Machines can learn all they want but when services are run as spreadsheets, they put us in cells and serve us a grey-slush diet with content based on more-of-the-same calculations by treating all past interactions as equally valid, leading to surfacing music devoid of the serendipity and soul that comes from human curation not to mention a total lack of context and being totally bereft of passion or the intrigue that leads us to invest our time in challenging but often far more rewarding releases.

Convenience and hyper-personalisation is the antithesis of what magazines are about — they are not just vessels of information but cruise-ship adventures and pewter tankards brimming with passion and froth, where every page turn can be the first butterfly wing flap of a revolution. So much so that sometimes sitting down with a magazine and a mug of coffee can feel like a little act of rebellion against the echo chambers perpetuated by algorithms.

Print is the antithesis of flickering pixels. It’s permanence, with words preserved and kept in our magazine baskets or racked up on our shelves alongside hard back books and dog-eared vinyl.

In a world of fleeting clicks, the tactile experience of a magazine, the weight of it in your hands, the rustle of pages turning, is still a ritual that’s sensory and allows us to feel connected in ways that doomscrolling or closing endless popovers and accepting cookies rarely does. With a great magazine, we can feel it being created for us. The editorial decisions made by music lovin’ humans are underscored by layout, design, silly captions, tiny details, a shared language, and photography which converge to create an unexpected feast for the eyes and the mind and at its very best, the soul too. Sure, sometimes it delivers us Terris and The Twang but other days it’s At the Drive-in or Noname.

On trains and in classrooms, from my youth spent sitting on supermarket floors and in the back of my parents VW Beetle, magazines have always been an escape for me, because they demand a pause, whilst offering a sense of connection that a random digital scroll rarely achieves…

Yes, I appreciate the irony of saying all of this in an email newsletter and as someone who has spent the best part of two decades editing an online magazine.

Human “curation” in magazines is a form of artistry; it is so much more than industrial content farming. In an era of big data, magazines are able to spotlight the grassroots and lift up records from niche genres that will never be ‘trending’. It’s almost as if the meritocracy of the medium is anathema to the tech-bro world of KPIs aka key performance indicators and operating only at scale to extract wealth.

The peril and potential extinction that magazines and online publications once again face is not just a battle for relevance but clear need for a new economic model. I don’t mean to sound like Penny Mourdant, but it’s maybe time to stand up and fight for journalism. That’s to say, we need to pay or watch them decay. Even if that’s only those who can afford it, paying it forward for those who can’t (this works well on the Amazon-owned Twitch, where you can donate subscriptions to others and support the streamer).

Not to sound like a war-renacting, statue defending right-winger but… preserving a tradition that values the human touch over the impersonal algorithm feels like it’s needed now more than ever.

Over recent weeks, I've had the privilege of engaging in conversations about the future of music journalism on the Drowned in Sound podcast. The entire new season is dedicated to the future of the music press, exploring the intersections of culture, activism, and the evolving face of music media. So far, we've plunged into the importance of intersectionality in music journalism, the DIY spirit of magazine creation, and the pressing need for sustainable funding models for music publications.

In the most recently ‘published’ episodes, we meet Jerry Ewing the editor of PROG, NBC’s Tech & Culture reporter Kat Tenbarge, and discuss cultural revolutions versus pop in a time of populism with journalist Emma Garland (Vice, Rolling Stone, Guardian, The Fact, Dazed, etc), who brings a literary tradition to her music writing. Emma's work exemplifies the kind of intersectional journalism that I love, tugging the wider world into music journalism by showcasing how women from Iran to Guatemala to Russia are driving not just music's future but actual political revolutions.

Other recent Drowned in Sound Podcast episodes feature Emma Swann of DIY Magazine, sharing the thrills and challenges of music writing and editing in the digital age. We (guess I’ve slid into using the royal “we” now, as this is very much a solo project) also converse with Kickstarter's co-founder Yancey Strickler, about the future of media funding, and Greg Cochrane, who highlights the intersection of the climate emergency and culture writing (his story about the epiphany he had speaking to ANOHNI is quite something to hear!).

These conversations are not just about reminiscing on the past, they're trying to understand the shape of the future. As we look ahead to upcoming elections in the UK and the US, the need for escaping into music and the role of music journalism in campaigning and activism is likely to become ever more crucial. The Big Issue's Venue Watch campaign is a prime example of how music journalism can create change by highlighting the challenges facing grassroots music venues - Laura Kelly, The Big Issue’s Culture Editor, is really inspiring and was fascinating when discussing all of this.

With my social feed full of Patreon’s and new membership models (Novara Media’s donate an hour of your salary is a really nice twist on it), it’s clear that music magazines like the rest of the media and so-called ‘creator economy’ are at a perilous crossroads, threatened by the very technology that could/should have been their salvation. Yet, I remain hopeful. There's still a magic for me in the printed page, a tangible connection to culture that can't be replicated by pixels alone. It's a magic worth fighting for too but We won't use guns, we won't use bombs, we'll use the one thing we've got more of - that's our miiiiiiinds (thank you Jarvis!). Ok, maybe not our literal minds but some of the fruits of using our minds to make money or to build a new economic model for media.

We will need to allow some of our wages to trickle down to the things we love if we value them and want to see them not just survive but thrive. And if media is thriving, the music industry and culture at large usually is too.

If everything is “content” and even music services call musicians “creators”, then surely how we invest our time and attention is more important than ever. Two decades of “disruption”, and expecting gambling ads and mattresses to fund a free buffet of words and music and human endeavour is clearly leading us into an unsustainable ecosyst…

…Please Insert Coin(s) to continue.