Opinion: Unsubscribe This! - Subscription Week

By Matthew DeMello

Photo courtesy of Jim Parkinson.

I remember the day I cancelled the Rolling Stone subscription my parents purchased four yours previously for my sixteenth birthday. Or at least, I can remember forgetting to renew the subscription. I think it was a glowing review for the new Springsteen album of the times (2005’s okay-to-promising, folky, orchestral Devils & Dust) that put me off just enough. Simple economics also played a part — Pitchfork was free to access and made for a more convenient fix for my ever-elitist taste in tastemakers.

Pitchfork in the mid-‘00s, of course, symbolized the end game of the first generation music blogosphere, the definition of what new media meant and indicative of the new kind of relationship a publication was having with its readership. Sans subscription model, their evocative reviews paid off especially for a much younger organization competing with a flagship publication or a major print conglomerate.

What’s even more interesting I find, reflecting on the transition, is that I found myself more often disagreeing with Pitchfork than I ever have with the editorial decisions by Rolling Stone, and still do to this day. For the same reason I would cancel a magazine subscription, I found myself plugging one website into my browser with marvelous frequency.

Certainly, Ryan Schrieber and company didn’t invent internet bombast, but maybe that’s giving the internet itself too much credit for its own brand of shock-and-awe opinion writing, which can be traced back to before the days of Hearst. Some have deemed certain species of said writing “activist journalism,” but I think it goes even farther. It’s a kind of writing you can find just about everywhere there are glowing rectangles these days, but is probably best typified by Gawker; which is to say, writing hate for hate’s sake.

It’s safe to say that anything remotely resembling Gawker would be unimaginable in print media. In itself, Gawker and all affiliated brands (Jezebel and the like) represent the apex of not only zeitgeist 21st century spiteful humor and reporting straight from the comfort of New York offices, but also the kind of media that thrives when they don’t rely on a subscribed audience.

Go ahead and spite at the hypocrisy, as I’m sure any Gawker writer (or fan) reading this can tell right now, but this very article could serve as its own example. The truth is new media has provided its purveyors comforts and insulations we would never dream of if subscriptions were considered the be-all-end-all of our business.

Of course, this comes with a downside — like many new media institutions, if the power’s out, there’s just no accessing our content. The titans of old media may seem odd in how they insist on continuing with their paper routes and diligent online presence. To their credit, despite how much carrying physical copies costs them, people will still get their news even in treacherous conditions.

In all other ways, to be ‘plugged in’ is to be free in the greatest sense of free speech.

With it, a publisher has the freedom to suddenly decide that a list of the ‘500 Greatest Albums Ever Made‘ they published in magazine-form ten years ago should continue to arbitrarily add new albums. Because obviously Arcade Fire’s Funeral is better than OK Computer and your editorial board has always felt that way.

You also have the freedom of deleting any unsavory reviews you’d rather not have anyone remember; say, an album one of your more antagonistic former writers gave the lowest possible score on first release that is now the “classic” subject of your current editor-in-chief’s latest 33 1/3 volume.

Because really, who is going to remember? Wikipedia?

There’s a relevant scene in the 1997 biopic of Howard Stern, Private Parts, which starred the infamous radio shock jock as himself before he made his industry-altering move to satellite radio in the early ’00s. In the scene Howard’s manager, played by Paul Giamatti, breaks down his most recent ratings: Stern’s popularity among people who genuinely enjoy his program and him as host is eclipsed by the number of people who tune in because they despise him.

The same can be said for the popularity of many political pundits and the appeal of other cultural corners in car-wreck entertainment, a level which I will proudly reduce music publications to when they forget the power of collective memory. Their counterparts in written internet content know exactly who they are and how much less sophisticated what they do is by comparison considering the inflated sense of importance that comes with some a-hole with an editor.

Because any writing that operates in the same way, almost regardless of what it presents in fact, is just that: entertainment. Especially when usually, the more appealing its revelations, the more insignificant its subject matter. We can associate this function to too many needless debates that have raged in waves of internet trolling attacks, but hardly seem to permeate our daily lives (Miley Cyrus’ artistic integrity, Woody Allen’s moral integrity, and Justin Beiber’s general sobriety are all great examples).

But really, who needs subscribers when haters are so much more valuable? The internet has taught us nothing else except how much more the illusion of power and influence can be replicated using the appeal of negative passions over positive ones.

Hence, I’ve decided the only acceptable vehicle for such an opinion would be an op-ed bemoaning outright sophistry in online op-ed writing. Because why not speak out when my tallest soapbox is a five hundred-word deadline that may get reblogged to a few hundred people?

Who am I going to disappoint? Someone from high school?

So to those who eat this stuff up on their Facebook walls, I say troll on! Let’s make sure we leave no stone unturned in our needlessly intellectual examination of racists who have a problem with a song that isn’t even our national anthem being sung in languages besides English during a Super Bowl ad.

Ask not for whom the notification tolls, but what you can do for your Twitter followers.