K. (exchangediary) wrote,

Shallow Rewards

So, yesterday I wrote about a couple of bands/artists that were new to me in 2013, but mentioned that I also had some thoughts about music journalism this year & I think more than new music, it's the way that music is talked about/reported on that I've been thinking about lately (particularly in the last couple of weeks as people start to release their end of year lists.) [personal profile] littlebutfierce mentioned that they would read that post if I wrote it, so here it is.

One of the things that's really been tugging at me is Chris Ott's latest Shallow Rewards video. Chris is a former Pitchfork staff writer (he left Pitchfork close to ten years ago, but I don't think he'll ever really escape being associated with them) and has written for 33 1/3 books, The Village Voice, and a handful of other outlets. Shallow Rewards is a series of videos in which Chris yammers on about his opinions and they're typically insufferable, but the latest one ("This is Boston, Not BK") is exceptionally so. Honestly, I don't recommend watching it unless you want to throw a bunch of time down the drain and not have anything to show for it except for seething rage. Basically, "This is Boston, Not BK" is a 30 minute diatribe against any person who dares to write about music in exchange for money. Ott asserts that young, paid music journalists are being exploited by large corporations who don't actually care about music, that music journalism is not a job and that the reward of writing about what you love is payment enough, that you're a soulless corporate shill who exists only to exploit the scene if you get paid for your writing, BLAH BLAH BLAH.

Like, yeah, I get it, corporations are evil. But there's also the reality that writing is labor and people deserve to be paid for their work. & you don't get to decide what labor should be valued and/or make value judgments on how people choose to make a living. Most of the music writers I know are not making major bank - they're getting by through freelancing, writing for free weeklies, etc. You have to love music to be up for that kind of grind and if you can get by on that money, that's fine and well and good for you. You shouldn't be shamed into picking up a minimum wage job so that you can give your written work away with your supposed integrity intact (Ott suggests that people who want to write about music should get fast food/barista jobs so that they can blog on a personal platform w/o compensation). It's easy for Ott to say this stuff - he's gone on record as having a day job with an annual salary close to 6 figures. I would say it's a lot easier to write for "fun" and maintain a stringent ethical stance re: your participation in/promotion of "the scene" when you have a 95K "real job" to sustain you. It's a luxury to be able to put your personal philosophies about the industry ahead of the reality of needing to shelter, feed, and clothe yourself.

But where it gets really ugly, you know, as opposed to just annoying, is when Ott puts NME and Liz Pelly on blast for a recently published feature on basement shows in Allston, MA. For some reason, Ott has it in for this feature. He goes on at length about how this is just NME looking for some rock to overturn so that they're able to discover something no one else is reporting on and that the basement scene isn't worthy of media attention because it's very nature makes it ephemeral and undeserving of being remembered. Like, he actually has the gall to say, word for word, these bands don't deserve to be remembered. And, yes, every major media outlet is looking for new music to report on. People want to be ahead of the curve and a lot of that does have to do with branding and wanting to seem on point and being able to curate a meaningful portfolio of advertisers. But there's other stuff at play here, too.
In some respects, Ott isn't totally wrong about Pelly's piece - how many people are really going to be talking about Krill in 50 years? Probably not a lot, but that's fine. I don't think a feature like this is really about getting kids to go online and buy a Krill tape - I think it's about showing them that you can have a scene in your town, that you do not need mega-venues that are pulling in nationally touring major artists. That, if you want to, you can have a basement show and have an incredible time watching people you know enjoy music made by your friends. I get that I sound overly optimistic right now (and I will admit that I go to maybe 2 house shows a year, sometimes less, so it's probably easier for me to be nostalgic about this kind of stuff because I am not dealing with the stress of living in some place like Haus of the Dead Rat or whatever), but I think this kind of stuff matters, especially to young people. And I think that, in some ways, this kind of stuff needs to be in a major journalistic outlet like NME. Ott seems to think that the internet is the great equalizer and that because of the internet, we can all just fall away from print media in favor of microblogs, but long before I had access to the internet, I could read Spin and Rolling Stone, and for a lot of people, that hasn't changed. Even if you have the internet, you don't always know where to look. Having access to the hardware doesn't automatically connect you with the right networks of people and information. I mean, how many house show fliers are out there with "Ask a punk" printed on them in place of an address. How do you know which punk to ask? What if you're just fucking shy? What if you don't have the resources (financial, emotional, whatever) to jump through the hoops that you sometimes have to jump through to get to be in on the secret?

So, I've been thinking about that video and Ott's assertions re: what "deserves" to be remembered a lot over the last couple of weeks, particularly as end of year lists come out. NPR is going to be announcing the results of their listeners' poll later today to complement a staff-curated list that they published earlier this week. NPR's best of 2013 list actually looks a lot like a list you would see from Pitchfork, Stereogum, or AVC. I mean, it has Chance the Rapper's Acid Rap mixtape (a non-label release that dropped for free), Sky Ferreira's Night Time, My Time, and plenty of buzz band stuff that I didn't bother listening to because the sheer vastness of what's out there and accessible (esp in the wake of free streaming platforms) is, to be frank, a little overwhelming. It eschews the new Neko Case album (which I loved and which NPR did a multi-part "making of series" around). But their listener's poll was even more interesting. There was a list of pre-selected options (.pdf of list) you could choose from plus additional fields for write-in votes and the stuff they had pre-selected was blowing my mind. Like, Tape II by Priests - a hardcore cassette only release on Sister Polygon Records, and Perfect Pussy's I Have Lost All Desire for Feeling (Perfect Pussy recently got a write up in the New York Times that deemed their name "unprintable").

So, for me, it's been interesting to kind of consider the sort of bands that are making their way into major media outlets - like, I would not have pegged NPR to be interested in the music being made by Priests and Perfect Pussy, so I wonder who is working there and compiling these lists for them, you know? I feel almost like, wow, "we" (or, at least, "people who share my interests") have become the list makers. We are becoming the cultural gate keepers. And I have mixed feelings about that, for sure. If you're looking at things from Ott's perspective, is some place like NPR really that eager to seem up on bands like Perfect Pussy so that they can show their advertisers and sponsors (you know, like, "Hey MacArthur Foundation - we've got a really great hookup with the kids who have ACAB patches on their jackets.") Or do they maybe just have staffers who are passionate about something and want to use their platform to put it out there to a wider audience?

It's just... There's a lot of push and pull here and I don't think it's as black and white as Ott wants his viewers to believe it is. Like, he comes out pretty strongly against corporate sponsorship of shows, but sometimes that needs to happen. Local venues here frequently have shows sponsored by PBR or Heineken and those sponsorships help to cover the booking cost of the bands - those shows would not be able to take place without some kind of financial intervention from either corporations or individuals. I mean they could technically take place, but the cost of the booking fee would be passed on to the attendees via increased ticket prices & here is the push & pull, like, yeah corporate sponsorship feels icky but the alternative (people being shut out of experiences because they can't afford to be there) feels worse to me.

I guess part of what I find the most galling is that Ott acts like all of this is somehow new. Like cool hasn't been commodified since the beginning of time. Like it's possible, in the world we live in, for experiences to be pure and untainted by capitalism if only we would all just get tumblrs instead of deferring to larger media platforms. And, worse, he acts like it's an easy and obvious choice to make - to disengage from capitalism and enter some kind of Nirvana where ~money doesn't matter~ and we all love music and ~isn't that what's really important~

TL;DR, Chris Ott really made me mad this year, I guess.

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