Confessions of a Curator: How one longtime music critic gets the job done

Confessions of a Curator: How one longtime music critic gets the job done

“Bob just wants to make sure that some kid has something decent to put on the eight-track while he cruises down Woodward.” — Lester Bangs, Village Voice, 1979

I love writing about music, even when I don’t dig the music I’m writing about. After 22 years of cranking out album reviews, artist features, curated playlists, and everything else you can think of, my mind still races and my stomach still fills with butterflies whenever I tackle a new assignment. If a few days pass without writing about music, I get anxious — tense, even. It’s a feeling I can only describe as a cross between acute caffeine withdrawal and existential woe.

When I tell folks that I write about music for a living they invariably assume it’s wild and romantic. Either I’m chilling at home, blasting my favorite records at all hours of the day (and night). Or, I’m partying backstage with cool musicians. The reality, however, is way less glamorous. Most of the time I’m glued to my laptop, writing about music I don’t even like. I mean, I don’t not like it; it’s just that I wouldn’t listen to it for enjoyment, and that’s a crucial distinction.

Here is the music I do like: the weirder the better. My collection is packed with obscure vinyl and tapes that sound as though they were created in another dimension by freaktastic aliens. As I type these words, Laser Temple of Bon Matin’s Bullet In2 Mesmer’s Brain! soaks my noggin in lo-fi psych-noise that teeters on the edge of gooey chaos and higher-level form. So yeah, that’s what I’m into, as a civilian.

Now here is the music I spend 80 percent of my working life covering: testosterone-drenched rock and metal. I’m talking about all those commercial riff-ragers who climb Billboard’s Top Hard Rock Albums chart week in and week out. These include older bros Nickelback, 3 Doors Down, Linkin Park, etc., but also younger metalcore and post-hardcore acts like Asking Alexandria and Falling in Reverse who incorporate hair metal and EDM into their tunes.

But despite the fact that my relationship to the latter is about as clinically professional as a doctor’s is to his stethoscope, there is a very real chance that you have been super stoked when reading one of my reviews of the latest Linkin Park or rocking out to one of my post-grunge playlists on one of the streaming services. And if this is the case, which again it likely is, then you may be wondering how I can get you so enthused for music that I would never play for myself when off the clock.

Let’s dive into that.

***

I knew music writing was the thing for me as soon as I began working on my first assignment in January of 1994. A couple weeks before, I had walked into the offices of the Western Herald, the student daily at Western Michigan University, and introduced myself to A&E Editor Shirley Clemens, who promptly asked me to write an article on the then-controversial used CD marketplace (ah, the ‘90s). And just like that, I began driving around Kalamazoo, from record store to record store, interviewing owners (including Flipside Records’ Neil Juhl, a local legend who would play a pivotal role in turning me onto Detroit proto-punk and free jazz) for what would eventually become “The Great Used CD Debate.” It was an astonishingly terrible piece, yet I was hooked.

My experiences at the Western Herald helped me snag bylines in a handful of dailies and alt weeklies, as well as an internship at The Boston Phoenix in the summer of ’96. But the bulk of my writing between 1995 and around 2003 actually appeared in punk and indie zines. These included Jeff Bale’s Hit List, Copper Press, Sound Collector, Badaboom Gramophone and my personal favorite Your Flesh, which along with Touch and Go was the Midwest’s go-to zine for hardcore punk, scum, noise-rock and proto-grunge.

Zines were (and still are) my favorite outlets: You can curse (underrated perk), be willfully eccentric with story structure and write about extreme underground music without sacrificing its essential undergroundedness, all of which appeals to me because, well, that’s the stuff nearest and dearest to my heart. Writing about an obscure and utterly fascinating weirdo like the late Mikey Wild (a.k.a. The Mayor of South Street) is way more fun than jockeying for an interview with whatever flavor-of-the-year tops Pazz & Jop.

On the flipside, zines don’t pay. And that was a problem for someone who desperately wanted to make a living from music writing as opposed to a normal desk job. So, by 2004 I chose to double down on writing for outlets that paid, including alt weeklies like SF Weekly, The Village Voice and Seattle Weekly. As with many music journalists of my generation, this path eventually led to curatorial work for the growing number of streaming music companies, which — surprise, surprise — can be weird about me even mentioning their names (google “NDA”), but suffice it to say you’ve used at least one of these services, if not multiple.

Actually making a living off music writing and curation had a critical side effect, however: In the words of the Meat Puppets, I split myself in two. The more I found myself working for outlets for actual money, the more I found myself writing about stuff beyond the underground music that was my first love. I began covering mainstream rock, blues, country, EDM, folk, chart pop, jazz, reggae, and even Warped-approved post-hardcore. The list goes on and on, really.

It turns out that developing these two different headspaces is fairly common among music journalists and curators. Many of us write about commercial music, while the vinyl that makes it onto our turntables after work is significantly less mainstream. But because so few of my peers don’t particularly enjoy acknowledging this reality, much less offering in depth examination on the subject (generally speaking, no one pays you for that either), it’s something of an elephant in the room. I can only speak to my personal experiences, and they look something like this…

***

Writing about and curating music I listen to only as a professional can be both more difficult and easier than writing about stuff that appeals to me on a personal level. It’s harder when the music is bland — no unintentional weirdness, no good backstories, just utter blandness. Virtually all indie beyond 1996 fits this mold. It’s mediocre to the point of hideousness and should be banned by Congress (just joking, but not). In contrast, covering metalcore (as well as post-hardcore of the Warped Tour variety) is far easier. Sure, the music can oftentimes be borderline unlistenable, but there’s no denying that it’s packed with character (however absurd). Crank I Prevail’s version of Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” off Punk Goes Pop, Vol. 6. It’s so stupid, but stupid in a way that makes me want to know why these guys would actually want to create such a bizarre chunk of sound. It takes real effort to make something so audaciously loud and dumb and that marries mosh-pit breakdowns to plastic teen pop in such a hamfisted way.

Whenever I’m in professional mode (and it doesn’t matter if the assignment in question is harder or easier) my mantra always is “this isn’t for me.” There’s a part of me that believes all music comprises one giant universe, but there’s another part of me that believes it contains multiple universes. The former me believes I should rail against everything that I don’t dig no matter the cost, while the latter says, “Not so fast. Some stuff simply isn’t meant for your ears.”

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: In the spring of 2010, an editor at Spin asked if I was up for reviewing Boys & Girls, Alabama Shakes’ debut album. I snagged the assignment because it was decent pay, and I know a thing or two about the history and evolution of Southern soul, blues, and rock ’n’ roll, thus it would be a fairly easy assignment. (Bang it out and move on to the next thing.) Now, if I had allowed the universalist in me anywhere near that review, he would’ve insisted on writing, “Seem like nice kids, but don’t waste your time. Go buy an old Eddie Hinton record instead.” But that approach doesn’t work. My editor would’ve made me rewrite it anyway. Plus, I probably wouldn’t have gotten more work had I dismissed the record outright, and those are things I have to consider.

So, I let the other me, the one who believes in many universes, handle the review. This entailed writing a piece geared toward who I thought would even be curious enough to read about the Alabama Shakes. I came up with an imaginary twentysomething who digs The Black Keys, The White Stripes, and maybe some Fat Possum garage rock, but who lacks the knowledge about Southern music to know that the Shakes aren’t totally original. Basically, I created what social media types like to call a “persona” and went about weighing the pluses and minuses of the music while keeping in mind the expectations of this persona.

This is the very mindset I’ve used to become a know-it-all in modern hard rock, alt metal,  metalcore, post-hardcore, and beyond. I’ve put together in-depth playlists on virtually every aspect of grunge, from proto- to post- to neo- to stripper- (yup). I’ve created sprawling album collections that offer consumers the full breadth of the nu metal movement, both the landmarks and obscurities. I’ve written reviews of every Linkin Park album, twice.

The sheer amount of research and listening I’ve devoted to these genres is bonkers. I can list five electronic producers who have remixed Korn tracks off the top of my head. I can explain the minute sonic differences between all three of Creed’s key spin-offs: Alter Bridge, Projected and Tremonti. I can even go into great detail on precisely why PVRVIS and Blaqk Audio are harbingers of the forthcoming Goth/industrial revival that will sweep through mainstream post-hardcore.

I initially claimed this turf out of professional survival. It’s hugely popular music both in terms of sales and streaming, yet the number of my peers willing to even acknowledge it is incredibly small. Finding writers, curators, and digital merchandisers with the knowledge and desire to craft content in hip-hop, pop, indie pop, and even classic rock is easy. They’re a dime a dozen. But not so when it comes to modern hard rock. Chew on this: Nickelback never made it onto the cover of Rolling Stone despite selling in excess of 22,000,000 records between 2000 and 2011. The freakin’ Boston Bomber made the cover, but not one of the biggest selling and most influential rock acts of their generation — which isn’t an endorsement of their music; it’s just a fact.

So yeah, it was a no-brainer move to begin covering this stuff, but after a while I actually began to grow an attachment to it. Strange, I know. But I figured that if I was going to be the content producing guru for the modern hard rock demographic, then I was going to own my work. I even developed a persona for myself when crafting this content, and it’s one that’s best captured by the line quoted above: “Bob just wants to make sure that some kid has something decent to put on the eight-track while he cruises down Woodward.”

Rock critic Lester Bangs wrote that in his 1979 review of Bob Seger’s Stranger in Town album for the Village Voice. We don’t need to cite a lot of statistics to more or less agree that the average fan of this music clearly isn’t living in Williamsburg or the Mission or Silver Lake; they’re living in flyover country, in the Rust Belt and in the South. They’re the very kids who back in the late ’70s popped a Seger eight track into their car, only nowadays they’re texting while earbuds fill their ears with Asking Alexandria or whatever. There certainly exist varying shades, like between those who are more Warped/alternative inclined and those who go for more of a 3 Doors Down/meat-and-potatoes sound. But the point is: The audience for my curator persona was the kids and young adults of what they call Middle America. That’s who I write and curate for.

This persona is not an abstract concept for me. I draw from personal experience. I myself am working class and from the Rust Belt (Syracuse, New York). And while I logged numerous years in New York City and San Francisco, the bulk of my life has been spent living in medium-sized cities in Middle America, including my present residence in Grand Rapids, Michigan (the adopted home of Sleeping with Sirens (see what I mean?)). I grew up in a shabby neighborhood flanked by factories, all of them slowly dying. The kids in my neighborhood were working class troublemakers whose walkmans always blasted some mixture of hard rock, thrash, and hip-hop in the years directly before all three merged into nu metal. Not only that, but Syracuse was an early breeding ground for metalcore, including one of the genre’s pioneering acts, Earth Crisis.

To this very day, some of my nearest and dearest friends are hard rocking bros. One hauls trash for a living and worships groove metal. Another is a former skater turned drummer turned massive bodybuilder. So, whenever my work takes me to the land of Kroeger, Chino and Weiland, I imagine a composite of all my childhood friends. If I’m creating a playlist of alt-metal anthems, then I craft it as though my goal is to give one of them the absolute best listening experience. I ask myself, Would they want to make the windows in their cars rattle with these jams? Would they hit the weights while cranking them? Would the tracks I’ve selected stand up to hours of repeated listening as they indulge their video game addictions? My sincere hope is that they do, because it’s not likely that Laser Temple of Bon Matin is gonna do the trick anytime soon.

 


Third Bridge contributor Justin Farrar has written for Spin, Village Voice…actually, his resume is outlined pretty extensively above. Follow him here: @JustinFarrar

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