Rip it up and start again

I’ve been doing a lot of walking recently, and it’s been helping me think. When I am sat in front of a screen, things can get stilted pretty quick; physical motion oils my brain as much as my joints. One of the things I’ve been thinking about on my walks is time, and how warped a relationship some humans have developed with it, myself included. Screens, with their addicting glow and infinite-scroll distractions, stretch one’s experience of time into an eternal present: how many days have screens gobbled up, and why is it never enough? I think about what that means for the future, and specifically, what that means for a chance of a future that doesn’t simply replicate the past.

Then, of course, since it’s a field in which I am involved, I think about what that means in terms of the music journalism landscape. In a recent paper about music and gender, Jes Skolnik pointed out that white male critics have “until the last five years or so…been overvalued in the industry and have taken up too much critical space, controlling the dialogue.” The result being that music journalism has been on a treadmill for decades. That who does the gatekeeping has an undeniable impact on which artists get championed, and just as importantly, how they are written about, shouldn’t need an explanation.

The shift of the past few years that Jes references is one that I was privileged to witness from the vantage point of New York’s music and culture publishing world. During my four-year spell in N.Y.C., I saw new and old media alike make hiring decisions that felt like a step toward a more inclusive and incisive future. Thanks in no small part to social media, specifically Black Twitter, the industry began to self-regulate: poor commissioning decisions were called out, and good ones praised; the level to which cultural context fed into criticism was analysed with care; and who did the writing and the editing (and photographing and styling etc) was as much a discussion point as who was written about. That momentum allowed for the kind of internal conversations that push publications to serve their readers better, and pay their contributors more. Taking a step back, the thorough and thoughtful documentation of this particular moment not only signposts a new era, but acts as a map to get us there.

That’s not to say it was all rosy. Publications and websites sometimes failed to retain the black and brown writers and editors they hired because their largely white environments proved too toxic. But in turn, that became part of the discourse: Who does the heavy lifting in cultural criticism and who benefits from it?

I’ve been back in the U.K. two months now, and all I can think is: Britain is caught in a time warp. Where American publications at least project a sense of listening to public opinion, it feels like many British publications have their fingers in their ears. It’s ironic because the British have a way of looking down at America — It’s a mess! The racism! Guns! Trump! — that conveniently allows for denial about the state of the U.K. to flourish, which is reflected in the U.K. media’s own endemic racism, transphobia, Islamophobia, homophobia, and sexism.

If you think that the U.K.’s music and culture media is immune to the above, then you’re also in denial, or part of the problem. White publishers and editors who claim to understand what white privilege is need to put that privilege to work and invite black, brown, and trans writers and editors, as well as those from other marginalised groups, into the spaces they occupy. Representation matters, but presence matters more: you can’t ask questions if you’re not in the room. If U.K. music and culture publications and departments hired black, brown, and trans editors and writers as staff, rather than simply calling on them for (often poorly paid) freelance work, the industry’s future would have a shot at actually being progressive rather than simply posing as that. (For the record: 15 white men, 3 white women, and 1 black woman does not equal a “diverse workplace.”) That said, sometimes it feels like even hiring the right freelancer for the job would be a Radical Act. (This was a missed opportunity.)

At a time when governments and corporations are actively working in favour of the 1%, every aspect of the so-called free press should be in service to the 99%. Art and music have been defunded and devalued in part because they have the ability to encourage reflection and action. That’s why art and music criticism still carries weight, and why we should care about who is authoring and commissioning it. It’s no secret that western history was written by white men. If today’s criticism and journalism is tomorrow’s archive, what kind of progress has really been made if it’s largely written and commissioned by their descendants?

Perhaps the public should ask of the media what it does of politicians: democratically elected media representatives in power for ring-fenced periods of time. I don’t know, I only know there has got to be another way. Just like with walking, if the collective U.K. music media industry takes a different route, we’ll all get someplace new.