Caspar Llewellyn-Smith on digital journalism: ‘It’s different – no better, no worse" // For Live Magazine
A year and a half ago, I interviewed Caspar Llewellyn-Smith – Music Editor at The Guardian – on the art of the critic and the changing climate of music media.
You’re the music editor at The Guardian, chairing an empire every editor dreams of. But where did the love affair for your passion for the written word come from?
The first thing, is that I just always loved music, and when i was growing up there was quite a vibrant music press – there was much less media than there is today, and that made the media that did exist much stronger, much more powerful. But it was a completely different environment; if there was a band you liked, the only way that you were ever likely to hear them was on something like the John Peel show on Radio 1. I didn’t grow up in London, but even then in London there wasn’t any sense of pirate radio or anything, so there was only really ever one channel. But there was a strong music press, and if you ever wanted to know about things about music, you would have to read something.
Do you think having that strong music press became an advantage or a weakness?
I mean, I remember driving round on holiday with my parents, driving round southern France, forcing them at the age of 17 to make a three-hour detour to some town that I thought might have a copy of the Melody Maker. And that in itself was quite exciting. It felt a like you had to work a little bit harder I suppose, and when you found it, what you had felt a little more special to you and a greater sense of investment. Even just a financial investment – I mean, if you were buying a record and you had a certain amount of pocket money, it was expensive to buy. You’d work for it. I remember I used to buy records without having heard a single tune off them, simply because you’d read the review of it and the review made it sound amazing. I used to follow certain writers and their approach, in the Melody Maker in particular. You became convinced by their writers that this was the thing to hear.
To me it seems like you always wanted to know what was going on, and we see that with a lot of young people today. Now resources are more open, they have the option to choose what they read. Was it better days when you simply went on instinct, or is today’s variety and opportunity a good thing?
It depends on who is reading that material. Great music journalism should be a thing that you read, and read for those words, and on its own merits – it’s not a product description, it’s not just something that’s a way of informing your choices as a consumer. Great music writing should be of worth and value in itself, and not just a substitute for the music. But something that just stands alongside it and is equal to it.
So is journalism all about the voice of a writer, or an accurate description of a moment/record/whatever?
Journalism used to be a thing that only people in those positions of power could be a proper critic – you had to be writing for a national music magazine to have your voice heard. But now everyone is that critic. But then, I don’t really buy into that as an idea. In a sense now, it’s important for a critic to really stand above all of that, that constant churn of opinion. Someone can stand back and observe the wider patterns in culture and really be a proper critic in that sense. There’s been an explosion of media of late, and that’s great, to a certain extent, but it is harder for someone to step back and have that authority that I had as a kid, anymore. It’s different, no better or worse.
So, how should an aspiring journalist go about creating a distinction?
The general advice is read a lot, read a lot of other people. Don’t just look into the one section you may want to write about. That’s one of the things about music criticism, it’s become too narrowly focused. Be a critic, show criticisms, but don’t be negative. Don’t be afraid to step back and just connect things a bit. I think there’s so much stuff out there, that it’s become really hard to set a distinction, and that’s what really comes from taking that step back.
What’s your take on the values of education as a writer?
I think it comes back to if you want to work with words. If that’s really what you want to do then anything that makes you spend time thinking about words is probably a good thing. That might be going to university and studying English literature for three years, or it could just be someone who reads a hell of a lot. For me, personally, I did six months of journalism college and it benefited me, but it’s completely down to the person.
So making a good journalist is all about a passion to write?
I think you’ve gotta be passionate to want to do it. I think journalists are good people, and good people to be around, but one thought that unites them is that they don’t intend to make a lot of money. So I really admire anyone that wants to do it. I think you should want to be an advocate for something. For me as an editor, there’s an interest in commissioning work that tells a story. I’ve got my critics, but then I also want people who can tell me something about a culture.