Register Wednesday | December 11 | 2019

The Gospel of Sound

Do ethics exist in music journalism?

It’s a sunny Friday afternoon at Pharmacie Esperanza in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood. Across from me, columnist Scott Clyke of the Montreal Mirror and Gazette music critic T’cha Dunlevy are attempting to lounge on an uncomfortable couch. Both are DJs whose writing careers are extensions of their passion for music. They are here to discuss whether they think ethics exist in music journalism, and, I have to say, they’re both a bit squirmy.

T’cha giggles, or snorts, or does something that makes me think he’s either nervous or flippant. I ask them whether, as journalists, they’re weirded out about being asked the questions for once.

“This job just doesn’t seem to be something where ethics would come into play,” Dunlevy says simply, steering past my question and back to the topic they’re here to discuss.

To most, it doesn’t. The free CDs, guest lists, getting to review your friends’ shows—these details cross no journalistic boundaries and present no ethical dilemmas. These are conventions, not questions, after all.

In asking the two gentlemen before me about their practice and ethical standpoint as music journalists, I am trying to formulate a professional opinion as to why music journalism is relevant, and how its conventions support journalists both great and lazy. Montreal is considered an “international city,” after all. It bubbles with musical activity, and here are two prominent people who tell those stories.

I’m stuck on ethics because I was handed a heart attack recently when I found out that the Ninja Tune record label had made up a musical genre (“bouncement”)—just gave it a name and bam, pretended it existed. Did we falter as writers for not figuring this out, for not digging enough to discover the fabrication? Did we fail in our duty to report accurately? What exactly is it that we have to report accurately when all we really do is talk about what we think and feel about a band, show or album? How can you fact-check taste?

Really, I should relax. The bouncement genre was a joke meant to highlight that music journalists may trust too much, be too lazy to fact-check or don’t know enough about a particular scene to gauge its validity. As Clyke points out, most genres are born when someone slaps a name on it, regardless of who does the slapping. Most of the time these genres are short-lived anyway, because, as he notes, the music gets exported but the culture doesn’t.

Waye got a chuckle out of the gag, and so did I (to an extent)—No-one lost an eye in the process, so it’s all still fun and games. I applaud the cleverness, though “bouncement” didn’t really go anywhere, and yet I still feel dashed on the inside. Shouldn’t we all be trying to tell the truth at all times?

“When Frank Black lies to me, for instance, and says, ‘Oh yeah, I lost my house in a California earthquake,’ I’m pretty sure he’s not telling me the truth because I know he’s never lived in California,” says Jamie O’Meara, editor at Hour, another Montreal weekly, whom I speak to separately. “But you know what,” he continues, “I’m going to run it and I’m going to say ‘This is what Frank Black said’ and then I’ll say ‘Oh by the way, Frank’s been known to stretch the truth a little bit and to the best of my knowledge he’s never lived in California.’ And as it turned out, he was lying to see if he could get me to print that. I think as a music journalist, the responsibility is to try and be less of a fan and to try to have more of a critical view.”

Which leads me back to subjectivity. While pure objectivity is, of course, unattainable in music journalism, a balanced, informed subjectivity is well within reach.

“I think if you look at any publication, newspaper, a political weekly or whatever, there’s always somebody’s opinion that is thrown in there,” says Clyke. “It’s natural to disagree with somebody, even if you think they’re a great, insightful eye on whatever they’re talking about.”

Even if those people who disagree with you are your friends.

“You can’t go and see a show and review a show and not say what you saw,” says O’Meara. “Because the other 700 people or 1000 people or 30 people that were there are going to know what they saw. And when they see that you wrote something different, they’re going to question your credibility right away. When you work in a small environment like Montreal, you’re going to know a lot of the guys that are playing out there. Or you’re going to be reviewing guys that have a certain amount of influence in your local music scene. So you can’t soft-sell them or give them a light review. You have to say what you thought, you have to be honest at the risk of pissing them off or pissing their fans off. But you kind of have to do that, or else nobody will respect you and nobody will read you.”

Music journalism is at its worst when it sinks into the pit of press-release recycling. At its best, it soars into fine storytelling that can engage readers with compelling portraits of interesting people making interesting music. While music journalism may not carry the weight that say, news journalism does, it is relevant in the same way that we relate to the music we enjoy—it is subjective. It is personal.

“If it’s a band you really don’t like, you’ll probably be a bit more diplomatic, [but] you’re not going to interview them and trash them in the same story,” says Dunlevy. “If you really do like them, you’re more likely to give more colour, more background.”

I have no idea who reads what I write, but I do know I got a charge out of talking to most of the people I’ve interviewed. When my interest in the music is strong, that’s when writing becomes a puzzle: I have pieces other people don’t and I have to assemble them in an engaging way. For a story about Anticon backpack rappers cLOUDDEAD, I was so impressed by their work I even made up words to perfectly describe their approach to sound: rapcrobat and beatrinarian.

Some of the most galvanizing pieces of music journalism I’ve read are about artists I knew I didn’t like, but which the writer convinced me that I could. As journalists, we are both constructors and deconstructors of the hype machine—getting free stuff, cleaning up quotes, spewing off at the mouth and backing it up. Dunlevy cuts to the chase.

“In the end, I think our job is just to give people something to read.”

Melissa Wheeler is getting to know Montreal's culture creators. Her column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Melissa Wheeler.