What’s Next for Music Criticism?

While I’m pret­ty sure some of the arti­cles pro­nounc­ing music crit­i­cism dead have reached puber­ty at this point, there remains an open ques­tion of its val­ue (and virtue). Is it pos­si­ble that the future of music crit­i­cism isn’t writ­ten? That’s not a rhetor­i­cal ques­tion. Is it pos­si­ble that the future of music crit­i­cism is…vlogging?

I’ll start with Antho­ny Fan­tano of The Nee­dle Drop. Antho­ny, the self-pro­claimed Internet’s busiest music nerd, cranks through tons of reviews and posts them on YouTube. It’s per­fect bite-sized con­tent that uncov­ers some records that may not get as much atten­tion buried in the fourth and fifth slot in a dai­ly rota­tion. A pret­ty nov­el con­tent strat­e­gy when every­one says they’re inun­dat­ed, no?

Chris Ott is tak­ing a decid­ed­ly dif­fer­ent approach. His Vimeo chan­nel, Shal­low Rewards, is music crit­i­cism the way I remem­ber it; equal parts oral his­to­ry, hagiog­ra­phy and rit­u­al sac­ri­fice. I’m still in awe of his two-part series on shoegaze. If you’re some­one who is old enough to remem­ber the free asso­cia­tive spir­it that made music crit­i­cism mag­i­cal for many of us, you’ll want to watch every week.

A Must-Read Kanye West Roundtable

Were you one of the poor souls spazz­ing out over Kanye’s 10.0 from Pitch­fork? How per­fect­ly 2002 of you. If you’re look­ing for more grist for the mill, look no fur­ther than Jeff Weiss’ excel­lent My Beau­ti­ful Dark Twist­ed Fam­i­ly round­table, in which sev­er­al crit­ics offer their thoughts on what most peo­ple seem to believe is the album of the year. (I’m inclined to agree with most peo­ple.)

Not good enough? Jeff and his friends are real­ly, real­ly fun­ny.

A Benediction for Music Criticism

Today’s my last day as music edi­tor at comcast.net. It’s a weird feel­ing to be wrap­ping up what has been a pret­ty amaz­ing 10-year jour­ney at the periph­ery of the music indus­try.

I’ll be the first to admit that I was nev­er a great music critic.When I first start­ed scrib­bling about songs back in ’99, I strove hard to con­nect the music I heard into some social phe­nom­e­na. Square peg meet round hole. I now real­ize that most of the music I wrote about nev­er attempt­ed to con­nect in any way to the events of the last ten years, save for a track or two about New York post-9/11 or New Orleans post-Kat­ri­na. When I look back on the ear­li­est writ­ing I did for Pitch­fork and Sty­lus, I’m tor­tured by my prose and lack of style.

It wasn’t until I start­ed work­ing with the now infa­mous Chris Wein­garten that I real­ly blos­somed as a crit­ic. Chris picked me up off the music crit­ic scrap heap, hav­ing been fresh­ly fired from Deci­bel Mag­a­zine, to work on this new site called Paper Thin Walls. There I final­ly con­nect­ed with the crit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ty in the way I’d always hoped: a snarky out­sider who sim­ply didn’t under­stand why so many crit­ics and blog­gers all fawned over the same bands at once. Chris helped me dis­cov­er my voice and he did some­thing no edi­tor I’d worked with before him had done: he would edit my pieces with my input, often in real-time. It was amaz­ing to work with him on that project, doomed though it was. Most of my best work was lost when the Paper Thin Walls servers crashed. Shame, real­ly.

While work­ing there I met my friend Tom Mal­lon, a for­mer CMJ col­league of Chris’ and the music edi­tor at comcast.net. He and I often chipped in on the blur­by, Twit­ter-on-steroids news items for Paper Thin Walls. It was a lot of fun. Lit­tle did I know it was also an audi­tion for my cur­rent job, iden­ti­fy­ing news­wor­thy items and then find­ing the right hook to get peo­ple to check them out. I have no idea how many peo­ple fol­lowed our links, but it sure as hell was a lot of fun.

Then the unex­pect­ed hap­pened. While I was apply­ing for a job on craigslist, Tom reached out to ask if I was still look­ing for work. I was. He told me to get him my resume. The rest is his­to­ry. I start­ed here at Com­cast in April 2007, came on full-time in Sep­tem­ber of that year and have been run­ning things ever since.

Here’s a quick run­down of some of the things I was able to do here that I prob­a­bly couldn’t–or wouldn’t–have done any­where else:

The list isn’t as long as I’d like it to be, but some­thing I learned dur­ing my tenure here was that the pas­sion I had for music keeps shrink­ing to ever-more insu­lar com­mu­ni­ties. It may be hard to believe now, but there once was a world out­side of Tum­blr where peo­ple dis­cussed the music they liked and shared it with each oth­er. It’s sad to see that go, but I feel like it slipped through our fin­gers, at least for those of us old enough to remem­ber the music indus­try at it’s peak.

I know far too many crit­ics who watched help­less­ly as our sto­ries about bands were replaced by sto­ries about the devices that played their music and then just the apps on those devices. The point at which every inno­va­tion was hailed as the next great thing was the moment I grew tired of writ­ing about music. I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

Which brings me back to Wein­garten. I’ve been promis­ing to inter­view him for far too long and I hope that hap­pens soon­er rather than lat­er. It may be impolitic to say it, but peo­ple get far too caught up in his per­sona to real­ize that his schtick isn’t sim­ply “per­son­al brand­ing.” He’s been an inspi­ra­tion to me as he’s carved out a niche for him­self, say­ing unpop­u­lar things at a time when peo­ple tune crit­i­cism out alto­geth­er. If he’s real­ly the last rock crit­ic stand­ing, we should be grate­ful. It could be a lot worse.

Will I com­plete­ly dis­en­gage from music now that I’m mov­ing on? Prob­a­bly not, but I will say that unsub­scrib­ing from the PR cir­cuit, as well as the music blogs that keep them alive has been very free­ing. In the past week I’ve found myself trawl­ing YouTube for stuff I’ve been curi­ous about. I’m think­ing about wip­ing my iPhone, too, and just load­ing it with Echo and the Bun­ny­men and Mar­ble Sheep bootlegs. It’s real­ly refresh­ing. Take my word for it.

I’m for­ev­er grate­ful to Bryan Mickle’s dis­cern­ing taste for rein­tro­duc­ing me to The The.

Why We Are Debating Free

The answer’s easy: it doesn’t work for music. Unless you were liv­ing under a rock on Fri­day, you prob­a­bly read Techcrunch’s post, “The Sor­ry State of Music Star­tups.” With­out going into great detail, Arrington’s com­plete­ly right, and for once, he doesn’t resort to the whole “music just wants to be free” argu­ment so com­mon among Web 2.0 types. Instead, he writes that “free stream­ing music” is about as sen­si­ble as try­ing to douse a burn­ing pile of mon­ey with a gal­lon of gaso­line.

With all due respect to Bruce Houghton at Hype­bot and Andrew Dub­ber at New Music Strate­gies, the dream is over. It’s time to wake up and smell the cof­fee. (more…)

The Sky Is Falling!

Here’s my absurd, reduc­tion­ist view­point on why edi­to­r­i­al will sur­vive the demise of the music indus­try: just because big con­glom­er­ates won’t make mon­ey sell­ing music doesn’t mean peo­ple will stop mak­ing it. Artists will keep doing all sorts of beau­ti­ful, irra­tional things, often at con­sid­er­able per­son­al expense, even if there’s no one to buy it. Some­one still needs to dig around to find what’s great, right?

If we as crit­ics con­cen­trate sole­ly on solv­ing the music industry’s prob­lems, we won’t be able to ade­quate­ly address our own. Jason Gross and I have been going back and forth quite a bit about this on Twit­ter. He wrote, “Music biz = our bread/butter (& our love). As for sav­ing crit­i­cism, do you mean the whole scribe trade or our just our own turf?” Con­flat­ing the music busi­ness with music itself is sil­ly. (I’m sure Jason agrees, but his tweet is illus­tra­tive nonethe­less.)

If crit­i­cism sur­vives it will be as a cul­tur­al fil­ter. It sounds imper­son­al, but it’s of cru­cial impor­tance to an audi­ence. We have to stop think­ing of our­selves as ser­vants of the music indus­try and con­cen­trate on being of val­ue to an audi­ence with pre­cious lit­tle time to spend think­ing about our pas­sion. Remem­ber, crit­ics have always been cul­tur­al cura­tors, so it’s not a rad­i­cal change in job descrip­tion. We just have to think of our role in broad­er terms.

Our love is writ­ing about music. Let’s not for­get that.