Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What's happened to Rolling Stone? and how it relates to librarianship

At the end of the summer my dad handed me a few issues of Rolling Stone magazine. He'd gotten me a subscription as a present, finding a loophole in my gift-giving clause that says never subscribe to anything for me, because it will lead to more junk mail. By getting the subscription himself, he avoided that and was able to physically hand me the magazines, which sates his love of giving presents to people. When I got home I paged through the issues, but that's about all. I didn't really read anything, nor did I feel like I gained any insight into the music world. I did feel like I got a shot of popular culture that I hadn't taken in a while, tossed it back and forgot about it. The magazine just feels so...directionless.

The most disappointing thing about Rolling Stone is the reviews, not that the reviewers don't have things to say. They just don't have much space to say it as each album review is about five sentences long. Plus, they use a five-star rating scale, which is really no good anymore--there's no differentiation. Most of the reviews you'll see are between three and four stars. Anything over four stars is likely a reissue that is being reappraised or an album from an already accepted classic act. When I was first complaining about the meaninglessness of the ratings, I began reading the band names and their rating aloud to Kamie. Whenever I got to an album that was given only two and a half stars, she'd say: "Ooh, burn." And that's how I felt too, but neither of us meant it, and neither did Rolling Stone. There's no sense of meaning anything.

In contrast, an online music magazine like Pitchfork delves deeper into each album, rates their albums on a scale of 0 to 10 (including decimals, not halves), and usually has the songs available in a jukebox so that you can listen to the music they are discussing and determine if you agree with the critic's perspective. Any review that gets a rating of 8 or higher is given a special Best New Music tag, which makes is stick out. People dislike Pitchfork as a hipster taste-making site, but it's structure and perspective are clearer and better suited to a meaningful relationship with the actual music.

Compare the reviews of Cass McCombs' Catacombs.

Rolling Stone vs. Pitchfork.

Yes, that is a dig at Rolling Stone, because they never reviewed it, not even online.

It's probably more appropriate to compare a feature review of Rolling Stone: Devendra Banhart's What Will We Be. Pitchfork vs. Rolling Stone.

I have my own problems with Pitchfork. For example, the emphasis upon obscurity sometimes seems like the driving force behind the website. But it has a distinct personality, and it often heralds risk-takers when they are emerging, rather than the belated approval that is generally given to experimental acts and musicians who don't have the structural support to market themselves. And they're having a cultural impact. Indie music is way more popular than it was ten years ago. The sound of the music plays a role in that, but the meaningful approach that Pitchfork takes also matters.

Many of Rolling Stone's problems have do with the identity confusion surrounding the decline of print and the rise of online journalism. And libraries are dealing with the same thing! There are important analogies in the journalistic world that librarianship needs to recognize. Cultural gatekeepers are becoming more important, not less important as people (incorrectly, IMO) are increasingly saying. For example, the NPR program All Songs Considered talked about the decade in music and there seemed to be a consensus that there were no more gatekeepers to music and that was a major shift. I think that's the wrong way to put it. The gatekeepers have changed, from print to online, and from larger brand name magazines (like Rolling Stone) to Pitchfork, blogs, and information aggregator formulas.

How do libraries position themselves on the front lines? Adopting new technologies will help, but it's meaningless if there isn't a directed personality behind it. Trying to adopt everything or bring everyone into the mix could alienate old patrons without bringing in anyone new. Why? Because new technologies without any purpose are like a parent suddenly adopting his or her child's fashion sense. It makes someone look older, not younger.

Parting question: Do libraries need to brand themselves?

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