Interview: Darren Levin
Decent journalism engenders decent traffic
Last week, Faster Louder surprised Everyone when they revealed their new course of action, deciding to steer their vessel away from the Island Of Regurgitated Press Releases and towards the distant Land of Journalism and the bountiful rewards of Integrity that lie beyond. New FL editor, Admiral Darren Levin —
former now part-time captain of landlocked pleasure cruiser, Mess and Noise — wrote an article outlining the website's new focus and explaining why they'd decided to "take a stand for journalism".
Much like you, my initial reaction to the article was loaded with 41% anger (mostly at the fairly righteous and pretentious title), 12% confusion and 96% general skepticism. After all, for close to a decade FL have prided themselves on being at the forefront of yelling "first" in the fairly empty room of Australian Music Reporting. But after further contemplation I realised the underlying message here wasn't too far off the all-important first lesson I'd learnt at Meetings Anonymous (ie. an addiction to meetings) — realising you have a problem is the first step to getting better. And, further to this and looking past that distracting wall of self-important chest beating, the announcement was best taken on face value — as a way for the website to signify the end of one (shoddily repaired) window and the opening of a brand new, respectable door.
Keen to find out more about the motives behind the announcement, as well as the future plans of the site and his own personal ambitions, I sat down inside an email with Mr Darren Levin earlier in the week.
In your, for lack of a better word (in my brain), "manifesto" you mention the overcrowded marketplace as a principal reason for the change, as well as referencing seeing a need to "take a stand" for the industry itself. Business and ethical stands often make awkward bed fellows. The decision is (obviously) going to be approached with some skepticism by the bitter fringes of the industry (ie. us), especially considering the fact it doesn't take a genius to see that FL is now losing out to Music Feeds in the cut-throat game of exclusive announcements and being the initial source for (obviously pre-arranged) industry announcements [see stats diagram below]. How much of this decision was motivated by no longer being the Top Dawg and how much was it motivated by a genuine desire to reconfigure the way music is reported and discussed within the Australian media?
I think any website or magazine that stays stagnant for eight-and-a-half years isn't doing any kind of service to its readership at all. Obviously a lot has changed over that time, including the emergence of several competitors all battling for the same tour announces, exclusives and "scoops". I think we just got sick of playing the "firsties" game. We wanted to create our own news cycle, and publish meaningful, provocative, agenda-setting pieces of journalism that would be widely read, debated and discussed. Some sites have decided to focus on SEO shortcuts to create an audience, but we've decided that building up a loyal following and interesting brand is a lot more important. We know that this strategy will serve us a lot better in the long term. We've canvassed the industry, and a meaningful, critical, incisive, articulate voice is what's sorely desired. We have the resources, the audience, the skills, the know-how, so why the hell not? Cheap page views mean very little to us.
July, 2012 stats breakdown. Source: MusicFeeds.com.au
Will FL still be seeking relationships with labels, whereby agreeing to push something regardless of what it's like, simply for the exclusivity? Or will FL now only be accepting this only in instances where they actually like the music offered?
[We've] never had that relationship to begin with, so why start now? Obviously labels have cottoned on to the fact that "exclusives" are a good way to get into bed with editors, but what's the point in an exclusive "listen" of something that makes your ears bleed? We create our exclusives the old-fashioned way: by picking up the phone and finding things out.
How much has statistics, traffic numbers, AWstats, analytics effected the way in which Sound Alliance operates from a journalistic point of view? Obviously, lights need to be kept on, content delivery networks don't power themselves, but has this been at the sacrifice of opinion, dissection and/or critique (in your experience)?
I think any website that focusses solely on statistics is playing a very dangerous game. We know what creates traffic spikes, but running an online magazine in 2012 is far more nuanced and complex than just giving people exactly what they want, and no more. It's not just about big numbers anymore. Influence, power, community — these things are sellable assets, too. And besides — and I may be delusional — but I genuinely think that decent journalism engenders decent traffic. Just look at the Huffington Post.
Now that you're Editor at Faster Louder, how do you see this effecting the daily content and your role at Mess and Noise? Will the focus of that website be changing at all? Do you see any point where the content of M+N and FL will be shared and/or these two sites will merge?
I'm still involved in the day-to-day running of M+N, but I've shifted a lot of my responsibilities into the very capable hands of Doug Wallen. We have a plan for M+N that'll be unveiled soon, and while I can't say too much about it, my vision is for both sites to become even more distinct from each other in the future.
You watch The Newsroom, right? Ok, maybe that was a bit of a dig. But in general there does seem to be a resurgence in people taking back the integrity aspect of journalism in recent times. As though we slowly drifting into this world of regurgitation and laziness. Am I amplifying this to an unnecessary scale, or do you see this part of a larger issue within the industry?
I haven't watched an episode of Newsroom! It's on the list. I appreciate the sentiment though, because the internet has created this culture of, what you describe as regurgitation and laziness — and I don't think it's really what readers want anymore. I actually don't think it's what they ever wanted, but editors and publishers were maybe being duped by statistics. Call me delusional, but I honestly think good journalism and values can get us out of this rut.
I've seen several comments relating to contributors of Faster Louder not getting paid. Excuse my naivety, but how does this system currently function? Do you propose any changes to the way this works as a result of this restructuring?
As someone who's only ever had 25 or so (paid) writers on their books, I'm still trying to get my head around the Faster Louder contributor model to be honest. As part of the changes, we're overhauling the model completely.
Is Faster Louder going to have a single voice? Much like Pitchfork where you know what they stand for, what they like, what they hate? In P4K's case, obviously each review or published piece firstly approved by a round-table discussion. I can see both arguments for this, but interested to see if part of this shake-up is any form of "planned identity"?
We have three full-time editors at the helm (myself, Sarah Smith and Tom Mann), who each bring their own unique tastes and sensibilities to the table. Obviously, we're the ultimate decision-makers, but out individual listening habits don't define what we cover. FL is too broad a church to establish a singular voice ala Pitchfork. That being said, we're quite capable of knowing what's good and what's shit (even if it's metal!) In terms of reviews, we try and get records into the right hands. There's no "round-table discussion". We trust our reviewers enough that if they don't like a record, we back them in, provided it's well-argued and not just a rant.
Where do you see FL placed in the future? One year, five years, ten years down the road?
This is a whole new world for FL, so it's difficult to answer. Needless to say, I hope when I look back on this Q&A in a decade, I feel a sense of vindication and pride that we dared to change course at a time when our competitors were too busy chasing each other's tails.
Similarly, where do you see music journalism in Australia placed? Most specifically the online element of this industry?
I think we're in a golden age of music journalism in this country, but it's happening on the fringes — on Mess+Noise, on Who The Hell, on Polaroids, on Collapse Board, on Rose Quartz, on Cyclic Defrost, and now on Crawlspace. It's the middle that I'm worried about. It's like streetpress on steroids.
How well do you see FL currently tackling the online aspects outside of the website itself? ie. social media channels etc. How do you see these potentially important long-reaching "tentacles" working under this new plan?
Social media is an adjunct to the website. It's another front, a traffic driver, but also a place to exert influence beyond the website itself. We've already created some unique, Facebook-only pieces — and you'll be seeing a lot more of those.