The February 2018 edition of Rolling Stone Australia contained its signature 90-page mix of music and culture, as well as a glossy preview of the year ahead. Twenty days later, the 46-year-old magazine was dead. Rolling Stone Australia’s publisher, Paper Riot, went into administration. The company’s lawyers emailed contributors with the bleak details: no one would be paid. There was a brief, almost tokenistic mourning period.
Now, almost exactly a year later, plans for the rock’n’roll bible’s return have been revealed as part of a global push by Rolling Stone International. So far, they have been met with negligible optimism and media coverage.
The magazine’s initial demise had saddened few and surprised fewer. In the last 10 years, prominent Australian music publications like Mess+Noise, The Vine, FasterLouder and inthemix have dissipated amidst a tumultuous media culture, while major newspapers have shrunk their music coverage to capsule-sized arts guides. In December 2018, Seventh Street Media reduced long-running street press The Brag to a quarterly edition, laying off their full-time print staff.
Why should Rolling Stone Australia be any different? Is every investment in Australian music journalism doomed to fail?
Casual consumers might be mystified at the idea that Australia has any lack of music content. Sites like Music Feeds are still pumping out tour announcements, news and interview tidbits. But there is an arguable lack of quality and depth. A great deal of content is reliant on native advertising, and the existence of long-form and thoughtful music criticism is fractured among the few publications who struggle to find sustainable funding and readership.
A cross-section of the micro-industry approached for this piece seem to think this is merely a product of Australia’s size. Former Sydney Morning Herald music editor Bernard Zuel says music writing simply isn’t sustainable here.
“Australians have never bought into the idea of reading about music,” Zuel told Crikey. “It’s not culturally central in the way it was in the UK and to a lesser extent in the US. In the UK, reading about music was something millions of people did and so those magazines [NME, Spin, Q] could be sustained.”
During his near 30-year career at SMH, Zuel increased music content in The Spectrum arts section to essay-length album reviews before newspaper resources began to dry up. “That’s where it became very clear where the arts sat in the scheme of things, which was well down the line. As soon as the money started to tighten [at SMH and other Fairfax newspapers], that’s where cuts were made.”
In 2008, Fairfax attempted a youth-oriented music and culture website called The Vine. Fairfax recruited Mess+Noise co-founder Marcus Teague as music editor, and for five years the site flourished with insightful and subversive music writing. Fairfax was unimpressed with the online traffic however, downsizing an eight-person team incrementally until Teague was left operating the entire organisation alone in 2013.
“Within the Fairfax system it was small-fry, but if you looked at the demographic it was talking to, it was the biggest thing in Australia. Internally however, there was no one left to account or argue for it,” Teague explains.
The site was sold to a new owner, Tom Pitney, in 2015 and was subsequently stripped of most music content. The Vine pivoted toward general pop culture content, and generated huge audiences on social media with video Bachelor recaps.
It’s not true to say that Australians have never had this kind of appetite for music content. At their peak, sites like Mess+Noise, FasterLouder and inthemix fostered enormous online communities within their respective niches — predominantly through the sites’ message boards.
“There was nowhere else where your community existed that you could be in your office job, get online and just chat about the band down the road all day with these people that cared about it,” Teague says.
So where did these audiences go? Teague and others blame the devouring force of social media that exploded over the latter half of these sites’ existence. Conversations about music no longer had to exist on moderated forums because Facebook, Instagram and Twitter offered a free-for-all platform to share and discuss.
New media company Junkee Media (then called Sound Alliance) founded inthemix and FasterLouder, and purchased both Mess+Noise and The Vine in 2008 and 2016 respectively. The Vine rebranded to Gen-Z title Punkee, while FasterLouder rebranded as Music Junkee.
Junkee Media publisher Tim Duggan told Crikey the latter rebrand was due to music fans no longer abiding by genres like rock, “independent” or electronic music. Anonymous sources attribute it more bluntly to creating a mass-appeal site to increase potential ad revenue.
In the process of closing titles and rebranding others, Junkee Media deleted all of Mess+Noise, The Vine, FasterLouder and inthemix’s archives; nearly two decades worth of Australian music writing. Duggan defends the decision to wipe the archives as part of an effort to remain contemporary.
“There’s just a very different tone and style to what we’re doing now. There’s less evergreen content and people are discovering it less,” Duggan said.
By “evergreen content”, Duggan is referring to any piece of writing that has longevity — impactful content relevant years after publication. As he describes it, Music Junkee is more about “where music and culture collides” rather than “niche areas of music content”. In practice, this means no album reviews, few long-form pieces and often press release regurgitation.
Kate Hennessy, freelance music writer for The Guardian and other publications, wondered via an email statement whether the refusal to archive music writing is “too much effort for something so… what? Valueless? Ephemeral? Unmarketable?”.
A grim but realistic thought voiced by both Hennessy and Zuel is that the Australian music industry itself has never valued local journalism — in a market of this size, that is a death knell.
Hennessy uses Australian artists press testimonials to demonstrate the cultural cringe:”If there are five quote spots in the template, and five quotes from UK and/or US magazines can be scrounged up (however poorly written or cliched) — they’re the ones you’ll see. Australian outlets will be used if there’s nothing else to quote.”
Other Australian music writing veterans and upstarts Crikey spoke to for this piece are ambivalent to the idea of even having a local “scene” in music writing. The two largest and newest channels in Australia come from two different mediums — Swampland Magazine, founded by Alan Weedon, Kimberley Thomson and Kelsey Oldham, is a print-only long-form quarterly music magazine funded by a Creative Victoria grant; Noisey AU is international giant Vice’s online-only local arm, edited by prodigious 21-year-old music writer Shaad D’Souza.
Swampland doesn’t publish album reviews or 15-minute phone interviews, instead sourcing 1500-word plus stories about Australian music, often using archival material. Weedon says this is a concerted attempt to get “out of the hamster wheel that was the press release cycle”.
D’Souza’s Noisey spans news, interviews, premieres and long-form — operating as an Australian outpost of the international Noisey brand, similar to Rolling Stone Australia’s function. D’Souza isn’t roused by the idea there is any kind of “crisis” in Australian music journalism.
“I think the demise of those publications [The Vine, Mess+Noise, FasterLouder] was our own fault, so I don’t think it’s worth wondering whether we’re worse off because it’s just a product of how everyone is,” D’Souza says.
“I don’t think anyone in Australia for a long time gave music criticism enough time or commitment to make other people care about it. It’s very back-patty and everyone wants to be friends with each other and no one wants to truly invest in proper criticism.”
In 2019, all kinds of journalism are scrambling for a sustainable financial model. Many outlets (this one included) are exploring crowdfunding, philanthropy and public interest initiatives in efforts to ease the tension with commercial imperatives. But the severe lack of respect from readers, publishers, and the music industry for Australian music journalism compounds the issue making a new sustainable model for music journalism a near impossibility.
This has leaked into existential apathy from the industry’s foot soldiers — the writers. After being paid in exposure, concert tickets and a poverty wage for decades, it’s hard for writers themselves to feel like their work has any importance.
“People wanting to be arts and culture journos just want to do it — they don’t want to think about these broader existential questions about the place of their craft and how that gets funded,” Weedon said.
It’s time to grapple with these questions — but is anyone other than the journalists interested in the answers?
Joshua Martin is a Melbourne-based freelance music writer. He is also the music editor of Verve Magazine, a zine celebrating local creatives and an editorial assistant at Beat & Mixdown Magazines.
Disclosure: Crikey associate editor Meg Watson worked at Junkee Media from 2014-2017, but was not involved in the publisher’s music sites; our other associate editor Bhakthi Puvanenthiran was previously an arts and entertainment editor at Fairfax.