Facing the music
Music journalism is in trouble; long live music journalism
December 3, 2020, 9:00 am ASTLast Updated: December 4, 2020, 1:52 pm
This story contains a correction
On March 5, 2020, a few hundred concert goers pack into Montreal’s Fairmount Theatre, ready for Canadian indie-rock group Destroyer to mince up their hearts like a bloody fruit gusher. With the first note, a horde of iPhones rise as if the vibrations are pulling them closer to God. But there is no God—only a songwriter, his band and people desperate to look cool on Instagram. Without knowing it, they were documenting history – filming the second-last show at the Fairmount before Covid-19 closed the box office.
Francella Fiallos pushed through the amateur documentarians to get a better view of the stage. Fiallos is station manager at CJLO, Concordia’s campus radio station. She is also host of Superconnected, a live music and talk show airing every Monday. On March 13, 2020, Covid closed the Concordia campus. Staff left the station to work from home, thinking they would be back in two weeks. Fiallos suspected “no, we’re never coming back.”
The staff were equipped to run things remotely, and a dial turned to 1690AM will still find the station on air. CJLO’s physical station has been left untouched—aside, perhaps, from the occasional campus mouse.
Fetch the sad records
Music journalists are covering an industry in crisis, while their beat is in crisis during a global health crisis. It’s a nesting doll of crises, and music reporters are the inner layer—with little to shield them from cuts and layoffs. A J-Source report showed that, between March 11 and April 29, 2020, 50 Canadian media outlets closed and 78 cut staff. Fully 2,053 journalists were left without a job. When cutting back, arts coverage can be the first to go.
It’s hard to see the current state of music coverage as a moment of salvation, but there are reasons to have hope. Even if begrudgingly. Yes, music publications have been smoked by Covid-19, kinda like how Courtney Love smoked Kathleen Hanna in the face backstage at Lollapalooza ‘95. But she got up and lived, didn’t she?
The destabilization of music coverage means there is a chance to move away from clickbait headlines and stupid-ass listicles that every music writer is just dying to be assigned. Some music journalists see an industry in jeopardy and hear a switch, not a drop, in the beat.
Turn on the news
Back in 2017, Stephen Cooke was in Montreal to catch the Damned play at Club Soda. He also caught the boot of a crowd surfer with the side of his head, sending one of his earplugs flying. Cooke was near the front of the crowd for that show, but generally he stays near the back. “I can’t afford to get hit,” he says. “I’m a fragile creature now.”
Cooke has been covering music and arts for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald since 1997, and started writing about music in the mid-’80s while still in high school. The pandemic has limited the number of music stories he is able to cover. The album release cycle is shattered, live events are scarce and the novelty of online concerts died months ago. On top of that, the Herald’s parent company, SaltWire, laid off 40 per cent of its staff on March 23, 2020.
A lack of arts stories and shortage of staff means that Cooke now covers a broader range of topics—including, in October 2020, Halifax’s municipal election. The last time he covered an election was when working in radio in the early ’90s.
At the start of the pandemic, Cooke was concerned about the state of music and music journalism. And months without live shows is no fun. Still, he sees reasons for optimism. “I don’t think people are watching online performances and going ‘this is great – why did I ever go to a show?,’” he says. “When this passes, people will be eager for the things they miss.”
Spirit of the radio
Fiallos worked in Halifax as the station manager at Dalhousie’s CKDU before moving to Montreal in 2018 to take on the same position at CJLO. Even before the pandemic, she was “really worried we were going to lose revenue.”
The station is fee-levied, meaning it relies on funding collected when students pay their tuition. An undergrad student at Concordia taking a full course load pays $47 to support fee-levied groups at the university—$3.40 of that going to campus radio.
Just before the pandemic struck CJLO was looking to hire a library science student to overhaul its physical music library, and had artists lined up for on-air live performances. When Covid hit these plans dissolved, but listenership didn’t.
It went up.
“It was good to know that we were thriving in a certain respect,” said Fiallos. “A lot of campus stations were struggling.”
This is a podcast
Del Cowie was working as a producer on the CBC podcast This is not a Drake Podcast when Toronto went into lockdown. Cowie has written for publications like Exclaim! and Complex and Banger Films’ Netflix series Hip-Hop Evolution.
Producing a podcast was new territory for him. “You’re not writing for a music magazine, you’re not writing an article,” says Cowie, “I was learning how CBC produces podcasts.”
The podcast began production in late January 2020. It examines the underrepresentation of Black artists in the Canadian music industry through the lens of the world’s favourite Degrassi star turned hip-hop superstar.
Halfway through recording, CBC limited access to its studios to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Similar to how CJLO kept the station on air, the team kept the podcast alive.
It didn’t come easily. They could have meetings online, but “the randomness of the conversations that we would have in the office were gone.” There was also the challenge of getting high quality audio, as they had to rely on phone interviews, but the lo-fi sound grew on Cowie. He “liked the grittiness of it.”
Cowie and the rest of his team powered through lockdown to call attention to the glaring omission of Black voices in the story of Canadian music. The podcast is an example of cutting-edge music reporting done from a distance.
Gotta good feeling
Laura Stanley was the folk and country editor at Exclaim! before the pandemic. She was laid off in April 2020, along with six of her colleagues. Even a few months before, Stanley saw a bleak future for music journalism. She knew that publications were struggling to make money. “It wasn’t all sunny and rosy.”
In late April, she connected with other Canadian music journalists on Twitter who also had time on their hands. With Canada’s Emergency Response Benefit as a safety net, they started the New Feeling Co-op. Meeting people who shared her passion for music and storytelling made Stanley think “okay, I’m not alone in this.”
The group is focused on covering unsigned artists, and aims to put out a monthly issue. This means, Stanley says, that writers will have “time to think, be mindful and thoughtful about what we wanted to put out.”
The first issue was released online in September. The second issue, in October, featured the results of a reader survey. Eighty-two per cent of the 144 respondents said that music coverage in Canada did not represent the country’s diversity.
It is a difficult time to be a music journalist. Asking anyone to see a silver lining borders on offensive. But this is a beat driven by passion. A passion that brings innovation and resilience in the face of uncertainty.
Stanley says music coverage is “having a moment,” but is far from dead.
Correction: A reader survey appeared in the second monthly issue of the New Feeling Co-op music website, in October 2020, not in the first issue.
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