Newsletter Selects: Microplastics

For the most part, our Newsletter Selects interviews are functional introductions to some of our favourite online music writing. But every once in a while, they take us right into the incisive thoughts and attitudes of a writer with a distinct vision of how and why they write about electronic music. This edition, our first of 2024, is one of those. Ray Philp briefed Rob Smith on his new Microplastics newsletter, as well as taking the temperature of the music journalism housefire, and what we can do to soothe it.

Microplastics are contaminant, and invasive, very little is known about them and by now they’re apparently lurking in our drinking water. Why did it seem fitting to name the Substack after them?

There might be some self-deprecation at play. I’m one of a growing number of writers trying their hand at a newsletter, and before long it will probably feel too overwhelming for readers to keep up with. But maybe it works as a useful reminder for me to be distinctive, exactly because there is so much “content” out there, much of which is definitely a kind of attentional pollutant.

You’ve started your newsletter after stepping away from full-time freelance music journalism, what does a Substack offer you that the freelance grind couldn’t?

A space to experiment — with the least attractive format of all time! But what I am excited by is having a more direct conversation with readers, and seeing what happens in that underexplored space. I used to be hesitant about being so exposed to an audience, and generally the attention-seeking behaviour from those who crave that exposure gives me the boke. But I’ve since come around to thinking that what music criticism needs is a more transparent relationship with readers.

In my last post, I wrote about criticism being misunderstood as being “wordy furniture” for Some Guy’s opinion, but one way in which that is true is that the timidity that now hangs over a lot of music criticism, or at least writing about music, is that the opinions are not very distinctive from one another (e.g. a lot of the big 2023 end-of-year lists were eerily interchangeable). Which suggests something other than writing from a place of sincerity, of having a personality, of giving a shit.

Choose a music journalism buzzword you think is a bit ridiculous, why is it a bit silly and why should we stop using it?

Restructuring.” “Rightsizing.” Those two are more irritating than anything a music journalist has ever written because they are sanitary euphemisms for corporate fuckhousing that invariably makes publications, artists and readers worse off, to say nothing of the journalists themselves.

If you could bust any myths/origin stories lurking in the discourse around electronic music journalism, what would it be and why?

The notion that people at DJ Mag or Pitchfork or the other big music titles are these evil hipsters who drain the life out of music and real artists for soulless corporate gain. Those people actually work at Vice.

Which was a bigger concern for you, Bandcamp changing hands, first to Epic Games then Songtradr, or the recent layoffs at Pitchfork?

Both are very alarming. The story those situations tell is of an Olympian disdain for the value of music editorial. It’s for the little people! Something I read recently on Semafor about the Pitchfork layoffs neatly captures that attitude.

The bigger story is that good journalism of any kind is under unbearable pressure, and has been for the last 15 years. The ad model is spent, and if the period I’m describing has lessons to impart it’s that only subscriptions are capable of keeping journalism worthy of the name afloat.

Speaking of subs, I still sense that readers are struggling to wean themselves off the idea that good writing and good journalism should either be free or very cheap. Unfortunately, it is an inherently expensive profession, and I’m not sure otherwise sensible people realise it.

As a nominally left-wing person, I’m unusual in that I respect and value institutions a lot. I worry that we arrive at a place where newsletters will carry more authority than large publications because the migration of trusted voices to these sole-trader platforms will transpose the locus of authority from institutions to the individual.

That situation is subtly dangerous for a few reasons. A lot of the best writing you’ve ever come across is not only the work of a writer, but a (thinning) squad of editors and fact-checkers who support them by sanding the edges down or, just as often, giving your writing a different, better shape than was originally intended.

Editors stop you from making stupid writing decisions, getting you into legal trouble, or making ill-advised claims you can’t stand up. Stuff that you will regret! And the very best ones are also a positive force that introduces new angles your draft has yet to explore fully. I feel extremely lucky to have worked alongside colleagues and mates at RA who were different gravy.

Newsletters, meanwhile, as one-person bands, have little such protection—and will be a much less trustworthy realm for readers to navigate, despite the superficial appearance of authenticity.

Read any books/texts/writing about music recently that have flipped your perspective about anything?

Not specifically, no, but the book that ripped me a new one was Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise. Having not been overly familiar with or invested in classical music before reading it—this was 2018—I was completely hooked by the way he’d turn elements of the music into dramatic characters, moving through space and time with particular narrative arcs.

He brought that music to life so successfully that there are pieces from that book that I still listen to today—I would whistle Finlandia down the road for a long while. There are chapters on Sibelius and Shostakovich where the writing and the facts of their lives still swirl around in the subconscious, you know? It’s deep. (I’ve got a more recent doorstopper of his, Wagnerism, hanging out on a shelf but I’m too scared and time-poor to commit.)

Also, by reading about that sphere of music I could recognise that the conversations we have today about, say, whether music is inextricable from politics, were articulated—albeit in response to different situations—a very long time ago.

Any zines or print publications you still seek out?

I read as much as I can; I’m smoking 100 tabs a day! I’m really into Semafor for insider-baseball-style media news. Dirt is a fantastic newsletter. This essay on numbing out by Catherine Shannon made a huge impression on me. The Drift is sick. The New Yorker is publishing banger after banger. The LRB’s essays on Gaza have been without equal. I make a point of reading particular music writers, too: Will Lynch, Philip Sherburne, Arielle Gordon, Kiana Mickles, Chal Ravens, Sadie Sartini Gartner, Kieran Press-Reynolds. I really admire what Shawn Reynaldo has built with First Floor. Shout-out to them and many others fighting the good fight.

Any recent releases that have changed your mind about a particular sound?

Unfortunately, Amapiano Now from a while ago. If your first contact with amapiano was that compilation it gives the impression that the sound is really moody and “edgy” – much of it isn’t! I don’t think compilations should always strive to represent a sound because 15 or 20 tracks can seldom sum up what a whole scene is about, but that felt like an example of curation that was excessively particular.

From a technical writing perspective, what techniques/components/devices would you like to see more of in music writing itself, do you think there are any areas of writing practice that music writers aren’t utilising to their full potential at the moment?

I’m as much of a nerd about journalism and writing as I am music. But I’m fairly conflicted about meting out advice to writers about technique while the building is on fire. So all I’d say is that if you want to be good, you have to be obsessed about reading good writing, and obsessed by everything happening in the world – even if you only want to cover bluegrass records.

If there’s one book I’d urge writers to read and internalise, though, it’s Elements Of Style. I honestly reckon that I became 25% better at my job after spending a couple of days combing through it.

What’s next for Microplastics?

With any luck, a wealthy patron with a foolish interest in the arts…

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