Tricky Traverses
Climbing the mountain of music journalism.

I've just finished reading and typing up Kevin's So Much For Choice! piece, and feel compelled to pick up some of his points and questions. I'm not sure I'll be able to tell him much more than he already knows, or at least perhaps suspects, but who can tell? Except Kevin, of course.

I'm starting off with radio because frankly I've never really understood it, or indeed enjoyed it to be honest. Sure, I have some hazy memories of listening to Peel on occasion back in the day, and I guess I must have listened to Kid Jenson and Janice Long. I also recall Mark Goodier on Radio Clyde playing things like early Sunset Gun demos, Friends Again, Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn, but there's not much to remember of all that really. And I do recall there was a show on Radio One where they played lots of Chic and I loved that show despite the ribbing I took for it from the 'punks' in the playground. But generally, nah... not a radio fan. Too much to filter out, not enough hours in the day, and you know I have always tired quickly. No staying power... just a lightweight. Oh well.

The Freaky Trigger crew, with whom I spent an enjoyable (if occasionally downright bemusing - 'cheese and soup'?! No, me neither...) evening session in a London hostelry just last week feel the same way about radio as Kevin and I suspect this is how they keep up to date with the machinations of current 'pop' sounds, how they know what Atomic Kitten actually sound like and who Papa Roach is. I can't say I'm particularly interested in that anyway, and suspect it's not entirely what Kevin is after, although I may be misjudging his interest in the vagaries of 'chart music' here. Personally I get my small fill of chart pop from the music television stations that I occasionally strobe through on a Saturday or Sunday lunchtime; and this is how I actually know what Atomic Kitten sound like, how I know that the song that sounds for all the world like a remake of All About Chad for the, you know, 'lowest common denominator' in fact reached number two on the UK charts and is in fact by a bunch of chancers called Wheatus.

I digress.

So I can't really help Kevin on his radio enquiry, although I will just say that the Internet seems to be throwing up all sorts of equivalents to the pirate radio stations with folks starting up Net Radio broadcasts, and although it's mainly being done in the US at the moment (I know the Net is global, but, uh, time differences do count for something in the 'real' world...) the potential (with the proviso that something about unmetered call charges and faster access in the UK gets addressed wholesale soon) is immense.

Which doesn't really answer the question of how DO you get to hear new music these days? How do I hear new music? To be honest it's much as it ever was; my friends pass on recommendations, I read something interesting on a website (once it would have been the music press), I see an interesting looking name or sleeve in the record store... and I get sent stuff by record labels.

This last one is over-rated quite frankly, and sifting can take time, but still, gems do reach through. Life Without Buildings, for a start. And the excellent Face A compilation from ultra-cool French label Q-Tape, which, since I've mentioned it, I'll add has some fine tracks of electro-outPop, best of which for me would be the funky lo-fi Stereolab meets early Air of Remington Super 80, the excellently named Yuppie Flu who turn in a kind of early Tortoise wig-out and Orange Cake Mix, whose 'Painted Stone Cabbage' is another treat of the bizarre from the very wonderful Jim Rao.

I digress once more.

The truth is I've never been able to satisfactorily describe how I get to hear new music... it almost feels symbiotic. And anyway I probably shouldn't even be talking about this because pretty much all I've listened to in the past two or three months is the Velvet Underground, Nico, Cale, Reed and now Bob Dylan. Hardly new... except clearly in some respects some of it is new (Dylan, to be specific); new to me and that's all that counts maybe? Maybe not. At least I can easily relate how I came by my current predilections, and that is through reading books that cross-reference, bring up new angles to explore... always something else. And 'history' is always easier to explore than the present, of course, because there are more signposts.

Exploring the present is something I'm not sure anyone is able to do satisfactorily anymore simply because everything is so utterly fractured it's almost silly to make a start at disseminating the information. Sometimes I applaud the fact that there are more 'lifestyle' magazines around these days because they at least make an attempt to address the point that 'music' is about so much more than just 'music'. And then I pick one up and want to scream... the problem is, I fear, that we have come to accept the pluralist nature of our lives to such an extent that we have fallen wholesale into the trap of a little bit of everything and nothing with very much substance. In my ideal world I have several magazines or media which tell me what I want to know about music, books, art... whatever. Everyone will be different. The problem is that by and large there aren't a wide enough range of topics covered in the current magazines that do address those areas, although strangely, almost every other area is covered with more breadth than music currently is...

If I had to make a pick of current magazines I'd currently pick Sleazenation, although there's still too much fashion and it's all a bit, well 'trendy' for me to feel totally at ease with. But maybe that's as well...

Kevin suggests that the Internet didn't kill the weekly music press, and he is right, but the Internet has certainly helped to fill the gaps left by the demise of all the titles he mentions. Well, it sort of has... which obviously means also that it sort of hasn't, and that's maybe something that depends on how much time you have to dig and sift and how easy you find it reading off a screen, among other things. Clearly there's a wealth of interesting writing out on the Net about music and any other topic you care to mention, but the 'problem' is that the writing, or the collection of writing has itself been fractured to the extent that where once you could have found a core of good writers in one or two papers or magazines, now you have to dart between a myriad of sites and sub-sites to find the gems. And of course having said that, I can't even think of many gems myself... Personally I find great pleasure in much of the writing on Freaky Trigger (Tom Ewing especially) and Robin I know rates McSweeneys (although it's not about music), but other than that, I dunno... I suspect that much of the genuinely interesting writing about music and other topics is being done on the Net in less traditional ways; no 'articles' as such but rather more diary-like entries wherein people are documenting the connections made between, for arguments sake, music and their lives; are analysing the music from a personal perspective without the need to comply to publishing deadlines or editorial policies. Which you can argue as a good or a bad thing as you wish.

In fact Rupert and I were discussing this just the other day; where and how do young writers publish their work these days in a manner that allows them to grow and develop as writers for a specific target? For example, how do young journalists, the contemporary equivalents of the young Julie Burchill, say, or Lester Bangs even, where do they write in an environment that will (in a roundabout bullshit business manner, for sure) support them and give them space to spread their wings? There doesn't seem to be anywhere... which is quite worrying. There isn't enough value given to the writers these days (probably because they aren't exciting enough, as Kevin has pointed out), and hasn't been for too long, to allow the seeds of inspiration to be planted in the minds of the readers. Maybe this is why the music press has died: publishers listened to, and believed, too much crap about how the papers should be about the music and not the characters of the writers. They got the balance wrong. The circle of inspiration got broken...

I occasionally pick up the NME. Maybe once every year. I cannot find any writer that I can imagine inspiring me to want to write for the NME... no writer that would make me want to hear the records, never mind want to write about them, want to create something as wonderful for the sake of writing something wonderful, and not for the sake of getting on the guest list and getting a bag of free records. Kevin is dead right when he says that reading Paul Morley and David McCullough was an inspiring event all by itself, almost regardless of what they were writing about, and it's sadly true to say that those kinds of voices just don't seem to be around anymore. And although it's flattering to wonder if anyone is reading Tangents and saying 'I want to write like - (insert your favourite Tangents writer here)' I know that really that's quite a sad thing to be saying, because as much as I was inspired by Morley et al, I know that (and I'm speaking only for myself, as only I can) I at least have singularly failed to reach even the foothills beneath the heady peaks that those writers achieved. Which in some respects is almost an admission that it's my generation that killed the music press, that kind of killed culture by simply not being good enough. By not being up to the challenge of picking up the baton and building something even greater on the foundations already laid.

Which is maybe a depressing point on which to end, and which really won't do because you know that even though I've said that, I believe that sites like Tangents and Freaky Trigger are at least making the effort to still scramble up those slopes, are still aiming high and scrabbling for the footholds and the guidelines left by the earlier mountaineers, are still willing to stray from their routes and try new, tricky traverses. Still out there searching for the pathways that lead to the heart.

Alistair Fitchett 2001