Jason Gross is the founder and editor of Perfect Sound Forever, the longest-running internet music publication, with its monthly schedule dating back to 1993 (roughly three years before I even knew what a “web” was). Gross has written for numerous publications over the years (Spin, the Village Voice, Blurt, et al.), produced critically acclaimed CD reissues by Delta 5, Kleenex, and Essential Logic (via the Kill Rock Stars label), and for many years was a panelist and organizer at SXSW, which, like everything else in the entertainment industrial complex, is currently on hold due to COVID.
Gross is also the perpetrator of the “Best Music Journalism” feature, an exhaustive annual round-up of what he considers the finest of that year’s criticism, feature writing, reviews, profiles—anything that falls inside (and sometimes outside) the music writing sphere. This 19-years-and-running series began in rockcritics.com in 2002 and has continued unabated—albeit under different guises and across several different publications—ever since. Its current home base is Rock & Roll Globe. ‘BMJ’ is like a one-man Pazz & Jop or Grammys, but instead of honouring music per se, it applauds the terminally beleaguered world of music writing (rock and otherwise).
It’s an invaluable feature, and Jason was kind enough to fill me in on some of the details and methodology behind it all in a brief email interview. Interspersed throughout are links to various yearly editions of his survey. (Except, ironically enough, those that appeared in rockcritics.com, the archives of which I hope to dust off at some point in the future.)
Happy new year, Jason. Good to see that you continue to publish your year-end music journalism survey, which, by my count, has been going for 19 years. On that note, perhaps you could just start by providing an inventory. It was posted on rockcritics.com for five years, starting in 2002, ending in 2006. Is that where it started? Where has it appeared since?
It did start with rockcritics.com, back in 2002 (see the next question below for details). From there, I was doing the round-up for Popmatters until about 2010. For the next few years, I wrote the editions for Red Bull Music Academy and Rock’s Backpages and occasionally Blurt Magazine. Starting in 2019, I’ve been doing these round-ups for Rock & Roll Globe, including one that came out at the end of December 2021. I’m kind of amazed that I’ve kept at it this long.
What was the original impetus behind this feature?
I was trying to remember that myself and then I dug up an e-mail that you actually sent to me and Michelangelo Matos, dated 11/30/2002.
“I asked each of you some time back about doing a year-end piece on the best (and/or worst—optional) pieces of music criticism. Why I’m writing: Have either of you thought about this anymore? If so, and it seems like something you wanna do, any ideas on when you think you would wanna do it?”
I’d been writing for rockcritics.com for a few years by that time and had been doing Perfect Sound Forever for about 10 years by then. For freelancing, I was mostly writing for the Village Voice and just starting out with other places like Spin, No Depression, The Wire, and MOJO. I wasn’t exactly ‘green’ by then but I was still pretty wide-eyed and upbeat about the whole music scribing scene, which made a big difference when the idea was thrown at me. Obviously, I said yes but I’m not sure if Michaelangelo followed up with you.
Remember, this was the early days of the digital era, so I was excited when this was suggested to me. I thought it would be fun to scour online and offline to note articles that I loved, credit writers and publications for their great work, and share that with the online world. I was already doing that for the music I loved so it kind of made sense that I could also do it for the journo world that I loved and wanted to support also.
Honestly though, I don’t think I would have done it on my own if you hadn’t suggested it to me.
Talk a little bit about your methodology—how does it all come together? Is it something you work on throughout the entire year?
It’s the same way that I gather up my music lists each year. I don’t know how it could be done decently unless you keep a running list throughout the year. For music and articles, I really do start around the first few days of the year, creating lists like “2022’s Greatest Hits” and “2022-Best Music Scribing.” Even if I’m away from my desktop computer and I hear a great song or read a great article, I’ll text myself to make a note of it so that I don’t forget. I could add it on my smart phone but it’s kind of cumbersome—try adding in a writer, article name, publication name, date, link and comments for each piece on your phone and you’ll see what I mean! If I happen to have my old laptop or my even older tablet with me, it’s easier to add that kind of thing to a cloud program where I keep the lists.
I’ll also keep notes about the journalism and music journalism industries in general both in the same place. To make it easier for myself, I finally figured out that it’s smarter to group these ideas into categories to make it easier to come up with themes and trends.
Talk a bit about those categories. I know in rockcritics you had very specific groupings (“ignobles,” great writing, non-music writing, etc.). What are the key groupings you’ve used throughout the series’ run? I’m not seeing those groupings in all your published versions, but it sounds like you still use them to organize your work?
Actually, what I was talking about were the groupings that I would use in the intros for the round-ups. I would come across a lot of articles about the world of journalism and then around December, I’d have to figure out how they all fit together, how I could group them and maybe if some of the stories were just flukes about a topic and maybe not worth including. It was pretty time-consuming to look at a long list of links I compiled and then figure out how it came together so I wised up over the last few years and started grouping links/stories into topics about technology, lay-offs, buy outs, innovations, etc.
By the time I started doing the series for Popmatters, I only did the intro and the list of the best articles. ‘Ignobles’ and ‘worst writing’ I retired after the first few years.
Why did you stop bothering with examples of the “worst” music journalism of each year?
That was something that you actually suggested! I ran with that for the first couple of years, then stopped, for a few reasons. I wanted the round-up to focus on an overview of the landscape and then the listing of great articles. Taking pot shots at writers seemed like a shabby thing to do after a while. Even if some of the articles I read were bad (and there are still plenty of bad ones out there), I didn’t see the point in knocking down writers, especially when some of have done good work otherwise. Also, it’s a profession that’s never held in high esteem and as I keep pointing out in the round-ups, even the best writers rarely ever hear any kind of positive feedback. So why should I pile on?
What would you say is your focus, or even bias as far as this stuff goes? Do certain formats or types of writing—or particular subjects—have greater appeal than others? (I, perhaps stubbornly, still honour the division between “criticism” and “journalism,” and see most of what you cover as being the latter; is that a fair division to draw?)
Thinking back, it’s true that in the round-ups I cite more journalism than criticism there but you’d also have to make a distinction between ‘criticism’ as a straight album review and a detailed think piece about an album, which definitely ain’t the same thing, and I happen to favor the latter. I do read a lot of record reviews and most of them aren’t bad but most of them aren’t great either and they’re not anything I’d wanna share with the online world. Mind you, I’m speaking as someone who’s still writing record reviews, so maybe I’m part of the problem!
I have to admit that I have a certain cynicism about music review sections in general and how they’re structured, which doesn’t facilitate great writing, though they definitely do serve a purpose. But that’s another matter.
Judging by the articles that you do see in publications, you can tell that most editors aren’t necessarily interested in think pieces and/or deep dives into albums. I don’t know the kinds of clicks/traffic that pieces like that get but if you look at social media responses, that kind of writing doesn’t usually get a lot of eyeballs, sad to say. Maybe I’m trying to give that kind of work its due when I do these round-ups but I don’t think about it consciously. Zeitgeist pieces are also wonderful to read if they hit the nail on the head (and you have a good writer, like Craig Jenkins)—we definitely don’t see enough of those.
One thread you’ve been consistent about tracking in each edition: the business and/or economics of music journalism. And the prognosis has never been good. In fact, it seems to get worse and worse (though you often manage to point out a bright spot or two). Talk about your interest in covering this aspect of music writing and what you see as the current trajectory of this story.
Ah, art vs. commerce!
I’m on a number of mailing lists for opera companies and symphony orchestras and I can’t tell you how many times they hit people up for donations and subscriptions throughout the year. All of which is to say that even ‘high art’ is very mindful of their bottom line, so why deny this with the rest of the music world? I don’t see a problem with being realistic and saying that finance is an important and vital part of the whole landscape of journalism—ignoring it is denial. Money affects which publications stay in business, how they are able to expand or how they have to contract, what kind of new ventures they get into, and so on. If you’re interested in journalism, that’s part of the story, like it or not.
In general, I try to cover the finance stuff in the intro to the articles separately and then the details about particular pieces in the listings.
The fact that things get worse is part and parcel of the entire journalism industry. I don’t like reporting that again and again (to the point that I’ve thought about cutting out the intros), but it’s unavoidable. On the horizon, you’ll see more consolidation and buyouts at publications, unfortunately, leading to a smaller number of companies having control over more publications. As you’d figure, that’s a disaster if you want independent thinking and a well-informed public. The bright spot is that as a number of places close down, there are smaller and localized publications, blogs and online destinations that seek to take up the slack and add their own voices into the mix. Those are places we should try to encourage and support, by reading them, forwarding stories, and shelling out our own money to support their work.
Another huge part of the equation is obviously technology, which is a whole topic unto itself.
Have you had much contact over the years with other writers or editors regarding your yearly surveys? What kind of feedback have you gotten in general?
Not a lot, which is disappointing but not surprising. Like I said before, most music writers don’t get any feedback for their work, positive or negative. I do hear from some writers to thank me for including them on the lists but hey, they’ve earned it! Any sort of kindness they hear about their work is manna from heaven. I get something out of it too though, since I’m encouraging writers whose work I admire to keep writing great material.
From your own personal perspective, are you tending to find more good music writing from publications that pay writers, or is it stuff being written for free, by writers who just want to write? And has this evolved since you started surveying the landscape 20 years ago?
Good question but I’m not sure about the answer. I guess I could go through all the round-ups and count how many articles come from paying vs. free publications. In the end, free and paid sources are both sources of great work, though I suspect that the latter would win out because they have editors that help to guide them.
One thing that’s changed for sure is the advent of blogs: shout outs to Substack, Frank Owen, Ted Gioia, HayimKobi, and bradluen/Semipop Life. Social media has been a huge game changer where anyone online who wants to have a voice can have it. I’ve seen great pieces of writing on Facebook and even on Twitter. I’ve also seen it on YouTube—look at the Needle Drop and the Vinyl Guru, who both have a big following and both deserve it. Some of them are able to monetize this, but the vast majority aren’t and that doesn’t stop ’em. There’s a great egalitarian spirit to that, just as it’s easier to make music on your own—although more quantity doesn’t necessarily mean more quality. Still, with more music and more writing, I’m in favor of feast over famine.
What, if anything, has surprised you most in your 19 years of surveying music writing?
Mostly the fact that some people can still make a living doing this. It’s very competitive and the sources for it keep drying up, but some people must have their say and with the good ones, we all benefit from that. On the minus side, what I’m surprised about it is that the whole idea of a review section and album reviews in general have stayed pretty much the same—even interesting ideas that have popped up before (having more than one writer review an important album or reviewing two different artists together) have mostly gone by the wayside.
You alluded to this a little in a previous answer, but what sorts of writing or formats or topics would you like to see more coverage of in the music press?
One of the worst problems that America has is amnesia. In a 24-hour news cycle, stories come and go in a millisecond, where even something crucial gets blotted out by the next cycle of stories. Think of how little we hear about BLM and #MeToo right now. Are they any less vital now than they were a year or two ago? Of course not, but they just get swept away by hundreds of other less important stories. What about the violence against the Jewish and Asian community? There are less stories in the news about it and maybe there are less incidents about this but does anyone really believe that it’s totally over now? These are large, important societal issues but they also have a big impact on the music world too.
To be honest, I did cover some of those topics for Rock & Roll Globe over the past year or two but I’m guilty too of not following up and keeping these stories and ideas active. [See “Anti-Asian Violence As Seen By Asian-American Musicians” and “Do Black Lives Matter to the Music Biz in 2020?”]
I think that focusing on health issues that impact musicians as much as anyone else would also help to raise the consciousness about these problems to a higher level as people realize that these are problems across the country (and the world)—I’m thinking of COVID and its long-term effects, of course, but also other health problems that impact many musicians like hearing loss, mental health, drug/alcohol abuse.
Otherwise, some other ideas where I’d love to see coverage would be:
– Ticketmaster’s monopoly of live shows
– Questioning historical tropes
– “Black Mirror” views on tech and music—how the former doesn’t always have a positive effect on the latter (though I’m not a luddite, I swear!)
Given your overarching knowledge of the landscape (what is out there currently, what is possible to publish, the economics of the situation, etc.), what would you recommend to anyone starting out as a music writer? Assume that they have the ambition, the gall, and the discipline to stick with it—what are the nuts and bolts to get going and to keep it going?
Now there’s something I have thought about a lot! About 10 years ago, I did a series about this topic for Popmatters. I started out with my own bits of advice, which I picked up from other writers that I consider mentors: “Dear Writer… Some Tips on the Music Scribe Biz.” From there, I surveyed over 100 writers to ask them what advice they’d share with a writer who was just starting out. [See “What’s the Write Word”—parts one, two, three, and four.]
I definitely don’t have the time but it would be interesting to go back to some of them to say, “so, do you still feel that way…?”
In general, I would just advise that you wanna be realistic, knowing that it’s hard to get a paying gig, find a foothold, and keep writing for any place for a long period of time. That shouldn’t necessarily discourage you and there’s no shame in getting a day job to support this (says someone who knows this from experience). In the end, you should write what you’d wanna hear and what you’d wanna read, especially if you’re not seeing it elsewhere. If other people aren’t into that, that’s their problem, not yours. If you can find a way to get paid for it, bravo. If not, please don’t let that stop you.
Some practical steps:
– Read a lot and understand what you like to see and what you’d like to say
– Write up your work in a blog and on social media
– Reach out to writers you like for advice and connections
– Pitch stories to publications, understanding what kind of stories they’re already putting out and what they’d wanna to see
– When you get an assignment, respect the deadline, the word count, and the editor’s suggestions (even if you don’t always agree with them)
– When you find a good editor, try to keep working with and learning from them—if you forget everything else here, at least remember that
– Find some active interests to cover outside of music, for some perspective and comparison
– Don’t follow leaders and watch the parking meters