by Michael Klinger

Disappearing Ink: Music journalism migrates to the Web

Not too long ago, the newspaper of a medium-sized city--one with a venerable and respected professional orchestra--advertised its need for a new classical music critic upon the retirement of the old one.

That's what the job had been, and that's what applicants expected to find. On inquiry, they were informed that, yes, their mission would include classical reviews, previews, and profiles. That, plus seeking out news to report on all of the city's arts groups. Also anything else that might seem "cultural," vaguely defined with a lower-case "c." Oh, and by the way, keeping tabs on "This week on TV" and some movie reviewing.

The tale would be instructive if it weren't so commonplace. Instead it's emblematic of something broader, happening with a dull regularity at print news outlets all over the country, with only a very few exceptions in the largest cities.

Each year, the tide recedes a bit further. Lately some widely publicized editorial changes taking place at The New York Times indicate that even the biggest ships are affected. Howell Raines, the Times's executive editor, seems intent on weighting the newspaper's arts pages--including the Sunday Arts & Leisure section--toward popular culture. He is widely quoted as saying he wants the paper to include "less Peking Opera, and more Britney Spears." The Times still provides an active, though reduced, chronicle of classical concerts in New York and coverage of classical news around the country, but with somewhat more space devoted to the likes of Tony Soprano. Those changes are significant because the Times has served for generations as America's national newspaper-of-record for the arts in general, and for classical music in particular. If even the venerable Times is reducing serious classical music coverage in print, that trend has indeed been pervasive and fundamental. Why is this happening? While newspapers scale back on serious arts coverage, and radio stations long wedded to classical formats shift to news and talk or flat-out jump ship into the wonderful world of 24-hour hip-hop, we are given to believe that a constant evaluation of profitability has rendered classical music--and perhaps all the "high" arts--irrelevant. The message is that classical music will attain a central place when it can prove that a paying audience desires it.

But in a more evolutionary sense (and for argument's sake), another reason newspapers are asking us to get by without them is because, frankly, we can. The local paper may not know how to find the local concert hall anymore, but it has been supplanted by something very powerful in both scope and specificity. One way of answering the question "Where has all the classical music journalism disappeared to?" is simply to say, "It hasn't disappeared. It's everywhere. In particular, it's on the Web." Thus, arts lovers belatedly stumble into the lightheaded, online glee that the rest of the world pretty well exhausted during the Tech Rush of the 1990s.

One could argue that classical music journalism is so detail-rich--drawing on knowledge of composers and their place in history, performers and styles, even particular performances and recordings--that it has never been adequately served by the printed word on the printed page. Or that, thanks to hypertext, classical music can finally receive the layered, specific treatment that it requires. And it's true that a key aspect of information technology--organizing tremendous bodies of information into usable bits--lends itself well to the mindset of both the academic and the connoisseur, both of whom are commonly encountered among classical-music enthusiasts. There is, in the realm of classical music, an unashamed desire for--even a need for--the kind of cataloguing and reference that a well-organized web site always offers as a matter of course.

The happy news is that, at present, the world has both print media and online media, and they overlap everywhere on newspaper-operated web sites. The New York Times online (www.nytimes.com) is not alone in taking advantage of many capabilities offered through new technology. In addition to the full content of the newspaper, nytimes.com offers such valuable added features as audio files of Times critics reviewing recordings, invitations to converse with a community of readers in an electronic forum (one recent comment: "Only 264 days till Beethoven's birthday!"), and even the opportunity to share comments with the writers at the Times. Also, and as with other papers, the Times offers arts headlines via e-mail, a luxury whose value doesn't quite live up to its full promise when you discover that the service's definition of "arts" is dominated by (you guessed it) pop music, current movies, and the occasional Broadway show--in other words, exactly the battleground on which classical coverage is losing its footing.

More classical-friendly is the Guardian Online, the eponymous web site of the British daily. There, arranged on a page simply called "Latest classical reviews," three or four reviews are posted daily, from around the UK. The page, which is reliably up-to-date, provides an effective tool for keeping informed about who-played-where-with-whom. A recent scan shows the Kronos Quartet at the Barbican, the BBC Philharmonic with Vassily Sinaisky in Manchester, and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra at home with Gerard Schwarz, among many others.

Other sites not tied to newspapers, significantly Andante.com (www.andante.com) and MusicalAmerica.com (www.musicalamerica.com), are notable for maintaining a stable of writers to cover newsworthy developments, performances, and record releases. While MusicalAmerica.com excels at breaking news and next-day reviews, Andante offers broader critical essays and interviews.

For the breadth and depth of coverage to be found on the Web, none of the functions of online arts coverage are capable of undermining the front line of arts journalism--the local critics and reporters. That's because, to borrow the language of the 1990s, those writers have become "content providers," deputized as foot soldiers in the bits-and-bytes world of cyberspace. The new system, which sees local papers posting content online the same day they publish it in print, also sees countless "portal" sites "picking up the story"--much like the Associated Press might be said to do--and making the world aware of it. Since MusicalAmerica.com, Andante, and several other sites mentioned here rely on this sort of content provision in compiling their news services, there's hardly the risk of not being up-to-date in Kansas City (where the orchestra is looking for a music director at present). On these sites, news tends to be posted in chronological order, so the editorial priorities on display through traditional newspapers' layouts are irrelevant. Stories from the largest arts institutions frequently appear next to smaller, international, or otherwise less commanding headlines.

Off the Air

As radio stations and magazines have established a Web presence, the boundaries have shifted or even evaporated between print and broadcast media. The strongest examples see radio or magazine sites generating reference and journalistic content--from biographical sketches to historical profiles to reviews of new recordings.

Two significant radio-based web sites that have established both creative and core-related roles in various kinds of music journalism, WQXR (www.wqxr.com) and BBC Radio 3 (www.bbc.co.uk/radio3), take as natural starting points their own broadcast programming. It makes good sense to support a live broadcast of the UK premiere of Luciano Berio's completion of Puccini's Turandot, say, with program information on the web site (and, in this case, a weeklong opportunity to hear the concert again, online). In addition to program notes, the BBC site provided a taped interview with conductor Leonard Slatkin, discussing the Turandot concert. And because it featured a living composer's completion of a dead composer's work, the site fostered a debate over the worthiness of new vs. old.

Up to this point, the site's content has been provided primarily by the BBC. Now, it invites its audience to "Tell us what you think" of Berio's completion and, goading, asks the provocative question, "How do you think it compares to the original completion by Alfano?" A vibrant, democratic free-for-all follows. Which the BBC then also posts, right next to the reviews from the traditional press (in this case the Financial Times and The New York Times). Predictably, a conservative listener writes in: "Give me Alfano's uncut ending which at least blends in very well with the incomplete ending music that Puccini had composed. I hope Berio's ending receives the eventual dismissal it deserves." Another responds, "I am currently singing TurandotÉand I can tell you the original ending is dire! Long live Berio!" Still another reader pipes up, bringing the whole democratizing process to a head: "Could there not be a competition to find out [which version people prefer]? ... Let the public be the arbiters too. (Critics have too many axes to grind!)" Here and in countless other places, new media are allowing for a proliferation of armchair classical-music critics.

Other useful functions of the BBC's site include its "composer in one minute" briefs, compiled on many significant (and not-so-significant) composers. The historical and social context these summaries provide can become a valuable resource to anyone who frequents the site. But here, as so often with the scads of information available online, the resource is never as complete as we wish. Incredibly, while you will find brief profiles of many important composers on the BBC web site, you won't find Alfano or Berio. Or Puccini (although he, at least, did have a longer biographical entry, linked from the broadcast). At the web site of Gramophone magazine (www.gramophone.co.uk), which offers its traditional record-buying readership online reviews of new recordings and reports industry news using its own stable of writers, one of the most intriguing value-added functions is "Recommended Recordings." This offers access to the famous Gramophone Good CD Guide, from which the reviews are drawn. If you are looking for "a great recording of a popular work," Gramophone invites you to search by composer or use an alphabetical index. (Here, again, the promise rings slightly less true when, in our Google-happy desire for complete, encyclopedic, and infallible collections of total information at the touch of a button, we find no record of a composer called Boulez, or any of his recordings. And Elgar is the only composer whose name begins with the letter E.)

There are twenty composers whose names begin with the letter E, according to the search engine at ClassicsToday.com (www.classicstoday.com). Billing itself as "the world's first and only classical music daily," it provides reviews of new recordings, updated on a daily basis. Reviewers are drawn from the world of published journalists and critics, and the collection of reviews--in a searchable database--is exhaustive.

The site also includes a complete archive of its features and editorials. In a media age defined by interactivity, ClassicsToday is notable, also, for not providing a post-your-own-review section. If the site can be called quirky at all, it is the editorial staff's doing, and not the readership's; a new feature, called "Classical Gourmet," presents recipes to go with particular composers. ("Lentil soups all have a rugged, earthy quality that calls to mind the sinewy, wholesome symphonies of Danish composer Carl Nielsen," one recent recipe proclaims.)

NewMusicBox (www.newmusicbox.org), a nonprofit site operated by the American Music Center, does allow for--even relies upon--a certain amount of audience participation. This monthly online magazine builds its content around a particular theme--recent examples include spatial music and film music. Each month's edition, curated by Editor Frank Oteri, includes transcripts of conversations with relevant figures. The format also carries the idea of a conversation into the interactive realm with an open invitation, after each and every article, essay or interview, for readers to respond. Those responses, in turn, become a growing bulletin board-style dialogue. And because NewMusicBox provides complete archives for all previous issues, those conversations can go on long after the original "publication" of each monthly issue.

Going Independent

In addition to the increased visibility of articles posted by newspapers--as well as the coverage those same articles receive on other sites--some writers maintain their own sites, where they post essays and reviews when they can. Robert Commanday, who was for 28 years the classical music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, now edits the San Francisco Classical Voice (www.sfcv.org), which regularly runs commentaries written by Commanday's colleagues from the print world--notably Alan Rich, former chief music critic of Newsweek, the New York Herald Tribune, and the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. Other critics maintain more personal sites. Wall Street Journal classical music critic Greg Sandow edits and updates his own web site, which includes a complete collection of his articles for the Journal and NewMusicBox, as well as a broad selection of other thoughts and news of his activity as a composer.

Just a little further down the road of free and unfettered access lies the shady but vibrant community of bloggers--academics and others who post to their own running "blogs" (weblogs, for the uninitiated). While these sites do not fill any particular journalistic niche or void created by the subsiding of print's supremacy, they represent a virtual community, completely without physical borders but united by a sometimes-shameless enthusiasm. Here is where you will find name-calling and other emotional responses to music so intense as to make you blush. (It's worth remembering that personal attacks have a hallowed place in the history of classical music; when reactionary critic and composer Giovanni Maria Artusi attacked Claudio Monteverdi for writing music too dissonant for his ears, Claudio defended his style, subsequently publishing the "dialogue" in the folios of his madrigals. This, in turn, promoted his own sales, even pushing his books into new editions.) If historically significant musical bickering is going to happen these days--and it is--it's as likely to happen in these offbeat sites as anywhere.

It isn't just these enthusiast-controlled dialogues that foster lively debate. Andante.com invited composer John Corigliano and music critic Justin Davidson to "discuss the vital, contentious enterprise of reviewing new music." The conversation is valuable both for its sincerity and for the expertise represented on both sides. It nevertheless has the distinctive "You'd-never-see-this-in-print" feel that so much online journalism engenders. (Corigliano's second salvo in the conversation begins, "Oh Justin, Rarely have I seen written in one place the most popular self-delusions of the Fourth EstateÉGood Lord Justin, the disingenuousness of your arguments!" Whatever else this conversation may be, it represents the vindication of decades worth of frustration on the part of composers who can finally oppose the formerly-unilateral voice of the critic in a public forum.

Online classical music is still a new phenomenon, and it's unclear which of these sites will last. What is clear is the fact that specialized web sites have specialized--that is, small--audiences. While sites operated by large organizations like newspapers and radio networks can rely on the good graces and resources of their parents, many niche classical sites mentioned here operate solely through their own subscription or advertising revenue, drawn from a user base of modest size at best.

And the world of online, mixed-content music journalism, though promising, has some very real technical limitations. Anyone with an Internet connection can read text online. But many of the applications used by innovative sites (New York Times critics playing selections from a new recording in a real-time record review, for example, or the new-music concert video footage available at Andante) require sound capability and, more prohibitively, broadband connections that are by no means universal. But the history of technological progress tells us that such enhancements will become as common as anything else we rely on--not least because they are likely to become an important medium through which commerce can be quickly and effectively conducted. In the meantime, an information revolution has quietly taken place.

In an essay on NewMusicBox, Richard Kessler, executive director of the American Music Center, explains that the site is the AMC's "response to the diminished media coverage of new music." But in providing increased coverage of new music, NewMusicBox has done what other sites have done for other wings of the classical music community. These varied online sources have provided a new forum: a dynamic tool for fostering vibrant (if small) communities where debate and discussion can thrive at a higher level, and with broader participation, than traditional print media could ever promise. With so much musical information available instantaneously--both locally and globally--it's at least possible that, while things may have gotten worse in one way, they've also gotten much better in another.

Michael Klinger is associate editor of SYMPHONY and webmaster of the American Symphony Orchestra League.