Monday, 16 November 2015

To suck, or not to suck...

Manchester city centre, on TUC march day, October 4th 2015 (date setting on camera not set up before using)
This piece is inspired by a panel discussion I attended at Louder Than Words on Sunday 15th November. The title of the discussion was 'Is the Enemy Really Free?', a coded reference to the NME, Britain's last weekly music paper, and it's decision two months ago to go free.

A lot was discussed in the discussion, and it is a massive area, but it made me think about my own relationship with journalism and blogging, with being a paid writer and an unpaid writer, and what it all might mean....

To make sense of it all, I need to go right back to the beginning.

The Fanzine Writer:

When I was 14, I started a fanzine, Aggamengmong Moggie, which I wrote, edited, printed and copied myself. It came out every two months (by and large, I paused for exams a couple of times) for six years and was distributed firstly by Piao! the underground distribution network, gig promotion unit and record label in London, secondly by Little Green Man, the Mancunian tape label. Neither of which took a percentage of the cover price to distribute it. No one paid me to write it, and I don't think it ever covered costs, but, up to a point, I did have complete creative control.

Up to a point? Well, if you want to look at it under an ethical microscope, I was reliant on means of production that were perhaps not ethical: It was photocopied and printed using devices made by Canon, a multi national conglomerate, and I had no idea at the time what their ethics were. Similarly, photocopy toner isn't particularly environmentally friendly. I did, when I was printing and copying it myself at home, use recycled paper though.

The website writer and editor:

Moving on, I started writing for The F-Word website in 2002, at which point the site was basically Catherine Redfern (founder and editor) and any contributors she could find. She wasn't paying herself a wage, and none of the contributors were paid a wage either. The F-Word has expanded considerably since 2002, it now has section editors and a blogging team, plus a social media team, as well as contributors. None of these people are paid. I still write for The F-Word, and spent two and a half years working for the site as a Music Review Editor between 2011 and 2013, a job I was happy to do for free because I really liked the idea of being a Music Review Editor at a UK feminist website, an opportunity for which there was no paid equivalent, and it seemed like a really interesting dynamic to work with.

Did I make use of free music platforms? Yes, I did, and I do. I often feel that I have no choice.

What you may or may not know is that sourcing promo is always a bit of a lottery when you aren't an established journalist. The F-Word has very respectable page view figures, but the site isn't always known or understood by music PR's, and coupled with the sites editors and writers not being well known authors and writers by and large, this does tend to place us at a disadvantage.

Some PR's are great, and we were able to source some really good stuff and get our reviewers on the guest list for some amazing gigs that we half expected to be knocked back for. But some PR's and labels definitely have the attitude that they will only give you access to some of their clients and their work (usually new signings not getting much press elsewhere), not all of it, leading to a two tier system which can lead to less established writers scrabbling around for solutions beyond the world of PR and promo. I have, on a number of occasions, waited until release day, logged into Spotify, and hammered the streams of certain albums for a few days in order to get a review done and in within a respectable window of the release date. I've, on one occasion, burnt a copy of an album I'd purchased myself but wanted a reviewer to review because promo would have taken too long to sort out.

And then there have been albums that we should have reviewed, but couldn't because no one would send us the promo, it wasn't on Spotify, and it needed to be done quickly. There was also at least one interview we would have loved to have done with a famously pro feminist pop star, but we couldn't get past the gatekeepers of her agent and PR team.

Pictures are another issue, and it's one that has got worse in the past few years because, as photographers have become more assertive in enforcing copyright (and who can blame them for that?) people are much less inclined to put photos up on flickr under a creative commons licence. The only way around this, as a writer or editor working for free, is to start taking your own pictures and only use them, to constantly find new sources of creative commons images as websites such as flickr dry up, or not to use pictures. The F-Word has no photographers, but it does have a picture editor, whose job it is to trawl the net looking for creative commons friendly images. Whether you feel any sympathy for journalists in this situation or not, it's worth considering that a number of charities, including Cat's Protection, also make use of creative commons images on their blogs and websites.

Does the F-Word exploit it's writers? I would say no, for a number of reasons. Chiefly because I realised, during my two and a half years as an editor, that the balance of power lay much more with the writers than it did with the editors at the site. We didn't receive so many contributions that we could afford to reject stuff or, at least, not without a very good reason. Reasons would include pieces that were not feminist in sentiment (and The F-Word is a feminist website), or contributors who turned out, after a few checks by us, to be people with a business interest in their subject that they weren't being at all transparent about. On a rare occasion we also rejected two pieces on Rihanna on the basis that we'd already run a piece fairly similar to both of them fairly recently. But with those pieces we did accept or commission we would always work with the writer on the piece until it was ready to be published, however bad the first draft was or however awkward and difficult the writer was to work with. We were shafted by some writers. But I can't think of an occasion when, as a writer, I've been shafted by editors at The F-Word. And that's why I still write for the site.

Digital Disruption and the British class system:

Southwark, London, July 2015
It's not just digital disruption that has caused music journalism to be devalued and writers to write for free, it's also the system of media internships and patronage within the British media. Both of these factors have led to a situation where a media career (in the general sense, not just in a music journalism sense) is increasingly out of reach for anyone who isn't from a rich background, or who has parents or other relatives already working in the media. This leads, by a logical leap, to a media that not only doesn't understand what is really going on in the country it seeks to cover (and coverage of Manchester and the issues around the TUC march in October as covered in the media, particularly The Guardian, really did bring this home to me,) but also to some really terrible choices when it comes to the promotion of music and culture. Coldplay were surely the classic example of this.

Paid freelance music journalism: 

So what of paid music journalism? Well, my experience is somewhat limited, but I did contribute reviews and short pieces to Record Collector magazine for two and a half years between 2005 and 2007. At that time, the rates were £10 for 200 word album reviews and £25 for Diggin' For Gold pieces, which were 250 word length pieces on collectible items. They ran gig reviews, but didn't pay for them.

As someone whose areas of musical interest weren't always covered by Record Collector (Riot Grrrl for example) or were being covered by more established writers already (punk), my areas of specialism ended up being 80s girl bands (an area no one would surely want to fight me for) and bands who had recorded sessions for John Peel. I didn't mind this that much, but it did mean that I couldn't write about what I was most interested in, musically, and get paid for it. Similarly, today, it is highly unlikely that I would be commissioned to write over 1,000 words on Florence + The Machine for anyone other than The F-Word. 

This isn't just because it seems unlikely that, say, Mojo, would give a full page review to a Florence + The Machine album, but also because, if they did, such a review commission would not be given to me, it would be given to a more experienced and established music journalist with a more proven track record.

The Wage Don't Fit:

Anyone doing the maths here will have realised that, whether writing for Record Collector or for The F-Word, it is impossible for me to make a living purely from writing for these publications. You are right. I even had a book chapter commission while I was writing for Record Collector, but off the back of stuff I'd written for The F-Word. The book chapter was a flat fee of £700, paid in three instalments, with no royalties, and all the writers did receive their money... eventually.

So, here it comes: The only reason I can afford to write at all is because I have a full time library job, and I can earn the equivalent of two album reviews for Record Collector in about an hour.  From a purely economic point of view, it makes much more sense to do two hours overtime in my library than it does to review four albums. What is ironic, and somewhat depressing, is that libraries are also subject to a massive extent of digital disruption. Having gone into libraries as a job while waiting for my writing career to take off, back in 2004, it is sad to see both careers going south at the same time.

The fruits of a particularly appalling two month period at my library, June 2015
But would I work as a volunteer library assistant, unpaid? I would be absolutely fucking incandescent if this were put to me in exchange of my current library job, and I would categorically refuse to do it. As such, I understand completely why writers such as Barney Hoskyns, who was on the panel at Louder Than Words, feel so strongly about the issue, to the extent of setting up the Facebook campaign Don't Work For Free


I also understand why young, un-established writers feel that they have little choice but to work for free, either by writing for publications that don't pay, or by doing unpaid internships in the hope of gaining sufficient experience to get paid writing work.

I have a sliding scale on this:

  • I won't write for free for publications that pay their editors and staff writers but don't pay their freelances. 
  • But I will write for free for charities or organisations that are on a par with charities, finance wise, if I agree with and support their organisation and ideals.

For me, the issue is also complicated by my roots in fanzines: Working for free, or at a loss, is something I've done for a very long time.

Would I sell out, or, to quote the panel at Louder Than Words "Suck Satan's cock" in order to get work? I would do as I do now, take every commission on a case by case basis.

Talking and getting paid for it (usually...)

Aside from writing, I do make a very modest amount of money (all declared, along with the paid writing, to HMRC by the way...) from doing talks about riot grrrl, fanzine culture, punk and women.

I've only ever not been paid once, and that was a talk for The Working Class Movement Library in Salford for part of their Hidden Histories series. The WCML are a registered charity, and their funding from Salford Council has been absolutely slashed. They rely increasingly on donations. I greatly admire the library, and it's work and, as such, I was happy to provide my time for free. That the library is in Salford helped with this because it meant my travel and accommodation costs were nil. Could I have done this in a library in London? No, not unless my accommodation and travel costs were paid, at the very least, and even then, it would depend on what the commission was and who it was for.

Being a blogger

I stumbled into blogging by accident really. I set up my first blog, Because Grrrls Like To Read, to publish a seemingly unpublishable novel and discuss issues around riot grrrl and women and punk. I don't maintain this blog anymore, but I do another blog now as Too Late For Cake.

Too Late For Cake didn't have a financial motive behind it, and I didn't have a clue about who would read it, or if people would follow it, or like it, or share it... All I knew was that I wanted to write about the 2010 student protests in Manchester, and that it dovetailed quite nicely with the idea of blogging about weird things that happen on buses in Greater Manchester, and other observational stuff. I now see it as an extension of the kind of work I was doing with Aggamengmong Moggie back in 1993 and, as such, would never dream of the possibility that anyone would pay me for it.

That's not to say you can't blog and get paid for it, and that, as such, the lines between newspapers, magazines, and blogs are increasingly blurred.

While most of the stuff I write for Too Late For Cake could never be published on a paid blog, there has been the odd piece I've written for it, and for the F-Word blog, where I could perhaps have adapted it, made it sharper and snappier, made it more antagonistic and J'accuse in tone, but... I didn't want to.

That doesn't mean I haven't ruled out writing specially written, tailored blog pieces for paid titles. I just haven't bothered to explore it because I'm happy doing Too Late For Cake. If I lost my library job next week, or next year, I might well reconsider because money would suddenly be a lot more pressing. But writing deliberately provocative pieces for 'Comment Is Free' would make me feel pretty dead inside, and would definitely constitute sucking Satan's cock for me. Admittedly, not as much as writing for the Daily Mail would, but...

What happens now?

There is no straightforward answer to this, as I think the panel at Louder Than Words recognised. In an hour and a half, they were unable to cover everything they wanted to say. Similarly, I didn't contribute to the discussion at all because it barely even touched on writing, it focused much more on music and musicians, arguably a more emotive and sympathetic group than music writers.

While the old models of music journalism have gone, or are going, it's hard to say whether music journalism will itself survive. Similarly, it's too early to say whether libraries will survive. Digital disruption is here to stay, and many, many professions will go to the wall in the next ten or twenty years. The only uncertain thing is which ones.

All photographs copyright Cazz Blase, 2015.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Good new tunes

Two excellent new tunes for you.

First of all, the stylish almost Prince tinged pop of Band of Gold and their song 'Parade'

Secondly, the lush 'Jeg Ser Dig' by Choir of Young Believers in which, as the press release maintains (and I have to say I wholeheartedly agree...) our hero comes over like a male Sade. Lovely.