The Nostalgic Turn in Music Writing
Are music magazines contributing to the stagnancy of the current scene?
Let’s start with a photo.
This comes from a newsstand in Britain—and is shared with permission from Simon Warner.
The first thing you notice is the sheer abundance of music magazines on display. We must truly be living in a golden age of music writing if it can support so many periodicals.
I was very happy to see this—at least at first glance.
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But at second glance, I started to notice the cover stories.
Lavish attention is devoted here to artists who built their audience in the last century—Miles Davis, David Bowie, Buddy Holly, Blondie, Led Zeppelin, Björk, Motorhead, The Cure, etc. That’s an impressive roster of artists (well, most of them), but they don’t really need the publicity nowadays—they were legends before many of us were born.
Even the magazine names reveal a tilt toward nostalgia. I can’t make out the titles in their entirety, but I see the words Retro, Vintage, and Classic. Publishers are shrewd people, and they don’t put these words in large font unless the audience responds to them.
Maybe print media is nostalgic by definition—if, as we’re repeatedly told, young people don’t read things on paper. (I’m skeptical of that claim, but I hear it all the time.) Yet when I visit the websites, I see the same backward glance. You can’t click on Rolling Stone’s homepage or Twitter feed without finding some massive list article—touting the “100 Best Songs of 1982” or “The 100 Greatest Country Albums of All Time.” You will find similar retro celebrations at almost every other music media website with a large crossover readership.
Editors love lists nowadays, especially of all-time greats. If I pitch an article like that, the whole editorial team starts salivating—you can even feel the moisture over Zoom—in sharp contrast to any proposed article on a young, unproven musician. Those pitches get pitched right back in your face. You might conclude that we have now arrived at the end of history, with all greatness residing in the past. The editors, at least, must think so.
Things weren’t always like this. Go back and look at old issues of Rolling Stone or Downbeat or some other music magazine—there were years in which every cover story was about a living person and usually someone young with something new to say.
Those days are gone. But here’s the most ironic fact of all—the actual cover stories haven’t changed.
By the way, I’d like to know when Rolling Stone published its first ‘all-time greats’ list—that was the moment when nostalgia first entered the rock bloodstream, a vital force previously resistant to sentimental yearnings for the past.
You could complain about music writing of the 1960s or 1970s or 1980s—and many did back in the day. But nobody ever accused it of being sentimental and nostalgic. Rude, yes—pretty much all the time. Obscene too, on occasion. But nobody picked up a copy of Creem to join Lester Bangs in a wistful walk down memory lane.
Here’s one measure of the shift. Some 15 years ago, I took charge of a new website called Jazz.com—situated on that very choice URL (now, alas, a dead site). My first decision, even before I started hiring writers, was how to balance the coverage between old and new music.
Should I focus on the hot new albums coming out this month? Or should I showcase the legends of the past?
You could have in-depth arts coverage in every major US city for less than the cost of a sneaker endorsement from a third-tier NBA star or the salary of the University of Alabama’s football coach .
I wrestled with this question for a long, long time. I was best known as a jazz historian back then, and people expected me to celebrate the heritage of the music. And I definitely loved those old songs. I still do. On the other hand, I’m concerned (perhaps to an obsessive degree) with nurturing a healthy music ecosystem for the current day, and tomorrow.
After long deliberation, I decided I would divide the coverage 50/50. Half of the articles would emphasize new music, and the other half would look at old music.
But if you had hooked me up to a polygraph machine back then, I’d have admitted that I might be tilting too much in the direction of the tradition. Giving half of the coverage to old music seemed a bit much, or so I fretted. To compensate, I hired writers who had the pulse of the current scene. I also started tilting my own listening to new releases—which soon became a regular habit, one I still pursue in the current day. The end result was that my website Jazz.com published reviews of new music every day of the week, even as we introduced readers to the genre’s heritage.
At Jazz.com, I probably ended up with more of a 60/40 mix in favor of new music. As I shifted more of my listening to new music, the more I wanted to showcase it. That was a good thing, or so I believe.
But the world of music writing has changed, even in just these few years. A 60/40 mix is far more supportive to new artists than the current paradigm in many (perhaps most) music media outlets. And it’s not just writing—as I’ve noted elsewhere, the entire music ecosystem now tilts heavily toward older songs. New songs only account for 28% of current demand—and this number is getting smaller and smaller over time.
Some people tell me I’m wasting my time listening to all these new albums. That’s a discussion for another day. But it’s not like I’ve changed my priorities—they have hardly budged in the last 15 years. And there was a time when every music writer was focused on what was new and happening now. But while I stood still, almost the entire music economy became dangerously dependent on nostalgia and vintage concepts.
Just how stagnant is the current music scene? Consider the fact that half of the hit albums in 2022 came out in 2021. As recently as three years ago, a typical hit song stayed on the chart for 28 weeks on average. It's now 39 weeks.
Consumer research conducted by Coleman Insights finds that people’s favorite songs are now almost set in stone—every time they survey the public, the results are the same. For three years in a row, Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” (from 2017!) has been the preferred song among consumers. “We have yet to detect any rebound in consumers’ enthusiasm for contemporary music,” they write. “It still feels like the movie Groundhog Day when it comes to contemporary music, as time feels like it is standing still.”
But even those old hits aren’t old enough for music publishers and record labels, who continue to allocate most of their investment money into songs from another century.
It's almost as if the entire music distribution system is rejecting new songs the way a human body rejects an organ transplant. And we know where that inevitably leads—the host body’s death.
So why should I worry about the music and entertainment media? After all, they are just adjusting to the new normal. Journalists are symptoms, not causes.
I’m not ready to absolve them of responsibility. Not long ago, the main focus of music journalism was the newspaper—and the very word new appears in the name of the medium. There’s a reason why they don’t call them oldpapers. The whole purpose of the newspaper is to inform readers of what is taking place right now—and that should be true of music coverage as well as almost every other type of story.
Even the food section offers new recipes.
In case you missed it, almost every music writing job at a US newspaper has disappeared—it’s like that Agatha Christie murder mystery And Then There Were None. We’ve pretty much arrived at that None stage. Sure, the papers that still survive continue to publish music stories, but 99% of them are by freelancers. There are no actual jobs—with benefits and 401Ks—except in the rarest of situations.
And even the freelance articles have been downsized, with both the number and length of articles shrinking each year. As a result, most major cities in the US lack even one full-time person who covers the music scene for a local newspaper.
It doesn’t have to be that way. There are a hundred non-profit foundations in the arts that could solve this problem with a modest allocation of resources. If the Duke Foundation, for example, funded 50 people in 50 cities with $50K per year to cover their local music scene it would cost a grand total of $2.5 million. And, if they got ambitious, they could place 4 writers in each city, and still only spend around $10 million.
Did you get that? You could have in-depth arts coverage in every major city for less than the cost of a sneaker endorsement from a third-tier NBA star or the salary of the University of Alabama’s football coach. That’s chump change for those well-funded arts institutions, and it would have an immediate positive impact on culture and arts everywhere in this country.
But they don’t do it. They don’t even consider doing it, as far as I can tell. Who can say why. Maybe journalism isn’t glamorous enough for institutions that prefer to anoint geniuses.
Now this is where I do get nostalgic. For example, I remember back in my salad days, when pianist Jaki Byard appeared at the Keystone Korner in San Francsico for a 5-night run—and his red hot performance on Tuesday got reviewed with rapturous praise in the SF Chronicle on Thursday, ensuring standing room only crowds on Friday and Saturday. I was there on Saturday night, getting firsthand exposure to an unsung Boston legend who rarely came to the West Coast. But I would never have known about it without coverage in the local rag.
This kind of thing happened every week. The music coverage not only reported on the local scene, but kept it vibrant and economically viable. We tend to think that reviews are retrospective and reactive—they happen after the fact, so you can’t blame the press if demand for new music is collapsing. But as my Jaki Byard story shows, the music coverage in the newspapers was often forward-looking and built demand for the future.
Even articles that seemed nostalgic back in those days were actually creating an audience for new music. Consider all those essays by Whitney Balliett in The New Yorker—which I loved dearly but irritated some edgier fans because of their focus on old musicians from the 1930s and 1940s. Balliett published hundreds of these pieces between 1950 and 2000, and wrote them with a wise, loving hand. But what people tend to forget is that almost every musician he featured was still performing in the New York clubs, and now had a larger audience in the future because of that coveted profile in The New Yorker.
In other words, even if you were wistful and nostalgic back then, it was still in the context of building an audience for the current (and future) music scene in the clubs.
It’s worth dwelling for a moment on these profile articles, which were the lifeblood of music feature writing in the newspapers over a period of decades. They invariably focused on an artist who was coming to town next week. These write-ups still appear in a few newspapers, even today, but it’s a dying breed. And as music coverage moves from local print media to online platforms (which, by definition, look to a global audience), there’s less and less opportunity for these profiles, which are almost always local in purpose.
I could give other examples, but you probably already see the larger picture. The current tilt in music media not only reflects the nostalgia of the general public, but has been a major contributing cause. The hot new band doesn’t get hot without media coverage. The up-and-coming musician never gets to play at auditoriums if those early nightclub appearances get ignored in the press.
Let me put it in simpler terms: Music writers serve as the conscience of the art form. They don’t simply reflect back to fans what they expect or want to hear. This is always important to remember but especially right now when the dominant platforms reward technocrats at the expense of musicians. Music media outlets have a responsibility to push back against these forces of marginalization and homogenization that not only hurt individual artists but weaken the entire art form.
Sometimes this comes at a price. The most time-consuming project I undertake every year is listening to all those new albums—this takes up more hours than even writing my books. And for a decade I shared my ‘100 best of the year’ list with no sponsor or financial support whatsoever. I simply uploaded the list on my webpage, and made it available for free.
In other words, the most demanding task of my year was also the most poorly paid. But I did it, because it was the right thing to do. As a music writer, I have a responsibility to the music ecosystem. And, as the support structure for new music gets more fragile with each passing year, that responsibility gets larger, not smaller.
If others in the music media won’t do this because it's right, they ought to do it out of sheer self interest. Because music journalism can’t flourish over the long run if the music ecosystem collapses. Maybe somebody my age can eke it out with some kind of ugly endgame strategy, but that won’t work for the art form when viewed in any larger perspective.
You see, nostalgia can only pay the bills for so long. That’s inevitable if only because a world without young music stars eventually becomes a world without old music stars. In a culture so narrow, even sentimentality over the old songs inevitably fades.
After all, how many more Bob Dylan cover stories can Rolling Stone run?
I fear we will soon find out.
Rolling Stone is now mainstream media. Never thought I would see the day but it is here. RS would never feature Hunter Thompson if he was alive today and certainly not the artwork of Ralph Steadman. I haven't seen them do much with taking on real outlaw country in a meaningful way. I don't think they dare. What you write about what is now classic old rock music is interesting. I work with younger musicians and the older stuff is very highly regarded among them.
I live in the U.K. and that rack of magazines is familiar as hell - without going into the story, about 15 years ago, I was the editor of a new music mag and got the proverbial bullet in the head by my publisher for putting a new band on the cover. Sales were the same as always but it was the principle of the thing to them - it was different to what all the other mags were doing and standing out isn’t what publishers want. They all want to belong to the thing they believe is selling copies - and you can see why when most adverts are for classic bands from a time that’s never coming back. This is a great article for so many reasons but the saddest of all is that there ARE people who care out there who can also write well but there’s no place for them in the world (not unless you want to write for a credit and a free copy of a magazine).