There is something deeply satisfying about delving into a journal. Even when removed from its customary home in academia, the form implies a certain commitment to its subject matter, drawing readers into a community of experts and enthusiasts whose passions are as specialist and
esoteric as their own. Music criticism can do this particularly well: for example, the current music-themed issue of The Believer, the monthly magazine published by the US-based McSweeney's, covers reggae lyrics, the financial workings of opera and The Lawrence Welk Show - and it all makes sense. That a volume whose subject matter includes sci-fi soundtracks, hip-hop, psychedelic rock, anarchic DJs, feminist theory, gonzo fiction, a bit of poetry and the tour diaries of a folk singer will likewise provoke confusion in some, but nods of recognition in others, is confirmation that Loops fulfils a similar role of speaking to enthusiasts and obsessives.
Loops is co-published by an independent record label, Domino - the company's first such literary endeavour. While the project may be another
indicator of the falling retail value of recorded music, Domino's recent success has been attributable as much to its recognition of the importance of independent music's backstory as to its pursuit of new artists such as Arctic Monkeys. A lively reissues roster, as well as the signing of older artists such as Robert Wyatt, shows an awareness of history that is more than just a recycling of the alternative music canon for nostalgic, affluent listeners - a criticism also levelled at this decade's other indie success, the promoter All Tomorrow's Parties, whose Don't Look Back concerts invite artists to perform "classic" albums again in their entirety. On the contrary, this curatorial stance helps to give popular music subcultures the longevity they deserve.
The co-editor Richard King, who has been involved with Domino since its inception 15 years ago, is writing a book about the history of independent music, and indeed the content of Loops does veer towards the archival and historical, though this is one of the luxuries of journal publishing, where record release dates and the latest gossip count for little. It is also symptomatic of a world in which print journalism on music has lost much of its news function: if everything is leaked and criticised on the internet long before a print date - if timeliness is no longer a selling point - the resulting freedom leaves more space for considered and creative reflection on the marginal and the arcane.
Print music critics might celebrate Loops as a lonely bulwark against the atomisation of music journalism that has been brought about by the culture of Web 2.0. But some of King and Brackstone's commissions might not have been possible without the web's contribution to the changing landscape of music criticism. Besides the tweets and comment boxes, the internet provides unlimited space for long-form writing and debate on music, as well as new voices from unfamiliar sources. Certain areas of the music blogosphere play host to fierce discussions and foster the elaboration of terminology - almost, you could say, a whole new "school" of popular music criticism that filters into print through writers such as Simon Reynolds and Anwyn Crawford, both of whom contribute impressively to Loops. Crawford's is a particularly enlivening and original submission: a feminist critique of the ostensibly female-friendly "popist" strand of music criticism, which could only have come from a writer well versed in blog culture. Elsewhere, the Guardian's anonymous critic Maggoty Lamb supplies a selection of his or her acerbic blog posts in a superb example of how the web can facilitate up-to-the-minute media commentary from insiders as well as consumers.
King and Lee Brackstone, a senior editor at Faber, seem keen to vary the tone of the prose throughout, with impressive results. An extract from Nick Cave's bleak new novel gets us off to a confrontational start, while the novelist Hari Kunzru's impressionistic essay on the New York outsider musician Moondog resonates with the poetry of the city itself. Rob Young and Amanda Petrusich provide solid and fascinating profiles of the British folk and Wiccan revivals of the 1960s and collectors of 78rpm blues records, respectively. Sam Davies's application of Susan Sontag's "Notes on Camp" to hip-hop culture is both perceptive and funny, and the Scottish singer James Yorkston, one of the less experienced writers in the journal, offers an evocative and moving diary of his musical travels. Less successful are the contributions of the novelists Chris Killen and Richard Milward. The latter's appreciation of Spacemen 3 would not get past many magazine sub-editors, and is perhaps an indication that music criticism is a craft in its own right, and that not every writer can do it just because they like music.
Perhaps inevitably for a first issue, Faber writers and Domino artists are heavily represented, but there are strong signs that Loops will be casting the net wider in forthcoming issues. However, if the journal is to stand as a strong alternative voice in music criticism, it will need both to sustain that desire and define itself as a recognisable voice among many others.
Edited by Lee Brackstone and Richard King
Faber & Faber/Domino, 224pp, £12
Frances Morgan was editor and publisher of the music magazine Plan B between 2004 and 2009