While on her way to a Miley Cyrus concert, Lindsay Zoladz encountered a stranger on a bus. This stranger had only the slightest idea of what Lindsay does for a living, and likely thought that it’s kind of weird to go to a huge, fun concert to do homework. After a brief conversation, Lindsay experienced that spark of recognition that us who professional write about music professionally have on occasion: there are other people who don’t care at all about what I write about. Lindsay’s Tumblr post about this conversation is empathetic, curious, and well-articulated, because Lindsay is a very good writer.
At the end of her post, Lindsay encourages music writers to reach outside what she calls “the 1%” of people who actually care about what they write. This is much harder than it seems, particularly when the majority of the music that most music writers write about itself only appeals to the 1%. And writing about this kind of music (we’ve taken to lumping it under the specious heading of “indie” and “experimental” and “avant-garde”) is almost automatically going to mean writing in a way that only appeals to the same 1%. Writing about Miley is one thing—her millions of fans are going to find it, don’t worry—but there are only so many Mileys, and so many ways to talk about them.
For everything else, there’s Pitchfork, which employs me on an increasingly spare basis, and which is based around reviews of mostly obscure music. I reviewed this mostly obscure music fairly steadily from 2007 until 2010, and more sporadically since then. When I think back about my reasons for wanting to do so when offered the opportunity, it was mostly that Pitchfork provided an exponentially larger audience for the same kind of writing about tiny bands I was doing on my tiny blog. At the time, it was like the walls of a small, dark room had fallen down to reveal a vast audience, wandering around and waiting for something to catch their eye.
In context, of course, that “vast” audience wasn’t really terribly vast, and was really a bunch of people more or less like me. People who desire to read writing about music they already like (not a lot of people), people who desire to read writing about music they don’t already know (even fewer people), people who are capable of parsing the cross-genre references, label name-drops, and oblique deployments of adjectives that populate Pitchfork’s reviews (hey man, how’s it going, glad you stuck around).
What I think about a lot more with a bit of distance is that I was really aiming to impress fellow music writers, bloggers, and the close friends/family/significant others who would read anything I wrote because they liked/loved me. I was doing this because they were the only audience I could see beyond the bright klieg lights of publicity shining in my face. Everyone else—the vast possible audience who might click through and read—were the invisible population of some vast void: The Possible. I had (have) no idea how to write to them, because I had no idea who they were, and what kinds of translations of music into writing they might enjoy reading.
I don’t mean this as a good or bad thing, just one of the realities of writing-as-communication. As we write, we simultaneously conjure audiences for our writing—that’s what happens when we choose a topic and think about ways to explain that topic. The words we choose, and the ways we choose to arrange those words, ripple outward, picking their own readers based on their accessibility, their place of origin (the publication), and often, their secondary stops (recommendations by friends).
That paragraph right there, the one you just finished reading, is probably the one that eliminated the majority of people who started reading this for another (more fun and cool) reason (Miley, Lindsay). My audience has collapsed, because I’ve gotten a bit too esoteric. The words don’t reach as many. But at the same time, the topic I’ve chosen to talk about—how words create audiences—is inherently esoteric. Esoteric derives from the Greek, meaning “belonging to an inner circle.” That’s why I’m writing this on Tumblr and not Pitchfork.
It’s a bit cozier in here now, no? Onward.
As a professor at a large-enrollment college for the past year (and before, as a grad student instructor at an even larger-enrollment college for a decade) I’ve long experienced Lindsay’s minor epiphany on a daily basis. The Unknown of a writerly audience is infinitely vaster when applied to populations at large. When I encounter an 18-22 year old student who’s heard of Pitchfork, it’s shocking (over the past decade, it’s happened maybe 10 times amongst thousands of students). Aside from the rare Pitchfork artist who breaks through to a much wider consciousness via late-night talk shows or SNL, no one I teach (about communication, media, and popular culture) is aware of any of the topics that have populated my everyday conversations for the last several years.
I imagine this is true for most college professors, especially in the humanities—we like to talk with our peers and contemporaries about our personal fascinations and research subjects, because those audiences are often interested in similar things or similar categories of things. But when we’re teaching these things to students, we have to do our best to render these esoteric interests as entertaining and illuminating as possible. And even then, it’s a Sisyphean ordeal to keep eyes from wandering down to smartphones. Writing about non-Miley types of music: yeah, same deal. There’s so much music out there, but a limited time to read 500 words about something that 400 people are going to buy.
There’s been a lot of esoteric talk lately amongst music critics (as happens every few months) about what music writing is, and to whom it may (or should) appeal. Ted Gioia, a man who helped found jazz studies at Stanford many years ago, published an essay in The Daily Beast, a publication that tries to appeal to a very different audience than say, Pitchfork. Long story short, Gioia believes that there is not enough music theory in music writing, and that music writing is suffering for it. Of course, there’s some truth in Gioia’s statement, but his insistence that music theory should be a major part of music writing is where he’s wrong. The theory that Gioia loves so much has dwindled in importance to the vast majority of artists and fans over the past half-century as to be more or less irrelevant for their appreciation of a song or recording.
How terrible one thinks the dwindling audience for music theory is a very subjective matter, but the reality is that they’ve not dwindled because music writers aren’t doing their due diligence, but because basic music and arts education has itself dwindled over the past several decades, the result of a depressing (for Humanitites folks) focus on STEM education over all else. Compared to the myriad, exciting, ever-mutating ways that aritsts and fans choose to describe music with words and symbols nowadays, music theory—always the privilege of the few, if you consider music itself a basic form of human communication—is perhaps itself a dying language, outside music schools and piano lessons. Though Owen Pallett can really make it sing.
At a basic level, though, this sort of self-reflexive, “inside baseball” chatter about any profession, conducted between those who labor as part of that profession, is invaluable. It’s what conferences and email threads are for, whether those conferences or email threads are populated by insurance agents, composition teachers, or music writers making 50 bucks a blurb. These gatherings and specific discourses allow on one hand for the ritualistic airing of grievances to audiences of self-selected peers, but they also permit the self-reflexive consideration of what in the world one is actually doing with one’s life. Even the most seemingly inconsequential meta-conversationover the deli table in a hotel conference room (how long have you been doing ____? Is ____ a good way for the field to proceed? Is that ham or roast beef?) can allow for crucial moments of reflection and revelation.
But if you’re still with me and have experienced these kinds of chats (hey you! Heading for the door! Come back!), you know that, by necessity, they’re loaded with terminology and the concerns of a professional group about which other groups (or readers, or students) could really care less. Shop talk works really well in the shop. But they’re increasingly leaving the shop, via various user-friendly web technologies that emerged from more private forms (Twitter emerging from SMS chats) and are built to support quick exchanges of discourse, regardless of geographic location. In the case of Twitter (or Tumblr: hi!), these conversations also transpire in front of audiences who couldn’t care less about them. For Lindsay and myself, it’s something that belongs on Tumblr, not anywhere else.
I don’t know about Lindsay, but for me, that’s because Tumblr doesn’t feel quite as much like shouting into the void as a bigger platform does, and my esoteric concerns can be directed at the 50 or so people who care to read this far. Social media platforms are virtual like radio broadcasts or magazines, inasmuch as they’re all spaces to interact without regard to spatial (or sometimes temporal) limitations. From the perspective of communicating to an audience, however, the big difference between Tumblr/Twitter and, say, radio, is that the audiences aren’t strangers.
It’s possible—nay, preferable—for us to be able to quantify and identify our audiences in these platforms, and therefore to craft utterances—at least on an unconscious level—that are directed at them. Facebook is the epitome of such a model: a walled garden of family, friends, exes, and professional acquaintances, imperceptible to anyone not in the garden, and which offers the possibility to infinitely tailor the audience for one’s new utterances. Strangerdom disappears on Facebook—that’s the point.
Twitter and Tumblr are similar, but more public by default. There’s a ring of Known People who follow me, and who are unconsciously present in my brain when I type anything new. The risk of what danah boyd calls “context collapse” is always present, though: if I participate in an esoteric conversation specific to my profession, others are automatically privy to it (unless they have me filed away in a Twitter list and only see my babbles once a week when they peruse “big-mouth music nerds”).
After this ring of Known People, however, my Twitter and Tumblr utterances are faced with The Void—the unknown public that any utterance travels outward toward, perhaps making an impression to a stranger, but likely only meeting those in whose ersatz image it’s been created in the first place. Our ideas only travel as far as our language lets them.
The ideas expressed via music and popular culture journalism hadn’t reached the girl Lindsay met on the bus, and Lindsay’s job was mystifying to her. But the blog post that Lindsay (and Ryan and Jordan) wrote about the concert did travel—it just so happened to be traveling with the name “Miley Cyrus” attached to it. For many amongst Pitchfork's typical readership, the post was likely ignored, if not sneered at. Lindsay and Jordan opened the post by addressing those people as if they were standing just within earshot of a person-to-person conversation: “I’ll ask you the question that our entire audience was grumbling as they closed out of this tab five seconds ago, ‘Why the fuck are these people talking about Miley Cyrus?’” I wonder what the non-Pitchfork reading Miley Cyrus fans who found that post thought when they read that part.