I am writing this as a music fan.
It concerns me that music writing is still not a lucrative endeavour when the African music industry itself is a vibrant galaxy of musical genres. I cannot be certain if this is because the focus of some journalists has narrowed or their ideas of audience needs (and abilities) have narrowed. It just seems that people do not take music and musicians as seriously as they could. This might have to do with the attitude that a music career itself is not a strong career choice.
Getting assigned the entertainment beat and having a few columns for music in a magazine or newspaper (print or online) is not the same as having a whole publication dedicated solely to music.
The internet is inundated with music bloggers and music sites showing that people like to talk about music just as much as they like to listen it and download it for free. Professional journalists, especially in Africa do not seem to be taking up the opportunity to join or expand the conversation.
As large as the online music blogosphere is, it is still left on the fringes of “normal” life. Most bloggers have day jobs and do not have the resources to invest in exhaustive tales about an artist’s music. Some blogs while engaging and well-written (even better than most journalistic pieces) do not have access to the artists. That music writing is not a worthwhile pursuit, that it is something that one does in their spare time and will often play second fiddle to people’s “real” careers is precisely the problem.
Music news has devolved into up to the minute updates about a rapper’s latest arrest with a subsequent blow by blow account of their trial. It is far easier to find news about a star’s latest eccentric behaviour, often involving amateur porn, drugs and a car, than it is to find an article that properly weighs on their album or live stage performances. Musicians have grown increasingly hostile towards journalists because the only brand of journalism they have been dealt was the gossipy kind.
There are more pop culture references to a musician’s personal failures than to their music. Ts’eliso Monaheng pointed out that we never got a chance to critically discuss Brown Dash’s music or kwaito music as a whole before he passed away. But we definitely knew about his troubles with TS Records. The same is true for Brenda Fassie and a litany of other artists. We learnt about the alleged beef between Don Jazzy and D-Banj when D-Banj migrated to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D Music. It saddens me that the only legacy some artists may leave behind is the theatrical narration of their trials and tribulations, truthful and otherwise, all over gossip rags.
On the other hand, artist interviews have become boring recitations of cookie cut questions and if the artist is well-liked it can become hagiographic. Empty similes, vague explanations and convoluted descriptions of songs are characteristics of current writings about music. Television interviews no longer serve to unpack an artist and their music. It is simply another (often empty) chat to promote the musician’s newest CD. People would sooner copy-paste a whole interview than engage with an artist’s words and ideas to tell their narrative as creatively as possible but remaining as accurate as possible.
I am not suggesting that a journalist is better equipped to cover an artist than a blogger. I am also not arguing that the quality of bloggers works is bad. Well, some are terrible. I am arguing that journalists have industry backing – the equipment and the money to make several journeys a month to cover a story. They have greater access to the artist and other industry insiders than most bloggers do. And yet, music journalism has been cast to the fringes of the journalistic profession, to fill up the middle pages of the Sunday paper. I feel we – not just writers, journalism students, musicians but everyone – are missing out on the opportunity to interact with our music at a much deeper level than just hooking up our earphones to the artists that we love. I could even argue that the art itself (music) is suffering from this dearth in discourse.
Some will say that the peer to peer sharing of music records and our beloved geeks who digitise vinyl religiously (I love you), have made the music journalist an irrelevant critic.
I believe there is a market for professionals who can write about music to provoke, excite and inform music lovers. Music journalism has the capacity to expand the conversation and connect music communities who otherwise would not have known about each other. There are a few music lovers in the world who will trawl the large sea of 1s and 0s to find a different type of sound.
However, these professionals cannot act as experts or specialists about any type of music. Music journalism is not a way of telling people who or what is good or not. I believe it is way to add to the musical discussion and not monopolise it. There is a gap in music writing that needs to be filled if for no other reason than to etch a musician’s legacy into the history books so that we too can have a museum of music. Well, as far as African music is concerned. And we Africans know what it is like to have our histories written by somebody else.
 Ts’eliso Monaheng. 2012. Brown Dashed, Mahala, http://www.mahala.co.za/culture/brown-dashed/