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Entries in rock music (53)

Friday
Sep022011

Interview: The Man With the Mighty Axe – Marcus Siepen: Gamer, geek and Blind Guardian rhythm guitarist (Metal As Fuck)

He’s got connections in Blizzard Entertainment. He’s been playing rhythm guitar for 25 years and wouldn't have it any other way. He’s Marcus Siepen, and he’s the riffwraith for German power metal gods, Blind Guardian. Read on - and don't get too jealous, gamers.

Read the rest at Metal As Fuck.

Tuesday
Aug302011

Live Review: The Beards at Northcote Social Club (the AU Review)

The Northcote Social Club looks like a place that your grandmother frequented in the 70s when men's top lips were bristling with mustaches and beer could be bought for under a dollar. Textured floral wallpaper, shag carpeting and red velvet curtains greet you walking into the band room. I was half expecting to see a seniors bingo game in progress. Despite the antiquated decor, the beer prices had their origins very much in the present. But what of the bands accompanying The Beards on their 100 Beard Tour of Australia? Beards are pretty 70s, right?



Read the rest at the AU Review.

Sunday
Aug212011

Push-Button Professionalism: The origin and evolution of the role of professional music critics

If you write on the internet, you’re blogging. There’s an indissoluble link between the two terms – if you have an opinion and have the means to publish on the internet, you are elevated into the “blogosphere” of online opinion. One can blog on virtually any subject they wish, including rock music. These bloggers offer music criticism with lighting fast rapidity and in some cases, keener cultural and intellectual insight compared with academically trained, and establishment-oriented “professionals.” Is there much truth to the charge of popular music academic Don McLeese when he asks:

"[C]ritical writing about pop music has grown steadily more irrelevant. . . . Pinning the entire rap on the Internet allows music critics to dodge some painful but necessary questions. How should journalists illuminate the zeitgeist at a moment when the dominant cultural narrative is that there is no dominant cultural narrative? Do critics have any special license to serve as pop music’s cultural interlocutors when anyone with an Internet connection can attempt to do the same thing? In other words: if anyone can make pop music and anyone can be a pop-music critic, do we really need professional critics to tell us what it all means?"[1]

If we can curate to our own exacting tastes, access music from a variety of sources and similarly the criticism – how can one delineate between “cultural interlocutor,” loud-mouth blogger or publicist shill? How did we end up at this (non-)critical juncture in the first place?

 

Music criticism and journalism lends meaning to the subculture or “communities of consumers” as they may be viewed and as an extension of itself. The bands characterizing themselves as artists address their fans through the “interlocutor” or interpreter of critic and rock journalist. However, the force of community building is at tension with the forces of commodification as rock journalism derives its revenue through label advertising in order to sell their own cultural product. Labels seek to reach their markets through magazines. Then we must determine the initial impulse for music writers to start writing about this subject as well.

Charlie Gillett of the underground magazine Rock File wrote in 1972 that “records are the reason most of the journalists are [writers], which is often as frustrating to them as it is to the readers who have to plough through their copy. Records are bait and currency for the rock 'n' roll journalist; he gets ‘review copies,’ free from the record companies, keeps those he likes, and sells or trades off what he doesn't want.” But in 2011 a “music critic” (as defined as someone who actively writes about music with some degree of critical positioning) can download an album, perhaps before its release date and write a review with as much import as a piece written by a critic that works within the traditional structures of the industry and is recognized by others in the subculture as such.

Of course, back in the 1960s and 70s the media ecology of the music marketplace was firmly in the grasp of the music industry. Record labels and their holding companies controlled the means of reproduction (vinyl records, 8-tracks etc.) and how these products were manufactured and sold. Similarly, music magazines controlled the sphere of criticism and music news reporting. In the time of Gillett, Roxon and Bangs, music critics were handed records by publicists or editors and encouraged, “bribed” or ordered to write about what they heard or were charged with finding new sounds or emerging trends in music-centric subcultures. In some cases, these journalists almost uncritically championed styles they favored.

On the whole, critics were charged to communicate to other readers using their cultivated disposition – perceived or otherwise - if what they heard was culturally significant or aesthetically creative; it was their job to appraise whether the music in question was enjoyable, to determine to what extent and why. A reader would have to buy, physically pick up or subscribe to a magazine or street press, read the review and decide whether to purchase the album or single based on the resulting content. In terms of criticism, there was a literal and cultural distance from the work being appraised and the work itself; the record and the magazine existed in two parallel and distinct mediums as opposed to non-critical music-as-content mediums such as radio or television.

Radio ever since its invention and mass adoption, likewise with television in the 1980s, has exposed cultures and subcultures to budding trends in pop and rock music. The content of radio primarily is music (or arguably the commercials that bookend the songs), not music criticism. Once a song was played, the listener was at the mercy of the DJ to spin it again (until the 1980s, when home taping became prevalent although this phenomenon was not as wide-spread as record labels would have us imagine.) Almost all music in rotation at commercial or even community access radio stations was almost always readily available for purchase in record stores or in other outlets. The institution of the radio station serves to actively publicize music (or rather, the records) as a commercial product for retail sale by presenting it as the content itself. When media critic Robert McChesney posited that “there’s no non-commercial part of MTV” in the mid-90s he could easily have applied the same assertion to commercial radio of the 50s onwards (especially in the face of cash-for-airplay scandals known as “payola.”) In the age of media convergence, new media and portable, digital formats such as endlessly duplicable CD or mp3, the once prevailing view of music as a controlled, commercial product becomes problematic. Thus the role and usefulness of the “privileged interlocutor” is thrown into question.

In the twilight of the last century, the file-sharing service Napster along with scores of others forced a usually reactionary music industry to transition towards the portable and online era. Musicians and labels discovered to their dismay they could not merely legislate or litigate the control of their products back to them and how they were covered or evaluated in publications. The age of monetizing the content by controlling the technology was at a close. The advance promo “bait” as a currency to entice music journalists to write favorable copy – or any copy at all – lost all worth virtually overnight.

Likewise, the “underground” publications such as street-press or fanzines, revered for their authenticity due to their autonomy and limited production in comparison to the “mainstream” could no longer maintain this physical distance from Rolling Stone or NME once these blog-zines were only one click away. In terms of music criticism, the dimension between “insider” or “interpreter” and “consumer” or “fan” collapsed. Industry publicists, fans, musicians, technicians and professional journalists could all don the persona of music critic with a few simple clicks of a mouse. We don’t even have to read reviews; websites such as Last.fm, Spotify and ReverbNation allow us to hear music on demand and allows consumers to individually decide whether to purchase (or illegally download) the content for themselves. So do we need professionals to tell us what it all means?

In Australia, there are many fanzines and blogs that have risen from the grassroots to later be co-opted by the music industry to propel mutual success. FasterLouder.com.au, Beat Magazine, KillYourStereo, MetalForge.com, MetalAsFuck.net, Mess+Noise, Collapse Board, the AU Review and various others are examples of fan-established and maintained blogs or street press that have risen to prominence significantly due to gaining artist access via official channels. Sites and street press such as these are privy to the sphere of cultural production (to be discussed in detail in another essay) in terms of providing the basis for content creation for these sites. For record label, it’s arguably the last vestige of content control they retain.

In the origins of pop music criticism, when pop was to be considered “art” by academia and eventually the mainstream (radio, television, newspapers and other widely consumed cultural products intended for a mass audience) it was pushed by students and university graduates occupying positions of influence in the media or academia. Alternatively, publications such as the aforementioned Rolling Stone, Creem or Melody Maker (after it went “progressive”) were created to lead the charge for pop music and its adherents as an artistically authentic subculture and not merely as pleasure-driven kids seeking vacuous entertainment. Pop music critic authenticity was conferred upon writers by writing for publications that others considered to be representative of the subculture it was reflecting or shaping. In the internet age, the “professionals” are not chosen by the public, but the labels.

The labels offer the interviews, the advance copies, the free concert tickets to writers they believe carry this authenticity or popularity and are able to act as “cultural interlocutors.” “Amateur” music critics that garner a significant amount of traffic or attention do not tend to stay “amateur” for long. Labels on the prowl for more avenues to publicize their content will seek to co-opt these writers or journalists into their cultural production “sphere” or circuit. Whether the writer publishes his own blog or is employed by conglomerates such as News Limited or Fairfax Media, the task that falls on the writer to “explore meaning” in pop music is granted by the fact labels allow the writer to test these boundaries through controlling who gains access to these artists and who does not.

There is no question there are shills, “hacks” and other fan-writers who write nothing but borderline hagiography when afforded an opportunity to meet or talk to their favorite artist. Others pride themselves on acting as “haters,” harshly critiquing almost everything that they hear. Despite either method (or even striking a moderate balance of coverage) that guarantees the initial access, once inside the label-content circuit, one’s inclusion is not assured indefinitely. If new, more popular writers emerge and the writer in question does not deliver a return on investment (writing negative copy in a publication with declining readership, for example) they eventually are excluded from the circuit. At this juncture, it becomes apparent who is granted "privileged interlocutorship."

It would be naïve to assume that the most popular music writers are considered the “best” writers; this essentially is a subjective position. In the view of the music industry, these critics and writers are given more access for the greatest return on investment. Even though music is stolen with more haste than it is bought, the intrinsic task of the privileged music critic is the same; to promote records through the discussion of it in mass media publications. But do we need them?

To answer simply, the co-opted critic may not be as insightful, incisive or knowledgeable about their chosen critic as one who is not. The “special licence” is conferred upon writer from without, by the source of the content being written about; not inversely as it did in the post-1968 moment until around 1986 and new media trends and transmission methods were integrated into our media culture. A critic that actively resists co-option may enjoy heightened authenticity through maintaining a critical distance from the industry cultural production circuit, much like those in the underground zine culture of the 70s and 80s. By rejecting the compromising “lures” of privileged interlocutorship may work in their favor in terms of shaping the musical zeitgeist in certain subcultures (such as punk and hardcore music for example.) This sounds like a romanticized authenticity rooted in the do-it-yourself punk philosophy, but ultimately the writer with the “all access pass” carries more authenticity and "legitimacy" as a music critic and journalist than the writer without one.

The simple, undeniable fact remains: the writer with the most reach is given that privilege and writes to sustain it; and that license is very much granted at the discretion of the labels and publicists. We don’t need these “privileged” writers, no; but in terms of getting the story and advancing the narrative of music criticism, we do seem to want them. The critics that elevate their craft as an art equivalent to music they write about are the ones that may be the most deserving of this privilege; but unfortunately may not always get it. As long as the participants of a subculture yearn for an authentic story behind artists and their products conveyed without deleterious industry interference from the mouths of the artists themselves - critically or not - the “privilege” is there for the taking and increasingly, exists for our continued consumption.

This essay is an early draft in a series of critical examinations of music criticism and journalism. The project is being co-written by Leticia Supple, blogger and founder of MetalAsFuck.net. Read her first essay here.

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[1]: McLeese, D. 'Straddling the Cultural Chasm: The Great Divide between Music Criticism and Popular Consumption' in Popular Music and Society (Vol. 33, No. 4. 2010) p. 436.

 

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