… and Musicians Writing
Written by Michael Azerrad
Never wish for anything — because you might get it.
Back in 2008, I was on a panel on IFC’s website with some distinguished names in the field of online music writing: Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber, Bill Crandall (then at Spinner), and Maura Johnston (then with Idolator). We discussed how the rise of blogging would affect music writing. I was enthusiastic about it — when media gets democratized, taken out of the hands of all-powerful conglomerates and given to the people, good things can happen. I wrote a book called “Our Band Could Be Your Life,” which is about when that started to happen in music in the ’80s: Thanks to new technology and the DIY ethos of punk rock, all kinds of media became more readily available to ordinary people, and they started fanzines, record labels, recording studios, and bands. In other words, they Did It Themselves, and we got to hear a lot of great music that might not otherwise have been heard.
And now, for many years, there have been more independent releases than major label releases. There’s been a glut of music, and the proportion of good stuff to, well, let’s just call it “the other stuff” is basically the same. So there’s vastly more music to wade through. And now the same is true of music criticism: now that anybody can do it, everybody is doing it. That’s proven to be a double-edged sword.
I’m always very careful to make the distinction between music criticism and music journalism. A lot of people don’t. But criticism doesn’t require reporting. You can write criticism at home in your underwear. On the other hand, journalism takes legwork — you have to get out there and see things and talk to people. And that takes resources for travel and hotels and other expenses. And because music magazines have taken a financial hit in recent years, music journalism has taken a hit too. It’s just much cheaper and more page-view-friendly to run a review or a listicle.
And even criticism has taken a hit: For a while now, many music publications — including really major ones like Rolling Stone, Time, and Entertainment Weekly — have reduced their reviews to a paragraph or so. That can make for some pithy, witty writing, but it takes more words than that to spin out something truly thoughtful. A lot of music fans are still interested in insightful perspectives on music — maybe even more interested than ever, since everyone needs help making sense of the incredible variety of sounds that have sprung up in the wake of the internet revolution. There’s a lot of room for unique, qualified voices who can provide good reads. And musicians are an excellent source for all those qualities. Musicians think and talk about music all day, so they have lots of practice discussing it. They hear lots of new stuff and find out about it before most people. They certainly know how the sausage is made. And guess what: a lot of them can write really well.
And while most musicians have a platform for their voice — a full-blown website, a Tumblr, a Twitter account — all those platforms are far-flung, and they only reach people who already know about the musician. Which is a shame, because, some musicians are really strong writers, like acclaimed jazz pianist Vijay Iyer, or Fiery Furnaces’ Matthew Friedberger, or Amy Klein of Hilly Eye and Leda.
In a piece about music writing for NPR.com last year, Maura Johnston wrote “a conversation that spans fans of all genres and artists, and that connects people in surprising ways, should be a goal among writers and editors in 2013.” The online musical universe has become Balkanized, with many sites focusing on minute niches. That works well for reaching very specific demographics, which is wonderful for advertising, but it flies in the face of the common wisdom that people’s tastes have become more diverse as music of any description has become a mouse-click away.
So I helped found the Talkhouse, a website that features smart, notable musicians from all genres and generations writing about currently released music. Writers don’t write like critics — instead, they show us how a musician hears music. It’s organic, relatively free from marketing initiatives, because the writers choose what they want to write about. And, like most music fans today, musicians have broad, often surprising tastes: you don’t have to like They Might Be Giants to be amused by Parquet Courts’ bassist Sean Yeaton’s delirious take on that band; plenty of people will be curious to hear what Laurie Anderson has to say about the latest Animal Collective album; what on earth does Andrew W.K. have to say about the new album from Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices? And Zac Pennington of the art-rock band Parenthetical Girls has an enthusiastic and trenchant take on… Taylor Swift?
There are plenty of musicians who are strong writers — people who are well-spoken in interviews can generally write well, and some writers are ringers: Rosanne Cash, Dean Wareham, and Bob Mould are acclaimed book authors, and others have written about music before. But it’s the non-professional writers who bring creativity to the task of writing, as proven by the writings of Randy Blythe of the metal band Lamb of God and Ashok Kondabolu of the sadly defunct hip-hop group Das Racist.
So maybe I take it back — maybe you should wish for anything. This new internet paradigm has already enabled some cool stuff — like a website that allows musicians to enter into a dialogue with their peers and their music, and for music fans to have a ringside seat to it all. And that new paradigm will surely enable a lot of other creative reactions to the big changes happening all around us. I can’t wait to see what they will be.
Talkhouse editor-in-chief Michael Azerrad has written for Rolling Stone, the New Yorker, the New York Times, Spin, Billboard, and many other periodicals since 1987. He is the author of “Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991” and “Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana” and was co-producer of the award-winning 2006 documentary “Kurt Cobain About a Son.”