Covering acts who don’t want to be covered
Or, if you like, covering acts who don’t need to be covered
One of the best books about writing about music for a living to come along in a long, long time is “I’m Not With the Band”. Sylvia Patterson‘s mighty fine read about her years covering the ins, outs, ups and downs of the pop world for Smash Hits, NME and elsewhere reminds you that there was a golden age for music journalism – and that the past tense is warranted. Patterson had access to the bold print names which anyone with even a passing interest in pop recognises – acts like Madonna, Oasis, Led Zeppelin, Prince, Amy Winehouse, Adele, U2, Johnny Cash and Beyoncé – and she made full use of this access to ask cheeky questions of whoever she met and produce some sparkling copy.
Patterson would probably make the point that she didn’t have the access to the acts which music hacks of an earlier time enjoyed – the Almost Famous routine of going on the road for aeons with a band – but she certainly had more access than those who cover the pop beat enjoy today. These days, you’re lucky if you get an act on the phone for 15 minutes. Fellow writers in the sports department tell me I’m lucky and relate stories about trying to get soccer or GAA players to answer one or two questions. I have a feeling we’re probably heading that way with music too. You have two questions and one of them is “how are you today?”.
The reason for this is something which Patterson talks about in a cracking interview with Eve Barlow for Vice. Music journalists, like everyone else in the media these days, are simply not trusted anymore, especially when anything you say to a journalist can blow up into a worldwide social media outragefumingoffended scandal before you can say “Andrea Leadsom”.
“I have lost count of the amount of times that someone will say in an interview ‘oh well you just can’t trust journalists, can you?’,” says Patterson. “They come at you with a default position of immense suspicion. They know that whatever they say they’re talking to the global microphone, and it’s been that way for a long time, but it never used to be quite as negative. No matter what you write, there’s a whole internet culture that guarantees everything to be taken out of context. Everything is sensationalist and negative and that means the relationship is now ruined. Someone like Beyonce – why would she ever do an interview again? She won’t. She’s not gonna want to have you walking into a room and asking ‘so what did happen in the lift that time with your sister and your husband and that bollocks?’ People want gossip now, not jokes. The jokes are gone!”
It’s not just the jokes which have disappeared. Artists – and remember we’re talking about artists here who are supposed to be subversive and risk-positive and not give a fuck – don’t want to rock the boat or say anything which could be misconstrued or taken out of context or exaggerated or used to give them a dig in the mush at a later stage. I interviewed Tom Odell a few weeks ago about his new album “Wrong Crowd”, a record which appears to be heavily pointed by his views on nature. While he’s no Anohni, he still had some interesting things to say. But it came coated with pauses and sub-clauses like “I don’t want to sound pretentious or overly profound” as if someone was listening in on the call (the PR may well have been). You’re a pop star, man! You’re supposed to be happy to sound pretentious and profound! You have a licence to be pretensious and profound! It’s better than a TV licence! You can have the crack!
But in 2016, acts are looking at the bottom line rather than at the stars. They’re in the music business as much for the latter as the former. Anything which could rock the boat and impact the revenue and income streams for themselves, their labels and the permanent establishment entourage of managers, legal eagles and bean-counters is frowned upon. Anything interesting or idiosyncratic is squeezed out. You become a dull-as-fuck robot. Everyone in the writing-about-pop business bangs on that Noel Gallagher is a fantasic interviewee and he is because he’s genuinely interested in having a conversation, having a laugh and talking about what he does and what’s around him. Contrast him with the boring-as-fuck grouchy old bollox Bernard Sumner as detailed in the excerpt from Patterson’s book here. No comparison.
But there’s another change which needs to be addressed and that’s the fact that acts don’t have to deal with an unshaven, sweaty, mumbling hack to get their views to the world anymore either. Social media means an artist can directly communicate with their fans and followers about whatever is on their mind (and, let’s be honest here, a lot of what is on their mind is not exactly high-falutin’). Social media also means that these snaps and tweets and what-have-you are amplified and distributed far and wide, especially by the old media outlets desperate to cover those acts in the hope of some clicks to save the farm. You don’t need to go through the rigmarole of press campaigns and interviews if you can do all that by just taking a photo of the act sipping some of the local brew (of course, a photo of the same act spewing out the same brew a second later would be far more interesting).
As a result of all this, acts like Beyoncé don’t need to do press anymore. When she releases a new album like “Lemonade”, you get this perfect storm of a global audience going gaga online to talk about the songs, the lyrics, the visuals, the music and damn Becky with the good hair before everyone else. The artist herself stands aloof from the whole affair and goes to Wimbeldon instead. I’ve interviewed Beyonce in the past – the only interview I’ve ever done where the interviewee was getting her hair done at the same time – and she was pretty sparky once you got past the media training so there’s no doubt that she’d have plenty to say on the various subjects, but she’s not interested in talking about it. She’s also not, as the Irish media found out at the weekend, not interested in even having press photographers coming along to the show to take photos of her in action.
However, the acts will still be covered somehow or other because there are pages to fill and these are the names who bring in the readers. Sometimes, it will be in a way which the acts and their people think is cool and dandy because it’s frothy and innocuous and involves selfies and Snapchat pics and is already making use of approved content. Sometimes, it will involve some innovative ideas and different ways to write about an act and their place in the culture which everyone else in the game will then copy.
And sometimes, it will be a lot different and a lot less flattering and there’s nothing the acts can do. Well, bar hire someone from the Legal Eagle School of PR to send off huffy letters and expensive demands for retractions and apologies and the like. They could, of course, always do a few interviews and actually say what’s on their mind, but you’d want to be mad to do that. Or not give a fuck. And sadly, there are less and less acts in the game that you actually want to cover who don’t give a fuck.