Wednesday, March 26, 2008

ROCKSTAR WON'T SEND ADVANCE COPY: Rock critic writes position white paper on social context

Jack White is not a lady, one girl fan informed this blog. He's a big strapping man and will box your ugly face, she added.

"Jack White threw down a glove last week and ushered the music industry into what duelers called the field of honor," wrote Ann Powers of the Los Angeles Times today. Paradoxically, White has often been the beneficiary of straight suck-up journalism in the newspaper's Calendar section, the most recent example of which ran in December.

White was said to be furnishing no advances for "Consolers of the Lonely," a new album by his band, The Raconteurs, formed with "songwriting pal Brendan Benson."

Everyone would get the new record at the same time, an attempt to make sure that music journalists wouldn't do their usual job of jumping the gun on reviews for the sake of appearing timely and cool.

"The Raconteurs would rather this release not be defined by its first week sales, pre-release promotion, or by someone defining it FOR YOU before you get to hear it," read the pertinent part of a band press release, as republished by the Times and Powers.

Powers then followed it with a treatise on the future and meaning of rock criticism, perhaps imagined as a lecture fresh from an elective college course you would regret having signed up for.

Messing with the availability of advance copies might be a bad thing, came one musing near the end, interfering with the noble function of "[deepening] the way we experience music," as performed by rock critics, our analysts of culture.


"Some writers," opines Powers, "... have wondered whether good criticism will get lost in the dismantling process."

Rock critics were dismantled a long time ago, lady.

Eight years ago, DD wrote on the Highway Kings biography page:
Good word in music periodicals ... was often not quite worth the paper it was published on. Having written regularly on hard rock for various pro publications over the years, I'm fairly sold on the idea that "good" reviews of heavy bands are mostly for the benefit of the "reviewer." That is, they have negligible effect boosting an act's profile. Silly you if you thought that was the idea. Indeed, I could write a chapter on the fine details of this subject.

However, it really boils down to the fact that music journalism predominantly fits into only two categories. The first: Material generated by a large hack/flack corps which can only justify its contribution to entertainment news sections if the subject is served as part and parcel of the regular schedule of mainstream music industry product. This structurally ensures only puff-writing and hagiography in service to whatever is the publicity driver of the moment. Indeed, have you ever marvelled at the need and logic behind editorial choices that result in hundreds or more of almost exactly the same review of the same record nationwide? Quite naturally, many rational people have learned to tune a lot of this out ensuring that it only has effect on children -- or those as suggestible as children.

And second: Music journalism as a flavor of bankrupt pseudo-social science in which pop music trends are analyzed for their value as pure SchadenFreude (that's "glee at the public shame of others") or relationships to things like the scapegoat class, feelgood empowerment movements and/or the current national Zeitgeist. Subscribe to any of the Sunday editions of the three largest US newspapers for a year, scan their Sunday magazines and Arts sections and you'll eventually see what I'm getting at.

Chuck Eddy, my old music editor at the Village Voice from 2000 - 20006 tried to do everything he could to buck this trend. Realistically, it was always a battle waged in retreat. Over that period the Voice relentlessly reduced the size of its articles and in the last year before handover to the New Times company, revised the pay scales for free-lancers downward. It's hard to think of any two things which crimp the furnishing of good writing more.

Being denied an advance copy of a star's CD is really small potatoes in the bigger picture. And it's not novel.

Eddy often specifically went against the grain of delivering reviews exquisitely timed to synchronize release schedules or even jump them. I would not have been able to write a couple hundred reviews and articles for him and the Voice if he had not done this. I didn't time much to coincide with weekly release dates (if I did, it was probably by accident) and would estimate that a good eighty percent of the CDs reviewed were copies I'd bought in a store. The Voice had a system, a good one which I sometimes took advantage of, in which a writer could invoice the publication for the cost of a CD which was the subject of a review.

This was a good thing, as opposed to having your exercise in pro journalism dictated by the release schedules of record companies, which is a bad thing. It cut the journalist free from any potential of a quid pro quo arrangement which, in return for an advance copy, an article is guaranteed. This is not so important for music journalists who are full-time staffers at a news organization where floods of promotional merchandise pile in the door everyday.

But it is important for free-lancers dependent upon handouts from p.r. people. If you don't play the game and place articles, you don't get advance copies. And if you don't get advance copies, you're out of work because the overriding journalistic practice is now to publish only pieces and reviews which can be tightly bound to a release schedule. To do that, work must be submitted weeks before publication and that's not possible without advances. Record labels and the people who handle p.r. know this. They know that the very idea of a stream of timely advances drying up is enough to freeze most free-lancers in their tracks, ensuring the majority go along with the gameplan of puff writing and cheerleading.

As a consequence, serious criticism is ruled out at any music publication with a significant dependence upon free-lancers and even some of those which generate the majority of their copy in house.

I've discussed this with Chuck many times and, coincidentally, he touched upon it in his new blog at Rhapsody, Chuck It All In.

"[A] few weeks back, when a bogus write-up [at Maxim magazine] of the impending Black Crowes album (which freelancer David Peisner [admitted] he hadn’t heard, and in fact, insists he’d only been assigned to preview) became the most famous album review since Almost Famous, it caught me by surprise in more ways than one," wrote Eddy. "Oddly, I had previously been assigned to critique the album for another publication -- a review that never materialized, because, I’d been told, advance copies weren’t available."

Eddy reflected: "[Any] move that challenges the ‘00s music-crit all-reviews-must-coincide-with-release-dates rule – which seemingly kicked off back around the time Entertainment Weekly first reduced reviews to haikus and has only gotten stupider since – can’t be all bad. It’s almost like the band chose not to be reviewed at all. Once upon a time, back in the prehistoric ‘80s, label publicity departments didn’t always set the calendar, and it was quaintly assumed that some albums actually needed to be lived with –- maybe even for a few months and a couple hit singles -– before a critic could accurately evaluate them. Music often sinks in as part of everyday life, after all.

"To hell with news pegs..." he adds at one point.

The record review to which Chuck refers was one which ran in Maxim, a lad magazine. It was made up, informed the Black Crowes, because no copies of their new LP, Warpaint, had been released. The review was around seventy words, a pittance to throw away one's career over.

Does anybody with a lick of sense think a shitty seventy word record review mattered so much it just HAD TO BE PUBLISHED AHEAD OF TIME?

News peg, indeed.

"On this shifting ground, critics feels insecure as everyone else," Powers writes. "Be we can -- we must -- view the Web's interactive as a boon. Musical samples can help illustrate the critical points. Dialogue with readers can illuminate our interpretations and make for interesting reassessments."

To this and other things, I can say: "What you mean WE, kemosabe?"

As for illuminating dialogue from readers hot off the Web, it's another laff riot moment from a Times reporter who perhaps has not quite yet received a suitable amount of pleasure from being accosted by the anonymous living in the enlightened and gentle pages of unmoderated comments sections.

"Besides, the flow of new music is so daunting that critics find themselves buried beneath piles of 'important' new stuff," Powers states. "The channels that help determine which artists 'matter' have multiplied as well. There's no consensus. Established critics need to be knocked from their pedestals."

No consensus?

There's often way too much of it. At a time when there are more new media channels to browse, a quick run through newspaper databases on flavors of the moment usually reveals those pesky rock critics to be excellent practitioners of groupthink in their zeal to be on top of all that's allegedly fresh.

(See Crazy Miranda Lambert, Radiohead dictates the future, and Wolfmother. What was Wolfmother? Oh yeah, like Led Zeppelin!)


Post a Comment

<< Home