2016: Taking stock

I know I am not the only person who is going to be rather glad to see the back of 2016. The political events of the past twelve months would be enough to warrant such hostility towards this particular year. Add in the loss of some totemic musical giants and it feels like it wasn’t enough to simply see a rise in the bad – we had to lose so much good as well.

In October, with only minimal warning, my father died. He went into hospital in late September and didn’t make it back out. It tipped the year off balance and skewed my perspective on so much but it happened in such manic times that I’m still not sure how much I’ve processed his passing. It was all the more painful considering the delight he had shown when, in early spring, I had told him that my wife and I were expecting our first child. Elin arrived last week and she is curled up on my arm as I type this. Sadly, the two were never to meet and, as much as preparation for a new arrival was a welcome distraction during the times that followed dad’s death, it’s yet another reason for 2016 to move along now.

In amongst all of this, as well as with increased commitments at work, I took the decision during the summer that I was done with giving my writing away. I remain enormously indebted to Paul Du Noyer and Jude Rogers for taking a chance on me at The Word all those years ago, to Nick Annan, Mike Diver and Matthew Bennett who oversaw some happy times during the print era of Clash Magazine and to Dan Stubbs who commissioned my sole appearance in the NME. That ‘Anatomy of an Album’ piece on Gene’s ‘Olympian’ made my teenage self very happy indeed. As the music press contracts and online drivel expands, there isn’t much of a place for my writing in the current climate. There are still vital writers doing wonderful things with words – Dorian Lynskey, Pete Paphides, Sylvia Patterson, Laura Barton, John Mulvey, Laura Snapes, John Doran, Peter Robinson, Emily Mackay, Jazz Monroe to name a small selection – but the platforms are limited and the battle for our attention has never been fiercer. I’ve been lucky to have the experiences I have had, but nobody needs me to be churning out another philanthropic 600-word online album review in my minimal free time apart, possibly, from the place so keen to take advantage of the willing for so long. This really isn’t meant to be self-pitying, no matter how it sounds – and, frankly, if you’re going to take that approach I’d lead with the dead dad stuff, personally – but it seemed the right time to say it and a writer has to write about not writing, surely?

All of which brings me to the fact that I’m not doing a fancy looking top 30 countdown this year. For a start, I haven’t got the time to craft the necessary words to deliver the usual format in between changing nappies and not sleeping. Secondly, I’m not convinced I can refine the rough list I assembled a few weeks ago. Finally, I think I’d rather do some longer pieces on a selection of truly special records that have meant a lot, especially in the last few months. Some of them have had more words than you could ever wish for committed to them already, but I’m not going to let that stop me. As you can see, this blog has lain dormant since last year’s list ended and we have all coped, haven’t we?

In a world where people object to paying £20 for an album over which an artist has toiled for a year, £10 a month in order to stream most of the music ever made or £5 for a magazine full of witty and passionate cultural writing, the value of creativity is wobbling. Yes, giving your work for free is a foot in the door and a way to get noticed. It’s the right way for plenty of new writers to get started but it shouldn’t be a business model and fuck all of those people scraping by on advertising spends built entirely upon the benign charity of people who deserve better. I know what it feels like to have to write. There are days when your fingers hover over the keyboard, ready to unleash fizzing prose. But the increasing willingness to be one of many is diluting our cultural dialogue and blunting the critical word. If a site only exists to get its fanboy boss onto guestlists, it’s unlikely to ever take a purposeful swipe at something that is legitimately awful in case it offends a PR company. If you’re not paying for a product, you are the product.

The internet is full of writing about music, but I don’t recognise much of it as belonging to the actual genre of ‘music writing’. The tipping point came earlier this year when my access to the latest PJ Harvey album came so close to release that I had already read at least a dozen reviews before I was in a position to file mine. Is there an album in recorded musical history that needs more than a dozen different reviews writing about it? We have to be careful not to mistake an increase in choice for an increase in quality. The internet is a massive tumbler in which we can, theoretically, make an enormous glass of squash, but there’s still only the same amount of concentrate in the first place. I’d rather have that glorious hit of sweetness every so often than be submerged by piss weak lemon and barley.

So, I’m hanging up my 7/10 autofill and declining the chance of several frantic listens, because online coverage is served as close to release as possible, in exchange for enjoying music again. An interesting print option is on the horizon for 2017, but we shall see where that goes. In the meantime, there will be a number of pieces over the coming month on some of 2016’s finest music, but as and when I feel like it and I hope you’ll take the time to read them. And, if you’re reading this now as someone who gives away your creativity: stop.

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4 thoughts on “2016: Taking stock

  1. I guess I should feel blessed to get $20 for 300 words a couple times a month for reviews. Strangely enough, I have 3 or 4 friends who are cobbling together a living writing now; one of them a woman who briefly worked for my wife’s store (my wife pronounced her “a worthless employee”) who is now showing up on Rollingstone.com & other sites. She’s probably eligible for food stamps, but she’s getting paid and writing full time…

  2. Hi Gareth. My sincerest congratulations on the birth of your daughter and my deepest sympathies on the loss of your dad.
    My mum passed away two months before my youngest daughter was born. It’s not easy. It takes time to process things – just give yourself that space and time. And treasure every new moment with your daughter and wife. Take care.

  3. Gareth, I’ve always enjoyed your writing since finding you on twitter. Agree with all you’ve written here and amidst the nappies and the no sleeping – remember to grieve at some point.

  4. “We have to be careful not to mistake an increase in choice for an increase in quality” – I love that line, and absolutely agree everything you said.

    It really has been a truly rotten year. Congratulations on the birth of your daughter though. Those memories and the promising new music to come will be a joy to behold.

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