jonathan schwartz, one of the more astute political bloggers one can hope to find, recently summarized the state of american news media, specifically the role that readers have been assigned to play in contemporary corporate newspapers. it's commonly understood that since i buy the newspaper, i am the customer. this is wrong. 75% of a newspaper's revenue comes from advertising -- as readers, our monetary contribution is basically negligible.
it's more important for us to LOOK AT the newspaper than it is for us to buy it.
once this is understood, it becomes clear that ADVERTISERS are media's customers; readers are the product, bought and paid for by companies who, in the end, just want a moment of our time. most people, including everyone from media critics to media whores, refuse to address this business model. more than anything else, though, it sculpts what we read and what, for some reason, we continue to call "journalism".
the above paragraphs could describe the new york times, cnn, and almost any other disgraceful news outlet you might name. but they could just as easily describe the business model of every music publication, from rolling stone to mtv to pitchfork. when hipsters bemoan the power of "the hype machine", this is what they'd be trying to talk about if they weren't already on their fourth pabst of the afternoon.
take mr. p. fork, our favorite whipping boy here at the writemare. they get zero money from their readers. they get ALL of their money from advertisers. the whole operation is maintained by a small number of companies -- mostly record labels and american apparel -- who know exactly how to reach white kids that consider themselves culturally literate. put yourself in pitchfork's shoes. on the one hand, you've got hordes of desperate-to-be-hip college students; on the other, you've got the companies that keep you in business. where would your loyalties lie? who's your daddy?
this can manifest itself in a number of different ways. an ordinary album might get a better reception by being on sub-pop than it would if the same songs were put out by a smaller label. a decent small release might get a nice review, but no post-release blowjobs in the "news" section. a column might be devoted to a group of young men who take the opportunity to prominently display their complete lack of both talent and wit. most noticeably though, every few months a mediocre band releases a mediocre album, and we are inexplicably told that it's the best shit ever, a watershed moment in the development (read: decomposition) of "indie rock". self-proclaimed "discerning" listeners will always buy these records because they think they're taking part in cultural expression.
all in all, record labels will continue to push marketable bands (as they always have), and critics will continue to like marketable music (because that's their job).
there isn't really hope that any of this might change in the near future. media conglomeration is a powerful beast, and it's development is rapidly outpacing whatever independent competition might arise. the critics themselves aren't particularly important -- one positive review is just as effective as another (what percentage of readers even bother to look past an album's "score"?). all that matters is that record labels continue to reach their targets -- young people with salaried parents.
through it all, musicians will keep writing, recording, and touring, a small handful of them getting lucky enough to stay broke for a few years. until fans realize that they don't need critics or labels to help them like music, this won't change.
in the mean time, you might consider visiting the nearest club and watching whatever bands they put in front of you, and remember that criticism only exists because creativity allows it to.