Rockcritics Music Blogger Symposium

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October 3, 2007 by admin

Blabbin’ the Night Away: The rockcritics.com Music Blogger Symposium

By Scott Woods

The idea to bring a few music critics together–virtually speaking, that is–to answer some questions about blogging was borne less out of unbridled enthusiasm for the medium than it was out of a mild but growing disenchantment. If it seems a bit premature to declare music blogs dead-in-the-water, it has nonetheless felt in the last couple years like the initial flurry of excitement across the you-know-what-o-sphere has diminished somewhat. Not to suggest that interesting arguments and lively discussions don’t still erupt every now and again. Or that the obsessive-esoteric pursuits of certain bloggers aren’t sometimes fascinating in and of themselves. Or that there is a single newsstand music ‘zine today even half as engaging as the most inane online chatter. But something, and I don’t know what exactly, has shifted on the ground–and not, in my opinion, in the best possible direction. Hence this symposium.

Perhaps it was inevitable that music blogs, after the initial buzz and howl phase (look ma, no word count!) would settle into a deeper, less noisy groove, but too often the settling in has felt like a retreat into the corner. (From a guy who’s abandoned more blogs than he has fingers, trust me, this is not an admonishment so much as a lament.) Like I said, good, interesting things still happen in those corners, even if it does kinda resemble a high school dance, with participants in the various corners of the room doing little more than nodding at (if not altogether avoiding) one another. Or as David Moore from Cure for Bedbugs puts it, “For some reason a kind of individualist mindset has really taken hold in music blogs, like we’re just here to watch the madmen and women raving from a polite distance.”

Well, it’s not all doom ‘n’ gloom. The five bloggers who participated in this symposium have the stick-to-it-iveness required of the medium (no small feat, given how many others have bailed), and make for thoughtful, provocative, and occasionally infuriating reading besides. I figured they’d each have a compelling long-range perspective on how they use the medium and why they do it (though speaking of “long range,” I did have a chuckle at Simon Reynolds’s off-the-cuff reference herein to a “veteran blogger”). I naturally would like to have included many other music blabbers of equal worth, and to have reached out to various subsets of online chatterboxes–i.e., the oft-cited MP3 crowd–but in the end, managing five responses for this feature seemed like an honest night’s work and a reasonable enough sample to boot, at least as a starting point.

Many thanks to Maura, Rich, David, Simon, and Carl for agreeing to do this, and for keeping the online chatter lively and engaging.

Contributors

* Maura Johnston is the editor of Idolator and blogs regularly at maura dot com.

* Rich Juzwiak grew up in South Jersey… and it shows. He currently writes fourfour and co-writes the VH1 Blog.

* David Moore is a teenpop correspondent for Stylus magazine and lapsed Pitchfork contributor. [See Dave Moore’s blog: Cure for Bedbugs]

* Simon Reynolds writes about music for a living.

* Carl Wilson is a writer and editor at The Globe and Mail in Toronto, and a freelance critic whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Blender, Pitchfork, Slate and many Canadian publications. His work has twice been selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing annual anthologies (including the upcoming 2007 edition, edited by Robert Christgau), and he’s made three presentations at the EMP Pop Conference in Seattle. His book for the 33 1/3 series, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, examines Celine Dion as a case study in the gap between critical and mass tastes. Carl’s blog, Zoilus has been in more-or-less continuous operation since late 2003. He lives in downtown Toronto.

1. Talk about your blog and how it has evolved over time. Why did you start to blog? What sorts of things do you do on your blog?

Maura Johnston
Well, I started blogging before the term “blog” was even concocted (in 1994, eek!) because my university gave free server space and I’d been online since an early age (my dad gave me the keys to his CompuServe account when I was 13). But obviously things are different now. I’ve been professionally blogging for a little more than a year, and Idolator is probably best known for the Jackin’ Pop critics’ poll, our ongoing “Worst Album Cover Of the Year” contest, and the fact that we don’t just cover indie rock.

Rich Juzwiak
I started my blog as sort of a last-ditch effort to salvage a career out of writing. I’d studied journalism in college and very much wanted to be a RESPECTED. MUSIC. CRITIC. That didn’t pan out. I’m terrible at networking, for one thing. I don’t even know what “networking” means. I think it involves handing out business cards. I never really endeared myself to enough people so that I could make real money writing about music. I mean, I freelanced and I still do, but I still make very little money doing so and my gigs are few and far between. I think the root of all of my problems is that I’m absolutely terrible at pitching. It may be a personality defect: I can do much better than I can say. And so, if I’m writing criticism (and not a reported piece that would obviously require careful planning and backing from an outlet), I’d rather just do it than write to someone about what I’m planning on writing about. I didn’t really grasp this until after I started my blog–that’s when I knew that for better and especially for worse, this is the medium for me.

David Moore
Cure for Bedbugs is my second blog; the first one started with my first piece of written criticism anywhere ever and was mostly for indie rock catch-up and chaff not fit for the student papers, along with various juvenile Pitchfork swipes–which, as was then the fashion, helped me land a job there for a short time. I gave that blog up in 2005 and started the Cure for Bedbugs intending to write ponderous travelogues, but I happened into a pretty severe teenpop phase after accidentally downloading Skye Sweetnam onto my iPod. The progress of Bedbugs can be tracked over the course of semi-regular Skye Fridays, which are said to be an occasional topic of discussion in the Sweetnam household(!).

I blog because I’m kind of an opinion exhibitionist. But until relatively recently I felt uncomfortable in other people’s (online) conversation spaces, so I wanted to start one of my own; it started as a fairly narcissistic enterprise, and I think narcissism is basically what keeps me going when all is said and done, though my best comment threads are way way better than anything I’ve ever written on my own.

I think my blogging success ratio is somewhere around 10%, but the 10% hits pretty hard. And great convos can always develop in the other 90%; the worst post can spark the best conversation. This is an aspect of blogging I’m sad to see really dwindling, especially in the blogs I read regularly. I would love to see more comment threads the size of, say, the lefty blogosphere’s average thread, but for some reason a kind of individualist mindset has really taken hold in music blogs, like we’re just here to watch the madmen and women raving from a polite distance.

Simon Reynolds
I started Blissblog in the autumn of 2002. I’d been following the scene–New York London Paris Munich and I Love Music and the blogs clustered around them–for some while. Basically, I just wanted to join in the fun. Also I was in thick of working on Rip It Up and Start Again, and feeling frustrated because there were things going on in contemporary music I wanted to write about. Doing it journalistically would be too much of a distraction from the book–going through the whole palaver of pitching ideas, writing them up properly, etc. So the idea of blogging appealed as a way to vent opinions in an informal, dashed-off manner.

Now that I’ve returned to the freelance fray in terms of contemporary music, that particular reason to blog has faded for me. It’s the other function that now dominates: the blog as a public notepad for sketching out ideas, the kind of thing that couldn’t be turned into journalistic writing because it’s either too hyper-theoretical or it’s not tied to a record release or it’s just too whimsical or it ranges across a really wide cultural field and makes a lot of unlikely connections.

Blissblog has the caveat emptor–or should it be “caveat lector”?–at the top, the subtitle: “Not Fully Baked.” So you know what you are getting. Sometimes the entries will be fragmentary, shards and strands of thought; other times it will be more essayistic. I’m really into linking to other blog or web writing that’s caught my imagination–sometimes it’s just sparked a single line, an observation or quip, other times it’ll set me off on an extended meander.

From the start I’ve particularly enjoyed the way blogs allow you to write about stuff that isn’t contemporary. It’s appropriate for an era in which our listening is scattered across the entire span of pop time. For sure, people’s listening has always been a bit like that, but now more so than ever, with the availability of everything instantly and the resulting abolition of pop sequential history. The music that’s on my mind and affecting me is just as likely to be something I’ve found in a second-hand vinyl store, or seen on VH1-Classic, or tugged out of the recesses of my collection, as it is an advance CD I’ve just got through the mail.

Recently I grasped the full implications of the fact that Blogger allows you to have any number of blogs. I’m too inept and lazy to build a website from scratch but by using Blogger I can set up a sort of bodged-together, shanty town-like surrogate. So I have blogs for Rip It Up (mainly for the footnotes to the book), Bring the Noise (“deleted scenes”–pieces related to the collection’s theme that I didn’t end up including), and for my three other books. And I’ve started ReynoldsRetro, a disorganized archive of my writing from the mid-Eighties onwards. I might even start a new blog for more distilled, telegraphic thoughts, aphorisms and haiku-like speculations. The idea would be thought freed of the encumbrance of proof, evidence, substantiation, the fat of fact that Blissblog sometimes gets bogged down in.

Carl Wilson
I started to blog for two main reasons: First, I’d been reading the great music blogs that were popping up around 2003, and wanted to get in on the action. And second, I had a weekly column in a mainstream newspaper at the time and wanted a way to keep in touch with readers between columns and add supplementary material and discuss things I couldn’t get into in the paper. It fairly quickly became a more general music issues-and-discussion blog with a special focus on the Toronto independent scene, and especially since I stopped writing my column in fall of 2005, it became one of my main venues for venting reactions, thinking through ideas, etc. The emphasis has really shifted from time to time based on whim. It’s been a lot less intense the past six months while I was working on my book, but I’m going to try to amp it back up soon.

 

2. Is your blogging voice or the material you cover in your blog different than the voice you use or the material you cover in your professional music writing? If so, how?

Rich Juzwiak
Yeah, it is. I never use “I” when I write for print outlets and I always use it on my blog. It just makes sense–my blog is my media journal, a record of the things that make me react. Hopefully it’s not a 24/7 autofellatio show, but it is inherently about me.

I also feel freer on my blog, but I’m not sure it has to do with the personal nature. I think at least part of that feeling of freedom comes from having no limits when it comes to length. If I have 100 words for an album, I can be that brief, and if I have 1,500 words for it, I can put that up, too. That’s extremely liberating. It’s really wonderful to have the space and opportunity to explain yourself completely, or to be as succinct or even glib as your subject calls for. Everyone needs an editor and I’m particularly verbose, but god, I’m so glad that I’m able to say exactly what I have to say. It may sound ridiculous to some, as criticism and especially “blogging” aren’t considered to be art forms, but I can say that I feel completely fulfilled as far as self-expression goes.

Carl Wilson
It’s definitely more informal and chatty, although sometimes I also let myself get more jargony and theoretical there too, whereas the professional writing is a more deliberate effort to be accessible. The professional writing is also more symmetrical, honed, more thoughtful about the quality of its sentences. Although I have some desire to let the blog get more abstract and experimental in the future as well.

David Moore
I don’t do too much professional writing. The grind of a regular review schedule really chewed me up and spat me out when I was doing it, but it also gave me a sort of awed respect for people who’ve been doing it for years. When I do write “professionally,” my voice tends to get less conversational; I hold back and construct my pieces a little too carefully, which usually weakens them (and, kind of ironically, makes my writing seem less convincing).

Simon Reynolds
This relates to “Not Fully Baked.” Often I signpost the informality and semi-formulated nature of the thought by using lower-case, being loose with grammar and sentence structure, working in quasi-colloquial expressions. Other times I’ll write it up close to how it would appear in a professional context. But then the paid writing varies in tone too, according to the magazine it’s appearing in. I don’t think there is a single “true” voice necessarily, since how we present is always determined by social context. The blog is probably the closest to the relaxed me, the digressive way my mind moves when I’m not concerned with argument structure or narrative shape of the sort required to write a review or thinkpiece. But all writing is performative, there is always the sense of an audience, of who is reading and what is appropriate. My assumption is that the audience for Blissblog is a fairly forgiving one.

Sometimes I think of blogging as similar to MC-ing. There is a bit of a swagger to it. But then the best rock writing always had that–at least the kind of rockwrite I have always been into. And like with MC-ing, the persona conjured in the writing is a kind of super-self that bears some relation to the real you but it is amped up and altered in certain respects. It’s the you that you’d like to be, perhaps. People are sometimes surprised because in everyday life I don’t carry myself or express myself like I do in print. But I think that would be weird–and possibly unbearable.

Maura Johnston
Well, I don’t really write anywhere else, unless you count friends-only Livejournal posts and Facebook status updates. But I don’t get paid for those, ha ha.

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3. What are your thoughts on comments boxes in blogs? Do you or don’t you allow them, and why?

David Moore
I don’t think you should be allowed to blog without a comment box. Unless you’re talking about, like, Robert Christgau’s website, where you basically just have some webspace to archive your writing, there is absolutely no reason not to let the world in. I don’t even approve of moderated comments, because it screws up the flow of conversation too much. But more often you have established critics not letting anyone present a counter-idea to something they’ve written, and I think it’s generally pretty poisonous to any development of new ideas. I have to wait for other writers (without a viable commenting option) to find my site sometimes just to talk to them. It puts me in kind of an awkward position, because I like the reining-in effect commenting elsewhere usually has on me.

I guess there are a few exceptions–Sasha Frere-Jones’s blog is wonderful, mostly a photo blog with links to all his current writing and the occasional music musing. But rigorous commenting that allows challenging conversations to develop is so rare anyway that I just don’t understand why you’d cut off the potential for even the modicum of discussion you’d get. If there are issues of inappropriate comments, then moderation is understandable, but frankly I think “inappropriate” should have a pretty narrow definition.

Simon Reynolds
I’ve never had one on Blissblog. It wasn’t a conscious choice particularly but having seen what happened in other people’s comments boxes, it seems like the best course. Woebot and K-punk had comments boxes for a while. Initially they were full of exciting energy, but then there got to be some nasty trolling, discussions turned acrimonious, and eventually they both shut theirs down. Basically, I don’t see why I should host a space for unpleasantness. If someone wants to take issue with what I posted by having a go at me on their own blog, that’s fine, it’s a free world and there’s a good chance I’ll respond, there’ll be interesting back and forth. I get a lot of e-mails and often I will post the comments on Blissblog, usually if it has sparked some further thoughts in me.

The other thing is that comments boxes seem like they’d be time consuming. I’d surely find myself getting sucked into long debates, especially as I’m an argumentative type, and would doubtless doggedly pursue the discussion to the bitter end (“bitter” being the operative word). I recently got embroiled in a comments box thing at Cure for Bedbugs and it went to over 100 comments. So I’m sure I would find it a drain on my time having one of my own, especially as you’d feel obliged to act as a kind of moderator.

Carl Wilson
I do allow them, and I love them. It takes a fair amount of work to keep finding new solutions to spam problems, but the comments are half the pleasure for me. I’m interested in everything dialogic about blogging and wouldn’t be so interested without that.

Rich Juzwiak
Yes, I allow them. I think it’s generally unwise not to do so–any asshole who’d use the phrase “Web 2.0” (like me, for example) knows that it has everything to do with social interaction (be it via Facebook or YouTube) and so inviting comments is to keep up with the times. Isn’t the whole point of communicating to create a dialogue anyway? I don’t know if I could stomach the words of someone delusional enough to think that he has the final say on any one art object. I once read an interview with a blogger who claimed that anyone who left comments on his blog was bitter and/or vitriolic. I stopped reading him there and then and I find it hard to take people with messiah complexes seriously.That’s the principle, at least. In practice, it’s hard being told about yourself all the time. I have to admit that as time goes on, I read my comments less and less. I like having them there. I like knowing that I’ve triggered a response, but all the noise makes a part of me just retreat into my shell. And by and large, I’ve been lucky–I have nothing to complain about. Barring compliments from people that I really respect (which have the ability to make my month, depending on the source), these days I’m pretty much concerned about answering to myself. If I’ve expressed my thoughts fully and snappily, I can go to bed proud.

Maura Johnston
We have a fantastic comments section that loves to dig in when we talk about music blogging in particular. I’ll let the threads speak for themselves:

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4. Is your blog a forum to converse with or critique other writers? If so, please recount one (or some) of your more memorable blog dialogs or critiques.

Simon Reynolds
Totally. That was one of the major attractions for me, the collective interblog communication thing. Connecting with likeminds. Or clashing with those who are unlikeminds in a certain sense, while in the larger scheme being kindred spirits in the sense of taking music far too seriously.

There’s been too many great back-and-forths really. I’ve had a bunch of discussions with K-punk over the years, on all kinds of topics; we have a lot in common but also significant areas of disagreement, and these have sparked some really good debates. The debate about Arctic Monkeys was particularly fruitful, with Mark K-punk taking the stern Futurist line. Another fairly recent one was some exchanges sparked by Carl Wilson, aka Zoilus, and his force-myself-to-overcome-my-revulsion-to-Celine-Dion project. And then there’s been this long-running series of Rockism versus Popism skirmishes, which probably started with a post on fanaticism versus dilettantism where I was taking issue with something Tom Ewing had written.

That Poptimism debate is something that has flared up repeatedly over the last four years. Now it is looking utterly dead-locked and spent. Occasionally people will spark it up again half-heartedly and then someone will say, “oh not that again, how boring”. But the funny thing is that the only thing more boring than Rockism versus Popism is the absence of that debate. Or a debate of similar weight, with an equivalent sense of something actually being at stake. Which explains why people can’t resist sparking it up again every so often. Nothing has taken its place, in terms of getting people worked up.

Rich Juzwiak
Nah, I’ve never had any sort of back-and-forth. I’ve called out a writer or two, and inevitably, have regretted it, when said writer turns out to be a) a great guy and b) a big person for looking past my soapbox and really getting down to talking about…music, writing, whatever. So based on my experiences, I do that less. The only time I’d do it in the future, I think, is if someone wrote something really condescending. This isn’t music-related, but a pet peeve of mine is the critic who suggests that people into extreme cinema (torture porn, for example) are somehow mentally unwell or potentially dangerous. That’s not just fucking wrong, it’s suggesting that because certain images trigger a set emotional response in them, it must be that way for everyone. “I watch this film this way, and you will, too, and, for my final trick, I’ll shrink you if you deviate from the norm that is my perception.” I find it really intolerant and endlessly infuriating.

Carl Wilson
I spend a lot of time on the site commenting on other music journalism–at times the site has felt like a meta-criticism blog more than a music blog–and my favourite thing to do on the site is to converse with other writers/bloggers/commenters, though for reasons I’ll address below this no longer happens as much. I really felt like the site changed dramatically when Sasha Frere-Jones initiated a conversation about my article about “lit-rock” which became more a discussion of whether “rock lyrics suck massive ass” (see here, followed by here, here, here, and here–all of which contain links to other comments). I was also pretty heavily involved in debate with Simon Reynolds and others about M.I.A. in early 2005. And I’ve had a lot of back-and-forths with Graham Preston, for instance, among others, on issues in the local music scenes. I was also in on the “Is Stephin Merritt a racist” controversy, which comes up in my book. To name a few.

As a critic in Toronto (and earlier in Montreal), I’ve often felt a bit isolated from the main hubbub in New York and London–my column would often weigh in on issues de jour but until blogs, it never seemed possible to truly engage. Blogging (as well as the EMP conference) has been a way to undo that, and it has really felt like a whole other career opened up for me since I was able to make those connections via blogging.

David Moore
Most of my “critiques” turn into bratty little rants, and I do better social criticism when I take all that easy anger and actually fashion it into something that can stand on its own legs, so to speak. Back in August to September 2006 when I was gettin’ my contrarian on and supporting Paris Hilton’s album, the worst of that stuff tended to be about other writers and the best stuff tended to happen either in the comments sections or as sort of “big idea” posts.

Many of my most memorable blog dialogues have involved a small core of regular posters, some of them blog-friends, some friend-friends, and some who happened to Google my site and have stuck around, always for the better.

I want more writers to find my blog (and I want you to post there more, Scott!) because I really can’t emphasize enough how incomplete my blog is without a conversation happening through it. Frank Kogan was the first “rock writer” per se to start posting there about two years ago and others have followed, always to the benefit of the posts, which shouldn’t even count if there’s not a minimum twenty-post comment thread underneath.

But my site should be a pit stop on a huge conversational circuit, and instead it tends to feel very insular. It’s not because I don’t want to explain myself or encourage a broader conversation (plenty of posts are a little cryptic). One-off conversations with writers I respect tend not to go anywhere because I’m not totally on their radar or don’t share their interests (Tom Breihan had a really nice couple of comment posts about the High School Musical phenom here). I lob ideas out into other comment threads to varying effect, and there are a few communities that have a bigger vision of where a conversation can go. The Poptimists LiveJournal community is probably the best conversation zone at the moment, but even that’s relatively self-contained (probably good for its stability), largely due to the format of LiveJournal. Generally I’d consider my own effectiveness as a conversation catalyst pretty limited. I hope that rockcritics.com 2.0 will serve this purpose itself; I found it way too late but always enjoy the interviews I read here.

Maura Johnston
(See #3)

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5. Would you agree that the back and forth conversational aspect of the music blogosphere has died down somewhat in the last few years? Any theories as to why?

Carl Wilson
It’s absolutely true that it has. Three main reasons: (a) Some of the early adopters who were best at the back-and-forths have dropped out or stepped down or changed the nature of their activities, as the novelty has worn off. (b) There came to be so many music blogs that no one could (or would want to) keep up with them all–I always feel fortunate that I created mine a little before that explosion, so at least I got to participate in some of that halcyon period. The result of the proliferation–which is of course a nice thing in itself–is that there are seldom Big Conversations that “everybody” gets in on, but just a lot of small side conversations happening along all the vectors within the bloganza. It has broken down into niches, as everything these days tends to do. Whereas when there were still only a few main news networks, so to speak, we were all reacting to the same live feed. The diversity is great but it comes at a cost. (c) MP3 blogs, which turned the music-blog scene into an acquisitive feeding frenzy which spares little time for reflection and contemplation. It’s a shame, as the earliest mp3 blogs such as Said the Gramophone and Fluxblog present an entirely different model, but few are the people who have followed in their model, compared to the here’s-the-latest-leak-with-200-words-of-hype model. The earlier, more criticism-oriented bloggers lost some focus and, more so, I think, have been turned off by all that.

Maura Johnston
I don’t think it’s died down as much as it’s shifted and dispersed. In the early years of music blogging, the space was mostly populated by critics who were excited about the idea that they could write in a space that was free of word-count restrictions–there was also the influence of I Love Music/Freaky Trigger, which spawned a lot of the earliest prominent music blogs.

But today, with the rise of the MP3 blog and the idea that a person doesn’t need to write about a record in order to communicate what it sounds like, the space hasn’t become just for critics–while there are some great writers running blogs that have MP3s and music samples on them, there’s also been a rise in blogs that are much more enthusiasm-driven and interested in sharing music directly, without any verbal clutter. There’s a definite divide between the two generations of music bloggers, with a few people (Matthew Perpetua of Fluxblog, Sean at Said The Gramophone) straddling it. (I think I’m one of about four or five people who still is on I Love Music–although I never have time to post anymore–and reads the elbo.ws board as well.) Eric Harvey of marathonpacks (and Pitchfork) actually wrote a great piece on the divide between “critic” blogs and “enthusiast” blogs shortly after Idolator launched.

David Moore
Not sure because I’m too new to it and also too myopic in my own Internet rounds to really notice much difference. The back and forth has been pretty steady on my own blog, but I would echo Tom Ewing of FreakyTrigger (who I think was echoing someone else) and say that online energy is nomadic. The one thing I’m worried about, though, is a kind of sectarianism that can happen when people just move away when things get kind of rough. I’m mostly worried about it because I see this tendency in myself, and I’ve already become a little more cautious with what I’m posting after less than a year with any readership whatsoever. Anyway, I think the novelty of the MP3 blog has pretty much died down by now, and a lot of people who started out as MP3 bloggers (including me) have transitioned into more… y’know, bloggy stuff.

Simon Reynolds
It does seem to have faded noticeably, at least in the area of the blog world I inhabit. Some of the more lively bloggers around in the early days have dropped out or been distracted by careers or studies, people like Tim Finney, Jonathan Dale, Jess Harvell. I think also that music has continued its syndrome of becoming ever more disparate, and so there are fewer bones of contention or cusps of convergence simply because it is less likely you’ll have heard what’s getting someone else worked up. Instead there are micro-communities based around specific scenes or sounds, whether it’s dubstep or teenpop. And here the dominant mode of conversation is an amiable exchange of information and enthusiasm, oriented to the minutiae of that scene or genre. There’s less of a big picture and there’s less self-questioning of the assumptions of that scene. Another reason there’s less interblog discussion is that it has often gotten ugly in the past and that encourages people to avoid it.

Rich Juzwiak
Yeah, I guess. It’s been a while since we’ve had a good “Whisper Song” debate, right? (Well, actually, that was a terrible debate. Anthony was right. OF COURSE.) It’s only been recently that I’ve really connected with people who write about music, so I never really had any part of that. Honestly, I felt for years and years like an outcast, if not a total idiot. It shocked me when people who knew what they were talking about (not the type who leave comments like, “OMG! You should totally write professionally!”) contacted me. Like, I was surprised and totally honored to be asked to participate in this very symposium.

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6. A lot of music bloggers tend to start out with a lot of energy, then drop out altogether. You have kept at this for a while–what keeps you going, and are you ever tempted to just throw in the towel?

David Moore
Right now, in fact! I often feel like I could throw in the towel. Whenever “real life” intervenes and you remember that you have shit to do. I’m lucky I’m pretty well obsessed and after a while get antsy without writing, plus I weaseled my way into a verifiable “niche” (yer Fergies and Parises and Ashlees) that’s relatively sparsely covered–at least how I cover it. But that kind of commitment doesn’t leave room for more reasonable, less hysterical people to blog all the time, especially in such a saturated field. I know I was “brought up” in online criticism thinking it was a privilege just to be published somewhere, or to have something to say in a place anyone could conceivably read it; it’s still a shock if I get paid for anything. But it also makes blogging a low priority when it comes time to pay the rent, or do something that might facilitate the rent getting paid. I didn’t realize that until this year, which was my first year out of some kind of academic setting (and I went ahead and remedied that by getting my ass to grad school).

Simon Reynolds
When I started, one veteran blogger said, “I predict you’ll go at it crazy for six months and then suddenly stop. I’ve seen it so many times before”. That was five years ago! There’s been a few points where I’ve thought of giving up, but not because I’ve lost interest–indeed at any given point I’ve usually got at least a dozen things I’d like to post about but just haven’t got round to. No, it’s because I’ve been stretched thin, due to work and life commitments. Having a second child put a time crunch on inessential activities of all sorts, and blogging is at the top of that list. But at this point I can’t imagine ever completely stopping, not unless there was some really drastic change in my life circumstances. It is such a useful and enjoyable outlet for writing that is unpublishable in all other formats, but has some kind of value or pleasure factor both for the writer and the reader. Having a blog as an outlet has made me a lot more productive in terms of ideas, even if a high proportion of them never make it to the web. Just knowing it is there provokes me to muse about stuff, think things through.

Rich Juzwiak
Yes! Because I’m blogging full-time for VH1, by the end of the day, my brain is often zapped. Sometimes, I just want to zone out, or, you know, take in some pop culture, which I’m supposed to be commenting on, and not think about this other thing that I have going on that’s basically a glorified hobby. But those thoughts go away as quickly as they creep up, because I know that I owe everything to my blog. It has, in the most basic sense, improved my quality of life, via the exposure and opportunities it has offered. Sometimes, I feel like I’m working for it–like, mining pop-culture for something, anything to put a unique, hopefully uniquely packaged, spin on. But you know, ultimately, I’m happy to give back to that which has given me so much. And, really, like I said above, I’m so creatively fulfilled that it’s worth doing just to stay that way.

Carl Wilson
As I said, Zoilus helps keep me in touch with the U.S. and British criticism worlds in a way that I’d find hard to replicate. But the main thing that keeps me going is actually the Toronto following–it fills a role in the local scene that seems to be a bit unique, and it has generated in its own discursive community-within-a-community that I feel very pleasurably responsible for. Sometimes it gets difficult to keep the energy and especially the time available for the site, but I find it hard to imagine killing it off as long as that function remained intact. I get a lot of very gratifying in-person response out and about in the city, often from complete strangers.

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7. Do you think music blogs have any serious impact on record sales, or on how music is covered in newsstand publications?

Carl Wilson
Yeah, I think it’s obvious that “blog buzz” has interacted with things like “the Pitchfork effect” etc. in putting a lot of indie rock, psych-folk etc etc on the map. Mentioning blog reaction is a routine part of how one pitches a professional story now. It’s not always a salutary impact but it’s an impact. Oddly the result has been partly to “Britannize” North American music culture, which now follows the rapid rise-and-fall cycles that people long mocked the NME etc for causing. But that’s internet music culture as a whole, of which blogs are only a part.

I don’t think blog style has had much impact on mainstream journalism, however–partly because it’s difficult to translate to print (they’re different media) and partly because any style that was evolving as a signature of the blog scene got lost in the breakdown of dialogue I noted above. Blogs now are maybe snappier and more sarcastic than mainline newsstand writing but that’s hardly in contradiction to the snarky-soundbite trend that’s long been evident in mainstream entertainment writing. The intellectualism and experimentalism didn’t last long enough to become influential.

Rich Juzwiak
Naw, they just help streamline piracy. I’m kidding–kind of. I don’t know the answer to this, but I’m sure if the answer is yes, it’s tangled in the minutae of the long tail and who has the patience to parse it out of that? I can say that personally, I’m not really interested in telling people, “Buy this” or “Skip this,” because reviews rarely have such an effect on me. I think that every piece of pop culture is worth experiencing, even if you end up hating it. Criticism can steer you in new and different directions, but its main function in these access-heavy times is, I think, as a conduit for discourse. I said above that a lot of people would think it ridiculous to call criticism art, but I’m not one of those people. This probably sounds like it makes for lofty and maybe alienating posts, but I don’t think that has to be the case, as long as your voice is as clear and tangible as possible.

Maura Johnston
I see SoundScan numbers every week, and while you could argue that some bands’ promotional pushes might be helped by their being mentioned on music blogs, the music blog world does not at all have the impact that Pitchfork has at this point. There’s also the chicken/egg idea: The concept of the “promo MP3”–the MP3 that is sent to MP3 bloggers and is legal to post for “hey this record is coming out” purposes–serves to focus bloggers’ energies/bring the blog world more in line with other marketing efforts. This has resulted in the charts on elbo.ws and the Hype Machine top 10 being generally populated by a crowd of usual suspects–right now it’s Iron & Wine and Animal Collective, for example. There hasn’t been a band that’s been “broken” by blogs in a long while, and I’d argue that the efforts by labels and promotional companies to work with bloggers/make sure that they aren’t distributing entire albums over the Internet piecemeal is a big reason for that. While I understand the labels’ reasoning behind that, I do think it dampens enthusiasm/makes it a lot more difficult for bands to spontaneously erupt from the underground.

Simon Reynolds
I doubt it, sales wise. I think bloggers certainly helped to get grime and dubstep noticed, in terms of mainstream coverage, and they helped to spread knowledge of the scene across the world. The strain of poptimist writing probably encouraged a more respectful attitude towards pop music and to genres that rock critics have generally not given much attention to. But then again, that kind of generalist, non-partisan approach to pop writing was catching on at a professional level: there were particular critics doing it prominently at various magazines and newspapers. So you might say the poptimist bloggers were influenced by those writers as much as the other way around. It was more like a Zeitgeist thing within criticism on all levels, in response to changes in music.

David Moore
To the extent that a blog is an arm of a PR group, it doesn’t interest me very much, even if I don’t deny these blogs’ importance in the scheme of everyday music advocacy. I go to the Internet to talk about music, and I see increasing record sales etc. as a kind of outgrowth of the need to talk, not vice versa. Fluxblog has long been a pretty good example of the interdependency of these ideas, advocacy and chat, but I wouldn’t go there if I didn’t want to read what Matthew Perpetua was actually writing first. I understand the need for blogs to keep up with what’s going on, but I don’t understand why so often this seems to be completely incompatible with writing anything that’s actually worth reading.

The “professionalization” of the blogosphere toward what amounts to a big network of cable news tickers is disheartening. And frankly I don’t think print publications have learned a thing from blogs (blogs probably learned much more from print music journalism and fanzines). I’m not sure if BLOGS have learned a thing from blogs; mostly I just read what my LiveJournal friends are posting and call it a day. The number of times I’ve learned anything or even particularly enjoyed myself in front of a printed piece of music journalism in the past few years is very low. Not unheard of by any means, but it suggests to me that no blog or site that I actively respond to regularly online is having much of an impact in print, except the (very) occasional crossover of a select few authors.

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8. What would you like to see more of in the world of music blogs?

Maura Johnston
More digging into the archives for reasons that aren’t just “funny,” more stretching the boundaries of genre, less straight-up reposting of e-mails from promo companies and PR people. And more blogs about metal and country!

Simon Reynolds
More interblog communication. Both genial pass-the-baton type discussion and the “battle”/blog-clash kind.

Also–and this may seem odd–but I could do with less informative/information-heavy/detail-oriented writing, and more that aims for truth or epiphany, for Big Ideas; blogging that makes connections rather than points out minutiae.

David Moore
Rational conversation with less exclusionary insider talk and fewer nudges; serious (not the same as “humorless”) attempts at engaging with good arguments and new ideas while allowing for taste differences (but also a general willingness to challenge taste differences on grounds other than merely visceral disagreement); writers not worried about getting their hair a little mussed with anthropology since they’re often doing it anyway; more Ashlee Simpson on Ashlee Simpson’s terms. I think the blog networks have as much to learn from academia–about self-preservation, how to fund your operations, how to build an interdisciplinary community centered on a common interest–as academia has to learn from blogs (how to get the stick out of your butt; how to say something sucks or is totally awesome and analyze from there without feeling weird about it).

Carl Wilson
More in-depth everything, more genuinely personal writing (not ego-centric jokey personal writing but introspective, exploratory, nervy reflections), more experimentation with how prose can be changed by the electronic form (I don’t have the programming chops for this myself, but I’m thinking of the sort of multi-screen, hyperlink-playful containers Lalitree and John Darnielle used to invent for John’s writing on Last Plane to Jakarta before the Mountain Goats got biggish and he made the site simpler), and, somehow, a renaissance in interblog dialogue, analysis and polemic. Oh, and more porn.

Rich Juzwiak
Humor. Sex. Outlandishness. Ideas shooting out like a spray of bullets. I want music blogs to read like Russ Meyer movies play.

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9. What blogs, music or otherwise, do you most highly recommend?

Rich Juzwiak

  • Crunk & Disorderly – Fresh’s sense of humor is so simultaneously relatable and bizarre, it feels like a feat unto itself. Technically, C&D is a gossip blog, but the intelligence behind it alone elevates it to virtually unclassifiable heights. I seriously could not love this girl more on a fundamental level. I can’t decide if I want to mate or just merge with her.
  • Anthony Is Right – I’m biased because Anthony is a personal friend of mine, but that’s ultimately what allows my objective reading of his blog: I know how virtually unfathomable his intelligence is, and so I’m aware of just how great an accomplishment it is that he makes it so tangible. What he’s writing about matters less than the fact that he’s writing, period. I can think of no higher praise to offer a critic.
  • ’90s R&B Junkie – As blog that sets out to critique and contextualize every song to hit No. 1 on Billboard‘s R&B singles chart in the ’90s, this could only be more up my alley if Mariah Carey sung it to me.
  • 24:Hours – If there’s a blog that does a better job of keeping up with today’s disco, please, send me a link!
  • Pajiba – They generally don’t touch music, but they do provide lengthy, intelligently written film and TV criticism. What’s most amazing is the devotion of their readers: people responding not to flashy images or quick, thoughtless sound bites, but actual text. With our attention spans getting progressively shorter, Pajiba’s devotees are truly hope for the future.
  • Television Without Pity – I wouldn’t be here without it.

Simon Reynolds
Some of my favorites have bitten the dust or gone into hibernation, but the two blogs that have given me the most consistent pleasure and stimulation over the last five years are still going strong: Woebot and K-Punk. I’m also rather keen on new-ish blog The Impostume by Carl Neville. My interests don’t overlap very often with Momus’ but when they do I find his Click Opera live journal thought-provoking and witty. Going beyond just music there’s Sit Down Man You’re a Bloody Tragedy, Acheron LV-426, and Jahsonic. BUT there are loads more–I’ll stop there though ‘cos otherwise I’ll be here all night.

David Moore
My first stop in the blog circuit is the Poptimists LiveJournal community and the writing of its various members in whatever form that takes (everything from published books to blog posts about a shitty weekend). A very diverse group of people, all very friendly and welcoming, lots of fun. And the analysis in the past two or three months has been first rate–I think a lot of my own energy has gone toward Poptimists lately and away from my blog. Regular reads include Mike Barthel’s Clap Clap, Frank Kogan’s LiveJournal page, Jessica Popper’s Dirrrty Pop, Susan Broyles’s Fairytale in the Supermarket, and Marc Hogan’s Offnotes. All of them are very eager to use their posts as a jumping off point for a great conversation. Non-musically, the best find in the past year or so has been Radosh.net, a politics and pop culture blog by journalist Daniel Radosh.

Maura Johnston
I have about 800 blogs in my RSS reader, so it’s hard to narrow down to just a few. If you dare: mauradotcom’s blogs.(But I should probably say that lately I’ve been mostly reading blogs about the housing bubble in my off-hours. The Housing Bubble in particular. Yes, I relax with news of imminent economic collapse. Fun times!)

Carl Wilson
See my links page. Although that page needs a serious update, there’s lots there.

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10. Anything else you care to add?

Simon Reynolds
Going back to the MC-ing analogy, a big part of blogging is, let’s face it, showing off. You have a thought you think is interesting, a turn of phrase you’re pleased with, or it might just be that you’ve got a record that you think no one else is hip to. There’s a large element of self-preening. But there’s also a more noble side to blogging that is literally altruistic in the sense of being Other-oriented: it’s about making a connection. I’ve received so many fantastic communications from people in response to my blogging, really thoughtful and beautifully written e-mails from people who are complete strangers, sharing their stories with me, often with really unusual perspectives. Some have blogs but surprisingly few do. And I often wonder to myself why they don’t start their own blogs, go public with their knowledge and passion. But perhaps they just don’t have the show-off impulse. And that’s fine. A certain element of ego and exhibitionism comes with the territory. Although in real life bloggers tend to be unassuming types, as opposed to the ranters and know-it-alls they are in their blogs. There’s something of a disconnect there.

David Moore
My five-disc teenpop megamix, full of post-2000 teenpop (organized into thematic categories), is still available 4 FREE, get ’em while they last. Wave of the future: MP3 album dumpsites with thousands upon thousands of words worth of analysis thrown in!

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Here are the questions for any other bloggers out there so inclined…

1. Talk about your blog and how it has evolved over time. Why did you start to blog? What sorts of things do you do on your blog?
2. Is your blogging voice or the material you cover in your blog different than the voice you use or the material you cover in your professional music writing? If so, how?
3. What are your thoughts on comments boxes in blogs? Do you or don’t you allow them, and why?
4. Is your blog a forum to converse with or critique other writers? If so, please recount one (or some) of your more memorable blog dialogs or critiques.
5. Would you agree that the back and forth conversational aspect of the music blogosphere has died down somewhat in the last few years? Any theories as to why?
6. A lot of music bloggers tend to start out with a lot of energy, then drop out altogether. You have kept at this for a while–what keeps you going, and are you ever tempted to just throw in the towel?
7. Do you think music blogs have any serious impact on record sales, or on how music is covered in newsstand publications?s
8. What would you like to see more of in the world of music blogs?t
9. What blogs, music or otherwise, do you most highly recommend?
10. Anything else you care to add?

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9 thoughts on “Rockcritics Music Blogger Symposium

  1. […] You can read the rest of this blog post by going to the original source, here […]

  2. i think there’s a real problem with even picking up that people are responding to things you’ve said, comments box or no (and i know which side of that divide i’m on), due to the proliferation of spam blogs, so checking one’s refferal logs is a pain. how exactly would people see, for example Tom’s piece without having an rss feed for every blog (and every comments feed) in the world (hi maura!)?

  3. Ned Raggett says:

    Mmm, FWIW it’s worth, Carsmile, wordpress.com has done v. well with spam blocks and clear referrals. Mind you, I’m also amused at where I’m getting referrals from. Apparently the Poles were fascinated by my recent Radiohead talk.

  4. Ned Raggett says:

    Wow, ‘FWIW it’s worth’ — I should coin that. Ultimate overkill.

    (Great roundtable of course! But I have to be honest, I wouldn’t’ve noticed it had I not noticed Tom’s FT response to it, and I wouldn’t’ve noticed THAT had I not been idly checking the feed and wondered what his Pet Shop Boys reference was about — it’s a bit like the supposed ringtone phenomenon, where something needs to be immediately catchy in a brief burst in order to stand out at all and be worth more investigation. Quite honestly, as I think is well said by many in the piece, time commitments and the ability to simply browse and consider are often mutually exclusive; in my case a far greater amount of time is spent by me on political commentary and considerations than it is on music discussion over the past few years.)

  5. […] October 11th, 2007 — Ned Raggett Going to this FT entry from Tom E. further led to this one on rockcritics.com. Well worth checking out (I might read them in reverse order); my random comments on both are […]

  6. I hate reading online…in fact, I often copy and paste Carl’s blog into a *.doc for reading later at home in the comfort of my queen size bed under the warm light of my halogen lamp. I also considered starting my own blog, given my keen interest/obsession of all things musical…so, I guess brevity and concision is always the challenge, as is the time investment of readers…neither of which the blog-o-sphere is particularly prone to…so…I’m most indifferent, like I am about my Def Leppard LPs. I’m glad they are there, I just don’t pay much attention to them. I think Carl will agree, I have a tendency toward egotism, but I’m a huge fan of pedestrian blogging…unfortunately, the audience is the thing…don’t you think? In this case, rockcritics.com have identified one and entrenched themselves accordingly…I am a mere dilettante visiting, like the proverbial Griel Marcus…’cause you are all so damn cool and I wish we were friends.

  7. […] 18, 2007 in Blogs, Music Having finally read the responses to Rockcritic’s group Q&A, there’s a fair degree of both alignment and contrast from a wide-ranging bunch of music blog […]

  8. […] blog by my fellows on the Tumblrsphere, specifically this post in which the author analyzes the Rock Critic’s Music Blogger Symposium. Since that day I find myself returning to Condemned to Rock ‘N Roll again and again just […]

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