Why We Killed It

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Why Todd killed it. Because it was him. I guess we were all accomplices, though. (Look how much I’m writing! I can’t fucking stop; it’s a reaction, clearly.) Accomplices firstly by not… doing more, perhaps. Accomplices secondly by understanding his reasons and accepting the inevitable.

Todd’s line is that he “got off the subway one day and thought I don’t want to do this anymore”. What that means is that… the guy didn’t sleep. At one point he was working two fulltime jobs and running Stylus. Which is a fulltime job and a difficult one too, and which pays fuck-all. Money from advertising ploughed back into bandwidth. A couple of people got part-time meagre wages for doing stuff towards the end. And that includes Todd. Dude didn’t sleep. I know because he’d answer emails at 9am my time straight away. I ran Stylus for about three months back in late 2003 (I think) when he moved away after university, and it nearly fucking killed me, the lack of sleep, the stress, the organisation, the lack of help or thanks or tangible reward. He’s done that for five fucking years.

Some of the guys wanted to carry on, to take over the name. But it was Todd’s baby and none of them would have been able to give it even 10% of what he’d given it. And if we took it on and fucked it up, that would be… shitting on Todd’s hard work.

Some of the guys wanted to start a new site, but… the work involved five years ago was monstrous. The work involved now would be absolutely fucking unconscionable. The rules have changed. See Playlouder, see all that login shite, that community network download application Facebook bullshit. If you wanted to start a new site today and make it into a viable success, a business model, you need Web 2.0, simple as that. Because people don’t fucking care about… thought, and criticism. Not most people. Consumption is not thought, as Alfred so wisely said.

Dom Passantino and I spoke about it at length in the days after Todd dropped the bomb, talked of starting something new and what it would have to be, and the conclusion was one of two things; either a minimal, blog-esque approach, easy upkeep and low-cost, or something Web 2.0, interactive, with networks and links and gadgets and widgets and… run by programmers, not writers.

This is why I blame Last.fm – sorry Fiona. I’ve nothing personally against the people who work there – say hi to Steve Gravell from me – and I don’t imagine anyone sat down and said “let’s start something which kills music journalism”, but side-effects and repercussions are never considered – they’re side-effects and repercussions.

And yes, Last.fm is a strawman here for me, and I could equally say Myspace or any other net-based music protocol (or other application that includes a music protocol), but Last.fm is the one that…

I’ve just been interrupted by a phonecall from my brother, and explained this to him, and I hit out a sentence that fits perfectly. Why read 600 words about why you might or might not adore a record when you can get given a list of records you almost certainly will quite like for nothing, everyday? And that’s the thing about downloading, about free music; everything is worth a listen if it costs you nothing. The amount of things that are worth tearing your fucking heart open for and following a band around the country for remains the same. But no money out = no disappointment if something’s just ‘average’. Last.fm promotes mediocrity. Not deliberately!

And this isn’t going to be Todd’s reason, but it’s my understanding, my reason. Stylus’ hits were rising massively between 2003 and 2005. From 2006 onwards they weren’t, yet our reputation and influence (look at, to blow my own trumpet some more, Imperfect Sound Forever) continued to grow. But no extra hits means this never becomes the ‘business model’ we needed it to be to make it… not ‘worth our while’, because the people I wrote with and for and about made it worthwhile, but… when you come home from a shitty day at work, tired, and sitting down to write a review seems like yet more work rather than a passion or a hobby, which is something that happened often, then you need a carrot. And yes, I’ve spoken to and met and exchanged emails with and listened to music by amazing people, but… I’d like to be able to pay the mortgage and not worry so much, you know? My ‘career’ outside this has suffered, not because of this… but because I love this, and it’s important.

The game changed for print magazines when we pushed out content daily and they could only manage monthly. The game changed for us when bandwidth speeds meant getting MP3s was as quick as getting a page of text used to be. Initially it helped us. Now? Not so much. I’m not a programmer. I’m not a music journalist! I’m a fan who writes.

And yes, the sort of recommendations Last.fm makes are probably great – Emma’s found plenty of stuff she’s really liked via it – and yes that sort of protocol and the kind of long-form thought, comment and criticism that Stylus purveyed ought to be able to co-exist, but it doesn’t look as if they can.

I had a piece syndicated from LA Weekly to East Bay Express. Initially I thought “wooo! more readers and more money”, but syndication fee is a lot less than commissioning fee, which means that huge publishers get content cheap, and writers other than those syndicated see their opportunities cut down. It also means the collective critical voice gets watered down just a little bit, as one opinion eats another, and does so for financial reasons at the behest of New Times Media or whoever, not because of the relative worth of either opinion.

So when Todd got off the subway and thought “I don’t want to do this anymore”, and when he told us that, we understood, each in our own way and in our own time, that it was the right thing to do, that we should acquiesce to his wish for closure.

Sometimes you just have to walk away.


Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Blogger John Blonde - 4:48 am

This comment has been removed by the author.

Blogger John Blonde - 4:53 am

It's understandable that Todd wanted to walk away. What I find surprising is that, with the unlimited communication skills at the fingertips of Stylus' writers, the "minimal, blog-esque approach" wasn't appealing enough. If you took even just a handful of Stylus' writers and put this together you'd easily have a rather large audience. And who says you have to launch into some huge undertaking straight away? Why can't it build back up organically? After something like Stylus maybe it feels like a step backward for the writers since the platform wouldn't be initially as big. But we all know that Stylus brought something truly unique to music criticism: sincerity and depth. It'd be a shame if that point of view was lost. We're all this passionate about a website precisely because of that POV . It's true that sometimes you just have to walk away. But it's also true that sometimes you just have to start all over.

Blogger Paul - 12:52 pm

I appreciate the mention for Playlouder, even if it's not exactly a compliment! But behind the log-in we're working very hard to make a system in the new Playlouder which lets serious and considered writing about music find the people that appreciate it.

My own view is that it's the free availability of the music that has taken the wind out of music journalism - it's no longer about persuading people to part with a tenner. Writing will regain its proper place I am certain and I think being freed from the commercial imperative to shift product it will become much more open and exciting, and just as valuable if not more so.

Blogger Nick - 1:39 pm

In response to John;

The "minimal, blog-esque approach" might be appealing, just not at the moment, I think. It sounds a little arrogant but losing a platform of that size is a consideration for us - writing with no readers is onanism, and arrogant ina different way. But yeah, we brought sincerity and depth and we still have that and we want to use it. The one thing I loved about Stylus is that we were never into empire-building, either of ourselves or of spurious 'scenes' of music. We'll do something soon, somehow.

I got the record yesterday too, btw; will take some time out this weekend to get to know it.

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Nick Southall was born in southwest England at the tail end of the 70s, and is the youngest of three brothers. He has a degree in popular culture and philosophy and has written about music for Stylus Magazine, The Guardian and Drowned In Sound, amongst others. He likes red wine, expensive headphones, spicy food, and the Hungarian national football team of the 1950s. His favourite record is the last one he listened to. You can contact him by email via sickmouthy @ gmail dot com should you so wish.

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