The Goldberg Variations: Neumu Editor Addicted to Criticism
By Barbara Flaska (July 2002)
Michael Goldberg has stacked up so many fine achievements that reading through his biography can be alternately humbling and inspiring. He served a long apprenticeship in print publishing, freelancing for many years before ending up, in 1984, as Senior Writer and Associate Editor with Rolling Stone. In 1994, back when the Internet was a fledgling medium, Goldberg started up Addicted To Noise, a pioneering multimedia music web site. Two years later, in mid-1997, ATNmerged with SonicNet, which in turn was purchased by MTV Networks in mid-1999. The primary function and form of ATN was increasingly lost in the shuffle and finally overwhelmed; Goldberg then left the corporate media world to chill out. After which time, he re-dedicated himself to music and decided to put his skills back to work. He eventually formed Neumu, another online site but one purposefully designed without a revenue plan on start-up. Goldberg recently spent some time with me rhapsodizing about the writers and artists who assemble at Neumu. Conceived as a non-commercial site dedicated to music and art, Neumucelebrated their first birthday on 1 June 2002.
[Photo of Michael Goldberg below by Lin Marie deVincent.]
Michael: Neumu is a collaboration between myself and the Australian artist/designer Emme Stone. We’re partners in the site. I feel very strongly that the way editorial and other “content” is presented is as important as having strong writing, photos, animations, etc. Emme is quite brilliant as both an artist and designer, and I think her work really does a good job of framing the editorial, and setting the right mood.
I began writing a column for ATN back in late 1994 that evolved into The Drama You’ve Been Craving. As a writer, this column has become my main outlet. I finally found my “voice” when I began writing it. These days, “The Drama…” is where I bring together my unique take on music and how music and life fit together. I named the column after a Sleater-Kinney song because I love Sleater-Kinney’s music and what they represent (doing things independent of the corporate world with artistic integrity, making powerful statements through music and the way they handle themselves as artists), and because I hope that my columns provide “the drama you’ve been craving,” stimulating people to think about music in new ways, to check out artists they are unfamiliar with, that kind of thing. I’m very proud of the column, and there are links to many of them in the “Drama” area of Neumu.
Addicted To Noise was my first try at creating a magazine that dealt with important artists and the music they make. When I started ATN, I felt that a great online magazine about the music that myself and the contributors loved would find an audience, and that the magazine itself could be a kind of “art piece” at the same time that it would allow the people working on it to make a living. While I still believe that is possible, I also think the timing was wrong, and that it will be some time before that is actually possible. I do think that, five or ten years from now, it will be possible to create a cool online magazine that will also be a successful business. I also think that from December 1994 until about the end of 1997, ATN was a pretty amazing magazine.
It’s true that ATN was the first web music magazine, so it certainly has had a lot of influence. I know that from the kind of feedback I’ve got from people who told me that ATN inspired them to start their own online music magazines and sites. It’s flattering for sure. But that isn’t the reason that I did it. I started ATN because I felt that by 1994 there wasn’t a good rock magazine–online or off. I thought that the Web was the perfect medium for a serious rock mag with a lot of attitude that would cover cool music. And I was right.
Neumu is the result of everything I’ve learned about doing online magazines up until now, combined with everything that Emme Stone has learned about designing them–plus her wise input regarding art and many other things related to the site.Neumu is, I believe, much more extreme than ATN ever was in terms of what we focus on. Much more coverage of lesser-known artists. With Neumu, we started from the premise that the site would be 100% about the art (music, words, film, art, photographs) that those involved in the site really dig, and that it would not be a commercial site. We’ve stayed true to the initial vision.
Barbara: How did it all start for you; how did you start writing about music?
Michael: I became a huge fan of music when I was a kid (basically when I was around 11 years old). And like a lot of people I heard the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Zombies, the Kinks all that stuff on AM radio which actually played a fair amount of good music at that time. We’re talking the mid-sixties, but basically, in 1964, maybe the end of ’63, was when I first heard rock and roll.
It was like being hit by lightning or something. I particularly remember seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan’s weekly TV show and it was like being hypnotized, it was so intense. It didn’t take anything to go from not knowing what rock and roll was as a kid to this was all I cared about. So that’s how I came to rock and roll.
Always, as a kid, I liked to write, and was good at writing; and I loved to read. So these two things–a passion for rock and roll and a passion for writing–came together. As a kid, I started reading Ralph J. Gleason, and then John Wasserman, the entertainment critics who wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle. I would read what they would write about music and the arts. RJG in particular was writing about the SF underground rock scene quite early on (the Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Charlatans, the dance concerts, etc., etc.). And being in the San Francisco Bay Area (I grew up in Mill Valley), pretty quick after things were happening, you were seeing things in the paper about it. That and getting over to the city and seeing what was going on and getting a sense of it.
So at a relatively young age, the idea that you could write about music became part of my world view. And other than these occasional articles in the Chronicle–we got the Chronicle every day so I had that in my environment (when you’re 11 it’s a little different than when you’re 15, 16, 17–you’re a lot more limited to what you come in contact with)–the only other things out there were these teen magazines like 16. So you could buy the teen magazines but there was no rock criticism. They were pretty cheesy, but they were the only source of information about the bands you cared about such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. So I would buy those. The real breakthrough obviously was when Jann Wenner started publishing Rolling Stone, because then you have the blueprint for everything that followed.
Barbara: How did you make the leap from reading what other people wrote about music to writing about music yourself?
Michael: There might have been some music things I wrote in junior high school. But I think the beginning of actually writing about music was in high school where I became the Arts Editor of the school paper. Also, when I was 15, a friend named Toby Byron–who went on to manage Michael Bloomfield and has since done a lot of interesting things including produce a series of jazz documentaries long before the Ken Burns series–the two of us, with a couple of other friends, published a rock magazine called Hard Road–we took the title from the John Mayall album, A Hard Road.
We were 15, and we managed to get Jerry Garcia to let us interview him. This was at a point where the Grateful Dead were about to record American Beauty, so they were still experimental and a fairly new band as opposed to a band that had been around forever. It was a pretty eclectic magazine–we interviewed Mose Allison, Jerry Garcia at his house in Larkspur, a band named Clover (a really great country-rock band at that time; they made a couple of country-rock albums for Fantasy. They were really good, they never really captured it on record–but they were an amazing country-rock band at that point). Clover lived in Muir Beach. And they had friends who were in a band called Flying Circus–both of them doing this country-rock thing, a rockabilly thing at a time when this wasn’t really going on.
So we did interviews, and I took photographs. We had lots of record reviews. We got all our friends to do record reviews and I wrote some, of course. And we published this thing and took it all around to bookstores in the Bay Area and got it into these bookstores. We learned a lot doing this one issue. It took us all summer to do it by the time we published it. And then–we had to go back to school. How were we going to be able to keep doing this and go to school? Plus, it cost a fair amount of money. So we did one issue and had about half of a second issue done and then figured we’d have to put this aside for awhile.
But that was kind of the beginning of it, that plus writing this music column in the high school paper. We were doing all this stuff that related to our love of music. In junior high school, me and my friend Toby started up this psychedelic poster business. We were getting the posters from the Family Dog who were putting on dance concerts at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco and then we’d sell them to the kids at school that wanted them. In high school, we put on dance concerts in the high school auditorium with Michael Bloomfield who we’d gotten to know in Mill Valley. We did psychedelic light shows at the concerts that we put on. We were sort of dabbling. Trying to find where we could fit in with rock and roll. I had some different bands I played in for a second, and Toby was managing bands. It was a lot of experimentation at an early age, trying to figure out what really made sense for us to do. I was also taking tons of photographs, going to rock concerts and shooting photographs of Janis Joplin and the Doors and many others.
Writing about music and taking photographs of the artists ended up becoming my focus. I really liked to write. Then when I went to college at U.C. Santa Cruz, I started writing for the college paper there, The City On A Hill Press, writing reviews. I had also written to Creem magazine while I was still in high school and had gotten a letter back from Lester Bangs, and that was very encouraging. It basically said, “Yeah, send reviews.” I did send some reviews and those didn’t get published. But the fact that I actually got a response at that age! They were receptive. It made me feel that the world of professional magazines wasn’t a closed off thing. That was certainly encouraging.
At that point I think I saw writing about music as an entrée into this world that was mysterious and fascinating, this world of rock and roll artists. I thought this was a way you could enter the world of these artists, hang around, and observe. I was really curious about everything that had to do with rock and roll and the making of rock and roll. The artists, the recording studio, the producers, the managers–everything. As time went on, my idea was to attempt in a story to capture enough of that world so that the reader could have a sense of what it was like meeting with this artist, what they’re about, what they’re doing, their story. I became very focused on that and spent a lot of years doing those kinds of stories.
There was one piece in particular I did on Robbie Robertson for Rolling Stone (it was published when Robbie’s first solo album was released in 1987) that I worked on off and on for a year. I went down and spent time with him a couple different times in L.A. (at various studios), went to Woodstock where he was finishing up his album. I must have hung out with him five different times over the course of a year and talked with Martin Scorsese and all these people who had worked with him over the years. I felt that the piece really gave you a sense of Robbie Robertson and his life. Time passed in the piece. You got a sense of seeing Robbie not just over the course of the year I spent reporting the story, but also I was able to recreate some key scenes from his life that I felt really put you right there with him. I felt it was pretty ambitious.
Anyway, as time went on, I began to think of myself as a writer. I had been writing in a serious way since I was 15. Publishing my own magazine, writing for the high school paper, the college paper, an underground paper called Sundaz! in Santa Cruz. I began to think: this is what I do.
These were the two things that I did: I wrote about music and I took photographs of artists (and other things as well)–lots of photos of musicians. Those were the two things that I got an incredible amount of satisfaction out of. I decided that I was going to spend my life as a writer.
When I ended up in San Francisco as a copy boy at the San Francisco Chronicle in 1974, that turned out to be a very good platform to get a career as a journalist writing about music going. Not only was I able to get pieces published in the Chronicle‘s Sunday entertainment section (the pink “Datebook,” which was seen by one to two million people–a huge audience), but you could write about an artist in the “Datebook,” and that would sell out a club. Probably not any artist, but it almost seemed like that. It seemed like if you wrote about an artist where there was anything at all interesting in their story, enough people would show up. So that was a great thing to be able to do early on. You learned that the words you wrote could have a real impact.
So I was a copy boy at the Chronicle and I went to see this band called the Meters, the New Orleans Band–kind of like the Booker T. & the MG’s of New Orleans (if you look into New Orleans music, you’ll see that they’re quite important). They were out here doing a series of dates–they were opening for the Rolling Stones, but they were also playing at the Boarding House, a great San Francisco club. And I went and saw them a couple of nights because I loved their music. I was taking some photographs and managed to get the card of their manager.
I ended up talking to their manager and got the idea to write a story about them for a magazine that Francis Ford Coppola was publishing called City of San Francisco. And Warren Hinkle was the Editor–he had been the editor of Ramparts when Jann Wenner was there, doing a music column for Ramparts before he started Rolling Stone–and Coppola was the publisher. So I wrote a letter to the Arts Editor of City of San Francisco magazine and pitched them on a story about this band the Meters that was coming back to town. I got Thomas Albright, who was the art critic of the Chronicle, and also Paul Krassner, who was a writer and published The Realist and who I’d gotten to know–I asked them if I could drop their names into this letter and they said it was okay.
So I sent this letter and an article on the Meters that my wife Leslie and I wrote together to this Arts Editor and they published the article. So that was the first piece that I was actually paid for.
After that, we did a piece on Patti Smith and did some other things including a weekly music news column and then City of San Francisco went under. But that was a start, and that was in 1975. So with that under my belt really quickly I was writing stuff every week. At first, Leslie and I were writing together, then separately. But every week we were doing pieces for theBerkeley Barb on Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits, Ramblin Jack Elliot, the Amazing Rhythm Aces, Jesse Winchester, it just went on and on. Then as time went on, the Talking Heads, the Ramones, Television, Dave Edmunds, the B-52’s. Pretty quickly I had the Berkeley Barb and the San Francisco Chronicle as two local outlets that I was writing for, and having those regular outlets made it fairly easy to get access to the artists I wanted to write about.
First, you have to get the terrain under control, in the sense that you know where to go to get what you need. So, writing for those places began giving me the access to the artists, and then I started getting this network of people who knew me and knew my writing. Then I started pitching national magazines because I had all these clips I could use to get in the door. Pretty soon, I was writing good stuff for a magazine called New Times which was a glossy magazine that was pretty good; and also for New West, which became California Magazine. Then I did eventually break into Creem and I was also getting stuff published in the New Musical Express, and eventually, Rolling Stone.
This all took a lot of time. It went from 1975 to January of 1984, when I got hired by Rolling Stone–so there was nine years where I was freelancing. For those nine years my focus was to become a staff writer at Rolling Stone–that was my goal.
Of course, RS was changing over this period of time. When I started with that goal, it was a different magazine–a much better magazine–than it was by the time I actually got the job, although I felt the music department was good. But even in 1984, a lot of good journalism was published in Rolling Stone. It’s interesting. I have this book of all the Rolling Stone covers. I looked at the covers published in ’84 and ’85 and ’86 and you know what? They weren’t publishing covers with near-naked stars back then. Even the Madonna cover–she had her clothes on. These days it’s a sad caricature of what it once was. But anyway, I was really proud of the things I wrote for Rolling Stone. I was Music News reporter, so I was doing investigative pieces on ticket scalping and payola. I was able to do a lot of interesting stories during the nine and a half years I worked there. I spent lots of time interviewing sources to put together these investigative stories, which was very satisfying.
Also, in those days you could still get good access to artists. You could sometimes spend several days with artists. Artists would let you come to their homes for an interview. In the early ’70s, before I was working for Rolling Stone I talked to Commander Cody at his place at the beach and hung out while I interviewed him, it was very casual. One time I spoke with George Clinton at a mutual friend’s apartment in San Francisco. I talked to Captain Beefheart at his manager’s apartment. Black Flag let me hang at their office in L. A. and I rode with them in their van from L. A. to Las Vegas one time; they were playing a punk show in Vegas, across the tracks, not where all the bullshit casinos and all are located. I hung out a lot at the recording studio where Rick James was working on albums when I wrote about him. He didn’t care if I saw him snorting coke or getting huge deliveries of pot. Everything got much more controlled later–particularly with the bigger artists, but even with the newer artists. It’s not always the case, but there is a lot of that. And if you’re writing a profile of an artist, you need access. You need to spend time with them so you can witness interesting things happening. You need to be able to talk to people who know the artist, who can tell you good stories and give you their take on what the artist is like.
I think that, these days, a writer can still get good access to indie artists (and I hate to generalize but most of the good artists are indie artists it seems). If a writer treats an artist fairly, it seems like they can get the kind of access they need. If there’s trust, they can get the access and get some amazing things and write some incredible stories. It just depends on what the writer is interested in. If they want to write about the Limp Bizkits of the world, they’re going to have a lot more trouble, and who cares anyway. But if someone wants to write about Cat Power there’s maybe a better chance that they’ll be able to spend some quality time talking with the artist and get something meaningful.
Barbara: Interviews are actually a pretty difficult way to get a sense of a person. You get a brief glimpse. You’re obviously much more accustomed to it than I am. In these limited periods of contact now, how do you draw people out, or do you still do interviews?
Michael: I do interviews on occasion now, but I used to do them all day long, for years and years. With artists, with managers, producers, agents–all kinds of different sources. It was years of learning. Journalism is a craft you learn. So much of it is learning the craft, learning these skills. It’s doing hundreds of interviews and learning from each interview what works, what kinds of questions work. How can you bring things out of the artist and help them open up and help them express themselves? You only figure that out by doing it. You learn to ask the “dumb” question. Sometimes you ask questions even though you know the answer because you need to have a quote from the artist. It doesn’t matter that I know the answer because I’ve done enough research. I don’t want to say it, I want the artist to tell me it.
You learn not to bring along a photographer to your interview. I worked with this one photographer where I’d ask a question and before the artist could answer, he’d answer! Having your photographer answering questions instead of the artist does you no good. You have to remember that you’re there to get a great story. You’re there to take in a scene or scenes (and take good notes about what you see) and you’re there to get great quotes from the artist. A lot of people make a big mistake including even some fairly experienced journalists: they’ll do an interview and they’ll talk more than the artist. They think they’re supposed to be having a conversation, and that what they have to say is more important than what the artist has to say–or they’re trying to become friends or something. As a journalist, you’re not there to become friends with the artist. You’re there to get a great story.
You have to structure the interview in a way where you get the artist to open up and tell you some meaningful, real things–not the answers they may have rehearsed. If you interview Tom Waits, what you want is to get Tom Waits to actually talk and tell you something–you want to break through his rap. He’s got his rap–so you want, as a good interviewer, to figure out a good way to get him to drop the persona and to actually tell you something real. He’s a good example of an artist who is incredibly difficult to interview, who has all sorts of stock things that he’ll say over and over if you let him, so the challenge is how do you get through that? How do you get him to somehow stop doing his routine and actually say something real about his music? There’s no easy answer. It becomes intuitive over time, but it only happens over time. That’s what a lot of people don’t realize. That, yeah, you might have to do 100 interviews to get to the point where you’re really starting to be able to do this. That was my experience.
When I did the Rolling Stone interview with rock promoter Bill Graham, I interviewed him 8 hours a day for 2-1/2 days, and he really wanted to tell his story, and I really wanted to hear his story. We were covering years and years of his life–over 25 years of his dealings with legendary musicians, as well as his childhood, which was really unusual. This interview took up eight pages of Rolling Stone magazine, if you can imagine that. It was later republished in a book of interviews they did. I wanted to cover all these things he had done–he had done so much and had been involved with so many artists–I wanted anecdotes about him and the Rolling Stones, him and Bob Dylan, and what happened at Live Aid, what happened with Led Zeppelin, how’d he get started, his childhood. We were covering a lot of ground. The thing was–the only way to do it, it was clear–you had to interview for hours and hours and pull out the gems.
The same thing was true of Berry Gordy, Jr., the founder of Motown Records. When I talked to him he wasn’t used to doing interviews, he wasn’t the most articulate person. But because we talked for so long I was able to get, in my opinion, really great and interesting things from him. This was the first personal interview he had ever done. He had done interviews where he would talk about his artists. You could get him on the phone for two minutes to talk about Rick James or Stevie Wonder, but he had never done the Berry Gordy, Jr. interview where he had told his story. Those interviews were certainly exciting and interesting to do.
The other thing is doing everything you can to talk to people who know the artist–talk to the producer, talk to the guy at the record company he used to record for, talk to the musicians, talk to their mother, talk to the friends they went to school with. Obviously it depends on the kind of story you’re doing, but a mistake people often make–they’re doing a 700-word story, so they just talk to the artist instead of talking to the artist and at least a few people who know them well. I really think that the reason I got hired by Rolling Stone was because I approached every story I did as a reporting project, the way a good daily newspaper reporter would. So my stories–even my 700 words profiles–had quotes from three or four solid on-the-record sources in addition to the artist I was profiling.
When you talk to all these other people (and hopefully they’re the right people) each of whom have almost lived with the artist, so to speak, they have insights, they can give you context, they can give you perspective so that when you actually talk to the artist you’ve got a picture that’s much more realistic of who they are. You can talk to the artist for an hour and they can tell you anything they want. They can put on a persona. How are you going to know? It may not even be that they’re trying to fool you. That just might be where they are at that minute or that hour. I always found that was really important, talking to a lot of different people.
It seems like it’s been a million years since I worked as a reporter. I mean a lot of other things have happened. I was in the front lines, so to speak, as a music journalist from ’75 until maybe ’94. Really in the trenches. Then, when I started Addicted to Noise, I moved into a different area, even though I kept doing interviews with artists I cared about–I did an interview with Neil Young for ATN, Patti Smith, Sonic Youth, Ani DiFranco, different artists that I liked and thought were important. But then I was also dealing with all aspects of running a business, and overseeing the entire project. It’s one thing when your thing is to come up with a story and that’s what you spend all your time doing; it’s another thing when you are the editor and publisher of an entire magazine, not just a monthly magazine. These online magazines, including ATN and Neumu, they’re dailies. A daily “music newspaper” is a whole other thing than Rolling Stone which is published every two weeks, or a monthly magazine. Running a daily online magazine is incredibly intense.
Barbara: After SonicNet, do you have any words for the wise, life lessons you’ve learned from that experience that you think could help other people out, if only how to avoid those experiences?
Michael: First of all, a general thing I have to say is I don’t encourage people to pursue music journalism as a career. What I mean by that is that unless you are so obsessed–like “this is my calling in life”–unless that is the feeling that you have and you really know that’s it and there’s nothing else you can see yourself doing, I would not suggest that somebody get into it. I think that’s probably true of journalism in general these days as well. The writing would have to be really rewarding because generally speaking, music journalism is not a great way to make a living, and it’s hard to do it halfway. I was totally obsessed. I decided I was going to write about rock and roll and that was it. That was going to be what I did and nothing was going to stop me. And nothing did.
When I was writing and reporting, it was like around the clock. If a source called you at 11 at night returning your call, you’d turn on your tape recorder and go for it. You’re not going to say it’s 11 o’clock at night and I’m not going to do this interview now. You have to do it full-bore. It’s very intense. It’s your entire life. I mean if you’re going to go for it, you have to go for it. There is no way to get the great stories unless it’s your life.
Back in the ’70s the competition was fierce and it’s only gotten way, way worse. So many people want these jobs with the national magazines. And if somebody would get a daily newspaper music critic job, that would be it. They would be there for the rest of their life. Look around. There are very few full-time jobs, and they don’t open up very often. So, realistically, a person who wants to make music journalism their career has to wonder how they’re going to do it.
The other thing is it’s kind of hard for me to imagine these days how staff writers at many of the outlets can stomach what they have to write about. If you’re a person who actually cares about good music, interesting music, new music–I question how you can make a living being a journalist today and write about the things you actually care about. If you’re at the daily newspaper, you have to write about Limp Bizkit and Britney Spears and Eminem and Linkin Park–all this garbage. I would find that really depressing and frustrating. Also, if you love music, then how can you devote a lot of your time to listening to “bad” music? I only listen to music that I’m “inspired” to listen to. If all I feel like listening to one week is Robert Pete Williams and Lightning Hopkins, that’s all I’ll listen to. I don’t care about Limp Bizkit, and when they release a new album I won’t listen to it unless someone I trust insists that there is really a good reason for me to hear it. I listen to lots of new music, but its music that somehow I’ve gotten the idea that I might like. I’m in record stores a lot and writers tell me about cool stuff they’re into and there are lots of ways to get hip to good stuff without spending many hours listening to bad or mediocre albums. But if you’re paid to cover popular music these days, you’ve got to attend Slipknot and Britney shows and review Staind and System of A Down and Linkin Park and Nickleback. How horrible!
Greg Kot wrote this piece the other day about radio. It has gotten to the point where the only stuff that gets on radio is what major record companies are spending a fortune promoting. Basically, to generalize, the worst music is what actually gets heard. So that’s the stuff that people buy because, even though kids think they’re thinking for themselves and all, it seems like they’re able to be manipulated into buying stuff that’s pretty sub-par. So that’s what’s popular. Publications that pay mostly want to cover the artists that are popular. If you care about all this interesting stuff that’s going on, where are the outlets? Where are you going to get paid to write about it? I’m not optimistic about the state of music journalism today; there’s no place for people to make a living at it.
My experience with SonicNet and Addicted to Noise, basically, most of it was a really good experience. What I mean by that is I started this thing, ATN, in a room in my house, and because of the timing, and because what we were doing was good and the timing was right (late ’94 when most people had not even heard of the Internet), it ballooned really fast. Then I merged it with SonicNet and at that point SonicNet in 1997 was a pretty interesting site with a lot of potential. We got to do a lot of interesting things. I got to build a really great music news editorial department. And a great reviews section. And by the end, just before I quit MTV-owned SonicNet, I had some of the best and best known critics in the world contributing, including Gary Giddins, Simon Reynolds, Dave Marsh, Chet Flippo, and William Gibson, along with lots and lots of newer critics. It was quite an amazing situation.
And the whole thing was an incredible experience. You were waking up every day doing stuff that you felt had never been done before. It was so wide open, the online medium itself was changing it seemed like month to month, and what you could do–it was a total creative rush for a lot of years. It wasn’t until MTV purchased SonicNet in mid-1999 that things started to go downhill. And it took them just about a year to start fucking things up. I stuck around for a year and kind of dealt with it–when it became clear that it was not going the way I wanted it to go, I got out of there.
I didn’t have any control at that point. The prior owner of SonicNet was TCI (the cable company) and they chose to sellSonicNet to MTV Networks and no one was consulting us about that. But until that happened–for five years–it was really exciting. I was out in San Francisco running an office there that I had found. It was the top floor of a warehouse–hardwood floors and skylights–a beautiful arty space that had been built out to my specifications. So basically for a lot of years we had this music journalism thing going on, we were doing daily music news–it was pretty wild.
We did multiple stories on the really far out stuff like the Memphis Goons, stories on what had happened to Dr. Octagon (he vanished for a while but was calling us from parts unknown using his cell phone). As time went on we also did stories on Dave Matthews and all of that commercial stuff. But I think we always brought an intelligence to the stories we ran. We didn’t run stories on Britney’s new outfits, but if millions of people were buying an album, we would put together a new piece that conveyed that info and tried to get at what the phenomenon was all about. We wanted SonicNet to be the place you thought of when you thought “music news.” Whatever was happening in the world of music, we wanted to be there. But the thing was that along with this popular stuff, we were also doing story after story on Captain Beefheart and Sonic Youth and Guided By Voices and Pavement. We wrote about the White Stripes when their first album came out, when no one knew who they were. We wrote about Elliott Smith back in ’95. We interviewed DJ Shadow before he even had his debut album out in the United States. We’d be doing multiple stories on cool artists. Week after week, we’d be doing stories on what was going on with Patti Smith’s new project, or what was going on with Sonic Youth. Because we were daily and we were doing so many stories, we were able to be wide but we were able to be really deep, to go way in depth on a lot of artists we felt were important.
That was a pretty amazing experience, and only the people who were in that office in San Francisco really know what I’m talking about because you had to be there. It was so intense for such a long period of time. Professionally, that was probably the most exciting thing I experienced–and I have to say I think I had a lot of unusual and exciting experiences.
When you combine art with the technology to disseminate information about art all over the world, that’s a pretty powerful thing and a cool thing. When you report something and have it picked up by newspapers and radio stations all over the world, that was amazing. We wrote something about Pearl Jam’s MP3s getting online from an album that hadn’t been released yet, and the next thing we knew it was in the Los Angeles Times! That stuff was happening practically every week.
What did I learn? Well one thing I learned was that if you have a company and you sell it to someone, then you need to know going into it that the likelihood is that it will eventually look nothing like the way it looked like when it was yours. And you have to be able to accept that emotionally, and be able to detach. You have to know that’s what’s really happening; if you think anything else, you’re probably just deluding yourself.
With Neumu–“New-moo” is the way we pronounce it; or that’s how I always thought of it, we don’t really care how people pronounce it–it’s quite a bit different in the sense that one of the founding premises of the site is that this is not about making money. The focus of this is on art. Art that we like. It can be music, it can be film, it can be paintings, photographs, animations, and, of course, writing, but that’s what this is all about. It’s about the art that we care about; and in terms of the writing aspect of it, having as good and real writing as possible about the things that are being covered.
In terms of the album review section, I’m really proud of it. Before Neumu was a site called Insider One, which was up beginning December 2000, and then we moved everything on that site over to Neumu when we put that site up in June 2001. So we basically have 400 album reviews on the site so far.
One of the things I’ve really been pushing the writers to do is get personal, to write about–though you won’t find this with every review–how does this music affect you? How does this music touch you? What is this album about? Don’t just do a consumer guide kind of review–is this album good or bad?–but let’s really dig into this album as much as possible.
Check out this review of The Strokes album Is This It by Jenny Tatone who is based in Portland. I think it’s really powerful.
There was one review that was almost 2000 words that we ran, though most are much shorter, but that review I felt was really good and so I went with it. It’s not that we’re trying to get back to the way that rock criticism was, but more that there are certain periods of times since the ’60s when rock criticism in general was taking more chances and doing more things–particularly in the mainstream publication world–than it currently does. With the Neumu “44.1 kHz” review section I think we have a place where thoughtful, unpredictable reviews by writers with strong voices run. We have an eclectic group of writers, and they often take an offbeat or idiosyncratic approach.
One of the things I love is finding and working with new writers to help them find their voice and to refine their work. I’m currently working with a number of writers who are still in college who are doing good work.
But certainly the idea with this is to have people come in to the site once a week or come in once a day–whatever they want to do–and read these reviews. I hope that the time they will spend with these reviews will be meaningful to them. That the reviews will give them a sense of whether the albums are something they want to further explore or not–get a hold of to listen to. But even if they don’t want to go hear the music, that the review will provoke something in them, make them think, make them feel something.
Neumu comes out of my own relationship to music and art, which is such an important part of my life. And, speaking for Ms. Stone, I think the same is true. I look on it like a virtual art gallery/magazine/music channel. I always have loved magazines, and with Neumu, Emme Stone and I have created the kind of thing that if others had created it, we’d seek it out. I hope that people who come to Neumu get as much out of it as I do.