Rolling Stone Editor Nathan Brackett Snubs Breakfast Reviews, Predicts Klezmer Kraze
By Jason Gross (June 2002)
You may not think you know who Nathan Brackett is but trust me, you know his work. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you’ve heard of a magazine calledRolling Stone. Claiming a seven-digit circulation, any release that’s written up in its record reviews section is bound to be seen by a large chunk of people. Heading up that section of the magazine and deciding which records make the cut there, Brackett, indeed, has an important and influential job.
Growing up in a small town north of Boston, Brackett credits mid-to-late ’80s hip-hop with getting him serious about music criticism; he remembers fruitlessly haunting magazine shops in college looking for a copy of the Source or anything else that covered the music that he loved.
After getting his first taste of ink at the University of Wisconsin’s Daily Cardinal (where his very first piece was on the controversy surrounding Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome”), Brackett dreamt of making it to New York to get in the thick of all the magazine homesteads. He got his first job at a national publication when his mother alerted him to an internship position opening up at Musician magazine in neighboring Gloucester, Mass. When the magazine had an office lackey job open up in their New York office in ’91, he jumped at it, just to be where he always knew he should be. After spending a few years there and working his way up to Assistant Editor (as well as freelancing for Vibe, Option, and Grand Royale), he made his way to the newly opened N.Y. offices of Time Out, working as Music Editor there in ’95. When he got a call about an opening at Stone, Brackett leapt at the opportunity and has held down his job for the last five years.
Jason: What did you pick up from working with different editors when you were starting out?
Nathan: It was hard for me at to get feedback because I was doing short reviews. Any writer will probably tell you that it’s hard to get feedback from professional editors ’cause they just want to get the copy in ON deadline. I learned that just being able to write in English is an important first step from people like Bill Flanagan, Mark Rowland and Tony Sherman at Musician. Just being clear is a virtue. From there, you can try and say something a little more interesting. I’d see so many of these smart people who wanted to write but couldn’t quite get their point across. These editors drilled that into me: it’s like the idea that it’s important to be able to play scales before you can play something more.
Jason: What was your impression of Rolling Stone before you started working there?
Nathan: I grew up with Rolling Stone–my folks always had a subscription. I guess I have this kind of primal thing for the kind ofRolling Stone font in my head. I loved Rolling Stone and I thought everything looked good there even though the first cover I remember was the Perfect one with John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis! [laughs] Even when I was at Musician, I remember being impressed with what Rolling Stone was doing under David Fricke as the Music Editor and seeing how they managed to balance covering bands that were huge with stuff that they actually liked.
Jason: What kind of things have you learned from working there?
Nathan: That…writing well is hard! [laughs] Also, that an enormous amount of work goes into even the basic news reporting about, say, VH1 hiring a new president, to give you a recent example. It’s hard to do that well. Professionalism has a bit of a bad name in rock critic circles but there is a good reason for it at some level. A lot of people talk about some of the good old days of rock criticism. I’ve gone back and read a lot of those, looking through old Rolling Stones and I’m not sure if I would want them to return. I remember reading a Charles Perry review from the early ’70s, and it’s basically him talking about his morning–walking up, making himself breakfast–and then he finally got to the record in the last paragraph. Also, I’ve learned that on a certain level, keeping it simple is a real virtue with rock criticism, and just reporting about music in general. I think that’s kind of Jann Wenner’s gift actually–he’s smart enough to know that on a very basic level, you have to keep things simple.
Jason: So what’s a good review look like to you?
Nathan: Well one thing that a lot of rock critics do when they start out is they start writing for other rock critics.
Jason: Probably because they are.
Nathan: Yeah, they are! [laughs] And I find with young writers, there’s this kind of impulse to show what you can do and to show that you own a copy of…the Beastie Boys’ “Cookie Puss” EP, or that you really know something about the MC5 and that you can really draw a line between them and a new Detroit band. In doing that, people forget that they need to connect with a reader. There’s somebody who actually just cares about music, who might not be a rock criticism fan, who’s picking up an issue of Rolling Stone, Spinor Blender, and really just wants to find out what something sounds like and whether it’s worth checking out. There are really different things that I look for in different rock critics. People like James Hunter or Ben Ratliff are real music thinkers–they think about music all day and they’re able to communicate those thoughts in their writing and they always have something interesting to say. Whereas some writers are a lot better at just connecting with readers. Rob Sheffield is one of my favorite writers of all time. He’s somebody who could be a very good Greil Marcus imitator but he puts a premium on being an entertaining writer and connecting with readers and saying something smart along the way. I guess I look for a piece that succeeds on its own terms and something that can really connect with me.
Jason: Since you keep talking about the reader, who is a Rolling Stone reader? When you’re editing your section, obviously you have to keep in mind who the audience is.
Nathan: I do think about this but I think there are a lot of different types of readers. It’s a tough question ’cause Rolling Stone has such an enormous circulation. I try to think of different readers when I try to do every review section. With Rolling Stone, I’m trying to think if a piece of writing can connect with both an 18-year-old college kid who cares about music and the kind of lifer subscriber who still cares that we review the new Neil Young record. Sometimes I try to get in an ‘older sister record’–as in, “it’d be nice to turn my older sister onto this David Gray record.” Alongside that, we try to include the stuff that’s getting a lot of attention on MTV or that people are talking about.
Jason: So to balance it out to be inclusive, you need to do that in the sweep of the whole section, rather than trying to do that in a single review?
Nathan: Yeah, certainly. It’s tough because not many magazines are doing what we’re trying to do: address the entirety of pop music.Spin has the luxury of not trying to do that. Blender does try to do that. And your daily papers try to do that. So you find yourself speaking to different constituencies. I’d like to think that anybody who cares about music on some level will find something in any given reviews section that I’ve done.
Jason: Being at Rolling Stone, you obviously function as a gatekeeper to a lot of the music that comes out. How cognizant are you of that in your work?
Nathan: I had this kind of deer-in-the-headlights kind of moment when Mark Kemp asked me to be Reviews Editor after about six months into this job. OH MY GOD! You actually decide which records get reviewed in Rolling Stone. I found here that you really can’t think about that. [laughs] I try to be cognizant on the level that every review that we do is going to be read very seriously and that a band spent a year of their lives off and on with every record that we review and that a lot of bands who read our reviews are going to care enormously about what we have to say and that hopefully, a lot of readers will care about what we have to say. Most people would agree that we’re on the less glib side of reviewing. Rolling Stone was founded on a certain amount of respect for the artist, and that’s the line that’s gone through the magazine throughout its history. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think there’s a place for pure subjectivity in other magazines. But I think it’s a good thing that there are people out there who have a certain sense of…for lack of a better term, newspaper-propriety when it comes to music.
Jason: How much freedom are you given with your section?
Nathan: I’m given a lot of leeway. Generally, I discuss the lead review with my boss, Joe Levy. From there on, I’m pretty much given an incredible amount of freedom.
Jason: So there’s no pressure from above that something has to be in there, or that they need a certain kind of review for any particular artist?
Nathan: Yeah! As I said, I think there are certain institutional traditions that any editor for any magazine is cognizant of. But on a day-to-day basis as far as what reviews are going into any given section, I feel a lot of freedom to do my work.
Jason: What kind of traditions are you talking about at Rolling Stone?
Nathan: It is Rolling Stone, and one of the founding guidelines of the magazine is that there are people out there who still care about a lot of the classic rock of the ’60s and the ’70s. That there are people who care when Neil Young makes a new record–or they should care. We also try to cover wherever pop culture is going on a given two week period, and so we cover stuff that people are buying or what they’re hearing on the radio. We think that people are curious who, say, Trik Turner is. Then, after that, we try to turn people on to music that we think is worthwhile.
Jason: With that last point, how difficult is it to get in reviews of bands or performers who aren’t quite yet in the public/mainstream consciousness? In other words, they’re not popular yet, or they may never be.
Nathan: I think we try to do that in every issue. That’s the fun part of the job–I don’t see that as hard! I get excited when we do that. That’s what keeps me doing it. When David Fricke does his “On the Edge” column, he’d say the same thing about his work. It’s purely his personal favorite records. I guess I just don’t feel that we’re going out on a limb when we review an independent record or something that’s just not established. I think every section has a couple of records that the casual music fan hasn’t heard on K-Rock.
Jason: You brought up Spin and Blender before. Do you think about these magazines and their work when you’re doing your section?
Nathan: Not really. I don’t feel an enormous sense of competition with them. I covet the amount of pages that Rob Tannenbaum gets in Blender for his reviews section! Beyond that, I don’t feel this daily pressure–“oh my God, are they going to get a copy of the new Flaming Lips before us? We have to get there first! Let’s make an exclusive!” (laughs) I’m happy that there are a few national music magazines where a writer can get work from. The more pay-days out there for rock critics, the better.
Jason: How do you see your section in the scope of the rest of the magazine?
Nathan: Well, it’s the section of the magazine where we get to say what we like. Whereas different parts of the magazine are just covering what’s out there. As I said before, we have a certain responsibility to cover records that people are buying or are at least on the radar. But we also get to say what we really think about them. I can’t tell you how many times it’s happened, though, where we haven’t covered an artist (in the reviews section) and then they appear on the cover. [laughs] It happens. And there have been times when we’ve stiffed an artists’ record in the same issue that we’ve given them a cover story. So, sometimes there’s a bit of a tension, but it’s not something that I deal all the time with in the office. When Joe Levy is negotiating a cover shoot or something, I don’t hear, “hey, we better get them a decent review.”
Jason: With all the work you have to do as an editor, do you find any time to do any writing yourself?
Nathan: It’s hard. I tried to do it once every few months. I think every editor should write a little bit. Otherwise, you forget what it’s like to be on the receiving end of an edit. I’ll have someone like Joe do that and it’s always a treat to do that with him.
Jason: For the reviews section, to some extent, your own views/opinions come into place?
Nathan: Yeah, absolutely. If that didn’t come into play, we’d just be taking focus groups to decide on reviews. It comes into play for every album that we review. Although I will say that I do have respect for a writer’s tastes and I have reviews of countless records in the section that I’ve totally disagreed with. I’ve even raised the star rating for some reviews of records that I didn’t like if, say, the review read like a four star review but the writer only gave it three-and-a-half stars. By the same token, I’ll lower a star rating if it feels that the writer didn’t make the case.
Jason: On average, how much music do you listen to every day?
Nathan: It’s funny…I find that I cram in a lot of music in between issues. I have a hard time listening to music and giving it the attention it deserves when we’re closing an issue. If you don’t include the whole record, I’ll listen to 40-50 a week.
Jason: What kind of criteria do you use to decide what you’re going to listen to based on the hundreds of records that come out each week?
Nathan: A lot of it is trusting writers. I have a lot of people out there who turn me on to records. And then, there’ll be records I’ll be curious about. Those are my main guidelines. And then there’ll be something that I’ll pick up because it has an interesting album cover or something. It’s nice when something just comes out of the pile and we end up reviewing it, but it’s pretty rare.
Jason: Do you think the whole MP3 craze and the peer-to-peer networks that have been built up around it are going to make review columns like yours obsolete?
Nathan: Not really. I think if anything, people need more guidance because of the Internet. People have access to all this music. It’s a great thing that somebody can read Rolling Stone and then go on the Internet and download half the songs that are written about in the reviews section. I think with the Wild, Wild West of the Internet, people are looking to, for lack of a better term, a brand that they can trust. A few years ago, collaborative filtering was going to do away with record reviews: that’s where they say, “if you like this, then you’ll also like this!”
Jason: Oh yeah, Amazon uses that system.
Nathan: Right. I don’t know if it works for you but when I go on to Amazon, I bought my brother-in-law an electric drill three years ago and now they recommend drilling magazines to me all the time. I think it’d be a shame if people felt that they were fed further into their demographic. That’s what this kind of filtering does. One of the points of rock criticism is that it can open your ears to something else that you might not have heard of.
Jason: A lot of people are wondering about the future of Rolling Stone with the recent change in staff and the increased competition. How do you see this?
Nathan: Right now, we don’t know. We’re going to have a new Managing Editor, hopefully within a few weeks, and we’ll see. What I’m hoping is that we’re going to have more room for record reviews. That’s what I’ve been led to believe and that’s a good thing. Right now, I’m pretty optimistic, but I don’t know.
[Editor’s note: Following the recent, much publicized news of Wenner’s hiring of Ed Needham, formerly of FHM, we asked Nathan if he knew specifically what direction Needham planned to take the magazine in. Here’s his response: “My impression is that a lot of what he was hired to do is package the magazine better–yes, there will probably be more short stuff in the magazine, but it’s going to be done well, and in a Rolling Stone way rather than a Maxim or FHM way. The magazine will always have an article or two in every issue with some heft. The difference may be that we advertise better all the little stuff we do well-‘Random Notes,’ music news, and short record reviews, for example. I have to address one thing, though: I love when the magazine gets called irrelevant–and then the New York Times runs a front page article about our new Managing Editor, or you read about it on the frigging CNN ticker! People have been saying Rolling Stone has been going to the dogs since we put David Cassidy on the cover in 1972, and we’re still here.”]
Jason: Do you yourself work with Jann a lot, and get feedback from him?
Nathan: Yeah! It’s pretty exciting to work with him. He’s a great talent. He’s kept the magazine simple but he’s not afraid to fiddle with it. That’s why it’s been around for 30 years. You have to keep on your toes with him.
Jason: What do you mean by that?
Nathan: Well, he’ll always ask you whether some little section that you’ve been doing for the last year is still a good idea. He doesn’t really feel like there are any sacred cows in terms of the actual format of the magazine. And you know, he’s often right!
Jason: What other music magazines out there are doing good work?
Nathan: It’s easier for me to say what writers I like ’cause that’s what I gravitate towards rather than certain magazines. I love everybody from the New York Times–I’ll read Jon Pareles, Ben Ratliff and, formerly of the Times, Ann Powers. I’ll always check out the Voice–I still love Bob Christgau. A lot of the British music magazines have a real energy which is just part of their culture–the throw-it-up-and-tear-it-down kind of culture. So I’m always entertained by Q and NME.
Jason: If there would be anything you could change about your reviews section, what would it be?
Nathan: To get twice as many pages–it would give us the pretense of being comprehensive, which is very hard to do now. I’d love to feel that we could have a guide to every record that you could possibly care about coming out in a two week period. Right now, we have to be a lot more selective. I think the world could deal with 10 pages of records every two weeks, but maybe I’m just speaking for myself.
Jason: Want to make any predictions about the next big thing?
Nathan: Klezmer in ’03! It’s all going to be about klezmer wedding bands. Expect a cover story soon.