Chris Ott is often overly blustery and confrontational. This isn’t news to anyone familiar with his rants. A lot of his points about the current state of music journalism, as passionate or caked in dubiousness as they sometimes are, are irrelevant in the real world where most of us live, and he has the luxury of looking back at the halcyon days of the biz with rose-colored glasses because he was there, man and we weren’t. A lot of his takes are just his opinions, the “you’re dumb for liking this thing so much” mentality that he, along with much of the Internet have seemed to adopt with open arms. (See his toxic take on Liz Pelly’s love letter to Massachusetts for NME. Hey Jeff, aren’t magazines supposed to tell stories, especially those of ever-evolving scenes of which their readers are probably unfamiliar?) But because of his own resume, Ott can name names like Jenn Pelly and Liz Pelly and Ian Cohen — three writers whose work I enjoy quite a bit, for the record — and in the eyes of many, do so with impunity. He has clout, and all we have is Klout.
Still, I agree with a lot of what he said in this video, and I say that as a guy who occasionally writes for a “SpinMedia property” — although in the interest of transparency, I should say that I am leaving Punknews shortly after the new year for personal reasons entirely unrelated to Ott’s opinion, or anything else that might be conceived as being related to it me writing this post. Lest anyone believe I got fired or anything.
Anyone who has worked in an editorial department of a magazine in the last say, decade, either full-time, part-time or freelance, knows the game. In order to keep the lights on, publications have to be at least somewhat beholden to marketers and advertisers. Get just about any editor in a bar, and they’ll eventually start to tell you about how their mag owes Band A or Label B or Publicist C “a favor,” or that the marketing and advertising departments is pushing that same Band A because their label buys a lot of ads. It’s a tightrope that seems to lose more and more of its strands every day, and you shouldn’t envy those who have to walk it. Ott knows this.
Of course, maybe those editors could just start writing for free and “get a fucking job” as Ott seems to somewhat naively suggest, but most editors would probably rather deal with shitty editorial/advertising/marketing in-office politics than get another job. They probably still have enough pull to make their work bearable or even enjoyable; Ott seems to think they should have all the pull, which is a very writer-centric thing to think.
Brands can put money in the coffers; bands, by and large, cannot. Music magazines in that respect are like any other for-profit business: They go where the money is. Is it sometimes at the sacrifice of journalistic integrity? Of course it is. Music writers have to cover shit they don’t like pretty regularly. But it’s not like that all the time, or even most of the time.
Much like suggesting that writing about music for living is a realistic prospect — for most people, it’s not, and even then the vast majority of those doing it aren’t making what most rational people would consider a reasonable salary — suggesting that kids should just start blogs and do it themselves and that should just be it is short-sighted.
He says zine culture no longer exists; he’s wrong. Blog culture is zine culture.
Ott does have a point that, yeah, “selling out” your ideals in order to write for a large site with a lot of readers shouldn’t have to happen, especially to volunteers who would just be writing for free anyway, but for a lot of people the platform is an alluring trade-off for say, a barrage of obnoxious Big Mac ads. I know it was for me; I never felt like my own ideals were in question because I was writing for a SpinMedia site. I was having fun, and the ads, as bad as a lot of them were, weren’t influencing editorial direction whatsoever. We could still write about whatever we wanted, and that was good enough for me and a lot of other people. It still is. At the end of the day, it’s up to the writer to make that call for themselves. I trust that most of them are smart and informed enough to do that. Ott doesn’t seem so sure.
He’s obviously right that one’s writing, even if uninfluenced by corporations, still becomes something of a cog in the machine that diversifies portfolios of huge parent companies and all that. Is it ideal? Of course not. But he also came up in a much different world, one that doesn’t exist anymore and probably never will again. He also seems to forget, or at least not give a shit, that these writers he’s criticizing are in all likelihood, doing their best. They’re people with principles and hopes. Some of these people probably also have relationship problems because of their chosen profession, or can’t sleep because they stare at a monitor for 14 hours a day and make $28,000 a year. Some of them have student loan debt or past-due rent or shitty health insurance. They’re making the best of an unfortunate, but ultimately necessary game. Being hopelessly judgmental never got anyone anywhere.