Welcome to the Jazzless Age: Change in New York Times coverage spells trouble for a scene
What changes in music coverage at The New York Times mean for jazz
Given the typical adversarial rendering of critics by artists — pedantic, sadistic and envious of their victims — you might expect two New York Times music critics leaving the paper in the span of six months to be cause for celebration among the musicians they covered. But when Nate Chinen left his post as a New York Times contributing jazz and pop critic in January, just half a year after former fellow jazz and pop critic Ben Ratliff left the paper, the jazz community did not rejoice. It grew worried.
For two decades, some combination of Ratliff, who was hired in 1996, and Chinen, who began writing for the paper in 2005, had provided much of the paper’s jazz coverage. Starting last year the Times’ coverage began to look different. In June the paper began employing fewer reviews of shows and records. And by December, the number of once ample weekly New York jazz listings were condensed to the single digits and lumped in with the paper’s pop and rock listings. (The editorial changes were not the reason Ratliff and Chinen left, but they contributed to their respective decisions.)
The combination of the departures and the change in coverage signaled an emerging vacuum and raised a fundamental question: Had the Times relegated jazz coverage in the interest of reallocating resources to subjects that attract more web traffic?
Fearing as much, Fully Altered Media’s Matt Merewitz spearheaded a letter-writing campaign in December, aimed at salvaging the paper’s commitment to jazz coverage. There was a lot of initial enthusiasm for the cause. And a handful of people wrote letters, including SFJAZZ founder Randall Kline, trumpet player Amir ElSaffar and composers Darcy James Argue and Joel Harrison. But the campaign was ultimately not as successful as Merewitz would have liked; in his opinion, it fizzled due to the multitude of other letter-writing campaigns.
Though the letters were few in number, the sentiment they expressed was prevalent within the jazz world. In January my friend the trumpet player Steven Bernstein, who is the band leader for Sex Mob as well Butler, Bernstein & the Hot 9, called me and said this about the changes: “For someone like me who relied on this stuff, this is horrible because I used to get reviews and previews from the Times, which would lead people who weren’t just jazz fans to come to my gigs.”
For almost every jazz musician not named Kamasi Washington, Times coverage has a similar utility. “Over time, I began to feel that I could recognize a New York Times crowd,” said pianist Vijay Iyer, referring to the tendency for a Times listing to yield a larger crowd that was also older and whiter.
Trombonist Brian Drye told me the first Times review he received served as validation and led to the highest album sales of his career to date, but Times coverage did not always correlate with larger crowds. Rather, the daily coverage of the scene had a cumulative effect. “Over time it makes a difference. It provides credibility and tangibility.”
Part of the reason for that is that the Times coverage of jazz — more so than of other types of music — would guide the field. “If one of the Times guys decided that I was worth writing about then it might catch the attention of someone like Howard Reich in Chicago or someone in San Francisco or D.C. or Boston,” Iyer said.
If the Times were to scale back its jazz coverage, it would surely make life more difficult for a lot of artists and might have resounding impact on the genre’s vitality. But were the changes in the Times’s jazz coverage as dramatic as they seemed?
The reality of the situation was a bit more complicated than the narrative that the Times was simply downgrading its jazz criticism — or in Ben Ratliff’s framing, it was “a little more complicated or less complicated.” What Ratliff meant is that the mandate that music critics received was not to write less about jazz, but rather to write about music differently, and that this mandate would disproportionately affect jazz.
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The turning point in the Times’ music coverage came last summer. “The Times decided that it needed to grow its readership in a serious way and then it was really time to look at the analytics and talk about them,” Ratliff told me in a phone interview.
Previously, the Times had been a media outlier, embracing its “paper of record” status, with a hesitancy to let analytics guide editorial. “Prioritizing web traffic is a really radical notion for The New York Times,” Chinen said. “For many years, it was sort of institutionally understood that it matters because it’s in the Times. But I think that that philosophy really outlived its purpose.”
Though the Times had not been making many editorial decisions based on analytics prior to last summer, it had been actively collecting data for about five years, according to Ratliff. One of the conclusions the Times drew from the data it collected was that reviews did not perform well.
“We heard that for years, that we should not do so many live reviews,” Ratliff said. “Because ‘Hey, something happened and it’s over, and it’s not going to happen again. Why should a reader care about that?’” Ratliff and Chinen were sympathetic to that position. But they saw value in writing reviews that could not be quantified through analytics.
“We often responded to it with ‘Well, yeah, but it’s cultural news and we’re saying that it’s important that this thing happened,'” Ratliff said. “Finally [the Times] got serious and said, ‘No, no, no. We really can’t have so many reviews in the paper,’ and then gradually we had almost none. And the same thing happened with covering records.”
In place of writing reviews, music critics at the Times were encouraged to write pieces that made a broader argument. On its face, the policy makes sense; the Times was trying to appeal to a wider readership, offer broader insights and engage with music in a modern way. “I don’t believe that a review of a live event in New York is always useful for our readers, who are in large part outside of the New York area, all over the U.S. and around the world,” Caryn Ganz, who joined the Times as its pop and jazz editor last August, wrote in an email.
“Similarly, running several short album reviews each week didn’t seem to be making an impact of any kind,” Ganz added. “In 2017, the album is by and large not the way most listeners engage with music — it’s the song (though obviously there are exceptions).” The Times adjusted by covering 10 to 15 songs a week in a collaborative column called the Playlist, and by reviewing one album each week framed as the Album of the Week.