What is truly missing in today’s review world is passion. Good, old-fashioned, “I loved this so much I had to tell you about it” passion. There is a whiff of the academic in the work of many reviewers. Great, if you’re trying to write your master’s thesis, not so great if you’re trying to inspire your readers.
Let us take this lead from the Los Angeles Times’ review of the final Sleater-Kinney show:
Sleater-Kinney, arguably the most respected rock band of the post-Nirvana era next to Radiohead, played its final concert Saturday at the Crystal Ballroom. The second of a two-night hometown farewell, the concert sold out in five minutes and attracted fans from as far as Los Angeles and New York. Don’t feel too bad, however, if you didn’t know it was coming. Born of the ardently independent feminist punk movement riot grrrl, Sleater-Kinney thrived for more than a decade on a track parallel to the mainstream. Its farewell to that semi-underground America was musically majestic enough to fill a sports arena, but its spirit suited this artfully decaying theater in America’s reigning bohemian town.
Makes you want to dive right in and read the rest, doesn’t it? Compare that lead to the lead from Pitchfork:
Sleater-Kinney settled their 11-year career on bittersweet chords: “One More Hour”, the iconic break-up song from Dig Me Out, whose lyrics encapsulate the moment just before a departure. “In one more hour, I will be gone…” sang Corin Tucker, wistfully. “In one more hour, I leave this room” Their departure was imminent and, it seemed, reluctant. As they played the final tones, the final song in the second encore of their last show, tears streaked each of the three women’s faces. They dropped their instruments, hugged each other, and walked off stage.
Same topic, different impact. I want to read the Pitchfork piece. I can barely work up the enthusiasm necessary to glance at the LA Times article.
The two publications speak to vastly different audiences. The Times must necessarily focus on a vast range of media while Pitchfork generally hits the music that falls on the outer edges of our world. Wired describes Pitchfork as “small”. Fair enough. Because it’s better to be small and influential than to be large and frequently dismissed (don’t get me wrong, the Times has some great writers, they simply don’t often get a chance to really shine). Pitchfork thrives because it does the one thing it needs to do…really well:
Though the music industry has seen drastic changes in recent years, what has remained constant is the fact that most listeners still find their music with the assistance of a filter: a reliable source that sifts through millions of tracks to help them choose what they do (and don’t) want to hear. The filters we traditionally depended on — music magazines, radio stations, music video channels, even the recommendations of a trusted record store clerk — have diminished in influence enough to give a player like Pitchfork room to operate.
In a world of niches — and everything is a niche, when you get right down to it — we need filters. We need trusted sources to learn about new and cool things. Traditional media has lost its way on this issue. Publications like the Los Angeles Times have very large bills to pay; they need to cast a wide net to pull in large numbers. Online venues like Pitchfork can operate on passion alone for a very long time. With success comes overhead. It will be interesting to see how Pitchfork balances the need to pay bills with the passion that has made them an underground success.
The good news is that there will always be another Pitchfork waiting in the wings. Someone with a lot of passion, a lot of energy, a different approach to a familiar topic. Publications like Pitchfork scare traditional media because they can move fast and dart through crowds like nobody’s business. By the time the Times discovered “Clap Your Hands, Say Yeah”, they were already over with their target audience.
Once upon a time, publications like the Los Angeles Times
were trusted sources because they were the only source. Once competition set in, mainstream media decided it was better to shut up rather than put up. Things will change, things always change — those big bills require creative thinking.