Fictional journalist William Miller in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous
Bill Werde’s recent Billboard Op-Ed begged for music journalism and music culture reporting to return to an emphasis on the music over other strata like celebrity and controversy. As the first Editor’s Letter of 2014, the Editorial Director decried that TV shows weren’t even planning to cover the AMAs—an oversight that appalled him. Now, Werde is a great journalist, a well-respected, leading voice in the field, and in general seems to be an all-around nice guy. But his editorial’s call for purity in music journalism fell short.
Werde comes to his conclusions about our need to shift the focus back to music while bemoaning that no TV stations are planning to pick up AMA coverage—but is television even the most viable way to disseminate information about artists or music news? I have personally watched every award show of the past few years via some sort of Internet stream. With Billboard’s own incorporation of YouTube and other streaming services into charts, it seems as though they too have admitted the Internet’s effect on how we consume and discover music. Many households are cutting out cable altogether and opting to watch the majority of shows and televised events via networks’ robust digital/online streaming services. According to new research, SoundCloud and YouTube have become the most popular music discovery tools, and social media is at least equally, if not more compelling than TV at this point in the game. The truth is, we may not need to turn to proper legacy television gatekeepers to hone in on musically focused reporting.
Perhaps it further slipped his mind that attending the AMAs, let alone Scooter Braun’s after-party, isn’t standard fare for even the well-connected among the music journalism scene. No offense to Werde, who has grown used to the everyday nature of such privileges, but it’s often this kind of social event that effectively does take the focus off the music. Almost no one has access or even a close enough relationship with people who work at the highest levels of television programming. It’s frustrating that Werde didn’t instead use his column to focus more on new artists; his brief mention of AMA performances by Florida Georgia Line, Imagine Dragons, and Ariana Grande was one of the more interesting parts of the column. It would’ve been interesting to hear more of his perspective on the career arcs of those artists and where he sees them going in 2014. Or, riffing on the artists that shows like the AMAs and the Grammys miss, even when Billboard reflects their rising potential.
For instance, Nashville’s Starlito put out not one or two but five mixtapes alone last year. And both Cold Turkey and its follow-up, Fried Turkey, made it to #1 position on the Billboard Heatseekers chart with no label support—that’s a fascinating story of an emerging artist with music at the heart. Or, there’s the looming return of country crossover darling Eric Church, whose fourth album, The Outsiders, drops in just a few weeks and will likely help cement the emergence of country as a more dominant force on mainstream and “hip” music sites, as publications like Rolling Stone expand to specifically cover the market and Cumulus Media launches a New York-based country radio station and magazine. Switching gears, there’s a plethora of emerging artists who won’t even make it onto Billboard’s radar until they have a radio hit or major label support, but are already well-known to avid listeners and lower profile bloggers.
This might be part of the problem with Billboard’s own platform; they often don’t catch budding artists until after the buzz has already blown over. A good example of that is Lorde last year. While “Royals” didn’t start seriously charting until mid-summer, a handful of blogs had caught on to the Kiwi’s appeal off the strength of her free EP, The Love Club, which was released in late 2012. Recently, on Twitter, Werde spearheaded a movement he called “#FlashUnsigned“ that did just what he is calling for by highlighting a host of excellent, unsigned artists. But in reality, this is something that smaller blogs and publishing platforms have been doing for years now. This is something, specifically, that Consequence of Sound has been doing for the past six years with features like “CoSigns” that spotlight new artists and even book them for showcases. CoS and sites like it have maintained a commitment to covering live and independent music along with the major label stars in an attempt to keep a finger on the pulse of what people are truly listening to. It’s largely through the network of independent blogs that artists with non-radio sounds or non-traditional support systems have been able to achieve a modicum of success in an increasingly narrow commercial pinnacle.
As the Grammys highlight Ariana Grande, Kendrick Lamar, Kacey Musgraves, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and… James Blake as the best new artists of 2013, most fans will be disappointed enough to list two or three newcomers not in that commercial hub who deeply affected the musical landscape this year. London Grammar, AlunaGeorge, HAIM, Chance the Rapper, and Disclosure all feel conspicuously absent. Certainly anyone who has been following music in the least comprehends that James Blake (his debut album came in the beginning of 2011) deserves this nomination even less than Bon Iver did back in 2012. In addition, anyone that has been listening to music this year knows that these artists didn’t really represent the new sounds of this year. By the time artists reach the consciousness of the Billboard charts or the Grammys, audiences are laughing at these mainstream measures as old or outdated.
Platforms like the Grammys and Billboard have the responsibility to keep up with what’s actually going on in the musical communities that are emerging in the digital age and not be beholden to legacy media like television, radio, or record labels. Obviously, the role that Billboard occupies in reporting sales numbers and radio airplay is important and can’t be replaced, but incorporating more measurements that reflect digital streams, social media interaction, and even the pirating numbers they ran on BEYONCÉ would be great additions to their coverage scope. Hopefully #FlashUnsigned is the first step in what turns out to be a much longer path. The reason that blogs with no commercial pull are becoming successful—and then snapped up by larger conglomerates—is because they serve up what audiences are truly craving. Harnessing discovery tools, paying attention to organic artist support, and utilizing the mammoth pull of a platform like Billboard is the way to lead audiences and journalists back to putting music at the center. #FlashUnsigned is a great start down this path. Telling television executives to cover the AMAs? Perhaps telling them about that one song you can’t stop playing on SoundCloud would be a better start.