Magazines once were a rich source of information for music nerds.

Magazines once were a rich source of information for music nerds. (Sean Moores/Stars and Stripes)

Man. What happened to music magazines?

There was a time when these things ruled any music nerd’s world. Spin was more than just a website with a bunch of lists. NME was the uber-cool publication that anyone stateside perpetually wanted to get their hands on. CMJ always had their fingers on the pulse of whatever was next (case in point: Their first-ever published magazine had Elvis Costello on the cover). And Mojo was so influential, Tom Petty named an entire album after it (OK, not really, but he did use the name for an album, so same/same?).

I ask because to my eternal surprise, I received a brand new subscription to Rolling Stone magazine for Christmas. I wasn’t expecting it for a bevy of reasons. One, it’s wildly expensive. Honestly. Have you checked out the price for that thing lately? A year’s subscription costs almost as much as a front row seat at any amphitheater in America. Two, I didn’t ask for it. And three, Rolling Stone in the year 2024 is … well, it’s different than the Rolling Stone I subscribed to for years when it didn’t cost an arm and a leg, the pages were infinitely smaller and the coverage was most focused on music – a novel idea for a publication that has rewritten its legacy to claim itself as an essential voice in all of popular culture and not just the aspects of it that make noise.

I haven’t read anything in it yet, but I did, in fact leaf through it, and good gracious, did that experience make me feel old. I let my former subscription end some four or five years ago, and who knew those four or five years could age a music fan in profound ways. There were artists’ names I couldn’t pronounce, genres of music I figured absolutely must have been made up, and a focus on capital-J journalism that, frankly, an outlet like Rolling Stone doesn’t really need to do.

For decades, people picked up the latest issue to read informed, trusted opinions on the newest, hippest music. Or, well, that and artist profiles that were borne out of rare access and knowledge that at the time was exclusive. Interested in getting to know Paul McCartney? Here’s a cover story. Sure, it was most likely slanted, and yes, we only learned what McCartney and his team wanted us to learn, but it was better than nothing, and it gave us a tiny glance into a world with which so many of us music geeks were fascinated.

These days? Nope. It’s a different place. We wanted access, and the universe shifted to provide us with more access than we ever wanted. Social media, the Information Age, vlogs, blogs and everything in between has made the illusion of celebrity so cheap that even the most mundane of individuals can be lauded for their Twitch streams and viral videos. Learning about rock stars merely isn’t as fun when the mystery isn’t as shrouded.

And then there’s the criticism. The entire definition of a taste-maker and/or critic has warped its way into undefinable territory over the last decade or so. We can thank Pitchfork for that. All the way back in 1996, when nobody was thinking about The Internet beyond how obnoxious it was to deal with how long it took a landline connection to make a computer work, that website got in on the ground floor of what would become an oversaturated world of know-it-alls and cool kids. From there, the game changed. Why risk those papercuts when you could merely type in a website’s name, click a review and impress your friends with knowledge of the new Bon Iver album?

Beats yet another no-news profile of Mick Jagger, right?

If this reeks of old-man-yelling-at-clouds, that’s probably a fair assessment, but that’s not the full assessment. Of course there are positives to music journalism evolving into more technological places – hey, not only can you read this review, but now you can listen to the reviewed album at the same time! Plus, while it’s easy to be disgruntled by the sheer amount of modern day music critics who probably might be better off pursuing a career in accounting, nobody can deny that it’s long been valuable to open up the conversation beyond what a group of a few dozen white men think in a smokey room in San Francisco.

That in mind, when I unexpectedly picked up the latest copy of Rolling Stone and held it in my hands, knowing that I was in for at least a year of it coming to my doorstep, I couldn’t help but feel a little giddy about the fundamental process of receiving a music magazine in the mail again. I had flashes of the days when I’d read articles about artists I never had interest in, only because I had read all the articles I wanted to read multiple times. Before long, finishing an issue from front to back felt like a rite of passage, something to be proud of. Being exposed to that feeling again was a weird kind of thrill that’s reserved for only us middle-aged folk who lived through the days when you knew Magazine A would be in your mailbox and you had to finish it before Magazine B arrived only a handful of days later.

And so now I go forth, a brand new subscription in my name, awaiting the mailman to come once a month so I can read about things like “country-rock-shoegaze” or someone named Madi Diaz. Or, for that matter, I can have internal debates about the latest “200 best singers of all time” list, which proves to be an update from the same “200 best singers of all time” list that the magazine compiled a minute-and-a-half ago. It’s with open arms, I welcome all of it.

Even if I still find myself asking the question every now and then: Man. What happened to music magazines?

Perhaps I’m about to find out.

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