October 16, 2008

Musings on Music Writing and Everett True

Posted in Music tagged , , , , , , , at 12:05 am by Andrew McMillen

Pig City author Andrew Stafford interviewed Everett True before an audience at Brisbane’s Barsoma last week, and I was one of the nineteen in attendance. True incurred the wrath of Australian mainstream music fans in August, upon which I commented at the time. The event was held as a pilot for QMusic‘s proposed series of music-related public interviews, and while it was poorly attended, I have a feeling that this was due to minimal promotion on QMusic’s part. Some retrospective Googling uncovers that a few sites picked the event up, but it still flew under my radar; evidently, I wasn’t the only one.

During a Q&A discussion about critical discourse within music writing, or the lack thereof, one audience member asked the group how many writers from Brisbane’s local street press were in attendance. My hand was the only one in the air, which he then used to attempt to prove a point about local writers’ general apathy, or something. But dude, come on. I only found out about the event after being nudged by a fellow FasterLouder writer.

Everett stated in his characteristically humorous, self-promotional manner that his goal as a writer is to make everyone jealous of Everett True, and to make people talk about Everett True. In his words: “if you’re not writing to be read, then why the fuck are you writing?”. He and Andrew spoke about street press audiences, critical discourse within music writing, and established that all music writing is inherently subjective, which is something I’ve long since realised. It’s foolish to ever attempt to hide behind the veil of objectivity when discussing music you either do or don’t like.

The interview and resulting discussion certainly prompted internal debate regarding my writing method and purpose. I came up with a few answers, but I expect more to reveal themselves to me in time.

I review concerts primarily for free entertainment, and because live music is the most exciting and readily available form of public entertainment I’m comfortable with. The fulfilled expectations, the brilliantly unpredictable deviations from the standard rock ‘n’ roll script: those are the moments that excite me. There are loads of bands – local, national, international – with whom I’ll happily share my evening.

Of late, I’ve become more concerned with sound dynamics and artistic merit than a conventionally ‘entertaining’ performance, which often translates to the musicians occasionally ambling around stage. This may be simple subterfuge on my part, as I’ve recently become enamored of enormous-sounding shoegaze-type bands, though as ever, I still find the time and place for tastelessly entertaining bands – Bluejuice is the example that springs to mind.

I write about these events because I fucking love them. There’s also the attached personal challenge of whittling several hours of physical and musical theatre down to a few hundred words.

Audience has never been a huge concern for me, and still isn’t. My first reviews were for the eyes of my family and a few close friends; I’ve since become happy to let my articles stand alone, without the need for self-promotion. I update my LastFM journal with a copy of each review as they’re published, which allows fellow event attendees to read my words if they’re so inclined.

But by and large – though I still share published work with my family – I write for myself. Freelancing, as it were, though obviously still subject to the discretion of my editors. I know that my articles get glanced at in print by bored commuters, but the web audience is entirely different: they’re there because they’re interested enough to click.

It’s essentially a thankless job, which I am completely comfortable with. I know the nature of the game that I volunteered for. Not just anyone could do this, as most people don’t care enough to put pen to paper.

I really enjoy thinking about the historical impact that I’m having, though mostly on a personal level: words written at a particular time and place, when linked with my personal writing, will provide a rich tapestry of experiences upon which I’ll reflect fondly in my later years. The same principle applies for the artists I’m writing about. I like that my words capture a snapshot of an artist at a point in their career.

Maybe my sense of realism is unique among music journalists, I don’t know. I’m constantly mindful of the responsibility attached to my words, which are attached to my name.

But to return to my core purpose, free entertainment: all of my work up until this point has been to make a name, carve a niche for myself among my editors, so that I’m more likely to be chosen to write about the artists I want to see.

I suppose that I’m a faker, somewhat, because I wouldn’t write about bands if I wasn’t required to. I didn’t review the handful of shows that I paid to attend this year. I certainly enter a show in a different mindset if I’m reviewing, notepad in back pocket. Fewer beers are often consumed. Which is not to say that I enjoy myself less if I’m reviewing, fuck no; it’s just that I’m more mindful of my peers, my surrounds, and the context of the performance.

All of these ruminations spring from the fact that my music writing is a hobby, a personal passion. The thought of pursuing this as a career has not seriously crossed my mind in years, and funnily enough, not at all during the sixteen-odd months I’ve been a paid music critic.

While following the discussion between Everett, Andrew and the vocal audience, I reflected on whether I was being critical enough in my writing. Whether I was producing memorable words; or offending enough people, if I were to subscribe to Everett’s shit-stirring journalistic methodology. His goal was, and is, to be memorable, perhaps because the inverse possibility would be financially unsustainable.

I think that there’s an inherent sadness in being known first and foremost as a music critic. I mean, fuck, you sit around listening to bands by day and stand around at night watching bands, actively analysing their sound and craft for perceived weaknesses. Stewing on appropriately clever ways to judge their artistic output in a snarky or humourous manner. I know, because I’ve been there. What kind of profession is that?

I disliked how Everett spoke of the lack of critical discourse within music writing; that is, that there’s not enough writers out there sticking the boot into subjectively crap performers, as if it’s some kind of Herculean effort worthy of merit to chastise sub-par musicians. Because I get this picture of a middle-aged, wizened journo spewing forth bile onto his keyboard in the middle of night, this bitter, repulsive person, and I think – fuck that. My imagination may get a little carried away at times, but that image scares me a lot.

Of course, I’ve been concentrating on the negative side of music criticism, as that’s my first connotation. Its antonym is praise, which is what I tend to dole out in my music writing, as I tend to only see artists who I like. And that’s to my advantage, as like I said, music writing – while an undeniably strong passion of mine – is still a hobby. I can’t help but admire those who dedicate their career to writing about music, as they have more energy than I. 

I’m simply content to keep carving my niche, honing my craft, within the small pool of Brisbane music journalists. Memorable? Maybe. Honest? True.

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10 Comments

  1. Jerry said,

    Hey Andrew.

    Another nice, thoughtful blog – you miss a couple of crucial points, however.

    One: I’ve long felt that it would have been far easier to have made a living from writing about music if I’d learnt to keep my mouth shut at some point, *not* be memorable. It’s possible I’m being overly cynical here, but it’s always seemed to me that if you actualy want to have a continuous stream of paid work – from the mainstream newspapers, from the rock magazines, from the street press, even – it’s best to keep your head under the radar, not stand out. (Why is it that I haven’t been asked for one single review from the street press since I’ve been here? Is it because they think I’m not a good enough writer? Really?)

    Two: that image you paint of a middle-aged cynic is scary indeed. If it’s aimed in my direction, it makes me think that you’re guilty of one of the most obvious mistakes in music criticism – not enough research. Could I direct you towards the end segment of this blog (http://www.notaphoto.com/everett-true-vs-the-australian-music-press) for example – where the author lists all the positive articles I’d written about Brisbane since moving here (and that was several months back now): or perhaps in the direction of one of my books (Live Through This, the White Strpes one, the Nirvana one, etc) where I go out my way to introduce the reader to hundreds of other bands I feel passionately about…or perhaps the two magazines championing slipstream and underground music (Careless Talk Costs Lives, http://www.planbmag.com) that I created since 2001 – the latter of which is still going, and which still has an editorial policy of not wasting space on the negative.

    Yes, I do write to be memorable, but over 98 per cent of everything I’ve ever written on music has been positive. It’s hardly my fault if you – like several others – choose to focus on the negative because it makes for an easier story. (Or, to be fair, in your case, helps you to understand your own life – something else I feel decent music criticism should always do.)

  2. Ed said,

    If I’d known about this i would have gone along. Especially as I can see Barsoma from my office window.

    I’m no writer; my blog was just an excuse to stick some photos that would otherwise just be on my hard drive somewhere where they could be seen. Like you, I do it for myself and what I write is essentially my personal diary of the event. And I guess because of that I never questioned what I wrote or whether I had any responsibilities until people started commenting on my ET blog and I realised that people other than friends/family and a few photographers I know and were actually reading it…

    I used to mostly dislike ET and his writing when he was at NME and Melody Maker. It was all about him and there were never enough words on the band he was actually reviewing. But in my old age I’ve started to enjoy it, largely because his personal style sticks out from the usual reviews that are generally a list of what happened in the order it happened. I know word count plays a big part but I guess I always hoped that the freedom of the internet would allow writers to be more expansive in their writings, whereas for the most part it seems to have gone the other way into soundbite reviews, with elevenmagazine.com.au being the absolute nadir (you’d like to hope anyway) of music writing.

    BTW, have you been reading ET’s new weekly column on Drowned In Sound? It’s a good read.

    ps saw Bluejuice support We Are Scientists last week. They were really awful… a blog from the night is coming soon…

  3. Stephen said,

    I prefer to mentally refer to myself a (semi)-professional music appreciator. Sounds wanky, but I’ve disliked the negative connotations associated with music critic for a long time. I’ll reply at greater length later, I have to head to work now.

  4. Sophie said,

    Nice post. I personally think the purpose of music reviews are to entertain – opinions on music are so subjective that unless you can track down a critic that has unfailingly similar tastes to you, it’s unwise to take them as gospel. Not that anyone with two brain cells to rub together would.
    As ET wisely and infamously said, we don’t have a critical discourse in the music press. It’s difficult – we are a small city in a small country and of course the “scene” and the business associated with it is a bit of a mate’s club. Then again, as True said in his reply to this post “Why waste space on the negative?”.

    Opinions are like arseholes etc etc…

  5. This Devil's Workday said,

    Being a critic… well I think it’s far more valuable to be honest than memorable. If you write for yourself, and not an audience in particularl, then being honest is the best thing you can do. If you’re writing for an audience, even then, being overly critical and harsh for the sake of it is just annoying. I don’t understand why critics feel they have to “critisise” just because they’re “critics”. It’s more about reviewing, and explaining the enjoyment of the show to someone who was or wasn’t there. After all, even if a band plays relatively shit, it can still be enjoyable. Surely that’s so much more important to the purpose of music in the first place?

  6. Being a critic… I feel I have to give more bands shit like Everett True does. Spewing I missed the talk sesh, bet it was a good one.

  7. Meg said,

    I think the problem in Australian media culture is that there is no ROOM for criticism. If there were, if it were not considered an act of significance to say, ‘I disagree with the following:’ or, ‘This album was impossible to sit through, here’s why’ then people would a) have no capacity to exploit criticism as sensational and memorable, and b) actually review things honestly.

    Like I said when this kind of discussion was going ape shit over on TOMB, baseless criticism shits me just as much as baseless praise. There should be motivating factors for everything you say in a review, otherwise it is just masquerading fiction.

  8. Cam said,

    firstly i’d like to say that i enjoy reading your blog on occasion, it provides an interesting perspective and i can tell that you put a lot of thought into the things you write.

    regarding being ‘critical’ when writing as a critic, personally i don’t have much of a stomach for it. it’s one thing to get stuck into an established band like powderfinger, but it’s another thing to have a go at a small band who are still trying to find out what they really sound like. in brisbane there’s enough forces conspiring to kill a young band without careless street press / blog writers putting the boot in – things like the apathy of the local audiences, difficulties with finding people to play with, the small number of venues to play at (it becomes REALLY boring REALLY quickly when you’re playing the same 4 or 5 venues over and over) do a good enough job of that, they don’t need my acidic writing to help.

    personally, i find enjoyment from letting people know of bands / venues / events that would perhaps fly under their radar, and so that directs the focus of my writing and my blog. some people seem to think that i have some sort of ulterior motive (the ‘elitist indie hipster’ accusation gets thrown around a bit), but really all i’m doing is writing about acts that i really enjoy and that i want to see succeed to a greater extent. sometimes a nice review can be the difference between a band breaking up and it keeping together for a few more months, and that’s one thing that (in my opinion) brisbane needs – bands sticking around long enough to actually BECOME GOOD. very few bands are *good* straight off the bat, but if they can stick around long enough they can gain an insight into their own musicality that will help them to move beyond the pale imitations that most brisbane acts fall prey to (a good example of this being the recent musical shifts of tragic/athletic and their subsequent recognition from outside their small sphere of friends). to that end, whenever i offer criticism i hope that it’s constructive. i imagine that your goals may be somewhat similar.

  9. Thanks for the input, Cam.

    You’re right about few bands being good right off the bat – The Go-Betweens barely knew how to play their instruments in the early years, but honed their craft to become sensational songwriters and musicians.

    Like you say, early support is crucial, and I really enjoy writing positively about upcoming bands who I enjoy, knowing that my words will affect them on a personal level and encourage their ongoing development.

  10. Cam said,

    ps: this shouldn’t be seen as me saying that writers should write nice things about every small band. i guess i’m just saying that if you’re not into it either a) don’t write about it or b) say what you think but try to give an even account of things. obviously if you’re being sent to review a show by the street press and you’re not into the local supports then you’re still going to have to write something about them. i just don’t see the point in being overly harsh when in all likelihood the band will have broken up within 9months anyway.


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