by Dan Bolles
Welcome to my ongoing scattershot coverage of the CMJ Music Marathon, live from balmy NYC.
I just got back from a mildly interesting panel discussion, the Curmudgeons of Rock, featuring some pretty serious names in music journalism, including Rob Harvilla of the Village Voice, Sean Fennessey of eMusic, freelancer Maura Johnston, SPIN magazine music editor Charles Aaron and the newly minted music critic at New York magazine, Nitsuh Abebe. The hour-long discussion touched on a variety of issues of particular interest to yours truly, including the changing face of music journalism in the Internet age, the relevance of "authoritative" opinions when anyone with a keyboard and a web connection can blog their thoughts, or download an album in the time takes to read a review, and whether there is any value in publishing negative criticism. I especially enjoyed that last one.
But the elephant in the room was the general decline of print media and how the music journalism industry as whole has been forced to adapt. Fennessey had some particularly poignant remarks, speaking as both a former print journalist and currently as one of the driving forces behind eMusic. His stance was essentially that sites such as his, and several others around the web serve more as curators of taste rather than arbiters of cool. Unlike Harvilla and Aaron — or myself, for that matter — writers for his site have the luxury of writing solely about music that interests them, that they have a passion for. Since they promote music — in an effort to sell it, of course — true criticism never enters into the equation. They simply write about stuff they like, and hope some other folks will too.
The flip side, and perhaps the most spirited debate of the day, centered on whether negative criticism has a place in modern music journalism. Aaron was particularly candid, all but admitting to formerly feeling at least somewhat beholden to record labels advertising in his mag. But now that major label influence has waned, he feels more emboldened to tell it like it is … to a point. He added that negative reviews rarely benefit anyone, whether it be the artist (obviously), the publication, the writer or, more importantly, said artist's fans, who often respond passionately when they feel their favorite band has been unduly skewered. He also added that a negative review can often sever relationships with artists whom you may wish to cover in the future. I can attest to the validity of all of those points. But my take is this: so what?
If I may, I'd like to borrow a line from the late, great Lester Bangs:
"My responsibility as I see it as a critic is not to help a lot of new bands sell their records. It's to help people who are buying the records to keep from making a purchase that they're going to get home and hate my guts and the band's too because it's a piece of shit."
Amen. Harvilla echoed a similar sentiment, offering that trust is a key component between a writer and his or her readership. And part of building that trust means offerring a negative opinion when it's warranted. It doesn't have to be mean-spirited or snarky — though those are often the most fun to read … and write. Ahem. But it does have to be honest. To illustrate, Harvilla pointed to the "I'm not mad, I'm disappointed" style review — read my review of the Death reunion show for an example.
Maybe I'm old fashioned, or just naive, but I believe professional music criticism is still a valid and important part of how we collectively experience music. I'm biased, of course, since I am one of a lucky — and shrinking — few who actually make a living doing this. And as Fennessey put it, it's hard to take any of it too seriously because, "We're not doing God's work. We're writing about rock and hip-hop records." Yup. But there is still a place for informed, well-reasoned discussions about music amid the shrieking blogosphere … at least I hope.
A couple more notes on last night's rambling.
1. Das Racist was … disappointing. Coulda just been the poor sound, or the general difficulty of translating hip-hop to a live setting, or maybe they just haven't made the developmental adjustment from studio darlings to live act, but I left unimpressed. With a cadre of hype men and various hangers-on crowding the stage, dudes just seemed a little too comfortable letting shenanigans drive the show, instead of focusing on performing. It's too bad, since they write such clever, funny songs but you'd never know it based on last night's show.
2. The surprise of the night was … well, still a surprise, but I'm working on that. The band was an incredible art folk outfit from North Carolina. But they were a late addition, not listed in the CMJ guide and never actually told the crowd who they were. But I'll figure who they were and pass that info along, hopefully soon.
3. On the docket for tonight: a Press Mixer — not my bag, but the food and booze is free, which is key in this town. Surfer Blood, Good Old War and … well, who knows? But that's the whole point, right?