I hesitate typing the first words of what I now concede will be an ongoing series with the deep and creative title of “What I’m Listening To…” One of the the things I told myself when I decided to start writing again, focusing on music and the culture it spawns, is that I would not lower my standards and begin writing anything under the banner of, or ever introduce myself as a “reviewer” or “critic.”
I can assure you that I stand firm on my refusal to self-identify as a “critic.” I have no right to criticize a musical artists’ work, and even if I did, I wouldn’t. There will be no criticism here, only sharing of the aspects of bands and songs in which I find positive vibes. The massive ecosystem of music is so diverse and so broad now, and so incredibly accessible to each of us, that I frankly have no idea how critics find the time to find anything worthy of criticism. I would say music critics are a relic of the past, a caricature of the tightly controlled industry with record executives smoking fat cigars and issuing radio station payola-era past where digital independence simply didn’t exist.
The term “reviewer” is essentially the same as critic, but perhaps more transparent about the reality that music as an art form is dependent on the tastes of the individual. The goal of a musical review of a concert or “album” is still largely the same, however: to provide the reader with some confidence that the concert or album in question is worth their hard-earned money. My answer to that will always be yes. It is worth the money, time, effort, and the risk of stepping outside of your musical comfort zone. The more you open your mind and listen to a greater sampling of music, the more you’ll find true pleasure and enjoyment in your life. If you find something that doesn’t rub you right, there is no need to warn others. They may even find it enjoyable because their tastes are different.
Furthermore, music is so much more accessible to today’s digital natives, legally or not, through a variety of services, apps, and good old digital file ripping. While the ticketing industry giants continue to place a stranglehold on large arena and event access through legalized scalping and bulk buying of tickets, those events are generally ones featuring older, nostalgic acts or heavily commercialized modern “pop” acts. The point is, not many folks under thirty are fretting that much about the cost of access to music, and their tastes are far more diverse than those of previous generations, due to the ease artists enjoy in a digital world self-producing and distributing their music. With these factors considered, I have to ask… is there even an audience today for critics or reviewers?
The answer is yes. Audiences do exist, and unfortunately a large segment of that audience bears little difference from the audiences that made the Kardashians famous, keep Rush Limbaugh receiving paychecks, ensure Fox news is still regarded as actual news, and ultimately ushered Donald Trump into the White House. This is the audience that feeds on sexiness over substance and the sensational over the sober realities of a terminally grey and nuanced world. Forget the truth and forget intelligent debate or dialogue. The trick is to get as many people as possible to tune in or click on your link. It’s an analytics world now. Big data reigns supreme, and as long as you’re attracting the numbers that attract the sponsors, your job is apparently done, and well done at that.
As I recently considered my own approach and style of music journalism – largely due to the fact that I was already a bit critical of the musical performance, production, and peripheral industries from my brief but immersive view of the “inside” – I happened across a post that called out an article by an “award winning veteran music journalist…in Los Angeles” that illustrated to me, if nothing else, the absolute polar opposite of what I would want to become as a music journalist. I can’t mention him by name or the name of this particular article because if I did, I’d be providing him more measurable and sell-able traffic, and that’s precisely what he counts on.
The piece I mention (and it turns out he has many more similar to the format, style, and tone) can be explained by saying it has a title similar to “The Twenty Shittiest Seventies Singers” and then goes on to harshly criticize every beloved singer from the seventies, leaving the reader with a list of twenty of the most influential and highly-regarded artists of the era only to scratch their head and wonder how could he possibly name these twenty? The readers react and post the article link to their social media to call him out for suggesting this ridiculous and impossible list, as do their own social media followers, and then their followers, until… voila! The article has “gone viral.” It served no enlightening purpose and was based on no shred of truth, but it raked up the numbers necessary to impress sponsors, I’m certain. This is a modern-day “award winning music journalist” writing from one of the most influential music cities in the country, allegedly representing a profession and art form, but stooping to sensationalism. Why? Because the audience exists, and they’re easily duped into helping him spread the article far and wide.
I don’t want to be a music reviewer, I certainly don’t want to be a music critic, and I refuse to be a “journalist” that has to resort to sensationalism to build their subscription base, engagement numbers, or whatever other metrics defines their “success” through the eyes of the modern industry.
The only reason I’m even venturing a series entitled “What I’m Listening To” is because of a simple and concise, but also encouraging and inspirational exchange of text messages a few days ago with a true friend and brother of many years. He was held captive in a vehicle with me last month as we made our way from Rochester to Port Chester, New York and back again. We were travelling to see the run of Phil Lesh & Friends shows at the Capitol Theatre (celebrating the Grateful Dead bassist’s 77th birthday) and he had the unique pleasure of traveling approximately fourteen total hours with me in my Dodge Durango, equipped with a Beats by Dre nine-speaker sound system, my always-recently updated Spotify song library and no hopes of whatsoever of gaining control over the playlist despite my repeated promises that, “Sure man, I’ll let you take over spinning tunes at the next stop.”
If you find yourself in his situation you should expect that:
1- I will rarely (if ever) relinquish control of the in-vehicle playlist. If I do it’s very temporary.
2- You will be subjected to a veritable battery of your senses with the songs and artists ranging sometimes suddenly from quiet Americana folk to speed/death metal to eighties pop songs, without reason or warning.
3- I will press your patience further by loudly singing along with each and every song. In rare instances where I don’t know or recall the lyrics, lyrics shall be made up on the spot. Sometimes you will notice. Most of the time you will not.
4- Unsolicited, I will explain to you why I like each track before (or as) it begins, who the artist is, what city they are from, why I find it unique and worthy of my interest, and so on.
Despite these above points being the reality of the situation, my friend contacted me after I had arrived back in Cleveland safely to ensure me that he had procured a Spotify account and wanted to know how to get to my personal, curated playlists (I encouraged Spotify as the only reasonable platform on which I could do this for him with some semblance of ease). He followed up a couple weeks later with the following text message:
Listening to Gary Clark Jr. today. Good stuff. You gonna do music reviews on your Website?
Gonna probably do a “what I’m listening to to now” series. Hate the “review” thing, or worse yet “critic”
of course he doesn’t let me off the hook that easy…
Suggestion: Do short reviews, you’re good at generating interest in music. Like you said, just positive. I like this because “x”, no negativity.
I didn’t reply yet, figuring he’d be happier to see his encouragement manifest in this posting and the first playlists to follow.
I certainly do appreciate the kind words and encouragement, and sharing this with other close friends new and old they each concurred. Apparently I’m good at generating interest in music. I like that. It makes me happy to know that despite the lack of intention to influence other’s musical diets, my particular taste and passion for music gets others interested and exposes them to many new musical experiences, and as I take stock of that influence I’ve realized I have in fact widened many people’s musical landscapes in significant ways.
I need to own that.
With that I begin the series by this “Reluctant Reviewer,” in the hope that the music I’ve discovered and decided to fill the air surrounding me with at any given time may, with some honest enthusiasm and passion to accompany it, create the same joy and appreciation for many of you that it has for me. I’m not sure how often I’ll post. Likely in fits and starts as my own digestion of new music tends to cycle.
All I ask of you as the reading/listening audience is to remember that I’m not insisting you should like the stuff I do. I’m just telling you what I dig, and why I dig it so much, in the most honest and open way I can. And, if I ever begin to gravitate towards douchebaggy music journalist sensationalist bullshit, by all means please call me out on it. The world needs no more douchebags.