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The sorry state of music criticism

August 17, 2009 | 12:12 pm


Henry Owings understands rock music. Working from his home base in Atlanta, Owings, 40, has mastered rock’s get-your-hands-dirty aspects: booking gigs, managing tours, running a record label, selling limited-edition albums and silk-screened posters, managing a website, doing graphic design and performing pretty much any task that's not as glamorous as actually playing an instrument. He's the Renaissance Man lurking in the shadows of the underground rock Renaissance. Which is why few people are more qualified to pen the recent "The Rock Bible: Unholy Scripture for Fans and Bands," a snarktastic set of hundreds of music-related "commandments," all bound in scripture-esque fake leather. (Sample: "Few singers are allowed to drape scarves on microphone stands. You are not one of them.")

Owings is best known for his zine Chunklet, a 17-year operation that infamously vacillates between enthusiastic and cruel, well-regarded as an the unflinching, cynical eye of the underground. The particularly infamous "Biggest A-holes in Rock" issue included an anonymously industry-sourced list of publicists, bands and record labels that don't exactly endear themselves to the idea of "community." The just-released issue No. 20 is subtitled "The Last Magazine Ever Printed" and features cranky musings on the impending death of music writing, including the Online Music Journalist Application Form ("When a band calls for an interview, are your first words, 'I got it, Mom. Hang up'?") and a very funny Music Mag Mix 'N' Match quiz.

Owings was interviewed for Jacket Copy by Christopher R. Weingarten, whose speech at the #140conf (available on YouTube) proved how invested he is in the end of rock criticism; Weingarten was hoping an outspoken industry vet could provide some insight on the sorry state we're in, and the sorrier one we're getting ourselves into.

Jacket Copy: What is your least favorite thing about music journalism in print in 2009?

Henry Owings: My least favorite thing is that there's just less of it. When presented with quality writing that costs money versus questionable writing that’s free, like most things, the masses go the path of least resistance. I have to watch what I say so I don't come off sounding like "grandpa grumpy pants," but even though I get a fair amount of information from the Net, I still find it to be a lesser counterpart to print.

JC: What is your least favorite thing about music journalism on the Internet in 2009?

HO: I feel this is a loaded question because no matter what I say, I'm going to sound like a grouch. I think the fact that some kid can start an online presence out of his parents' basement in Arkansas is undoubtedly incredible. To have a blog with worldwide impact out of your computer for pennies is a hell of a lot better than hustling together ad revenue to print a magazine. Although with that power also comes a myriad of concerns worth addressing, but I'll just address what I consider to be the biggest one. ... That's after the jump.

HO: My biggest gripe with online journos is their false sense of importance when they're oftentimes just regurgitating press releases and tour dates. Of course, that mindless mentality is what many labels love. Me? I just find there to be a negligible amount of talent in what passes as a blogger in this modern age. What ever happened to attitude? What ever happened to opinions? What happened to pissing off advertisers? What happened to alienating readers? What happened to having fun? Sadly, I believe that the new boss is the same as the old boss. I just wish and pray somebody would be out there stirring things up instead of following the herd of mindless sheep. But then again, when you have publicists that just needle you all day to write about their clients, it makes a blogger's job easy.

That’s why I always love reading Byron Coley and Thurston Moore's column in Arthur [magazine], because it's apparent that they've bought a majority of what they’re reviewing, which always makes it more fun to read about things that appeal to them instead of the obligatory "peddling a label's crap releases in return for ad money" spiel. Then again, that's nothing new either. I totally understand having to write reviews or hustle for ad revenue -- in print or online -- but I think the most true voices are doing it for the sheer love of doing it and not as a career.

JC: Do you feel the concept of the "record review" is still relevant? Was it ever?

HO: I’ve always felt that the more constraints that are put on writers, the less compelling the writing will be. For instance, I wrote for the NME for a nanosecond and was forced to write record reviews of bands like Lightning Bolt and Hot Snakes in less than 100 words. I mean that’s like cramming an elephant into a phone booth. But are record reviews relevant? I don't know. I still purchase records the same way I did when I was 16 -- which is to say it’s done entirely by word of mouth. I've always considered record reviews to be suspect, but if you need to read them, just read the last sentence because that’s the essence of what the writer is trying to convey. Try it sometime, it’s a great trick. Trust me.

JC: What trends in music writing do you see emerging?

HO: I think that there will be colleges that start "blogging" degrees, which will empower an entire generation of bottomfeeders that were going to be the best and brightest English and journalism majors that our universities have to offer. And, of course, I mean that in the worst possible way imaginable. And please understand that I’ve never taken a writing course in my life, so I only know what words like "somnolent" and "quirky" mean from years of seeing overreaching rock critics attempting to impress their readers.

My dream is that these legions of aspiring rock critics who want to get out of the blogger ghetto and creep into the world of people who'd pay to read their writing would want to get their hands dirty instead of being some sheepish twerp with their notepad out at the back of the room at a show. There's a lot to do out there other than write about the new Animal Collective record for the billionth time. Why not try one of them?

-- Christopher R. Weingarten

Photo: Henry Owings. Credit: Ryan Russell

Weingarten is a guest blogger and a professional music journalist based in Brooklyn. He's reviewing 1,000 records on Twitter. Follow him at twitter.com/1000TimesYes.