Gijon: research poster



With only a few days left to go before I embark upon my 3-day trip to northern Spain to present my latest research at this years international conference of the International Association of the Study of Popular Music I am pleased to report that my presentation poster is now finished.  In order to preserve the poster long after the event, and also to offer a sneaky preview to anyone who might be interested, I am attaching it here.  Happy reading!

IASPM 2013 Research Poster

Photos: Universidad de Oviedo, venue for the 2013 IASPM Conference


Making Y Viva España unpopular?


Making Y Viva España unpopular?  An historical examination of the marginalisation of ‘other’ forms of popular music in the English quality news press from 1986 to 1991.

“In a recent interview, a long-standing popular music critic from the English quality newspaper The Observer argued “I’m willing to bet that actually the most popular song is Y Viva España because it is sung by anybody at any sort of do”.  The history of popular music has long-established itself as a genre for the young, but as audiences from the 1960s now approach the age of 70 have English quality newspapers adopted an approach to the genre which excludes many forms of popular music in the broader sense, such as those favoured by the older music fan?  With reference to a series of interviews with long-standing newspaper journalists, this paper suggests that the period 1986 to 1991 saw English quality newspapers shape an increasingly restrictive definition of popular music, thanks in part to the market segmentation of music audiences in the late 1980s (Gudmundsson et al., 2002), which has subsequently resulted in the ongoing marginalisation of certain forms of popular music.”

Abstract from my forthcoming poster presentation at the 17th Biennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music.  Bridge Over Troubled Waters: Challenging Orthodoxies,  June 2013, Gijon, Spain.


Censorship and Music Journalism


Extract from conference paper: ‘Silencing Sounds: an investigation into the censorship of music criticism within the English broadsheet press from 1981 – 2011′. Watching the Media, Edge Hill University, 2011.

Censorship is an intrinsic feature of the processes which have shaped, and continue to shape, music criticism within the English quality news press.  Extracts from interviews conducted with a series of prolific broadsheet music writers as part of my PhD research (Skellington, 2010) and from subsequent written exchanges with a number of the same individuals, have pointed towards the existence of a series of potentially censorial processes which, whilst not overtly concerned with restricting access to artistic works, allow various agents to attempt, and succeed,  in significantly altering or curtailing the freedom of expression of another agent with a view to limiting the likely audience for that expression.  In relation to Cloonan’s (2003, p.14) three levels of censorship, the evidence gathered for this research points towards music criticism most frequently being subject to prior restraint (i.e. through the decision to not cover artists) or restriction (i.e. by playing a major role in limiting audiences or their proper understanding).

 Whilst no piece of music writing can exist outside of the environment within which it resides, the prevalence of different forms of censorship in this arena denotes problems; if skilled music critics think that the music industry is corrupt or that the musical output of particular artists should be deemed either noteworthy or of no consequence then they should be free to say so with immunity from the commercial pressures and strategies of their publishers and the music industry.  As Donnellan (2006, p. 1) summarises: “In a democracy the media provides us with important information which can give us a range of opinions which we might not otherwise hear… Hearing different opinions allows us to make up our own minds instead of having them made up for us.  An effective democracy is one where people know what’s going on and so can make informed choices and decisions”.  It seems possible that the cumulative effect of the accepted mechanisms of the day-to-day running of the newspaper and music industries is that market censorship, editorial censorship and self-censorship all occur without challenge, serving to preserve rather than challenge existing attitudes towards music and its consumption.  Based on the evidence gathered during this research, this entanglement of controls, restrictions and assumptions seems capable of curtailing, stifling, diluting and ultimately homogenizing attempts at genuine music criticism.

From the mid 1980s onwards there was a general shift, within the quality press, away from lengthy serious cultural criticism (Skellington, 2010).  Arguably, Katherine Albergate et al’s (2006) phenomenon of “junk food news” can be applied to editorial approaches to music writing from the middle of the 1980s which for some, and to use Albergate’s terms, seems to have become decreasingly nutritious for society.  Indeed, upon completion of my research I was struck by the similarities between the processes by which a piece of music criticism for a quality newspaper is produced and those described in Orwell’s 1984 whereby journalists working for the Ministry of Truth write in cubicles (or their own homes in this case) with instructions arriving upon small cylinders of paper through a small pneumatic tube (or email in this instance).

So what exactly is being lost as a result of these censorial processes?  Based on the evidence here, at best we are simply denying our ‘national’ music critics the freedom to be truly critical and at worst we are seriously curtailing the reader’s ability to engage with a form of music writing which might in turn foster an ability to challenge existing views, tastes, listening habits and access to the broadest possible choice of music.  Whilst the possible censorship of music criticism suggested may not be in the same league as the apparently deliberate cover ups of important global events as documented by those like Peter Phillips and ‘Project Censored’ (Paxon, 2008), any form of arts censorship, including the critical appraisal of art forms, surely deserves illumination, in this case to help readers understand the true nature of music writing presented in supposedly democratic, ‘quality’ national newspapers.

Mark Paxton has argued that, “those who attempt to censor artistic expression are often motivated by an emotion most of us also experience – fear” (2008, p. 92-3), and perhaps this applies here, after all music has on many occasion been linked to social unrest (think of punk, rap and Emo culture for starters).  Could reading a culturally challenging or powerfully argued piece corrupt minds, upset the political status quo, outrage feelings or create moral panic?  Possibly, yes, and more directly there is doubtless some fear that a more liberated approach to music criticism might result in readers learning to challenge their music consumption habits, which of course might threaten the carefully constructed financial interdependencies between the newspaper and record industries.  Therefore, it is perhaps not the coverage of objectionable matter which poses the threat, indeed sensationalist or novel coverage is usually good for newspaper and record sales alike, but instead objectionable coverage of the day-to-day by a journalist exercising their democratic right in such a way as to undermine the record industry, and by association, the newspaper industry, or even the western “consumocracy” itself as journalist Bayan Northcott labelled it during his interview with me in 2006 (Skellington, 2010).

Even as the broadsheets may not be able to deliver their message using the more relaxed lexicon of the specialist music press, or afford their critics the luxury of page space enjoyed by their German counterparts, if national newspapers are to continue their reliance upon music critics then arguably they should allow them their right to criticise, and write in such a way that readers can ‘hear’ the music and understand its motives, context and implications more fully.  If the extent of space allocated to serious critical evaluations of music, and the critical nature of music coverage continues to be curtailed it ultimately suggests that the readers and consumers of newspaper music criticism are being deprived of a more valuable understanding of their musical landscape, and that they, like the music journalists themselves, are not empowered with the capacity for freedom of choice within the apparently democratic society which they inhabit.


Albergate, Katherine et al. (2006) ‘Junk Food News and News Abuse’, in Censored 2007.

Cloonan, Martin (2003) Policing Pop.  (Philadelphia. Temple University Press).

Donnellan, Craig (ed.) (2006) The Censorship Debate.  Cambridge: Independence, Vol. 121.

Skellington, Jennifer (2010) ‘Transforming Music Criticism? An examination of changes in music criticism in the English broadsheet press from 1981 to 1991’.  PhD Thesis.  Oxford Brookes University.

Paxton, Mark (2008) Censorship.  (Greenwood Press, London).

Phillips, Peter (2006) Censored 2007.  Media Democracy in Action.  (MacMillan, New York).

Extract from a research paper which I presented titled ‘Silencing Sounds: an investigation into the censorship of music criticism within the English broadsheet press from 1981 – 2011′.  Watching the Media, Edge Hill University, 2011.  To be published in a peer review journal shortly.

Challenges to London-centric music criticism in the quality press 1981 to 1991

london underground

“Evidence drawn from a series of interviews which I conducted with prolific English broadsheet music critics back in 2006 suggests that during the period 1981 to 1991 an intricate melange of factors converged to dramatically alter longstanding preconceptions of London as the epicentre of quality live music performance in England.  Supported further by qualitative and quantitative analysis of a sample of English broadsheet newspaper articles, this paper investigates how the political climate of Thatcherism, the arrival of The Independent, the rise of broadsheet popular music coverage, the decline of the overnight concert review and the demise of Fleet Street transformed the way in which the English quality news press approached live music performances within the city of London.  Finally, the paper will consider the possible legacies inherited from this period, particularly in terms of London’s musical identity and status, as least as it is depicted within the English quality press.”

Abstract of the research paper which I presented at the 2012 annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (UK and Ireland); ‘Imagining Communities Musically: Putting Popular Music in its Place’.  University of Salford, Media City, September 5-7th 2012.

Taken for granted? Prior learning and the university music degree.


Abstract: Music degree courses differ dramatically in terms of their content and assessment methods, and therefore both students and universities have few reasons to take for granted the existence of any linear progression between prior learning and the music degree. (Skellington, 2000)

In 2000, I completed a dissertation for my undergraduate degree in Music and Educational Studies, at Oxford Brookes University.  The dissertation was titled ‘Taken for Granted? Prior learning and the university music degree’ and it set out to examine the continuity between undergraduates’ prior learning and the standards and expectations required at undergraduate level.  The study was based upon two case study universities, Oxford Brookes and St Catherine’s College of Oxford University, and employed a number of qualitative methods, namely focus group interviews with groups of first year music students and interviews with teaching staff from both universities.  In addition a number of completed student questionnaires were made available to the investigator which had previously been designed and collated, but not yet analysed, by staff from within the School of Music at Oxford Brookes University.  The content of several other music degree courses and of various music-related qualifications, such as A-level music, were also examined.  The study was, on the whole, of an exploratory nature and therefore an interpretive approach was employed when evaluating the research findings.

The study revealed several key issues.  Firstly, it emerged that some universities may take it for granted that those students who meet their entry requirements and possess particular music-related qualifications, will possess some common basic skills and knowledge which provide adequate preparation for undergraduate study.  However, the study highlighted that students’ prior learning, even where they hold the same qualification, may be highly dissimilar.  For example, A-level music seemed particularly deceptive since the scope for specialisation and choice, both between and even within A-levels, made it impossible to assume any consistency in terms the coverage of music history, composition, aural skills, performance and basic study skills.

Secondly, many of the music degrees examined in the study contained subject areas which were not covered by either A-levels, Scottish Higher or Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) examinations; such content included arts administration, music therapy, popular music, film music and music technology.  Yet even where the subject areas covered appeared more similar, the way in which the topics had previously been approached and assessed may not be compatible with the methods employed within universities.

Thirdly it was apparent that A-level examining boards may have assumed that universities or some other external party would compensate for any shortcomings within their qualifications in terms of their relationship to undergraduate study.  When changes are made to A-level content, for example to ensure closer alignments with GCSE music, there is always a danger that insufficient consideration will be given to the needs of students as potential music undergraduates.  Furthermore, music A-levels themselves require only minimum performance standards of around grade 5 or 6, however universities require higher grades as entrance requirements to their courses, necessitating that students have been fortunate enough to have had sufficient support (financial, parental or otherwise) to achieve the higher grades outside their formal schooling.

Students may themselves take for granted that an A-level music qualification, and the upper ABRSM grades, will serve as adequate prior learning for a music degree.  This message appears to be conveyed and reinforced by school teachers and universities who specify these qualifications as entry requirements.  However once accepted on a music degree course some students may for example find that less emphasis is placed upon performance than they anticipated, or that the requirement for written work is greater than expected.  Subsequently, some students may find themselves having to rapidly acquire new knowledge and skills and therefore experience different workloads to their peers, through no fault of their own.

In response to these known and on-going problems, universities often adapt a back-to-basics approach during the first year, however this results in some students being forced to repeat their prior learning instead of moving on to the more advanced material which they may be keen, and indeed able, to cover.

The findings of the study still resonate: it is important to improve the means by which music A-level, Scottish Higher qualification providers and universities work together.  This could help achieve greater continuity between undergraduates’ prior learning and their chosen music degree which in turn may better enable them to reach their full potential, both immediately upon entry to university and beyond.

This post was based upon the findings available in: Skellington, Jennifer (2002) Changing Music Journalism: An Examination of the changes in Popular Music Criticism in the English Broadsheet Press 1981 – 1988.  Oxford: Oxford Brookes University, unpublished Masters Degree Thesis.