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Sound Opinions hosts Jim and Greg talk music criticism

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Prior to their music forum last night at the Cedar Cultural Center, Sound Opinions hosts Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot sat down with Gimme Noise to chat about -- what else? -- music criticism. Given the changing landscape of journalism in general and music journalism in particular, and taking into account the wild success of their national Sound Opinions broadcast (which is now being syndicated nationwide via American Public Media), Jim and Greg seemed like the perfect candidates to opine on what, exactly, we can do as writers to maintain an open dialog about the music we love so much.

Disclaimer: this Q&A strays toward the meta, but if you have any interest in writing, media, music criticism, blogs, or what Jim and Greg think about iPods, then this discussion is for you.

Gimme Noise: With the Sound Opinions show and with your writing moving online, has the entire process of being a critic become more interactive for you?

 

Jim DeRogatis: The one downside to the way we're doing it now, and to being syndicated, and to podcasting, is we can't take live calls. Which we did for seven years at XRT. Which was really exciting. We want people to get in our face and ask us questions, we want it to be this dialog. We get tons of emails and we have a component of the show, at the end, where the last five minutes are calls that people left us. That's our favorite part, to have people telling us we were both wrong... And the message board exists on the website, and they are completely fine with having endless debates that have nothing to do with us. They all know more than we do, and they're all fighting about it on the message board, and good for them. That's what we wanted.

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GN: Has interacting with the listeners ever changed your opinion about a piece of music?

Greg Kot: As you know, for anybody who deals with music these days - there's just an endless array of music. What do you listen to today? There are a myriad choices, millions of choices, literally. So if a listener comes up to us and is really passionate about something, and says, hey, you guys gotta check this out - that can sway your opinion, absolutely. I've definitely been turned on to records by people who are fans of the show.

JD: And people don't hesitate to correct our facts - there's all sorts of interesting things we've learned from people who write in. And sometimes they're a little anal about it. [laughs] I'm from Jersey, I say all sorts of things wrong.

GK: There's a bit of that baseball card collector mentality. Oh, he didn't hit 323 in 1966, it was 321! You got that WRONG.

GN: I've found that, too.

JD: That's an alienating aspect that stops some people from writing. Because, at the end of the day, the most important thing is to be able to communicate the emotional reaction - you're trying to intellectually communicate a deep emotional reaction. Hopefully. And that's what's important. That spirit, that passion, that joy.

GK: And it's also what it sounds like - not what bands they were in, down to the minutia. What does it really sound like? Those are the two main things - your reaction to it, and what does it sound like. A lot of writing boils down to, well, they played in this band, and then they released a 12" single in October, and then the 7" came out and it was better than the 12". It's easy to get caught up in that. But at the same time we respect the passion, where that's coming from. We're geeks too.

JD: My beef with it is just when people try to use that as a cudgel, and say, 'So you're 25, the Rolling Stones have been together as a band almost twice as long as you've been alive, you can't possibly say anything insightful about the Rolling Stones." And that's just bullshit. If you're a perceptive listener and a passionate writer and a good communicator and you have ideas, I want to know what you think of Sticky Fingers. It doesn't matter if you don't own 54 Rolling Stones bootlegs.

GN: That has been a big challenge for me, being taken seriously despite being young. And female.

JD: But nobody knows everything. And he - and it's always a he who does this - he may know everything there is to know about the Rolling Stones, but he may know jack shit about the Small Faces. Nobody knows everything. The point for us, as journalists, is to dive in, get our facts right, and communicate the important part of the story.

GK: When you talk about the youthfulness - I think the one thing that's perhaps lacking in the current generation of younger writers, the blogosphere, is context. Being able to put something in the context. And there's no reason a writer can't do that. It doesn't matter how old you are. I think that is kind of the separation point, and it's been an issue ever since journalism began. Journalism is about putting news in context.

JD: I think people get intimidated. You're a  young writer, you're 25, you're writing about Wavves for Pitchfork. You don't know the whole history of electronic music. You don't know who Suicide was. But that doesn't mean that, in sitting down and considering that record, you can't find out. If you've seen somebody compare Wavves to Suicide, and you've never heard Suicide, that's no sin, I don't hold that against you. But you are a journalist, you should be curious enough - especially now, when it takes all of two seconds to download everything Suicide ever recorded for free. It's all at our fingertips.

GN: I wanted to ask you about that, too. What are your listening habits like, and how do you sort through the massive amounts of music?

GK: I'll have CDs going, I'll have downloads going, I'll have links, a lot of MySpace stuff. It's great to stream stuff now, and just be able to get a taste of what it is you're looking for, and get a sense for whether I want to investigate it further.

JD: When we did this talk in North Carolina, somebody was giving us shit because we admitted that neither of us had an iPod. And that is not because we don't understand how iPods work. When you are listening, in a given week, to 100 new pieces of music - I would have spent 10 hours just loading the iPod. So we're burning CDs, we're listening to CDs we get in the mail, we're listening to streaming audio off the computer - that doesn't mean we're luddites.

GK: I think there's a value in having it in shuffle mode, because sometimes you can be surprised by something - like something you didn't pay attention to before will pop out because it appears at a certain point in a mix or at a certain time of day. But when you're a music writer, you have very specific needs. You're listening to a record or a song, or researching a band. When I'm writing an article about Mastodon, I want to listen to Mastodon. That's it for that time period. I don't need the shuffle mode. I need to listen to a specific track.

JD: Maybe three or four times in a row.

GK: Exactly.

GN: In your jobs as writers, how much of your time is spent producing print copy for the print publication, and how much is devoted to blogging and interacting online? Has your job evolved?

GK: Definitely. The blogging has definitely picked up exponentially. You spend a lot more time dealing with comments, a lot of times not very favorable. There's extra writing that goes with blogging. You're posting three, four times a day. You used to have one deadline a day, now you have - you're basically on deadline all the time, 24/7. We write many, many more things for our blogs than what actually end up in the physical print paper.

JD: But it's hard to say. We're not blogging - we're not of the Twitter variety. With very rare exceptions, aside from the occasional snarky joke I just couldn't resist, the stuff that's going on the blog is a news story or a review of the quality that would have gone into print in a different era, when the papers were the size that they were when we started. We're working hard - we've always worked hard.

GN: What advice would you give to a new writer? What could a young person hope achieve by becoming a music critic, with the way things are now?

GK: About the same thing you hoped to achieve 30 years ago. I don't think anybody ever got into this to make money. If you did, you'd be crazy. You have to be a little nuts to do this. It's obviously a labor of love, and it's something that you're just head over heels in love with doing, you're passionate about it.

JD: The business prospects about it have decreased considerably. For a brief period of time - and it really wasn't until after the mid'70s, and I suppose it lasted until after the original dot com crash - people could make some money. I wouldn't even say a living. But you could at least make some money writing rock criticism. And now that's about to disappear. Greg and I are journalists, and we're philosophical about it, and in many ways, our end of the world is trivial. We happen to think it's the most important thing in the universe, and the last great form for truth and art. However, I'm a little more concerned about what happens when the New York Times is no longer able to afford to keep a journalist on the ground in Afghanistan, and we're involved in a war where we don't know what's happening because there's no one being paid to report it. Let's face it, if you're risking life and limb in Afghanistan, A) you should be paid, and B) it costs a lot of money to put you there. And so it's the entire profession of journalism that's in danger. And in relation to that, the ability to get paid to write a review for Pitchfork is a tiny problem. But it's still distressing. I think that people who are good writers should be paid for their work. And there are important stories - I could not have done the series of stories that led to R. Kelly getting indicted without the backing of a major news organization, and the resources.

GK: My advice to someone starting out in this, is make sure you really love to do it. If you love to do it, then do it. If you really love it, nothing's gonna stop you from writing anyway. If you need an excuse to write, then it's probably not for you. But if this is what you really want to do, then absolutely go for it. We're still going to need great writers.

JD: And that's the same with the bands we love. They were doing it with no necessary hope of - when Husker Du started in this town, there was no hope of ever getting paid to put out a record on SST, forget about Warner Brothers. And they believed in it, and they got in the van, and they went across the country.

GN: Do you think that somebody figure out how to make enough money online to keep paying writers?

JD: That's the million dollar question.

GK: The problem with the labor of love model, is that it only goes so far. Obviously, you have to pay the rent. My view about music writing was that I would always write about music, but I never really thought I would make a living off of it, get paid for it. I was going to do it anyway, but it was almost going to be a sideline. There's not a whole lot of difference today.

JD: I've done magazine stories where I've traveled up and down the West Coast with the Polyphonic Spree, and been on the bus, and what's it like to be part of a 25-member band that's part religious cult. Or more serious things, like an R. Kelly story - those things take time and effort and resources, more than the blogosphere has. It's very revealing that Pitchfork has never broken a major news story. We're in this tumultuous time, in nothing short of a technological and business model revolution, in this industry, and the blogosphere is not covering those stories.

GN: They just learned how to reprint press releases.

JD: And in a lot of cases, pick up something we did in the newspaper and reprint it.

GK: Oh yeah, they'll refer to our stories. Look at the Livenation/Ticketmaster merger. Look at the implications of this digital stuff. The fact that Pitchfork, for example - we're picking on them because they're the biggest one -

JD: We've said all this to their face, too.

GK: Where's the context being applied to how music is being made, distributed, marketed, sold, listened to? Those are the kind of pieces that journalists should be writing today, and frankly not enough of them are. Look what we're getting. In a way, journalism is shooting itself in the foot by giving consumers this pap.

JD: But again, there are bigger philosophical questions. There were only a handful - there should have been more - but only a handful of stories were written about the fact that we had no good reason to go to war with Iraq. And yet the vast majority of the American public had no problem. People were behind Bush for three-quarters of his administration, until it hit them in their own pocketbook. America needs to wake up.

GK: And that's where journalism comes in. The New York Times editor was saying it costs about $40,000 to $50,000 to produce one piece in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. That's more money than a lot of journalists make in an entire year. But you look at those stories that are written in the New York Times Sunday Magazine and they are well researched - a lot of times it's like a journalist staying on top of a story for six months before they produce something. So where is the compensation going to come from for that? That's the really worrisome part about all of this. The music industry is facing the same issues, and I would argue that they probably faced them sooner than the print industry did, but they're basically the same issues. And the answers are going to come from your generation. How are you going to deal with these kinds of problems? And they're definitely problems.

GN: Are you ever asked to consider which stories get the most hits, in relation to the stories that you ought to cover?

GK: What's most popular, you mean?

GN: Yeah, like which headlines get clicked on the most, etc.

GK: Oh yeah. We're being measured by blog hits. Increasingly, it is a measurable way of determining if anything is being read. I have to say, it hasn't affected what I want to cover one bit. But you can't help but notice that when you put American Idol in the headline, you're gonna get instantly 50,000 hits that you wouldn't have gotten otherwise. It is a huge difference. But you'd have to be really stupid to judge the value of a journalist or the value of a publication based on how many people click on a keyword because it's something they recognize. That's just idiotic.

JD: That's scary.