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Saturday, January 14, 2017

Filling the Void

By Paul Acquaro 

Jed Gottliebs' article "Curtains fall on arts critics at newspapers" in the Columbia Journalism Review from earlier this month really got to me. Having grown up in New Jersey reading the arts and leisure section in the Star Ledger, I learned a lot about the arts, music reviews, concert listings - basically all of the things that are still important to me. So, when I read a paragraph like "critics at newspapers are dying off even faster than print journalism. Theatre critics, film reviewers, A&E editors, and arts writers of every kind have been stripped from dailies and weeklies around the country", it's deflating.

I became involved with the Free Jazz Blog six years ago. It provided a creative outlet and welcome distraction during a trying time, and introduced me to a world of music that I had only dreamed about. Through the blog, I've met creative people and have been exposed to ideas and sounds that I wouldn't have otherwise encountered.

Over the years, as Stef  has pointed out, the blog has grown in terms of members and readership, and we've seen incredible developments like Martin's Freejazzblog on Air - an occasional series on public radio in Germany (SWR2), and a social media presence run by Dan and Antonio that has been key in bringing our readership to over 150,000 views a month.

However, I still find myself taken with this statement from the same article:
Blogs and niche arts websites thrive (if not economically, certainly in terms of traffic). But they can do great work, gather thousands of readers and still not plug the hole newspapers have left by pulling arts pages. Niche sites cater to niche audiences. They ghettoize content ...
True. The blog solution is not perfect - it's piecemeal, it's subjective, it's driven by passion, and there is always so much more to know about - like that there are a thousand more albums a year that we can possibly get to! However, it's what we can do, with the tools that we have, with the passion that the music invokes, and the duty we feel to share it.

Anyway, so here we are, the Free Jazz Blog at 10 years and still running strong. I want to express my thanks to Stef for starting this blog and then, when the time came, opening it up to the collective, and to the collective for selflessly contributing and making it strong. I'm also grateful to all of the musicians, promoters, organizers, labels, DMG, Instant Jazz, and the readers who keep the creative music world running.  

In the end, perhaps it is a niche, but regardless, it is a really important one. Simply being able to play a part in this community keeps me going when it's late, I'm tired, and we still need to post a new review for the next day.  I suspect it's something similar for all of us in the collective, and for our colleagues who run concert series in their cities, neighborhoods, or even their own homes, and/or spend hours writing their thoughts and spreading the word about music and art because of their own intrinsic motivation. It's the only way it works, and it is more important than ever. 

Ok, now back to work everyone!


Stef said...

Hi Paul, thanks again, and nothing better than "niche". It has this connotation of authenticity, passion, expertise and credibility that much of the mainstream media lack. At the same time, I think that we've given many musicians and labels a platform for wider exposure. In that sense I think the term "ghettoizing" is not correct. We open things to wider audiences.

Paul said...

I agree, and I hope that my admiration for the authenticity and passion is not lost in my post.

I somehow spend a lot of time thinking about the role of media: mainstream media, digital media, social media, and so on and its obligation and role in shaping society. There is no doubt that this blog, and the many other excellent efforts out there, promote the work of musicians. It's truly a DIY effort and - I think this is my point - in a rapidly contracting mainstream media landscape (which is also more and more superficial) that our community efforts are paramount. It's a love for the art that keeps it all going. However, it is also important to help bridge our efforts with an audience - people like me who were at some point searching for something but not sure where to find it, or what it even was. In the end, I wonder how do we cultivate the interest in the arts in the uninitiated, the searchers, the thirsty?

Martin Schray said...

I started reading the blog six or seven years ago, simply because of the fact that I was tired of spending between 6 and 8 Euros for jazz magazines just to find out that reviews and articles about the music I’m interested in make up just 10%. So as to magazines it’s partly their fault as well if they lose interested buyers. It’s a bit like Mr Gottlieb mentions in his article: If you want to listen to alternative rock on the radio you choose alternative rock stations etc.
I’m not sure if niche arts cater niche audiences. Improvised music is a niche, no doubt about that. If blogs like ours “ghettoize content“ and whether a reader would check out - say - a Nate Wooley album if he or she found an article about him between a story about a new rock act, an essay about corruption and an article about a football game - I’m not sure. We fulfill a function for the niche audience as to this music we love, and many readers and musicians are grateful. What would be the alternative according to the original article? Not covering this music at all?
After a concert in Schorndorf’s Manufaktur I talked to a regional music journalist (whose thoughts are very insightful, he's really competent), who also suffers from cost cuts in his department. He was “asked“ to focus more on mainstream stuff. But he also complained of what he called the crisis of music journalism (at least in Germany). He said that most of the articles and reviews only quoted press material from the labels, there were hardly any critical and thorough contributions anymore. More than that, many article were full of mistakes and often not accurate. I remember when we were approached by ECM some time ago (I guess it was Troy and me, if I remember it correctly), they asked us if they could provide us with samples and I wondered why they were interested in a small blog. So I asked them and they said that they liked the independent and creative style of our reviews and that we really seemed to care about the music (apart from the promotional fact a positive review has). Did this mean that we are at least as interesting for them as regular print media?
On the other hand I think we cannot really fill the void good, professional journalists have left. We can only partly plug the hole. I do my best to write good articles but I cannot compete with good articles in The Wire or The New York Times (all the more given the fact that I’m not a native speaker). Music, theater and the arts need well-trained, passionate and critical journalists. Therefore they have to be well paid. It’s a shame that most publishers are not willing to do that.
Finally, since this is a special anniversary today, I want to thank Stef for starting this blog and Paul for keeping it going in the past years. One can’t hardly imagine what a great piece of logistic work this is. I’m glad to be part of this team.

Colin Green said...

Some valuable comments. As to how we cultivate an interest, in a sense we can't do anything more than provide the coverage, express enthusiasm and try and communicate what the music's about, a formidable task.. It's for others to follow that through, which is primarily a mater of education and an inquiring mind - novelty is not enough. It's rewards are slim and iis of short duration. Free jazz is for people who take their music seriously and have an attention span of more than a few minutes. Not a recipe for cultivating an interest.

But as pointed out, it's a niche area, and it's not a coincidence that the the most extensive coverage of free jazz in the world is manned entirely by volunteers. Free jazz will probably always be around, but for most people, as a source of incredulity.

Colin Green said...

And just to add a further point: how much more popular would free jazz be if it received two or three times more media coverage? A bit, but not much. There would be more people who'd give it a try, but the majority, even those who musically speaking are otherwise well-educated, would throw up there hands in horror. A friend once told me that the music sounded like they were making it up as they went along, a good example of both getting the point and missing it entirely at one and the same time. I'm afraid the biggest obstacle in making such music more popular is the nature of the music itself. As with poetry, the world can largely live without it. Fortunately, I and a lot of other people can't, which ultimately, is what really counts. Long live our blog.