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Media Talks Back: To Praise Or Not To Praise

In the context of music and the fine arts – or any such discipline subject to matters of personal opinion and individual taste – what is the function of the authoritative voice of the music critic, an individual with subjective views talking about subjective topics, the essence of which can barely be communicated by the limited medium that is human language anyway? “I think it’s a very important role, but a role that’s under threat because I think people perhaps underestimate the importance of music writers,” says reputed critic (and a musician himself) Simon Broughton, Editor-in-Chief of leading world music publication Songlines magazine. “You’re the go-between between the artist and the public.”

In addition to being the main music writer with the London Evening Standard since 2002, Simon has also worked with the BBC, is a filmmaker, co-editor of the Rough Guide to World Music (Penguin), is as passionate about Bartók as he is about Toumani Diabaté. His upcoming workshop at the IndiEarth XChange 2014 titled Music Journalism: What’s The Point talks about – well, what exactly the point is. My illuminating conversation with him shed light on just that.

Nirupama: You have experience working in a few different mediums – is there a reason you chose print and the written word as your medium for expressing ideas about music?
Simon: I guess it’s the most personal, and it’s the most flexible. Television is a very bulky enterprise in the number of people whom you have to have with you, and the time it takes – and I love doing it, but it takes a long time. What I love about the written word is you are in total control. Radio is also much more flexible – a radio interview is the ideal way of discovering somebody’s music and putting somebody’s music out there. But it seemed there was a need for Songlines – writing about world music – and it’s won a lot of readers and a lot of fans, so while people are keen to have it, it’s a great opportunity for me and a lot of other people to feed in their knowledge, expertise, and enthusiasm to try to spread the word about a lot of this music that is still very under represented in the Media in the UK, and around the rest of the world as well.

Nirupama: Tell me more about Songlines’ approach of using music as a window to understanding different cultures and communities?
Simon: I always say about Songlines that it’s not just a music magazine – it’s a magazine about the world, and we’re using music as a tool to look at the world – so whether it’s through song lyrics, you’re getting an idea of what the concerns of an artist are in that part of the world, or the way the music sounds, it’s because of the history of that place – the colonisation that was there, the instruments that were used. Music is also a great way of making contact with people, so when you’re travelling somewhere – just to go to meet a musician, or search out music – that leads to human contact and you start to get beneath the surface, it somehow breaks the ice, breaks down barriers.

Nirupama: According to you – what is the role of the music critic?
Simon: I think it’s a very important role, but a role that’s under threat because I think people perhaps underestimate the importance of music writers and critics. I do both – I’m a music critic – writing about people’s music, criticising concerts, albums and so on, and I’m also writing articles about particular artists. When it comes to reviewing gigs or albums, my feeling is one has to be absolutely honest – in whatever knowledge I have of the music scene, trying to place that concert or CD where it sits in the bigger picture of music, what’s successful and what’s not about it. I’ve been very rude about some music, and of course it doesn’t make you friends, but sometimes people say even afterwards, “Okay, I see what you were saying with that, or I took advice from that”. Sometimes people – even when I have been very critical – will sometimes even thank you for it. Doesn’t always happen like that – but it is important to be honest, and not just to be praiseworthy all the time. Because you tend to end up losing credibility if you can’t have some kind of critical edge.

In terms of the role of the music media, in a way you’re the go between between the artist and the public. Of course there are other ways of doing that, and it’s much easier now with social media for artists to just put music online and directly reach an audience, which is all for the good – the problem is there are so many millions of people trying to do that and it’s very hard for people to find you. So I think the media is still very important in saying “we think this person is interesting”, “if you like this person – try that” – essentially, steering popular taste. That’s not to say we’re right any more than anyone else – it just comes down to a matter of personal opinion – but if you can back up what you think, and provide useful information for people, then it’s a useful service. You can be a filter, at least.

Nirupama: Tell me more about the media in London and its approach to covering the independent arts?
Simon: Certainly in Britain, newspapers and magazines are cutting down rather than expanding arts coverage – so there’s less music coverage, less books coverage, less arts in general.

Nirupama: Why is that?
Simon: Well principally there’s a sort of crisis in the media, simply because it’s harder for the model of newspapers and magazines to work financially, and so space is cut down, and people have less time to read, and the emphasis goes on news and politics, while things like the arts get pushed to the edge – considered unessential somehow. At the same time there’s more space online but it’s much harder to get paid for anything that happens online, I think people are still trying to find a mechanism for doing all that. So it’s a time of transition I’d say, but as a music writer you can still have a function.

Nirupama: According to you – what makes for a good music review versus a bad one?
Simon: It’s amazing how people forget that you need to give an idea of what the music sounds like – and it’s amazing how often people sometimes forget to do that. And of course it’s not easy to do that – words are rather a blunt tool for describing music – but that’s part of the art of what you try to do in music writing. So it’s important to give an idea of what the music sounds like, what it’s trying to do, and to what extent it’s successful – a bigger description if we’ve been talking about music in context, that’s part of a bigger event – that whole descriptive ingredient of what music’s doing and how it does it. And also what the musician is trying to say. Then of course, it’s great if you can pull together themes, include other artists who are doing similar things, so whoever’s reading it has a broader picture in which to place it. I guess it’s trying to make sense of that artist in the wider world, being a bridge between the artist and the wider community. It’s important to be opinionated, voice your feelings, simply because if you have a strong opinion – it tends to be more interesting.

Nirupama: Tell us more about your upcoming workshop at the XChange 2014?
Simon: I do want it to be very much a discussion rather than a lecture, because I don’t know everything – I really want it to be an exchange. But what I’m going to do is bring various examples of music journalism, and then talk about the particularities. We’ll talk about the different audiences they’re serving, the different purposes of the articles, and what we like and don’t like about them – that’s basically it – and the questions and concepts will come out of that.

I think there are important things like how to make a story, and what is an interesting story – ‘This guy is Calcutta’s greatest sitar player” isn’t really enough of a story, you need to make more of a narrative into an article. This is partly the journalist’s job – but to get the journalist interested, it’s very much down to the artist themselves, or the PR person to think of those sorts of things. It certainly gives you more to grasp onto as a writer.

Simon will be holding a workshop at IndiEarth XChane 2014, supported by the British Council.
To register for the workshop at IndiEarth XChange 2014, click here. There is no registration fee.

For more on Songlines magazine and to subscribe, visit http://www.songlines.co.uk/

Nirupama Belliappa

Nirupama Belliappa

Nirupama is a musician, TV presenter, photographer, and the instrumentalist/vocalist for the popular electronica live act BLaNK - the winners of MTV's Ultimate DJ Championship. An accomplished journalist, she is a features writer at IndiEarth. Follow her on instagram: @nipsiandthedeepseas Facebook: www.facebook.com/BLaNKLive

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