One of the reasons that the the A.V. Club is pretty much my favorite place on all of the internets right now is that they’re constantly coming up with new angles for discussing the popular culture that they’re covering.
In 2008, one of those angles was Noel Murray’s Popless column, which is just now finishing up a year-long run that made Mondays much more tolerable for loads of music fans.
Popless is a deceptively simple idea: a long-time rock critic takes a year off from reviewing new music in order to go through his music collection and re-evaluate everything. The goal is not just to weed out his collection, but to recharge his critical batteries, which are overwhelmed by the ongoing glut of new music.
At the time, I was intrigued by the concept of stopping and taking stock. But that’s not why I fell in love with Popless. As someone who has been reading and (very) (occasionally) writing rockcrit for a long time, this was a new spin on solving the age-old problem of criticism in general: can I trust this person’s opinion? Popless turned out to be a internet-age combination of blog-based introspection and old-school critical judgments, and if I didn’t know where my tastes and his intersected previously, I sure as hell do now.
A couple of weeks ago, Noel was kind enough to consent to an email interview, and answered my barrage of questions with serious, considered answers. As you’ll see, he’s thought a lot about this project, the reasons behind it, and what doing it meant to him . . .
Jim Connelly: What was the impetus for Popless?
Noel Murray: A couple of things. First off, I was getting overwhelmed by the flood of CDs that were arriving in my mailbox every week, as well as the publicists contacting me to see if I was going to write about those CDs. I’ve always tried to be conscientious about my promo pile, making time to listen to at least every CD I get sent. And I’ve always kept at least one track from each of those CDs on my hard drive, for future reference. So as a result I found myself in the middle of 2007 facing a shortage of storage space both on my hard drive and in my house. Meanwhile, the CDs kept coming, and the calls and e-mails kept coming, and I gradually realized I was spending more time listening to and managing music that I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about than I was listening to music I actually liked. I started to fantasize about turning off the faucet and spending a year mopping up.
Second off, I started getting a little fed up with everything that goes along with writing record reviews in the internet age. I was tired of getting a CD in, listening to it as many times as I could over a two or three week period, and then trying to think of a reasonably original and accurate way to describe and evaluate the music in my allotted 200-word space. Then, once the review was posted, I’d be dealing with comments from readers who hadn’t heard the record but logged in to make jokes, or readers who listened to the sample track and disagreed with my opinion of the whole album because of one song they half-listened to, or readers who wanted to debate my motivations for liking or disliking the album based on whether or not they thought I was a “hipster,” or readers eager to judge my entire musical taste based on one positive review of a band they considered lame. I write about movies, books and TV too, but no one’s as confrontational as music fans. Well, maybe comedy fans. It’s neck-and-neck between those two.
I was getting especially annoyed at the end of every year, when the simple act of saying, “Here are 10 albums I really like,” was routinely greeted with open hostility. I’d always thought of listmaking – and music-reviewing, really – as a fun exercise and an act of fellowship. Almost like a conversation between me and other people who listen to a lot of music. But I was starting to feel like I was sitting on a stage, lecturing to an audience of people who were talking amongst themselves, and occasionally nudging each other to say, “Can you believe this idiot?” So partly I wanted to make writing about music into a conversation again, working outside the 200-word review and listmaking formats to explain better who I am and why I like what I like. And partly I wanted to listen to some of my favorite music again and see if it could rekindle my excitement about rock criticism.
JC: What have you learned? Not just about the music you’re re-engaging with, but about your original critical reactions to things vis-a-vis what you think now?
NM: I’m still trying to figure out what I’ve learned from the process of shutting myself off from the new. One thing I discovered was that I didn’t miss new music as much as I thought I would, for reasons we can get into later on. As for what I learned about my old music, I mainly discovered a little more about my taste. I like to think of myself has having very broad musical taste, in the sense that I listen to and like a lot of different kinds of music. But the truth is that when it comes to the music I deeply love, it’s almost all rock and soul. I like rhythm, melody, clever arrangements and open emotion. I like musicians who play their instruments well. I shy away from abrasion, except in special circumstances. And I’ve got no problem at all with music that’s soft, pretty – even wimpy. I’m a middle-aged family man. I have nothing invested anymore in being thought of as a badass.
I’ve also discovered that I’m less enamored of indie-rock than I thought I was. There are a lot of indie bands I love, both recent and classic, but I prefer the ones with a modicum of ambition, competence, and personal vision. I’m not wild about lo-fi for its own sake, or ironic kitsch, or even honest kitsch, in the form of homage. Part of the problem with being a working music critic is that you spend most of your time listening to whatever’s coming out in the next month, and most of that stuff is mediocre our outright bad. In that context, it’s easy to overrate a record with a distinct mood, or that seems to offer a variation on the norm. Throughout this year, I frequently re-listened to albums that I’d given high grades to just a year or two ago, and discovered that I didn’t like them as much as I thought I did. They may have been superior to the music I was listening to when I first heard them, but compared to my favorite music of all time, they came up short.
JC: How have you approached artists that you’ve never really had to think about from the critical standpoint?
NM: Mainly I’ve just tried to reflect on when they first entered my life – what I was doing at the time, what else I liked, why they appealed to me, why they still appeal me, and so on. One thing I was trying to explore with Popless is the idea that while I do believe there are objective qualities by which we can evaluate art, ultimately our taste is wholly subjective, influenced to some degree by our personal experiences and memories. For example, we can judge, objectively, whether a piece of music is in tune, or whether the production is slick. But it doesn’t matter so much to us that the vocalist is off-pitch if the vocalist is our own child, or if the voice reminds us of someone we know, or if the words they’re singing are moving to us in some personal way. And slick production might not bother us if it’s a song we once heard on the radio when we were driving to the beach with our friends – or even if it just reminds us of a moment like that. Since The A.V. Club doesn’t allow its writers to use the first person in the regular review section, I wanted to play with that a little in Popless, and talk about those personal reactions.
The toughest part of writing about older bands for the first time is that I didn’t have my own archives to draw on. A couple of months into the project, I realized that it was silly to try to think of new things to say about musicians that I’d written a lot about over years. So I started quoting myself – sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. Part of my weekly process became going through my computer archives and doing Google searches to see what I’d written in the past. And as much as listening to old music, reading my old clips actually rejuvenated me in a lot of ways. I’d never claim to be a great critic, but I’ve written some reviews I’m pretty proud of. More than I expected, actually.
JC: Let’s talk a little bit about the nuts and bolts of your new music moratorium. Your wife, Donna Bowman, also writes for the A.V. Club. Did it extend to her?
NM: Yes and no. She was under no obligation to abstain, and indeed at one point this year she borrowed one of her students’ copies of the new Gnarls Barkley and listened to it. But Donna’s never been much of a music-seeker. She relies on me to pass on what I like. Her iPod is actually my first iPod, from five or six years ago, and she’s trimmed it down to the basics: any playlist I made of her favorite ’60s, ’70s and ’80s artists, plus Matthew Sweet, Sloan and Mysteries Of Life. And not much more. She likes what she likes.
JC: Did you have a picture in your head of what the new Hold Steady or Drive-By Truckers albums would sound like? Did you ever have nightmares of being kidnapped and being forced to listen to Los Campesinos albums a la Clockwork Orange?
NM: Nah. I did the best I could to stay pure, but I wasn’t a fanatic about it. Living in a small town and working at home meant that I didn’t have many chances to get corrupted. And since I didn’t read much in the way of reviews, I didn’t have a lot of expectations for the new albums by my favorite bands, beyond just a general anticipation. I confess that I pined a little every time a new album that I wanted to hear came out. But then the release week would pass and the hype would die down and I didn’t think about it as much.
Which was actually another interesting discovery, come to think of it. When you’re not immersed in the regular cycle of release dates and reviews, it’s very easy to ignore what’s happening in the world of music. I used to wonder why some A.V. Club readers were so dismissive to the names on our year-end best-of music lists, and how they could possibly complain that they’ve never heard of any of these bands, but this year when my fellow writers started passing their lists around, I found I felt the same way as our readers often to. My first reaction was to assume that my fellow writers don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. If I haven’t heard of these bands, how could they be any good? That’s a very easy mindset to get into.
JC: How do you feel about the community that has sprung up around Popless? Did you think that there would be people waiting for it every Monday?
NM: No, I didn’t, and that’s been really gratifying. Early on, I said I wanted to nurture an environment where people could comment on music more as enthusiasts than scolds or snobs, and I even tried to discourage the trolls as much as I could. I think on almost every other section of The A.V. Club, if a reader tried to leave a cogent, heartfelt comment about his or her love for Tom Petty or R.E.M. or Stephen Stills, they might well get mocked off the page. But with Popless, I’d like to think that readers felt freer to be themselves. And more than once I received notes from people – both publicly and privately – who said that their music-listening experiences had been a lot like mine, and that they appreciated having a weekly conversation about bands they knew and loved. I hope I can find some ways to keep those readers coming back.
JC: Has the community aspect affected what you’re writing?
NM: A bit. After a month or so of comments, I started to anticipate a little what the readers might say, and sometimes I crafted what I wrote as though I were responding to comments not yet made. Also sometimes the commenters would anticipate what I was going to write the next week and would make requests, which I’d try to honor if I could. Certain artists they wanted me to cover – that sort of thing.
JC: What has surprised you about the comments you’ve received?
NM: I expected some criticism of my personal taste, but I did not expect the criticism of me, personally. To be fair, there wasn’t a lot of that, and to some extent I was asking for it by writing so much about my own experiences. Still, my plan to let A.V. Club readers get to know me better backfired in some cases, because some readers got to know me and decided that they don’t like me. It hurts, but it happens. But what I found frustrating was that a lot of those people misperceived me in very odd ways. I was branded a P.C. lefty hipster by some, and a classist conservative Christian by others. Or even on a more mundane level, people would complain that I seemed to dismissive to certain genres because I didn’t write about some artist or another that they liked. They’d ignore the bluegrass or hip-hop or hard rock that I did cover, and focus on what I skipped. So there was some cherry-picking of things I wrote, and that took a little getting used to.
JC: When and how do you decide how much to contribute or not contribute to the ongoing discussions?
NM: I considered Monday afternoons to be like my “office hours,” if I were a college professor. I tried to foster the whole “we’re having a conversation” idea by answering as many questions as I could in the first few hours after Popless posted. And then I’d check back in once or twice a day for the next two days. Beyond that, my time was limited by having to work on the next week’s column, along with all my other work. I tried not to feed the trolls, but there weren’t that many of those anyway. I also didn’t respond to the compliments, because it seemed a little self-congratulatory to do so. But I sure did appreciate them.
JC: Does it make you crazy when people – and gods know that I’m as guilty of this as anyone – point out bands that they think you should be writing about?
NM: Not at all. Maybe for the first few weeks I scratched my head, because it was almost like people were telling me I should’ve had a different life. Why would they want me to write about things I didn’t care that much about? Did they think I was trying to establish an actual canon, as opposed to a personal one? But later on it took it more as a combination of general curiosity – people wondering where I stood on those bands – and an attempt by my readers to share their own enthusiasms. And every week I’d take a lot of those suggestions and head over to eMusic to see if I could add any of those bands to my “saved for later” list.
JC: One of the things I like about Popless is being turned onto bands I’d never heard of, like Reigning Sound and The Glands. A lot of these bands were based in the South. In the meantime, I’ve noticed that some of my California bands, like The Cat Heads or The Miss Alans are nowhere to be found. Have you noticed the “regionality” of local band fandom still exists, even in the internet age?
NM: It probably doesn’t as much as it used to, though it’s something I hadn’t thought much about until this year. But it may not be a matter of regionality so much as accidents of association. You read something in a magazine, you make a friend who likes a certain band… sometimes fandom develops that way, especially with bands that aren’t in the mainstream. That’s why it’s ludicrous for music critics to pretend they have any kind of all-encompassing expertise.
JC: Isn’t the huge wide net of music that you’d love that you’ve just plain missed both awesome and terrifying?
NM: More awesome than terrifying. I’m not really worried about catching up completely – because, y’know, that would be impossible. In the future I’ll be looking to pick-and-choose a lot more.
JC: In your original essay you wrote, “My pleasure in listening to new music and writing about it has diminished substantially since I turned 35″ After nearly a year with the past, are you looking forward to the future again?
NM: You know, I really am. If anything, I’m eager to see how it’s going to work. I made the decision about halfway through the year that I was going to return to regular reviewing in ’09, but that I didn’t want to do it quite the same way. I don’t want to be a grunt anymore. If I go back to plowing through 20 cruddy CDs a week, looking for the one or two that might be decent enough to be called a “discovery,” then this year won’t have accomplished all that I intended. To some extent, record-reviewing is a young person’s game. They’re the ones with the drive to go clubbing, scour the internet, and argue passionately about whether Vampire Weekend is the next great band or a total hype job. I’m in a more reflective place now. I don’t have a lot of hate for the bands I don’t like, or for the people who like them. And I’m not especially interested in the fray. So I’ve been telling my editor that I want to review maybe only one record a week at most, and I’m planning to be more choosy about what that one will be, because I’d like to spend more time with records than I’ve been able to in the past. The end result is that I may end up sticking with the known quantities more than making discoveries.
At the same time, I’ve been reading the e-mails publicists have been sending for 2009 releases, and I’ve sent a few requests already to hear some bands I’ve never heard before. So we’ll see how it goes. I have been asking for publicists to send me the music digitally rather than physically though, so maybe that’ll cut the clutter.
JC: What is your strategy for re-immersion into the musicstream? What are you looking forward to hearing?
NM: Well, I started early, actually. I’ve been accumulating 2008 music since September, and in October I put an iPod loaded with 2008 stuff in my car and have been listening to it in roughly alphabetical order. I have skipped ahead a little to get to the albums I’d been most anticipating: The Hold Steady, Sun Kil Moon, My Morning Jacket and the like. And I’ve been limited a little by the fact that my kids are often in my car with me, so I’ve had to postpone listening to the rawer rock and Lil Wayne. But other than that I’ve been listening to as much as I can, just to register some superficial impressions. Now that I’m done listening to my old music, I’m going to go back through the 2008 material and listen more carefully.
I’ve also been perusing best-of-the-year lists on the likes of Metacritic, Amazon and eMusic, and in doing so, I’ve found a few really good bands that my A.V. Club colleagues didn’t write about this year – most notably Starling Electric, a terrific indie-rock act that sounds like a cross between Guided By Voices, The High Llamas and Fleet Foxes – and some good under-reviewed records by acts that I’ve always liked, like The Rosebuds, Langhorne Slim and Washington Social Club. So even though I just said I don’t have much interest in being a discoverer anymore, I may still have to do my part to make sure the good lesser-known bands don’t fall through the cracks.
JC: Has the Popless community made the re-entry that much more intimidating, in that you not only have a list of new music to discover, you also have a bunch of older suggestions as well? Or is that part of the fun?
NM: Mainly they’ve been helpful. When I asked for suggestions for 2008 music to check out, I got a good list of names, and I pursued nearly every one. I wasn’t wild about them all, but I do feel more informed than I did before I asked the question. And as for the older stuff, I’m going to take my time, use my eMusic subscription to pick up a lot of it, and just enjoy heading down some alleys I hadn’t explored before. I’ve gotten a lot of good prog suggestions for example; and older folk music. And some Canadian power-pop. One of my favorite things about being a music fan is discovering some band that unlocks the door to a whole scene I’d mostly missed. It’s happened to me fairly regularly over the years: letting The White Stripes guide me to neo-garage, or The Strokes uncover the New New York Underground, or Curt Boettcher’s various bands help me map the sunshine-pop scene. New or old, there’s still plenty of music to discover.
JC: Do you normally vote in the year end polls, like Pazz & Jop or Idolator? If so, is it going to feel weird to skip this year, or do you think you’ll be able to “catch up” in Nov & Dec?
NM: I have voted in those polls before, as well in The A.V. Club’s aggregate year-end list too. And no, I won’t be participating this year. I just haven’t been living with these albums long enough.
Actually, at the end of last year, I was so fed up with listmaking that I told me editor I’d never participate in a year-end music poll again, for all the reasons I’ve already cited: I didn’t like being accused of the worst kind of racial and gender bias solely on the basis of a list of records I like. Plus, I thought the critics of we critics may have had a point. Since there’s no way any writer can hear enough of the music in any given year to make a truly informed list, the whole exercise is kind of futile, if you really think about it.
But now I’ve had a change of heart, and I think there’s no reason to take either the list or the reaction to the list so seriously. In the end, it is just a list of records I like – not a legal document Next year I’ll submit a list to whomever wants one, and maybe just skip reading the comments afterward.
JC: On the topic of music criticism, when did you start? Why did you start?
NM: I bought a copy of Rolling Stone in the summer of ’84 – when I was 13 years old – because I was a Stephen King fan, and the issue featured a previously unpublished King story. I knew about movie critics from watching Sneak Previews, and I already had a pretty wide appreciation of rock and pop because my older brother and his friends had turned me on to a lot of different things. I also already knew that I wanted to be a writer, though I wasn’t quite sure how I could make money at it. My mother had suggested I might try being a journalist. So all those different threads came together when I bought that issue of Rolling Stone. I began to consider the idea of writing about music, and actually at age 15, I started writing my own record guide for practice, closely mimicking the style of the Rolling Stone critics. I used to joke that other kids practiced their curve balls or their jump shots and became pro athletes, while I practiced being a critic.
JC: What critics/magazines/books did you devour when you were younger? What was your absolute early favorite?
NM: Rolling Stone, of course. I even found a shop in downtown Nashville that sold used copies of Rolling Stone, which I bought up whenever I had the money. It’s the same shop where I bought comic books and baseball cards as a pre-teen, and where I’d buy used records well into adulthood. I can map my fannish interests by walking around The Great Escape in Nashville. I also hit the public library and checked out every Rolling Stone-related book I could find: the record guide, the illustrated history of rock, collections of old articles, et cetera. And one of my high school teachers picked up on my interest in rock ‘n’ roll and started making me tapes and loaning me books – in particular Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train, which I was a little too young to fully understand.
Because I loved The Who and Bruce Springsteen, I started reading Dave Marsh, who was my biggest early influence as a critic. Along with Roger Ebert on the film side, Marsh was an inspiration for his lean, no-nonsense, highly personal style. Later on, in college, I discovered Robert Christgau and Lester Bangs, who were influential more for their idiosyncratic insights than for their prose style. And by then I was reading Spin, which started publishing shortly after I discovered Rolling Stone, and was a hell of a magazine over its first five years, as much for the bands it turned me on to than for the quality of its writing. I also really clung to the Trouser Press record guides, and after college became a real fan of Ira Robbins, who’s always struck me as a reasonable person first and foremost, and a passionate enthusiast for the music he likes.
Oddly enough, my biggest early influence as a rock critic may have been Pauline Kael. I’ve been writing about movies professionally almost as long as I’ve been writing about music, and was turned on to Kael by a literature professor in college, who read my movie reviews in the school paper and liked them. But I was a pretty lousy movie critic for most of my first decade on the job, and I knew it. I hadn’t seen enough, and my lack of confidence was clear in my writing, which was alternately defensive and wishy-washy. I knew I could never be a Kael as a movie critic. So I set myself a goal of being the Pauline Kael of rock criticism, and when I re-read the pieces I wrote for the college paper and for the alt-weekly I contributed to right after college, I find it’s dripping with Kael-ness. The slangy language, the emphasis on how art makes its consumers feel, the insider-y tone… I ripped it all off from Kael, and mostly unconsciously. I don’t think I write that way anymore – and I certainly didn’t achieve my goal of being rock criticism’s Kael, either in terms of quality or influence – but she was a major driver when I was young.
JC: How have you been able to make criticism into a career?
NM: Perseverance, hard work and dumb luck. I get that question a lot from high school kids and college kids who are interested in becoming critics, and though I try to be as encouraging as I can, I know that in this media market, the idea of anyone growing up to be a professional critic is about as likely as growing up to be a starter in the NBA. Actually, I think there may be more NBA jobs available right now.
But here’s how I did it: I started writing for the student paper at The University Of Georgia because I had a friend who was an editor of the entertainment section, and she asked if I’d review the latest Robyn Hitchcock album for her. I had no plans to go into print journalism at the time. I entered UGA’s J-school to satisfy my Mom’s concern about professional viability, but I was mainly into movies, and wanted to be a screenwriter, so I slugged away in the Radio-TV-Film department, where all my classmates were training to be field reporters for CNN. In retrospect, I should’ve played to my strengths and shifted to the newspaper or magazine department as soon as I realized that Radio-TV-Film wasn’t really for would-be filmmakers. Instead, I graduated from school with no professorial support and no professional contacts – just a stack of clips from the two years I spent reviewing records and movies for my friend. I moved back to Nashville and shopped those clips around, and within a month of my return, I got a call from an editor at The Nashville Scene, who needed young writers for a special ‘zine-like music section he was starting. I wrote some pieces for him, and after the ‘zine folded, he kept me on.
I freelanced part-time throughout the ’90s, while waiting tables, working at movie theaters and video stores, and even spending a couple of years as a ridiculously overpaid customer service representative for General Electric. I turned my work in on time, and pitched ideas to my editors, and never complained about a late check or the low pay, so I kept getting called up to do more work. Finally, after my wife finished her doctorate and got hired to teach at a college in Arkansas, I was able to start freelancing full-time. And even at that, it took me a year or two to start putting together enough assignments to make what I’d consider to be a reasonably good living. I’m not on salary anywhere, so I have to hustle to keep my income steady. I turn on my computer when I get up to make breakfast for my kids at 7 a.m., and I turn it off when I go to bed at midnight. In between, I’m either consuming media or writing about it – or both at the same time. But hey, it beats commuting.
JC: How and when did you get involved with The A.V. Club?
NM: I knew Scott Tobias a little at UGA, where he was two years behind me, and I got to know him better after I graduated, because he was good friends with Donna, whom I’d started corresponding with and then dating after I left. Scott became the film critic at UGA’s student paper shortly after I did, and then he continued writing reviews when he went to the University Of Miami for grad school. While at Miami, he was sent on a Miramax junket to New York, where he met Keith Phipps, who was junket-ing for The Onion. They hit it off, and Keith asked Scott if he was interested in doing a little writing for The A.V. Club. Eventually, they hired him as a full-time critic. And almost as soon as he arrived in Chicago, he started agitating for them to bring me on board. I quit G.E. and moved to Arkansas in 1999, and in 2000, Keith e-mailed me and asked if I wanted to write some book reviews. Then book reviews turned into video reviews, then record reviews, then movie reviews, and then interviews, and so on. It’s been the best gig of my life. I brainstorm an idea, run it by Keith, and more often than not, it shows up in print a few weeks later. Ever since the website went daily, The A.V. Club has been a content-gobbling machine, so if you have a lot of ideas and the wherewithal to carry them out, you can go a long way at that publication. I’m living proof.
JC: Given that by the early 1990s, pop music criticism had been declared dead or irrelevant for a decade or so, what did you think you brought to the party?
NM: Hmm… maybe thoroughness? Eclecticism, maybe? Even though I’m the first to admit that no critic can cover the waterfront as well as readers expect, I do listen to an awful lot of music, and watch an awful lot of TV and movies. Old and new. I also read a lot of other critics, keep up with the showbiz news, and maintain a fairly broad interest in popular culture as a whole. So I feel like whatever outlet I’ve written for, I’ve been a good utility man, able to pitch in on pieces about comic books, NFL Films, crappy fast food, avant-garde cinema, you-name-it. I’m big into pop history, and think it’s important to honor the past, without using it to denigrate the present.
Getting back to how I became a pro critic for a second… As I mentioned, I’ve been reading other critics since I was 14, and practicing my chops almost as long. When young folks ask me how they can get a job like mine, and I ask them what publications they read or what critics they like, I’m surprised to find that a lot of them don’t have an answer. And their tastes are often pretty time-locked too, as though it never occurred to them to listen to a piece of music or watch a movie that was made before they were born. If there’s one thing in common between myself and all the friends I’ve made in this business, veteran or young, it’s that nearly all of us have been submerging ourselves in popular culture and reading the other people who write about it since we were teens. You have to be really devoted to this stuff, or you’re probably not going to make a living at it. This isn’t a job for people who just think it would be cool to get paid to sit at home and listen to their CDs. It’s still a job, y’know? I have files and spreadsheets and schedules and all that stuff that any businessperson has, and I have to try to keep in touch with what’s going on in my field.
JC: The rise of the internet has pretty much paralleled your career. How do you think it’s affected music criticism and fandom? Has it been a net plus, or a net minus for both?
NM: A minus for people trying to make a living, but a plus for fans. It’s so much easier to find out about things now; and to hear them. I remember how amazing it was when CDNow first went live in the mid-’90s, right when I had my first desk job with internet access and a nice-sized paycheck. This was before Amazon started selling music, so on-line music retailing was still a relative novelty, and the idea that I could just type in my credit card number and get a package a few days later containing all these albums I’d been reading about – in some cases for decades – was really mind-bending.
But yeah, on the professional writer side, it hasn’t been all grits and gravy. A lot of my friends have lost their jobs over the last year, because the publications they work for didn’t embrace the internet fast enough, and now don’t have the income to pay both their executives and their writers. And at the end of the day, those executives are going to make sure they get paid, right? Also, the democratization of opinion on the internet has meant that there’s a lot less respect for pro critics than there used to be. People who’ve been fed up with hearing for years about the awesomeness of Big Star or Wes Anderson or 30 Rock now feel empowered to tell critics where they can shove their Arcade Fire. Which is probably something we critics need to hear, honestly, no matter how annoying it can be.
But I’m hopeful for the future. Already, the internet has started to see a migration of readership back toward recognizable names. So long as the advertising dollars are still out there – and there’s definitely less than there used to be, granted – I’m pretty sure that critics and readers will continue find each other. And if not, hey… there’s nothing wrong with working a real job and writing criticism on the side. That’s what poets do. That’s what a lot of novelists do. That may become the lot of critics too.
JC: Do you ever see a time in your life where this is the mode forever – only concentrate on the old music, with no time for the new?
NM: I think I’ll always want to hear new stuff, but I can see myself visiting the past more often than I stay in the present. Already, of the 2009 records that I have on-hand to review in January and February, three-fifths are reissues. So maybe that’ll become my main beat. Or maybe I won’t write much at all about music. If music-reviewing becomes subordinate to my writing about movies or books or TV, that’s fine. I’ll be happy to give some of the up-and-coming critics a chance to make some money.
- The A.V. Club
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