Listen: Words on Music
The other day, I found in my mailbox – my real, bricks-and-mortar mailbox, not my e-mail inbox – the premiere edition of Listen, a glossy new magazine about classical music. At a time when advertising sales have been falling across the publishing world and even some of Conde Nast’s marquee names are struggling, the simple act of launching a new publication is bound to raise a few eyebrows, at least among anyone who notices it at all. But Listen is the newest brainchild of ArkivMusic.com, an on-line company that’s made a point of adhering to retro marketing strategies. It rolled out its business model, which involves selling classical CD’s on line, in the economic downturn after 9-11, just at a time when it was starting to be widely prognosticated that downloads were the next thing and CDs were in danger of disappearing altogether.
Classical music knows all about clinging to things that are thought old-fashioned, and Arkiv, so far, appears to have done pretty well (its greatest feature is its ability to print on-demand copies of CDs that have fallen out of the catalogue, complete with the original liner notes). And it’s often noted that the United States doesn’t have a glossy general-interest music magazine of its own, like BBC Music Magazine or Gramophone in the U.K -- though we have Fanfare, American Record Guide, and Opera News, the first American publication I ever wrote for; and MusicalAmerica continues on-line, for subscribers).
Listen’s problem, however, is that it doesn’t seem to know whether it wants to be liner notes or music journalism. And this is a problem worth commenting on, since I find that a lot of people seem to be unclear about what good music journalism actually is.
(More after the jump.)
These days, it’s true that there is a dearth of information, as publications cut back on arts coverage and CD liner notes and program biographies give less and less information about artists. (PR biographies have largely been reduced to a formula involving some variant of the epithet “the greatest/most sought-after pianist/singer/conductor of his/her generation” – it’s like MadLibs, pick one – followed by a long list of orchestras, concert halls, and performers with whom the artist in question has appeared, not unlike Homer’s catalogue of ships, but without the alliteration).
But there’s more to writing about culture than simply presenting information unquestioningly to readers. I’m often told that my reviews are too tough, which is a point open to debate elsewhere; but I do believe that the opposite of being too tough is a kind of permissive boosterism that exalts all things relating to classical music because we love the field. There’s a difference between journalism, which attempts to report on the news and present it in a meaningful context, and PR; and Listen, a magazine filled with advertising from record labels whose product the magazine’s publisher sells, seems to list heavily toward the PR side of the equation. “The goal of the magazine is to enhance people’s listening experience and enrich their lives through involvement with classical music,” their press spokeswoman wrote me. In short: a fan zine, where you can read Danielle de Niese writing a blow-by-blow account of her latest recording sessions, or Hélène Grimaud talking about her favorite beverage, food, and films (she likes “Close Encounters”).
It’s my belief that even a lay audience is going to be more interested in informative writing with a strong point of view than information presented simply in the name of bringing audiences closer to people in the field. The best support for this is the success of Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise, which has sold tens of thousands of copies on the strength of being a smart interesting book that never presumes to talk down to its readers. I'd venture that book has managed to turn more people onto classical music – I’ve heard several people say they read it and then went out and bought a lot of the music it mentioned to hear it for themselves – than many worthy “Intro to Classical Music” books written with the specific goal of educating the layman or telling him what records he might like in his collection.
Listen isn’t necessarily trying to make new converts. It’s not even being sold on newsstands; its initial 50,000 copies are being sent out to people who purchase CDs from ArkivMusic (the cover price is $4.95; $14.85 gets you a year’s subscription, six issues). And the response from recipients of the inaugural issue has reportedly been very positive. We certainly know that there are ever fewer forums for classical music writing out there. All the more reason for Listen to set the bar higher and see whether it can offer serious journalism in place of liner notes. Certainly it would be nice to see it succeed – and nice to see it get better.
April 9, 2009; 6:45 AM ET
Categories: news , random musings | Tags: magazine, news, publishing
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