EMP Pop Conference 2011 — summary and full notes from Twitter

Okay, so my plan for covering everything at EMP Pop Conference 2011 changed pretty rapidly from what I was expecting! After an early glitch with WordPress wiped out my notes from Ann Powers and Carl Wilson’s excellent talks, I was rather peeved and wondered if I shouldn’t just relax this weekend and just take everything in. However — following the lead on Twitter from such good folks as Ann and Ken Wissoker — I figured after a bit that I could just switch over and do what I’d been doing there. It’s not so different from my Twitter-based concert reviews, after all.

But it turned out this was not only a good idea but a great idea, in that it allowed for something I’d never considered — instant reactions and questions from those following my posts there to respond to the presentations, at least in the redacted/summarized form I was providing. I admit I was as surprised as anyone could be when my friend Mike Daddino — 3000 miles away in NYC — posed a question in response to Bob Christgau’s talk, and I was almost taken aback by everyone’s surprise and amusement when I passed on that question to him in the Q&A following his presentation. Other examples cropped up on Twitter throughout the weekend, as well as moments of clarification, side discussion and more.

The end result, combined with the relentless ‘make sure I hashtag/link all presenters’ nature of my posting, meant that the overall notes were less detailed than in past years, but I still ended up with a lot of words at the end of it all. Further, most of the other posters like Wissoker and many others were spread out in almost all the other panels at any given time, so we might (I emphasize might) have had as complete an overview as possible of the conference in real time for the first time ever. I’ve always been concerned that my notes are, ultimately, merely a small sampling of the whole conference at any one point, so this kind of result is the best.

When I first mentioned to Ann that I had switched from blogging to Twitter for coverage she laughed and noted, “I guess blogging IS dead!” I was thinking that a bit myself, I admit! But this form of compilation after the fact allows both aspects to thrive — if the Twitter posts are ‘forever,’ this kind of centralization of the flow has its place too. As with my past notes, my goal is just to give a taste of what happened, and to encourage anyone interested to attend next year as well.

If you’d like to go back through everyone’s reactions, settle in to review the results via the #PopCon2011 tag — it’ll take a while! Various reports and blog posts are surfacing already and there’s more to come — and after this paragraph, here’ll be mine! Before that, much and many thanks to the organizers — Eric Weisbard, Ann, Robert Fink and everyone helping from UCLA and KCRW and beyond — and as ever great to see everyone again, hanging with old friends and making many new ones! See you all next year at NYU, I hope!

All notes are taken directly from my Twitter posts and, I must heavily emphasize, are not meant to be anything but that, quickly typed notes — names may be spelled wrong, concepts oversimplified and so forth. Corrections or clarifications from the presenters are always welcome! At some later point this week I will try and add all links (to presenters’ webpages, video links, etc.) where appropriate. The presentations were recorded for iTunesU and will at some point be available from there as free downloads.

Finally I do have to record my favorite comment I got as I was madly typing away — of course, via Twitter, from Eric Harvey aka Marathon Packs:

@NedRaggett is #PopCon2011′s foremost purveyor of unpaid documentary labor. On his live Cliff’s Notes grind.

For completeness’s sake, here’s the one full set of notes I did take at the start, before the lost Ann Powers and Carl Wilson notes:

Juan Carlos Kase, “Go-Go Dancer and One Hit Wonder: Toni Basil as Embodiment of Cultural Mobility in 60s Los Angeles” — Toni Basil mostly associated with “Mickey” and the accompanying video that she choreographed, banished to VH1 nostalgia specials and the like. Short-sighted! She had a different impact in the 1960s/early 70s as a dancer/choreographer in film and TV, an active visualization of the time. An exchange of sexuality, cinema and sound. TAMI Show, Shindig, Hullabaloo, various B films, dancing in the go-go style of the Sunset Strip. There’s a semantic excess in her style, goes beyond the terms. Clip from _Village of the Giants_ shown — no Tom and Crow though! — Jack Nitzche music and she shakes groove thing to Beau Bridges’ giant leers. Great blue bell bottoms. Classical training, modern dance moves, improv all at once. The film is goofy and formulaic, but still altogether stranger. Representing the social energy of the era — theorist cited on go-go dancing, an icon like the 20s flappers. “The girl is free to let themselves go, as wild as they feel.” Little scholarship here on popular dance of the time, but a change in gender roles, quick turnovers, solo dancing. “Dance, Gender and Culture” cited, males not defining the dancing, a new variety where female physicality is shown. Hoskyns cited on Fred C Dobbs, gathering place of shapers of youth cultures, bohemians into hippies, Basil as a bridge. 1968 Basil works on the Monkees _Head_, heterodoxy in impact — Basil appears in _Easy Rider_, a blunt cultural object, registering sinister connections. Dennis Hopper’s crossing of roles/interchange noted, artistic crossovers noted throughout LA, visual art, etc. Hopper’s photographs, Basil’s films. Samples and stills shown. Didnt start with James Franco! Clip from the opening of her film _Breakaway_ shown. Pleasure and provocation in her motion and gestures in sync with the song, various costumes, set against her Motownish song, her one off for many years before “Mickey.” Stockwell photo of Conner filming Basil shown, studied, lots of back and forths. Sontag invoked, “Against Interpretation,” a neurotic art, textured. Concludes a bit broadly…but hey.

Everything that follows, as noted, comes via a compilation of my Twitter posts:

Jonathan Daniel Gomez, “3 Bucks a Head: The Backyard Gig, Class Struggle, and the East Los Angeles Community” — “Starting with a very moving, detailed story of a memorial backyard gig in East LA and its being busted by the police…expands his 2008 into a story of methodology, analysis and study in the East LA backyard gig punk scene…talking about community fundraisers among such bands — even sometimes just to get the power turned on…needs to be a sharper speaker, frankly, but we all start somewhere. The sample song played is agreeably mean sounding.”

Robert Christgau, “Blue Monday: The Class Origins of ’50s Rock and Roll” — “He’s presenting a study of 50s rock and roll as working class music, first noting the apparent self-evidence of this…Xgau’s non-impersonation of Little Richard is amazing. “A great story…and some of it may well be true.”…Christgau looked into the family background of 31 50s rockers, reading off the full list, acknowledging gaps…List of parents’ jobs read out — truck driver, construction worker, cotton pickers, much more. A hardscrabble set of lives…The presentation is a series of lists, but with anecdotal power and a sense of scope…Pat Boone thought he was linked to Daniel. Buddy Holly to Sir Francis Drake. (Who had no kids.)…Details about parental ambitions, the performers’ own work history, a fascinating range. Bo Diddley did everything it seems…”Frankie Lymon was a grocer’s helper and a pimp…both of which he liked more than being a gardener.”…”Music was their way out of the working class…but there were personal costs.” Politically? No radical politics evident…Anecdotal stories about his own father — and a brief emotional pause. From here into a study of 50s class and economics…”Permit me to cram this into one unwieldy sentence!” *swigs water* Don’t blame him.”

Eric Harvey, “We Are All Workers, This is Our Song: What Counts as Labor (and Song) in 21st Century Music Promotion” — “…notes that the paper might be a buzzkill in terms of connections of old and new rhetorics of labor…looks into the history of the People’s Songs Collective in the post WWII era, aiming to make songs that “worked”…notes the problem of aestheticized populism, then discusses the Levi’s Fader Fort at SXSW…visits the bloggers lounge in the Fort and wonders — “What doesn’t count as work?” Work/party in the brand, marketer happy…notes that free music and beer in exchange for an RSVP, “a good time that was sanctioned by the corporation.”…”Levi’s disguises the mundane and invisible work in late capitalism.” Even in something simple as seeing a show…The example of the town of Braddock as a place branded by a new sculpted ad-driven resilience, down to the piano part in the ad…notes this is work in rebuilding a gutted city and building good will for Levi’s — notes Fader Fort comparison…they are there to sell jeans too of course, but the shop is itself heavily branded by signifiers…Interesting connection made to the Wanamaker’s early 20th century branding via pipe organ etc where Levis wants you to ‘believe’…”Communal cool brought to what would otherwise be a temporary open air shopping mall.”…draws other comparisons, notes the Fader branding in the Fort, how their musical choices are linked to fashion…”A populist avant garde,” where is open and at the same time limited, “seeing stuff that others can’t.”…”A populist avant garde,” where is open and at the same time limited, “seeing stuff that others can’t.”

Christine Bacareza Balance, “Viral” — CNN clip on Wong Fu Productions and their impact shown…discusses viral video meaning, its potential vs what it is, the ease of access — “people on the DL — download tip”…discusses how Asian Americans “locked out” of telling/sharing stories now have a much more dynamic platform…notes the huge subscriber numbers on YouTube for such artists, translating into live performance numbers as well…notes the huge subscriber numbers on YouTube for such artists, translating into live performance numbers as well…discusses 60s activism as well as the long process of Asian/American cultural response and interaction, ref. Lisa Lowe…ends with thinking about the viral and music as continuing cultural critique. Great talk!”

Daphne A. Brooks, “Glitter” — “Brooks namechecks Aaron Fowler and Natalie Dean and off we go with a bit of Kanye piano and the story of Harriet Jacobs…(If you haven’t read Jacobs’ _Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl_ you all really should.)…talks about glitter and its meaning as various icons flash on screen (Bowie, Elton, Cee-Lo, Prince) and references…discusses glitter as razzle-dazzle showmanship, in African American terms how it represents a reaching up and beyond…talks about the women in detail, Beyonce as a massive example of wealth and look. Clip of “Upgrade You” shown…talks about the “spectacular combination” of artist and luxury item. Other video examples noted, suit of armor etc…looks back to forgotten figures in glitter — Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, their sartorial fantasies and more…notes Eartha Kitt’s cabaret irony, incorporating her background and desires in her “embodied” performances on stage…talks about Aretha and her contemporaries and influences, her own dresses and look, the connection to the Supremes…Motown charm school impact as “corporeally transformative,” Etta James and her “disruptive glam,” Tina, Grace, Janelle!…Clip of “Many Moons” shown as Brooks discusses its overview, incorporation and reinterpretation of these many past examples.”

Karen Tongson, “Plastic” — “What is plastic? Examples, humorous, serious, a throaty riff on Wham!’s “Credit Card Baby!” Also “You Are the Plastic Ono Band.”…Tongson on a roll, will likely be only catching bits of this properly. Think of identity, rearranging the presentation of self…”Plastic enslaves us, degrades us…but it can set us free.” Talks about the eighties, Reagan, Duran Duran, Tongson’s 80s…And into a clip from Depeche! “Everything Counts,” still utterly brilliant. “The grabbing hands grab all they can…”…Tongson talks about her immigrant background, that 80s songs aren’t about the singer but are always very karaoke ready…Tongson talks about her “latchkey aesthetics” and the plastic arts, the way everything can be recombined/reworked…Tongson closes with a favored example, New Sound Karaoke, shows clip of their “Hold On Baby Mama” — okay this is incredible!…Wilson Phillips never seemed so astounding. Repurposing as dramatic art playing out their “story” wherever it goes…”Mashup reheat and remold” not merely the music but social expectations and roles, “how deeply we can love something so shallow””

Gayle Wald, “Svengali” — “”The Jody Rosen memorial lecture, he doesn’t know it! It features sheet music and Jews!”…goes over the Svengali/Trilby story and goes into sheet music and wider “Trilbymania.” Fans, scarves, bunion removers!…Victorian sentimentalism combined with anti-Semitism given Svengali’s background, Wagner grousing about Jews and music…1915 film still shows Svengali as stereotypical figure; book says he looks “so offensive to the normal Englishman!”…Svengali “exudes an embarrassing Jewishness” in Wald’s words. The idea of starmaker is Svengali’s legacy…Svengali eventually stripped of his ethnic accents, various examples and citations given, Wald very much on a roll…Barrymore’s Svengali played as a Jew at least implicitly. O’Toole’s Svengali rather different in that and other ways…Svengalis now “deflect agency away from the artists” — and an amazing quote about Trilby’s mouth from the novel given…Svengali “combining attractiveness and repulsiveness” in one figure, like pop music an entrapping figure we’re complicit with.”

Oliver Wang, “Fetti” — “…speaks of “the diversity of metaphors for moolah in hip-hop — where did they all come from?” Mostly conjecture!…notes the example of “chedda” — cheese, government cheese? Yet what about “the big cheese?” “Guap” also talked about…What is definitive in both cases? Funny examples and ideas talked about — Wang great as always — and into “fetti”…Mid-nineties origins in Vallejo noted very specifically, but what is it? Confetti, fettucine…federal? Federal notes?…considered asking E-40…but language is “meant to be malleable…what matters is enough people can agree.”…And money itself is only “ink on paper” — symbolic! Hua Hsu quoted with a wink and a smile and we’re done!”

Roberta Cruger, “Do Girls Want More Than Just Fun?: Style vs. Substance during MTV’s Formative Years” — “…refs Timberlake asking MTV to play more videos, her own career there from 1981 to 1988 and people referencing the era…notes that the original target audience was TV babies who grew up with rock, much smaller than the current one…presents a basic channel timeline, noting the original radio/cultural contexts, “breaking bands by default.”…talks about screening videos, explaining the channel to others, the sense of format, the slow gain of ratings/revenue…notes the “I want my MTV” campaign, the expansion into LA, Cyndi Lauper as a major breakthrough point, style/substance…But what is the “fun” she sings of? Cruger argues Cyndi’s version helped usher in more female voices, a further expansion…Billy Squier’s “Rock Me Tonight” as a “bad move — literally, he moved badly!” But ZZ Top showed you didn’t have to look good…Billy Squier’s “Rock Me Tonight” as a “bad move — literally, he moved badly!” But ZZ Top showed you didn’t have to look good…Madonna vs Cyndi in terms of persona, Madonna’s branding over Cyndi’s kookiness. Women as hood ornaments/hot teachers…1985 is the Viacom takeover, identity now shifting, “Money for Nothing,” 1987 as a year of throwback, “Thank god for Prince!””

Michaelangelo Matos, “We’ve Got to Move These Color TVs: Advertising in the Wake of MTV” — “…begins with talking about “MTV-style editing” referencing “Hungry Like the Wolf” — quick AND slow!…talks about Mark Pellington’s influential editing for the channel as key, four cuts per second…shifts into talking about MTV’s working with advertisers, “I want my MTV” and the campaign, the Stones and Jovan!…”‘You are what you hug!’ — nobody speaks Lionel Richie like Lionel Richie!” Various ad/musician stories told…talking about music and jeans makes me think of Eric Harvey’s talk yesterday — and now into talk of ad backlash…notes the shift to older songs post-Big Chill, Levi’s “501 Blues” ad campaign, lots of posing and “bedrock” music…quoting Robert Goldman on advertising, Levi’s and metamessage, marketing to suspicious audiences and much more…talking about MTV bringing a knowing audience into being, aware and heavily suspicious.”

Scott Seward, “Ebay, Light Of My Life, Fire Of My Loins, My Sin, My Soul – The Confessions of a Record Dealer, The New Vinyl Renaissance, the Impossibility of Supplying the Demand for Old Led Zeppelin Records, and the Essential Human Need for Objects” — “Seward: “Hi everybody! I’d like to thank the bartenders at the reception…”…starts with a hilarious riff on the AOL/HuffPo merger and I think I won’t be able to properly capture this much…”People like to buy stuff…and hold it an squeeze it and touch it before they buy it…”…talking about the “scary old man” he bought singles from in 1973 — “the hardcore gangsta rap song ‘Bad Bad Leroy Brown.’”…”I just want to grab them and shout “It’s not a sale if the sale is all year long! Those are just your PRICES!””…(quoting a customer) “Oh god, records! Do people still buy these? You wouldn’t happen to have the new Ray LaMontagne?”…”The New York Times runs a ‘vinyl is coming back’ story EVERY MONTH!”…”I’ve spent so many hours on my knees in strange basements that the jokes just write themselves!” It’s flying here folks…The books rant and collector scum moment of realization and the dumpster full of records and broken glass…Heavy puncturing of the vinyl-coming-back myth, eBay as generating interest in everything/anything…”People don’t like to dig too hard…they leave that to me. And I need to have something that appeals to them or I’m cooked!”…”I can’t think of anything lamer than cleaning your weed on top of your hard drive.” And fin. Amazing as ever, Scott.”

From the Lunch Roundtable: Burn on Cuyahoga: “Cheetah Chrome in response to a question for recommendations from the audience: “I think hardcore is a big waste of time.”…Audience member: “But why does everyone leave Cleveland?” Cheetah Chrome: “Because it sucks.””

John P. Strohm, “Label Deals: How They Suck, and How to Make Them Better” — “…presentation taped already, but he’s on Skype for followups…reviews the Blake Babies’ history in contracts and the basics of major label deals as evolved over time. A good précis…Work for hire arrangements/contracts discussed, royalty rates, recouping, development costs, renegotiations…How did this culture emerge pre-iTunes? More risk fell to labels, had better access to distribution and promotion…Indie split profit models discussed, artist-owned/licensed approaches, potential freedom in staying at that level…Digital distribution upends this all, major labels have “taken their crappy deals and made them exponentionally crappier.”…talks about his experience representing the Civil Wars, sticking with the indie model with great success…figures that labels will in future develop their brand first and foremost in future over physical product…How to make deals better in the majors? Leverage being key should mean deal improvement. Majors should ditch 360 or else.”

Tim Quirk, “Budweiser Bought My Baby: When and Why Did Licensing Music to Brands Stop Seeming So Evil?” — “”Budweiser: the second shittiest beer in America!” Mentioning a split in the band in 1991 over recording a jingle for it…Discusses the producer Lloyd and fooling him during the recording…plays the jingle. It’s definitely Too Much Joy in a weird alternate universe. “Anheiser-Busch!”…laments the song, donating residuals to charity…and acknowledges that his hate of the jingle is “wildly wrong.”…notes that the money that came in enabled he and his wife to afford health insurance and have their daughter Abby…notes that Bud provided a better deal than most record labels…but ad stuff was something that “just wasn’t done.”…remembers hearing the Who’s “I Can’t Explain” in an ad in 1998 and…not getting mad. With experience, a new logic…remembers hearing the Who’s “I Can’t Explain” in an ad in 1998 and…not getting mad. With experience, a new logic…talks advertising and sophistication, analyzes the ad, reflects back on his own experience, the fans at the agency…plays a Luscious Jackson Gap ad noting it’s less embarrassing and yet still somewhat uneasy, explores implications…The “what they really would wear!” comment is genius. Can’t easily explain it…notes Luscious Jackson’s prescience, plays the Feist iTunes ad and the instant sales spike, the shared aesthetics…plays a Sara Barielles Rhapsody ad, shows charts outlining the spike in sales, notes that ads do benefit the musicians…notes that advertising hijacks the subconscious, and far too many ads “still make me want to kill myself!”…Re: new HP Lou Reed cover ad: “I assume they spent so much money on the song that’s why they let an intern sing!””

Charles Hughes, “Selling Soul: Capitol Records, Black Power and the Economics of Black Music” — “talks of a 1969 speech [from Capitol boss] to NATRA broadcasters about saying more to black audiences, part of a broader effort by Capitol…notes Capitol’s slowness to handle black product, only really starting in 1966 and being locked out of r’n’b sales…in 1969 they had come around and wanted to develop across the board, identifying music with culture…says they wanted to “constructively engage with the black community” — motivated by cash, by desire, soul as politics…discusses activism inside the recording industry, the NATRA group and their dedication to community affairs…In 1968 NATRA goes even more militant over white control of the industry at their Miami convention, black empowerment key…So Capitol wanted NATRA to recognize in 1969 that they were responding to this; they worked together through 1974…Capitol’s black division starts up in 1969, links up with Invictus and Fame Studios, Sidney Miller running many things…In retrospect, much label hiring was tokenism; black divisions became audio ghettos, a dilution of culture (CBS being worst)…noted Harvard Report authors told CBS to aim for infrastructure and connections — neocolonialism? Reaction, even more…Hughes reflects on all this — Capitol establishes template, others follows, showing “complicated contours” at work…What’s great is that Logan Westbrooks is here and delivers some thoughts in response. Good details on the Harvard Report.”

Scot Brown, “Dick Griffey’s Legacy: The Sound of Los Angeles Records — From Soul Train to Deep Cover” — “…mentions interviews with Griffey before his death, trying to avoid hagiography in favor of larger factors…Solar as eighties Motown — big claim, “so I have to give you some evidence!” Great clips from Shalamar, Lakeside, etc…notes that a number of talented black executives were established in the late 70s, Griffey had decades of experience…Griffey’s bio reviewed — hell of an active life, many careers, musical background, booking LA clubs and concerts and much more…Griffey noted the exclusion of black concert promoters in the early 70s, said black artists could do more to help…discusses larger black social/academic associations, notes Griffey’s alliance with Don Cornelius after the Soul Train move…Founding of Soul Train Records in 1975 then Cornelius leaves in 1977 — Solar is born, an immediate smash, disco/funk sweet spot…studies acts like Shalamar, the Whispers, producer Leon Silvers as the key, photo shown of him and Griffey and the roster…Disco and “big band funk” dies in the eighties, how did Solar survive? Self-contained bands! The Deele, Midnight Star, Lakeside…They embrace electronics, Babyface gets his first breaks, Klymaxx work with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Silvers proteges…Solar relocates to its own Hollywood building, all sorts of self-contained facilities, built by black workers. Big steps…Solar not big on message songs lyrically unlike Phil Int’l/70s Motown, but Griffey heavily involved in political activism…Griffey and others protest Tom Bradley for not inviting African nations to LA 200th anniversary celebrations, for instance…Heavy involvement with Jesse Jackson campaigns, anti-apartheid efforts…Griffey also a founder of Death Row Records!…Griffey not happy with Interscope breaking Dre/Eazy away. Griffey moved to Ghana, sold building to Babyface, story continues.”

David Sanjek, “First I Look At The Purse: The Contamination of Popular Music Studies by Agoraphobia” — “Corporate ads as ephemeral communication, rather like music industry products. Few recoupals on investments…Talks about the Columbia “man can’t bust our music” campaign from 1969 and its stumbling. Ad and text described in detail…Material virtually “self-equipped with scare quotes.” Participators in its creation oblivious though, but we scoff…Making fun of ad assumes our superiority, makes us think the absolute worst of the creators. Are we hard wired for hyperbole?…refers to LeBow’s work on official histories as oversimplifications, valorizing abstract over concrete, agoraphobia!…refers to LeBow’s work on official histories as oversimplifications, valorizing abstract over concrete, agoraphobia!…makes a request/call to arms for a clearer study of the business, naming many possible areas for investigation…asks us to greater understand the marketplace, to avoid agoraphobia or even erase it, noting film studies has done more…If Stax is different from Motown, we must get down to the details, the actual results of human behavior.”

Joshua Alston, “Pressed Down, Shaken Together, Running Over: Contemporary Black Music and the Prosperity Gospel” — “Begins by talking about a successful storefront church in Atlanta, soon to move — namely the one that Mase founded…speaks of sermons, invitations to parties, how Mase works with the prosperity gospel, which Alston explains in detail…Fears and concerns over the prosperity gospel among many Christian congregations and preachers in the black community…plays the full song of Mary Mary’s “God and Me” — big modern gospel hit, v much in the vein of 21st cent r’n’b…details the lyrics talking about the material success of the characters as deriving from their faith and giving…touches on the split of sacred and secular in black culture, noting its musical history, and church hostility to hiphop…quotes a pastor of a non-prosperity gospel hip hop church struggling with bad reactions from many constituencies…Mase discussed again — message hasn’t changed much, only the signifiers have. Pursuing a different kind of hustle.”

Elizabeth Keenan, “Trying to Buy Back a Little Piece of Me: Consumer Culture, Nostalgia, and Political Activism” — “…notes initial wave of 1990s nostalgia in 2009, Meltzer’s four page Nylon article on Riot Grrl fashion…wonders how nostalgia influences cultural politics; what does the article tell us about revision/reframing?…notes general Riot Grrl review and studies/codification — books, collections, conferences. Discusses 3rd wave feminism…3rd wave as engaging with consumer culture, considering implications, how this tied in with punk rock and style based image…Consumerism studied, its sexism noted, Ellen Willis quoted, but who does say nothing inherently wrong with consumption…As 3rd wave historicized, Riot Grrl seen as the highest/best example of it, narrative summed up in amazingly quick fashion!…continuing to explore the questions noted, quoting writers on consumerism and Riot Grrl…notes books on Riot Grrl put out via major publishing houses by Marcus and Meltzer and their joint Slate interview…Revolves around nostalgia questions, Marcus suspicious of Meltzer’s conclusions, Meltzer notes socialization of consumption…Phew…okay I’m a bit lost now. Becoming the Presentation Ouroboros.”

Simon Reynolds, “The Selling of No Sell Out” — “…talking about meanings of underground, evocative in music but also nebulous and weak, a spatial term, ‘authentic.’…Prime movers in underground are in the business of building a niche market and supplying it with products. Will look at 3 phases…Looking first at UK folk/psych music in the early seventies — Hawkwind, Roy Harper etc. Range of economic activity everywhere…talks about Island’s success, boutique labels, Pink Floyd, Richard Branson — “hippie capitalism” mocked by squatters…Countercultural activity couldn’t flourish without marketing activity — notes Ladbroke Grove businesses, shops, newspapers…”Underground was about revolution — it was also about good business.” Notes gov’t connections (Peel via BBC, student unions)…Evolution of things like Time Out makes sense, an informed consumerism. Second phase: UK postpunk, renewing underground…DIY seen as new and revolutionary but it was historical amnesia as Reynolds notes, psychologically and politically needed?…DIY labels founded by amateur entrepreneurs, not Bransons; band signings as partnerships; Rough Trade as prime example…Rough Trade privately owned but operated as collective, but when they got successful and built up a network things changed…As a clearinghouse, again, Rough Trade as revolutionary but again sound business. Collectivist facade much harder to maintain…1980-81 debate about what is the way forward for the underground — Rough Trade goes for the gold, restructure, radio pluggers etc…Indie as farm system for majors discussed, Geoff Travis partnering with Warners to do Blanco y Negro…in bed with the business…And the current underground? Many many genres, looking at drone/psych/noise/etc continuum. Connections to past undergrounds…Cassette culture studied, Bruce Russell 1999 interview mentioned, smallness of market, frequency of releases, now gone haywire!…”Artists issues installments from an endless work in progress” — cheap recording/reproduction, like print-on-demand releases…Customized artwork/physicality of recordings/tactile and fetishizable products/etc! Lot of details offered, “almost artisan.”…Little sense of corporate criticism, instead the new underground embraces intimacies, mentions Etsy and art — “tons of owls!”…”A class bound impulse for the creation of antiques,” from music as art to music as artisanal. DIY like furniture DIY…The underground has no meaning if no frictional relationship with pop. Opt out, fall below the threshold of consequentiality.”

Keynote Discussion – Career Possibilities: How Musicians Make Do and Keep their Souls Alive in a Changing Pop World — Moderated by: Jason Bentley, w/ Moby, Raphael Saadiq, David Sitek — no Twitter posts here due to the bad reception but the event will be archived via KCRW.com soon so just search for it there! All three of them were great, lots of stories, thoughts, anecdotes.

Matt Sullivan, “‘There’s A Highway Telling Me To Go’: The Mystery of Jim Sullivan” — “…starts by talking about his Light in the Attic work, “stumbling across interesting artists with interesting stories”…Jim Sullivan disappeared in 1975 in New Mexico; his album “UFO” appeared in 1970. Plays clip of “Jerome”…John Rankin’s post on the Waxidermy blog talks a bit about his disappearance; Wrecking Crew members played on album…Further blog comments inspire Matt Sullivan to investigate and search for masters, more info, etc. Hears from Jim’s son Chris…Family recommended talking with old manager Robert Buster Ginter — much searching done, two daughters of his found…talks about Jim’s weathered voice/strange and sad lyrics more, plays clip of the song “So Natural,” stately but sorrowful…Executive producer Al Dobbs found, met in Calistoga, “a dapper gentleman in his late sixties,” showed old paperwork, photos…Producer/musician Jimmy Bond searched for next — hard to find a “James Bond!” Apartment finally found but no response…Bond had moved out some time before, letter left with neighbor, Bond’s son located and contacted, Bond finally met…Bond very enthusiastic and chatty but remembers little of the album until songs are played, prompting a rush of memory…And Jim Sullivan’s disappearance in Santa Rosa, NM? Matt and friends go visit, check into the La Mesa Motel, look around…Jim had left LA for Nashville, pulled over for swerving, tested for sobriety, judged that he was fatigued, never slept in motel…Questions over what he left, why his guitar would have been left. Ranch site of disappearance found and visited…Stories of encounters with ranchowners; car found abandoned with guitars and tapes and wallet, etc. Jim simply gone…Local paper contacted, suggest talking to long time reporter Davey Delgado, who passes on stories, contacts, archival leads…Body found a month after disappearance, judged after investigation not to be him. Delgado suggests sheriff, nobody in office!…Jim had said once that if he wanted to disappear he would walk into the desert and never return…”

Pat Thomas, “Militant Motown: the lost Black Forum recordings” — “After MLK’s death, Motown employees approached Berry Gordy, said it was time to “ramp things up,” Black Forum label was born…No records of label at current Motown, Amiri Baraka got handed back his master tapes, few distributors. MLK album 1st release…Langston Hughes collection next, then Stokely Carmichael’s “Free Huey” the third album release. Clip played, Stokely v forceful…Black Spirits back cover art shown, feat Stanley Crouch “when he was a totally different guy!”…_Guess Who’s Coming Home_, recordings of black soldiers in Vietnam, art shown, recordings played. Angry, engaging, raw…Why quickly release this but hold up _What’s Going On_? Gordy didn’t want to fuck up Gaye’s image. Further covers shown…Amiri Baraka’s _It’s Nation Time_ done with free jazz musicians, clip of an amazing cover of “Come See About Me” played…Another song from album played, “Who Will Survive America?” Bass-led, Baraka, gospel backing, apocalyptic celebration…Elaine Brown’s “Until We’re Free” single from 1973 from s/t album played. Black Forum unanthologized even by UK soul obsessives.”

Andy Zax, “The Highly Improbable (But Utterly True) Saga Of Tupper Saussy: ‘LearnTo Pronounce It; You May Need To’” — “Okay, it’s another great Andy Zax presentation — no way I’ll be able to capture this all, like Scott yesterday. Snippets follow…Saussy from a Georgia family, moved to Nashville, pursued many interests, party guest par excellence, made sharp jazz records…Records didn’t sell but led to commissions, played for Atkins and Hirt, befriending Newbury/Kristofferson, art pop fandom…The Wayward Bus’s “The Prophet” single his first pop single — Stravinsky meets the Addams Family theme! Great Jack Davis cover…Gets Acuff-Rose deal in 1968, writes “Southbound Jericho Parkway” for Roy Orbison! 7 minute operetta about a suicide by car!…Next, the Neon Philharmonic! Anything, everything, all at once. Not flower power, about adult emotions. Astounding clip played…More clips and songs mentioned. Pirate epics! “The Mordor National Anthem!” “Are You Old Enough to Remember Dresden?”…Orchestrations for Anita Bryant orange juice ads! Divorce! Playwright! French cuisine brought to Nashville! IRS audit!…Saussy investigates the IRS and money, writes _The Miracle on Main Street_, all about Article 1, Section 10 and tax protest…Of course, it’s a one-sided rant and the IRS was annoyed. Arrested, sentenced, but becomes a fugitive! Plus, James Earl Ray…Roams the country, sheltered by fellow tax protestors, hides quietly, finally busted in LA in 1997, writes Jesuit scare book…Returns to music with “The Chocolate Orchid Piano Bar,” died suddenly in 2007 at 70. Last work: a web video defending Wesley Snipes!”

Douglas Mcgowan, “Flogging A Dead Genre: Resuscitating New Age” — “Dan Morehouse playing in the background — average listeners’ understanding of New Age begins when the good period of it ended…notes beginning of revival of interest in 2002, identifies steps along the way among hardcore record collectors…Waxidermy site mentioned as helping to codify a new age canon via their interest and efforts. McGowan moves to general points…Discusses Gurdjieff as foundational figure in establishing American new age ideas; made music via keyboard improv…Semantics of new age discussed, the problem and possibilities of labeling — reclaim the term, like queer!…Idea of new age music as retranslating older ideas for a newer audience, with an emphasis on the silent, calm and nonmodern…Steven Halprin discussed, a good sonic salesman on the home recording front, an inspiration there if not spiritually!…Cassettes and new age discussed, the many advantages of the medium for the creators at the time elaborated…Digital synths ruined new age in the mid-80s; major labels get involved, the Wave gets founded, thoroughly co-opted…New age as ultimate utilitarian music, it aims to do exactly what it does at its best. Says he’s happy to share more info.”

Douglas Wolk, “Singles Going Nowhere: The Rise and Fall of the Indie 7-inch” — “Lackadaisy single shown, talking about a classic one-off indie single from 1992 — reads promo notes etc…So why did the sight of a 1999 indie release inspire his fear and loathing? Thus the paper — why the loss of value?…details a good potted history of American indie rock singles, two songs, 7 inches, packaging etc…notes above all they were cheap — to make, to sell, to buy. Knowledge on releasing increased with time…The 1991 pamphlet by Jenny Toomey et al on self-releasing opened the floodgates “even for arrivistes like me!”…explains the pamphlet and its info, he gets inspired to start Dark Beloved Cloud in 1992, things chug a bit…The story about his not realizing there was a record pressing plant on his NYC block the whole time — so sad!…details more mid nineties history, notes that no 7″ singles on CMJ sample chart but all bands there started with one…By 2002, he notes that the ratio starts to slide heavily, this year nobody on those charts started with a 7″ single. Why?…Glut of product, overt careerism, was hard to return product from stores, distribution channels tighten, majors get involved…Support mechanisms going too — magazine coverage dries up, college radio plays more from CDs. Above all, process cost more!…Heavier marketing from CD manufacturers, CD manufacturing process grew cheaper than making vinyl! The econo way: make a full CD!…notes that new singles to come out but they are art objects, mastering/sound tends to be crap; won’t come back.”

Chris Molanphy, “Singles Going Steady: The Record Industry’s Vacillating Relationship with the Single, as Reflected in a Half-Century of the Billboard Hot 100″ — while I took notes on this, Chris has already made everything about it available online for your perusal! Download the full text and accompanying slides at your convenience. Should the link go away in future, though, here is my summary: “…talks about “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever”, Buzzcocks comp, album format now a 40 year failed marriage…wants to talk why the industry can’t quit the single via the medium of the Billboard charts, a lifelong obsession…notes “the changing fortunes of the single” via the Hot 100, from domination to war against to new revival…starts a decade by decade review in the 1950s during the primacy of the vinyl 45 single; album charts fragmented…Gold singles had to sell 1 million, albums 500K, not changed until 1988; ratio of non album singles changes heavily but why?…Sgt Pepper as killer app — the most successful iteration of the album-as-such, therefore the labels change focus…Singles did not disappear but did recede, ghettoized in the 1970s — for hit acts, best to be perceived as album sellers/acts…notes racial/sexual splits — white rock acts selling albums, unpromoted black acts have hit singles, not albums…tackles the “AOR didn’t need singles” myth — Led Zeppelin singles noted. Business hated singles but needed them…notes disco era frustrations over taking singles off the market to promote the album. Into the 80s/90s!…Rumours/Saturday Night Fever redefined promotional scope of albums, how many singles to release, lifecycles…Michael Jackson as most obvious beneficiary of this strategy with the Thriller impact, albums milked dry for hits…notes the MC Hammer experiment, doing a vinyl “U Can’t Touch This” but the album crushed it in sales…Vanilla Ice single pulled at peak, forcing album sales — the Great War Against the Single is on. New Zeppelins have no singles…Rockers got annoyed at this practice so the shift was on to Big Pop, no singles, just albums — and it worked!…One hit per album became a new standard — consider “Hey Jealousy” — and airplay vs sales singles, finally changing late 90s…Napster as “epoch-ending rebellion” — iTunes now the pre-eminent model for song by song purchase…Hot 100 now much much more dynamic and fun — industry dyspeptic but the people and chart geeks love it!…”You don’t share albums with your fellow citizens but your favorite songs.””

Tom Kipp, “The ‘Disco Single’ as Commercial Elixir for Aging ’70s Classic Rockers at the Verge of Chart Irrelevance: Decadence, Desperation, & (Occasionally) Unexpected Monetary and Artistic Resurgence!” — “”It was early 1978 — and the gods of rock were going disco!” But the predictions had been going around, had the time come?…Bee Gees as selling out…but they were always about that! Nice meditation on their career and commercial instincts…Disco fears and homophobia etc noted, but everything sure as heck sold. Tom Smucker’s excellent work cited and celebrated…The Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” as smash hit and breakthrough, Kipp recalling his high school listening experiences in Montana…then finds the full disco 12″ of the song — extra verses, longer runtime, more guitar interplay, even more amazing…(my post on the horrifying Rod Stewart photo Tom found got eaten but as Eric Harvey said, “I cannot unsee Tom’s huge photo of Rod Stewart’s terrifying banana hammock. BRB bleaching retinas”)…Disco Demolition clip showed, the Kinks “Superman” celebrated, Kiss does “I Was Made For Lovin’ You,” hated but a hit…Beach Boys, Wings “Goodnight Tonight” — “heinous video clip…a complete snorefest.” Yoko, Lou Reed, Bruce remixes by Alge…Stepping back to view through disco-goes-rock — Sylvester and especially Boney M…Looks at “aging soul gods” — Johnnie Taylor, Marvin Gaye, Al Green. Back to Mick and his mocked falsetto (“Emotional Rescue”)…Then again are the oo-oo vocals in Pavement’s “Cut Your Hair” and “Painted Soldiers” too far different vocally? Kipp wonders!”

Chris Randle, “Misty Mountain Pop” — “…paper subtitle “Gross National Happiness and Music in Bhutan”…talks about Bhutan’s recent interest in shifting talk from gross domestic product to gross national happiness…notes how this has driven new interests and fads, but skepticism should be shown — what are the definitions?…moves into a quick potted history of Bhutan and its traditional music, part local, part Tibetan…notes instruments like the dranyen, skewed colonial judgments of the country and its music…quotes an early English judgment of Bhutan court music: “as disagreeable as it is continuous”…notes 1960s modernization in Bhutan as helping prompt a new Bhutan pop music, rigsar, frowned on by elites…Video clip of (modern rigsar song) “Tok Tok Heel” by Kuenga Dorji played — great stuff! Unlike zhungdra, with its overlapping vocals…Zhungdra as traditional/religious music, rigsar as splashy rhythmic pop — therefore how to measure gross happiness?…Rigsar song “Hi Bumo Hi” video played, riffing on Chamillionaire, lusty but still very chaste…notes that there’s much religious sexual imagery but sexuality is still more private. Populace is very young…notes the randomness of many young Bhutanese’s encounter with Western pop culture due to recent media openness…notes Bhutan’s active film culture, speaks about a film on a hip-hop loving stepmom still banned by the govt…notes the monarchy’s continuing disdain for rigsar, as well their oppression of Nepalis in Bhutan’s south (Champas)…speaks of diffusion of power in Champa refugee camps — gross n. happiness fails, objectively ranks the subjective…has a great side note on “North Korean state music — where poptimism meets Stalinism!”…concludes with fine thoughts, invokes the “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him” dictum.”

Alex Rawls, “Treme Second Line” — “…he says the title should be “Touched by Treme” — found a better title more recently!…notes how ill-served New Orleans has been on TV and in movies, citing examples of geography, language, fake cuisine…Treme’s creators background seemed to promise much. Rawls talks about Davis Rogan, lauded by David Simon, part of the Treme team…Treme has helped Rogan find a new audience, exposure to “a whole other audience.” Rogan has asked to keep his name in the show…Upcoming Rogan song: “Nobody Can Call Me Lame Anymore.” Rawls notes how the money helps Rogan record better, experiment more…John Boutté talked about, similar stories about extra money, more exposure via theme song, ego boost and freedom…Boutté: “Treme gave me a big ol stack of ‘Mmm…I don’t think so’ cards!” Further examples of being “Touched by Treme” given…Observations from others there about how, whatever the imperfections, Treme has had an impact. Manager: “Treme isn’t NPR”…Referring to how much of a commercial leg-up it can give you. Manager of musician noting NPR has a much wider reach than Treme…Stepping back a bit to note how easily and deftly Rawls brings in so many voices. Less his thoughts, more that of a multitude…Rawls notes that much evidence either way is anecdotal rather clearly spelled out — stories of tourists, bookings, and more…notes how some musicians feel the key is not even just money but respect, of the musicians as well as the communities…notes the sad history of New Orleans musicians being burned and shabbily treated by labels et al, Treme is something new.”

Evie Nagy, “The Demon’s Manifesto: Gene Simmons and the Foundations of a Musical Superpower” — “Tim Quirk asks Evie what her KISS character would be — she chooses a Rorschach KISS…notes that a Kiss panel on music and money seems obvious, but if Kiss are in it for the money, well, so is America…shrewd business doesn’t begin to explain their success, advances manifesto — Article I “Art should be the name of a guy.”…notes that Simmons saw questions of art and money in his youth — his father’s dreams, his mother’s practicality…Article II: “With great responsibility comes great power.” Simmons as mocked and teased as immigrant, bootstrapping…Article III: “Go clean for Gene” — Ace and Peter as users always irritated the teetotalling Simmons…Article IV: “A chicken in every pot, a Porsche in every garage.” Simmons emphasizes branding, working, control…Article V: “This is why they hate us.” Ego satiation in Simmons words, no hangups about music, says critics are jealous…Article VI: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” Simmons thinks facing/overcoming fear is essential to success…Article VII: “E Pluribus Unum” Simmons wanted to be Beatles but being bigger, better and American…Article VIII: “75 cents on the dollar is generous” Simmons’ own loyalties are fierce — to mom and America for saving her from the Holocaust…But as for every other woman? At least 9000 women know what it involves given the photos. Wanted power and pussy…wraps up with further Kiss examples of omnipresence; Kim Fowley on Kiss quote to wrap up. Great stuff!”

Andrew Beaujon, “Kiss of Life: Why KISS Fans—Still—Empty Their Wallets” — “…says to Tim Quirk he would be an Angry Heron Kiss!…presentation is a film he has made interviewing a Kiss hyperfan he’s known for years…the hyperfan Mike in question talking about how he discovered the band, “vacuum the allowance” phase…Mike’s album reviews of Kiss are amazing. Dude is as passionate and sometimes lost for words as any writer…Lots of notes on memorabilia with albums, Mike has a great guileless nature to talking about it all, but not an unknowing one…”Unmasked” poster: “a giant fucking reminder of how stupid you were to buy it!” “The Elder” — “medieval version of Jethro Tull”…Mike talking about the need to save allowances to get _Alive_ and other albums, how much it meant that it was something yours…Lots of great photos and details about dressing up in the makeup and wigs for concerts/Halloween, videos with daughter…Mike asked if he feels Kiss treats fans as ATMs, Mike says that he does not have to buy everything and doesn’t…Mike: “I’m a field marshal in the Kiss Army! Others may have more things…but did they bleed for Kiss?”…Mike: “The average Joe doesn’t go to a record store, they go to a Barnes and Noble, go to the Kiss section.”…Above all, Mike is clear about his young memories of just exploding with energy when hearing new Kiss songs. Great to see…”When the music started sucking, I still had those memories.””

Ann Donahue, “Rock the Cash Box: How KISS Made Selling Out Cool” — “in response to Tim Quirk she’d be Adam Lambert Kiss…sets up a raffle for Kiss memorabilia! Notes success of Kiss merchandising brand, huge profits over time…notes that Kiss’s ubiquity makes selling out cool, kitsch into cash. 5000 Kiss products on the market!…Kiss looked to Disney as the model for how to merchandise, its from-birth branding to draw in everyone…notes some failures like a Kiss retail store, then just went ahead to team up with Wal-Mart for Kiss ministores…mentions the Kiss coffee house in Mrytle Beach in 2006 and its own branding success, merch, etc…notes the Beatles example again, Kiss ratcheting up the scale of merchandising but not inventing it itself…The raffle rules! And Andy Zax wins the Kiss soap!”

Chuck Klosterman, “The Street Giveth and the Street Taketh Away” — “…tells Tim Quirk he’d be Bearded Caucasian Kiss!…so Kiss were on Casablanca and Neil Bogart had plenty of his own money ideas that they borrowed/adapted…”Few bands have been so impacted by press and by media like Kiss!” Talk about critics and media all the time…therefore notes that it comes back to money as stated driving force, that they were good for being massive…talking about the first/second order of desires and how Kiss invented second order desires perfectly…telling great anecdotes, Ezrin asking high school kids about fandom, kids saying they sucked but loved them still…Klosterman running on a high speed flow I can’t easily capture! Caffeine come to life…notes that most of what we lionize Kiss for ended up as financial disasters, cleverly masked by image…noting all crazy ideas, Frehley talking about being ordained ministers via the Universal Life Church — no taxes!…notes his Kiss interest is ultimately musical — so where does money fit in on Kiss songs/lyrics?…notes early discs don’t mention money much but songs about prostitution, power, poverty in the present (“Cold Gin”)…notes next records are about confusion over wealth (“Do You Love Me?”), magazines and media presence…Kiss stories of the time replicate themselves constantly — always about money and business and more…says that Kiss perceives the world as fundamentally unreal. That’s a pretty great call!…says “Everything is something else with Kiss!” Paul to Gene in early 80s: “The truth is never good enough for you!”…on solo albums: Paul: “I am Kiss!” Gene: “I am more than Kiss!” Peter: “I am not Kiss!” Ace: “I’m George Harrison!”…on _Music from the Elder_: “most blatant attempt by a band ever to appease the critics!”…notes that 80s Kiss songs shift into aphorisms — not very inspirational! Trying to be Bon Jovi, fails…”I like buying Kiss stuff!” We talk about artist and artist fans, but what about the connecting fluid between?…”By us surrendering our money, they surrender their position in the culture to me, to us, the fans.”…concludes with “If Kiss has sold, they’ve sold out to fans like me. I own Kiss!” Into Q&A but essentially #PopCon2011 is done!”

EMP Pop Conference 2011 — weekend presentations

So pretty much, just for ease and interaction, I’ll be firing off my coverage of EMP on Twitter. Lots of folks are doing the same so join us — #PopCon2011 is what to search for! A change but a good one — I’ve been able to pass on some questions from there to the panelists directly!

EMP Pop Conference 2011 — Friday presentations

Okay! It’s that time of year and for the first time ever it’s in LA — very handy, I must say. Feel free to review the official site of the conference to see what’s happening, while #PopCon2011 is what to search for on Twitter. As per usual I’ll be updating this entry throughout the day, so keep checking back; I’ll be doing similarly with entries for Saturday and Sunday.

It’s going to be a heck of a crunched time this year — everything’s packed into three days and in some cases there will be five panels and discussions going on at the same time, so what you’re going to read here will only be a small slice of everything going on. Happily there should (I think!) be even more coverage on this than ever from attendees.

Looking forward as well to seeing everyone there! Say hi if you see me around!

Juan Carlos Kase, “Go-Go Dancer and One Hit Wonder: Toni Basil as Embodiment of Cultural Mobility in 60s Los Angeles” — Toni Basil mostly associated with “Mickey” and the accompanying video that she choreographed, banished to VH1 nostalgia specials and the like. Short-sighted! She had a different impact in the 1960s/early 70s as a dancer/choreographer in film and TV, an active visualization of the time. An exchange of sexuality, cinema and sound. TAMI Show, Shindig, Hullabaloo, various B films, dancing in the go-go style of the Sunset Strip. There’s a semantic excess in her style, goes beyond the terms. Clip from _Village of the Giants_ shown — no Tom and Crow though! — Jack Nitzche music and she shakes groove thing to Beau Bridges’ giant leers. Great blue bell bottoms. Classical training, modern dance moves, improv all at once. The film is goofy and formulaic, but still altogether stranger. Representing the social energy of the era — theorist cited on go-go dancing, an icon like the 20s flappers. “The girl is free to let themselves go, as wild as they feel.” Little scholarship here on popular dance of the time, but a change in gender roles, quick turnovers, solo dancing. “Dance, Gender and Culture” cited, males not defining the dancing, a new variety where female physicality is shown. Hoskyns cited on Fred C Dobbs, gathering place of shapers of youth cultures, bohemians into hippies, Basil as a bridge. 1968 Basil works on the Monkees _Head_, heterodoxy in impact — Basil appears in _Easy Rider_, a blunt cultural object, registering sinister connections. Dennis Hopper’s crossing of roles/interchange noted, artistic crossovers noted throughout LA, visual art, etc. Hopper’s photographs, Basil’s films. Samples and stills shown. Didnt start with James Franco! Clip from the opening of her film _Breakaway_ shown. Pleasure and provocation in her motion and gestures in sync with the song, various costumes, set against her Motownish song, her one off for many years before “Mickey.” Stockwell photo of Conner filming Basil shown, studied, lots of back and forths. Sontag invoked, “Against Interpretation,” a neurotic art, textured. Concludes a bit broadly…but hey.

AMG reviews for mid-February

And another batch here. (Really, really love that Luyas album, BTW.)

Ben Chasny interviewing…me!

Okay, so — yesterday I posted a link to the interview I did of Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance for the Quietus. There was a follow-up, though — there was a random suggestion on ILX saying that Ben should interview me, which I passed along to him more as a random joke than anything. But by god if Ben didn’t ask me a set of great questions, so I answered them! Much thanks to him for doing so — it was good to be put under the microscope. (Let me also recommend Scott Woods’s detailed interview series with me from last year if you really want some hyperdetailed talk!)

BC: There’s a lot of talk about a record industry dying – from the squeaking of major label executive’s butt cheeks as they drive their limos to actual indies not being able to fund exciting projects and sometimes even folding. Nobody really talks about the effect on music writing. With a move toward more blogs and more everyone-is-a-critic-man mentality, do you see a difference in music criticism? Is there a decline? Personally I see some atrocious grammar mistakes out there and I don’t even claim to have a basic grasp of English. Do you think that it is important for music critics to have a grasp of basic composition in order to write? What is the state of criticism today?

NR: Mm, where to begin?

I suspect you and I would agree that it’s not necessarily good music writing that’s at stake but good writing — and that immediately leads us into the area of what the rules are and who determines them. The whole balance between descriptive and proscriptive language — does language reflect how we actually talk or think, or are we to use it to set an acceptable standard? — is something that won’t be resolved once and for all. Consider for instance this recent story via the BBC about Patois/Creole as a distinct language in the Caribbean versus English — who is right? (And lord knows, do we even want to get into the issue of America’s educational standards in general, say?)

So let’s take that kind of background as a given, we both assume we’re talking about a standard ‘basic grasp of English’ as an agreed upon baseline and a presumption that those writing aim for that standard, setting aside any blog writer/commenter who freely confesses that English is their second language — there are, at least, two different scenarios I suspect you’re thinking of:

* The professional publication which runs pieces with notable errors and mistakes, on a regular or semi-regular basis — such a publication, like many, likely has faced major reductions in copy/sub-editing staff over recent years, or could well never have employed them to start with, relying on the writers and main editors’ own collective eye — along with spelling/grammar software — to make sure nothing slips through.

* The wing-and-a-prayer site — individual blog, group effort, message board, whatever it might be — where it’s all down to whoever’s writing and what happens when they click save and submit.

In both cases the questions of economics you note are at work — easy access, traditional sources of revenue gone — and they shape the state of things you outline. I do think it is important to do your best — and lord knows I always think I can improve, and have let plenty of mistakes slip through my net over the years — so some basic grasp is needed if you want to not only hold a reader’s attention carefully but make them want to return. If it’s through a blog etc. then it’s up to the writer — if the writer feels passionate enough to say ‘damn the torpedoes’ and plow on no matter what, though, they will do so, regardless of who notices or doesn’t notice. In the professional situation, the editor/publisher ultimately runs a risk of appearing to tolerate mistakes as something to shrug off. If they get the readers — or page views — they want, though, will they feel a need to improve on that?

A decline? Back in 1993, I first ended up on the alt.music.alternative board and even then you could see the differences in posting styles among many participants — from lengthy, well-organized and argued essays, in essence, to hit and run ‘blargh WTF i h8 u’ nonsense. In essence, I’ve been used to the range, and not everyone who had the ‘best’ writing had the best points to offer. I’m always much more comfortable reading the precisely written, certainly, but it’s not everything — but I definitely have self-selected over time, relying either on the voices of people who I know already are worth reading and the recommendations and random discoveries of others that fit within that category. If that means trawling through a mess more, I am prepared to do that, but I’m also lucky to have a long view already in place. A newer reader or writer probably feels more than a little daunted — but I suspect that might just want to make them try harder.

I think there is a TREMENDOUS amount of excellent writing happening at the present time. Both old and new voices, however much the professional upheavals have hit them, are listening to, talking about and exchanging ideas over a huge range of material, certainly not simply musical or solely in some sort of removed ‘music-only’ sphere. I think only a few of those voices have consistently broken out into a wider populace, though, and if people are ultimately less interested in that kind of writing and more about just looking up the YouTube so they can hear the song again without wanting — or needing — to think about it further, then the kind of random comments you see there will define music ‘writing’ for a lot of people over time. And that can be a bit of a mess…

Is it true that it is harder for critics to get paid for writing about music than it once was? I have noticed a lot of publications and webzines are having the artist sort of do the feature, like “Tell us about your favorite records” sort of thing. Surely this has to have an effect on good music writing. Opinions?

There’s also the dread word so many people will say these days — ‘listicles’ (Think of how many ’15 things you’ve seen that you laughed at five years ago’ pieces you’ve seen where a still photo and a caption — followed by an invitation to click over not simply to a new slide but a new *page* — makes up the article.) Horrifying, really.

When you are semi-pro like I am — and I am, I will never deny it, writing on the side rather than as my full employment — the issue has been less close to home for me than it has for others. But I could tell you horror stories from friends involving publications that folded up leaving good, incredible writers hanging with articles never paid for, coverage amounts rapidly shrinking, review space going from hundreds of words to maybe 150 — maybe even less — and much more besides. The presumption has increasingly been that space to essentially ruminate — to turn over ideas in public rather than meet a release or tour schedule — is something many publications will not pay for, or see as secondary at best, something for ‘the blog’ (or exiled to a writer’s personal blog).

Now, those personal projects can and in many cases do produce excellence in their own right. But motivation is key — and money, quite simply, does not hurt. Recently I took a hiatus from working on a blog project I knew would never get published anywhere, talking over all the shows I’ve had tickets from over the years. I did so in large part because I was stressing myself out over an unsustainable schedule where I had to balance out my regular job, my regular paid writing work and this side work of mine as well — it got to the point where it was actually affecting my health to a degree. (Seriously, you don’t want to be told you’re running high blood pressure for months on end for the first time in your life.) Realizing that what had to be cut back on was the most personal and reflective work was a terrible thing, but at the same time, it was also the work that wasn’t providing any immediate sustenance, for all that I had enjoyed the irregular feedback I was receiving. That may not be very artistic — but when push comes to shove, what would any of us do in similar circumstances?

That’s just one story of one writer, not a true portrait — and it is not that there aren’t spaces for excellent writers still to thrive doing that kind of perceptive and reflective work that says more than the basics. But those spaces are now more limited when it comes to sustaining a career, and how that’s being negotiated by us all is a story not yet fully understood.

Who are some of your favorite music writers?

Where to begin with an endless list! Or seemingly endless — I am very fortunate in that a number of my favorite writers are also people who I consider friends. I’m pretty much open about the fact that the one/two punch of reading Chuck Eddy and Simon Reynolds in around 1990/91 specifically got me on my larger path, if only because they had such an apt knack in talking — in very different ways — about albums I loved (and also albums I hated!). Meantime to have befriended such astonishing, consistently skilled writers like Maura Johnston, Tom Ewing and Tim Finney back in the nineties via alt.music.alternative — and to see their evident writing and thinking skills then only grow more with time, to the point where I think I’d have to name them essential, among English language writers, for understanding, in different but no less perceptive ways, how the function of ‘pop’ works and what it can mean — has been an undiluted pleasure. Tom’s own work in founding the Freaky Trigger site as a prototypical web publication for the music obsessed — not to mention his endless stamp on a variety of projects, from the amazing Popular blog, working through every last number one UK chart single from then to now, to his now regular pieces for both the Guardian and Pitchfork — is the kind of active, creative work that leaves me in awe. And — it should be noted! — he does all this while also holding down his own ‘regular’ job in market research, not to mention raising a family! Even I haven’t gone that far, and it does leave me wondering where in the world he has the time! But I’m glad he does, we are all the better for it.

This of course only scratches the surface — other wonderful writers and thinkers I could name include George Thomas Parsons, Nitsuh Abebe, Karen Tongson, Michaelangelo Matos, Daphne Carr and many, many more with a special nod to Tony Dale, the tragically departed writer and founder of the Camera Obscura label. Meantime I learn more about older writers as I go — a particular thanks to Ann Powers and many more via the EMP Pop Music Conference for introducing me to the work of Ellen Willis — as well as appreciating those musicians who themselves are great writers, such as John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, or authors who talk about music in intelligent and thoughtful ways as part of their larger overall work, such as Ta-Nehisi Coates.

But I’d also have to name those ‘private writers’ I know who have never published or who have only done at most so via blog posts and discussion boards and other thoughts, but who I consistently enjoy hearing from on music, especially my friends Mackro, DJP and Stripey — in Stripey’s case, she still surprises me after all these years with how thoughtful even just a quick email about a new musical discovery can be, putting it into a larger context I wouldn’t have thought of or otherwise generating interest in something I would have otherwise ignored. She’s never once wanted to formally publish her work, even via a blog, and I do think that’s a great loss, but I count myself lucky to be an audience for her writing — I hope we all have someone like that.

What do you think about every music writer comparing every acoustic guitar player to John Fahey as if he had the greatest influence on everyone? Isn’t this the same sort of critical reductionism that would not be allowed in any sort of serious art journal? Wouldn’t that be the equivalent of comparing every abstract artist to Picasso? Or closer to home, perhaps comparing every single music writer to Lester Bangs? Does this sort of non-crtitcal thinking have a detrimental effect on how others view the importance of music criticism? Am I leading the witness? What do you think?

Here’s a damn good point — and it touches on something I know I’ve been guilty of as well, thinking back a bit. Your comparative examples regarding Picasso and Bangs are well observed, leading into the area not simply of expertise but perceived expertise — and presumed, or perhaps assumed, knowledge.

A good writer, I’d like to think, will have the ability to address many subjects — not all, I should note, and that’s key. When you combine that with the fact that we presumably would want any listener, any person out there, to enjoy and respond to the music we enjoy — or more accurately, we hope that that possibility is there, that they might be similarly moved — then a potential dilemma rises: how do you talk about something that you know and like but — consciously or not — you cannot fully put into a context beyond that appreciation? How much do you know of the background of the artist? Do you know more than what’s provided in the PR sheet with an album? Do you allow for the fact that just because a name is mentioned that doesn’t mean it sums up everything about an album? (A quick example, invoking the Mountain Goats again — one of their albums has a song mentioning Jamaican singer Dennis Brown in its title, another one references the band Marduk in another title. Does this mean that the one song or album is a reggae or rocksteady album and the other is all about thrash-informed black metal intensity? Does that mean these are the only artists in that field the Mountain Goats can or should be compared to if you’re going to make that comparison in the first place?)

In my case, there are a wide variety of things I do enjoy that I do not feel comfortable in fully talking about, others where I would regard my knowledge as passable if not hyperdetailed, still others I know cold. I hope that when I do make a comparison of any sort that it is both apt and, if the question ever came up, explainable. Note I say “I hope” — I am allowing for the fact I probably stumble more often than I realize, and I wish I didn’t, both on a professional level and on a personal one (it’s very unsatisfying to realize that you struggled for a comparison or framed things in such a way that can miss something either totally obvious or skipped over a potentially deeper appreciation of what the artist is trying to do).

Fahey’s role is so singular that he does become a kind of fallback — in the same way that Miles Davis seems to be someone similar for what a lot of people say when they mean ‘jazz,’ as if an entire ethos could be reduced not merely to one person but one instrument as well. At the same time, when there are direct, overt nods to Fahey at play, then it makes sense to bring up his name. Someone like Glenn Jones, who worked with Fahey and who explored his work both with Cul de Sac and on his own, is a classic example of this; at the same time, it’s of course not the only thing he’s ever done, and he would be startled and not a little revolted at the idea that this would sum up everything he did. When you look at the DVD he recorded with the late Jack Rose, whose own work also draws some inspiration from Fahey’s example but who clearly has a different sound and approach than Jones does, you get a sense of how generalities are really problematic.

And again, I say this having committed the type of sins you inveigle against. Working against this is key, or at least keeping it in mind as much as possible — sometimes the one-off invocation meant to sum up everything is simply not enough. One of the most satisfying moments I ever had as a writer involved my reviewing of an album released by a musician and singer who was more well known for her work appearing with other bands or in one-off recordings — I’ll leave her anonymous to spare her blushes, but it was a very enjoyable album, and I wrote the review taking careful care to not once mention those bands/acts she had made her name with, in that her solo work was clearly of a different kind that needed to be judged on its own merits. Some weeks after the review ran, she wrote me directly to thank me for the review and, in essence, for essentially doing just that step I mentioned — she mentioned being a very private person in general but she wanted to underscore how gratified she was to read a review that wasn’t simply positive but didn’t place her in a context which clearly would have been at best limiting, at most highly inaccurate. It remains a gold standard I try to aim for.

Is there simply too much new music for music writers to listen to nowadays? Or is it ok?

Yes to both! There’s no two ways around it — the amount of music out there is utterly, totally overwhelming, and as the era of recorded sound gets longer and longer and the amount of old and new music now floating around builds and builds…it’s just too much. It is, simply, too much. And that IS ok.

I used to have some anxiety about the subject but I was reminded of another comment in a different context — when I went to grad school in English lit in 1992, my then-advisor said by way of initial advice “Remember — you’ll never have enough time to read everything you’re supposed to read.” Reading, music, art, movies — and that’s just cultural products, and by no means all of them, that one is presumed to supposed to know. But even in the area of what you’re supposed to know given the job — what my advisor was talking about, after all — there’s just too much. You can either sweat over it or you can say, “You know, I can’t do everything, but at least I can talk about something.” I’m more than happy with that — can’t speak for others but it’s a similar struggle for them I’m sure.

There are so many times that a record’s real brilliance only shines through after I work through it, perhaps even after I don’t enjoy it the first time. My father always talked about how the records he ended up enjoying the most are the ones he didn’t particularly like the first time he heard it. Is this something you think about when writing a review? Is there a way to compensate for it? Or do you not ever feel that?

It really can depend — sometimes an album makes itself completely plain to you first time through, and any relistening merely underscores that. Other times you hear an album first time through and any notes you take, mental or otherwise, don’t hang together — you don’t have any sense over whether it was good, bad, a mix, something else. It can be as simple as to how you heard the album the first time — after a rough day? During one? On the fly? At home via a preferred sound setup? A second listen, or more, can bring more out in a way that you just couldn’t hear the first time, and if you allow yourself that time then the end result will be a richer piece in response to it.

But in the long term, there can be those albums that you did hear enough the first time through that you feel completely different about many months — years! — later. I can’t predict what my future self will think, though — and plenty of times I look back at an older review or piece and think ‘Sheesh, THAT was a misfire on my part.’ But that’s life.

You worked with Ryan Hildebrand, who was an integral part of the Dark Noontide record (In fact, on one song on there i didn’t even play a single note, and nobody even knows that!) Any immediate remembrances?

Hahah, into the personal sphere! Or personal/professional — he and I worked in different areas of an academic library and it’s a big enough institution that you can go for weeks or months without seeing someone else who might even be in the same building as you, or seeing them at most a couple of seconds per day. So my memories are more ‘hey, he always seemed like an okay guy’ — I just didn’t realize how okay he was, I would have been amazed to learn about the Six Organs connection at the time.

But there’s a larger truth that libraries can very easily be a home for the artistically inclined or inspired — I can name a slew of people in the library at present or who recently worked there who are fairly active music listeners like myself, or in some cases regular or past performers. One current librarian has a slew of great photos of him as a young teen working in the original Washington DC punk/hardcore scene, keeping an eye on Minor Threat’s gear and the like. I think this kind of background is a result of a thirst for knowledge that the artistic drive can and hopefully always does provoke combined with libraries’ non-profit nature, heavily tested by the current economic and political climate as they are.

Last thing: word association time — write a quick and short response without thinking too much:

a – Scaruffi

Not Durutti. And I should know more but I won’t cheat and use Wikipedia.

b – Wah Wah

An album wherein James and Brian Eno made noises. Not bad noises per se.

c – Disintegration Street

Kind of a brilliant way to telescope an excellent Cure album and a song from that album into one phrase.

d – Wayne Rogers

“Won’t you be my neighbor?” *feedback* The great thing about him is seeing how he and Kate throw themselves bodily into every show I’ve seen them do, hair flying in the breeze.

e – Cassette Tapes

A recorded medium, one of many. Not a be-all or end-all, not something to fetishize. Is it about the music or is it the format? If your sole or chief concern is the latter then I have to wonder.

f – Happiness

Being at peace with yourself with the choices you have made and the factors you can control — and sharing what you can, even in the abstract, with others to help them towards their own goals in that realm.

Some new (and old) music writing

Been a while since I updated on that general front!

New: my interview with Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance at the Quietus, tying into the release of his latest album Asleep on the Floodplain. Ben’s always been a good fellow to talk with and this was definitely another treat to do.

Old: from last week, another Quietus interview, this time with Peter Koppes of the Church. (Still can’t believe I had to miss the show; thanks for nothing, flu or whatever you were.) I’ve also been chugging along with Beat Blvd. reviews all this time for the OC Weekly — my latest entries were for the Aquabats and Barrett Johnson.

Even older: the news of the new Radiohead album reminded me of one of the projects I most enjoyed doing, Countdown to IN RAINBOWS. (The first two posts are there and then you’ll want to go forward chronologically post by post.) They’re slightly parallel to the Not Just the Ticket project — and no, I haven’t forgotten about that, but I really did need to downshift — and they were great fun to work on in such a compressed period of time.

And the AMG reviews roll along into February

Another week, another batch…

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