Saturday, July 5, 2008

MP3 Blogs vs. Music Blogs: Different Purposes?

My thesis has got me thinking a lot about music blogs' purpose lately. In my research, I stumbled across a music blog symposium, which included participants like Maura Johnston of Idolator, music journalist/critic Simon Reynolds, and music writer Carl Wilson. They discussed the differences between writing about music professionally and writing music blogs more informally. But one of the more interesting bits that may have a considerable effect on my thesis is the response to the fifth question: "Would you agree that the back and forth conversational aspect of the music blogosphere has died down somewhat in the last few years? Any theories as to why?" It was here that the distinction between MP3 blogs and music blogs comes out, a distinction that I originally didn't take much note of. I had started using the terms interchangeably, which I realize now that I shouldn't have done so glibly. Perhaps the inclusion of MP3s does a lot more to a music blog's purpose than I would have expected. What appears to emerge, is a rather firm division between the "old guard" music bloggers and the later crop of MP3 bloggers. Both seem to have their own communities and their own beliefs about what the purpose of a blog dealing with music should be, and it seems rather rare for them to cross paths and/or engage each other. Carl Wilson, who I would consider one of the "old guard," lists reasons as to why dialogue and dialectic have decreased on music blogs, and one of them is MP3 blogs:

MP3 blogs, which turned the music-blog scene into an acquisitive feeding frenzy which spares little time for reflection and contemplation. It’s a shame, as the earliest mp3 blogs such as Said the Gramophone and Fluxblog present an entirely different model, but few are the people who have followed in their model, compared to the here’s-the-latest-leak-with-200-words-of-hype model. The earlier, more criticism-oriented bloggers lost some focus and, more so, I think, have been turned off by all that.

I can see Wilson's point, but at the same time, does this difference between criticism-oriented, text-heavy music blogs and promotion-oriented MP3 blogs point to something deeper? A respect for the primacy of text versus an immediacy provided by non-textual samples? An elitism of bloggers who know more about music than more amateur efforts? Or is it the elitism of intellectuals, so to speak, over the more negative connotations of PR people? If we're all music fans, and writing music/MP3 blogs comes from a fannish impulse, can our purposes vary so much? I'm not sure, but I'm beginning to think there are differences in purpose, and this difference has a lot to do with whether MP3s are included or not.

The inclusion of MP3s does point to a conundrum: why would you post music up for people to sample if you don't like it? For one thing, it's wasting your time, and if you're a blogger who maintains a music blog as a hobby, wasting time on music you don't like seems silly. Secondly, why would a reader read your bad review of the music and then decide to give the music a try anyway? The second way MP3s are affecting bloggers' purposes is via the MP3 blog aggregators like The Hype Machine and Elbows, which function either completely or nearly completely because of MP3 links in each blogger's posts. The focus, especially on The Hype Machine, is definitely the MP3s over the text accompanying them - the tracks are the most prominent text on the home page of the aggregator, dwarfing the text around it. To be included, and thus to be more easily found by others (a concern of nearly all bloggers because as much as bloggers say they blog for themselves, they are writing in a public space, thus ostensibly seeking some sort of attention), a blogger has to include MP3s. This is one of the reasons I hadn't really stumbled across music blogs without MP3s in my earlier travels in cyberspace. In a way, aggregators force MP3s to become the attraction for the audience rather than the text first. This is not to say that people don't subscribe to MP3 blogs for what the blogger writes and his/her style because several of the MP3 blogs I've come across are worth reading for the calibre of writing alone; however, I also admit that I can flit from blog to blog on the basis of MP3 selection alone, often without reading the blurb accompanying the links.

I suppose the distinction between MP3 blogs and music blogs boils down to a difference in rhetorical approaches - with music blogs the readers are being persuaded about issues and arguments about music, whereas MP3 blogs are persuading readers to sample and purchase certain artists' music. I would say, though, that in both cases, the blogger him/herself also wants to persuade readers to visit his/her blog and validate him/her along with the blog itself.

Early in my research, I hypothesized that MP3 blogs are places where one can create music criticism/journalism with the immediacy of samples unavailable to those operating in print, but now I wonder if they are more often primarily promotional tools for both artists and the bloggers themselves. In the end, blogs vary so much that I can't state anything definitively or too generally. I have observed, however, that MP3s have seemed to increase the number of bloggers who post in a slapdash manner in order to be the first to post a particular track or to follow the frenzy over a particular artist, but perhaps the audiences for these types of blogs want quantity over quality in posts, so they can form their own opinion about the music posted rather than engage with lengthy textual opinions. They prefer their music in bites and bytes just like their regular consumption of other information.

Maura Johnston answered the aforementioned symposium question slightly more positively than Carl Wilson:

with the rise of the MP3 blog and the idea that a person doesn’t need to write about a record in order to communicate what it sounds like, the space hasn’t become just for critics–while there are some great writers running blogs that have MP3s and music samples on them, there’s also been a rise in blogs that are much more enthusiasm-driven and interested in sharing music directly, without any verbal clutter. There’s a definite divide between the two generations of music bloggers, with a few people (Matthew Perpetua of Fluxblog, Sean at Said The Gramophone) straddling it.

What is the impact of no "verbal clutter"? What would happen if MP3 blogs became more and more about posts with links to YouTube clips and a couple of free MP3s (The Music Slut comes to mind)? Do these things mean something on their own without words? This approach takes selection of reality quite literally, and could end up becoming a debate on orality and literacy. Are MP3 blogs more oral and music blogs more literate? Maybe so. After all, MP3 bloggers most closely remediate word-of-mouth and mixtapes, which belong within oral culture rather than literate culture. And if this is the case, do MP3 blogs foster a different sense of community and solidarity whereas music blogs encourage deeper individuality and value logical thought?

I can't help but notice that most of the music blogs without MP3s and the most criticism-oriented approaches are written by people who also write about music professionally. For these bloggers, blogging is an extension of their career, where they don't have to worry about editors and word counts; in contrast, for MP3 bloggers, I think blogging becomes more of an act of subversion and an expression of power within a market they don't have control over. And all this thinking has gotten me wondering what my purpose for this blog is. And whether I'm even fully aware of the purpose or could ever be fully aware.

So far, I think I've leaned towards the MP3 blog tendency to write about music I actually like and endorse, rather than criticize music and/or other people's opinions of it. I think this is only the third post to deal with music as an issue and argument to be explored, and I think I've only criticized music in a negative fashion four times in the six months I've been running this blog (a criticism of The Long Blondes' latest album, this year's Brit Awards, the Manics' cover of Umbrella, and the Tokyo Police Club gig I went to). For me, I think the issues mentioned earlier (time constraints and not feeling the need to post links to music I don't like) are the most obvious reasons. Then again, to be honest, I also post MP3s to gain some extra attention I likely wouldn't without them. My blog isn't on The Hype Machine, so I have no idea how being on it would affect traffic to my site, or whether that would even matter so much, especially if most traffic was to download the MP3s and move on. I quite value any comments I do get and any emails I've received from both artists and readers thus far.

The idealistic side of me, to some extent, has deliberately tried to post about bands who are either unsigned or independently produced because I know it's less likely they'll get promotion via more mainstream channels. I've also tried to maintain integrity in terms of what I post about - I don't post music just because I've been asked to (as guilty as I sometimes feel about ignoring requests). These sorts of things help me sleep at night. But there are times when I wonder if I should be posting more complex posts or deeper insights with a critical slant or not. Am I restricting myself and my personality by only posting positive things about music I like? I'm still unsure.

I've seemingly used this blog far more personally than I originally intended, for better or for worse - my relationship with music seems too deeply rooted in my personal life to extract it more objectively. I'm also one of those people who expresses him/herself much more effectively in writing than in speaking, so writing is important to me - I don't think I could ever be one of those blogs that just posts MP3s and YouTube clips. There's always that part of me that's been an attention-seeker, too - I identify with Andy Warhol, who once said he wanted to be famous and gain everyone's attention, but once he got their attention, he didn't know what to do with it. I seem to need attention while shunning the awkward interactions that ensue from said attention, and blogging fulfills these requirements quite nicely. Again, if I'm completely honest, I do want any readers (all four of you out there) to trust me and value my judgement and taste just as much as I want them to support the musical artists I'm promoting. I know my impact and influence is miniscule, but I guess it's my proactive way of battling the frustration over the music covered in the music press.

MP3-free music blogs like Blissblog, K-Punk, and Pop Life are intimidating to me because as music-crazy as I think I am, I'm definitely not in their league. I don't write about music for a living, and have always shied away from it because I've never been secure enough about my music knowledge, and I can't imagine going head-to-head with the people who write this seriously about music.

Has this gotten me any closer to an answer to my thesis? I couldn't say at this point. I have become more self-aware about my own purposes, mind, and that's a start.


peteski said...

Music Journalism was just something you did when you couldn't find a real job, or you just wanted to hang out around people with talent (see "Sports Journalism"). Its not the case anymore - that's why we have Tech Journalism.

You know what they say "Writing about music is like ....

a waste of time."
Dig or don't.

Thanks. said...


jChris said...

thanks for the thoughtful post. I'm not sure the two genres are comparable. Mp3 blogs are the new radio, music blogs (without music) are discussion and opinion. Occasionally a radio DJ will offer criticism, but that is not the purpose of radio. Radio is for listening.

Anonymous said...

My blog is mostly about sharing music I like, but I've wondered while writing if I should be thinking more about criticism and finding something "smart" to say about the music I'm posting. Finally I decided that that's not the purpose of my postings - and really, many readers will skip right past it to get to the music anyways.

I've also been thinking about the somewhat unintended purpose of MP3 blogs as I look at my traffic and realize that many people are showing up just to snag a free copy of whatever I posted. That is, it's not so much about discovery of new music as it is about acquiring music they already know they want, and for free. I figure my feeble pleas to "buy the music if you like it" generally go ignored, but there's not much I can do about it.

Anyways, sorry for rambling. Very interesting post.

jeej said...

I wrote this way back in September 2006, but I think it echoes some of your sentiments...



Anonymous said...

Does it use to be the same as writing about vinyl music.

I have a great deal of rare vinyl records.

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