This may seem like a really negative look at artist-curated articles and media, but there can be, and are, some great examples of this happening as well. Lauren Mayberry of CHVRCHES notably wrote a fantastic essay in The Guardian on Internet cruelty, or there’s Will Sheff’s obituary of Lou Reed with its personal and poignant messages. These are articles only musicians could write, and they were fantastic because they weren’t overtly trying to be selfish looks at themselves; they were simply doing the job, writing the story.
Recently, Tanlines’ Jesse Cohen announced a podcast, No Effects, and he was nice enough to chat about it and about artist-created content in general. His band is currently at work on their follow-up to 2012’s Mixed Emotions, and this is excerpted and edited from a longer interview.
As a musician, do you think a podcast hosted or run by a musician will offer a different insight than a podcast run or hosted by a writer or a personality?
It won’t be limited to musicians coming on the podcast. It will be at first, but it won’t always be. But I will primarily be talking to musicians because that is what I do and what I know. I do believe that will allow me a familiarity with these people that will hopefully produce something more interesting than if I were a journalist or a music writer or, god forbid, a critic.
You know Marc Maron’s podcast? When he has comedians on, they are speaking the same language, and there is a certain familiarity that allows good stuff to come out of it. Hopefully that is the case with these. I haven’t recorded enough yet to know for sure. I know what a bad interview is like, as a musician, so I know ways to avoid that.
As a musician, what is the barrier that you’ve experienced that keeps you from being comfortable with a writer or having that rapport that you want in your podcast?
You know, there are two types of interviews. There are the kind that are pulled straight out of your bio or press release and just generic questions like “How did you get your band name?” or “What are your influences?” They are these stock questions you get over and over again, and I’ve found, when getting them, I flip into that mode. Not that I shutdown, but I flip a switch and do a certain kind of interview. You just go with what works.
Then there are interviews where maybe they listened to your music a lot or are just interesting people, and stuff just sort of comes out. I’m trying not to read bios or research too much, just sort of talk to people about what they do, what about music they like, what about music they don’t like, and hopefully stories or interesting conversation come out of that, about this thing we both love.
Of course, there are many other types of interviews, including ones that approach the artists as people.
Photo by Philip Cosores
Those are the hardest, to get a stranger to open up.
That’s what I want to find out. I think a lot of interviews with musicians aren’t very interesting. I don’t believe it is because musicians are boring or they are too protective of their image to share. There is a way to open up the conversation.
I’m not trying to do anything definitive about who a person is. I want them to share a little bit of who they are and what they are interested in. When you release 12 songs every couple years, you have to do other things to let people know where their songs are coming from. Interviews are one way.
Do you think musicians have a lot of control over their image, or does that get taken away from them a lot?
I think musicians tend to be pretty private about their image. I’m not sure why. That’s something I’m trying to figure out.
For you personally, as a musician, a podcast is something to reveal a bit about who you are.
I know, and it’s something I had to tell myself I was comfortable doing. I’m older, I guess, and just sort of okay with who I am. I’m not here to pry or get exclusives or any of the bullshit the media tries for. I think there is a weird line in music where fans have an idea of who a musician is, and they really want to believe in that person. Sometimes the musician doesn’t want to screw with that. That might be part of the reason they are protective with their image. If you love music and love a musician, you sort of love this idea of them, and that’s all you really have is the idea of them.
You definitely don’t want to hear that Conor Oberst allegedly raped a teenager a decade ago. That can screw things up.
It can. But, in this day and age, you want people to know who you are. For me, I want people who like my band to know who I am and where the music is coming from and to care about me. That might seem obvious, but I’d rather them know who I am, then to just like a song. If I share a bit of who I am, or what I think is funny on Twitter, or what I care about, or anything, hopefully people are like, “That’s a cool guy. I want to see what he does.” Then I might be able to maintain fans rather than if they just liked a song and moved onto the next song.
I agree that’s important, but I think it has to come from both angles. Like, you have an idea of who you are and want to be perceived as, but there also has to be what people’s impression of you is, and that’s important, too, getting other people’s perspective on who you are.
Totally. I talk sometimes about how in Tanlines I have an idea of who we are as a band, but fans sometimes think differently. I think our fans think we are a little more fun than we actually are. But, I want to be generous to that and write fun songs because that’s what people think of us.
I love that concept, actually. A lot of people think it is a bad thing to give people what they want, but it can be such a generous thing.
I think you have to do a little of both. You have to respect fans, respect what they like about you and your music. This is me, not Tanlines, but even when I DJ, I try to be a generous DJ, trying to give people what they want to hear, while also pleasing myself. That’s the line I try to hit as close as possible.
I would never want to be a music critic; that is the last thing I’d want to be. I make music. And I almost never say anything about other musicians publicly, or at least try not to say anything negative about them. That’s someone else’s job. Critics and musicians are like cousins or something. They share DNA in that they both love music; they both decided to dedicate their lives to it, often with great personal sacrifice. But they are very different. Like, you don’t automatically meet your cousin and become their best friend.
Even if he doesn’t consider this project journalism or criticism, there is a pretty clear picture painted of what these things can look like when coming from an artist. Certainly the podcast will reveal as much about the host as the guests, but the effort being put in goes into the subject. Does this get harder as the artist gets bigger, feeling more responsibility to maintain an image?
Either way, The Talkhouse pieces hold as much critical significance as a Grimes blogpost, and the trend is that we’d rather see what Grimes is listening to than about what some random music professional writer guy is listening to. Now, this is a group of people, musicians, with the full spectrum of listening habits, including many with narrow habits, who often won’t listen to anything contemporary to not be influenced by it.
To answer Michael Azerrad’s question, who knows more about music than musicians? Critics don’t know more about how to make music, but they devote their life to hearing it and placing it into context for other people to better approach. Say an architect designed homes; that wouldn’t make him any more knowledgeable on what makes a house a home for someone else. A writer may know how to construct a story, but that wouldn’t always make him a great, close reader.
It is the critic’s job to be that person, to out-listen everyone, to know as much as possible about music to make up for the inability to craft a hit song. The rise of artist content intended to replace criticism must be a direct failure on the part of critics and editors, and instead of rising to the challenge, the reaction has been to push it instead of our own work. It cheapens the work of critics and writers to just post directly what the artist is putting out there, especially if they are doing the job we are supposed to be doing. The reaction should be to make better work so that people won’t want the artist-curated content; the reaction should be for better stories, more original ideas, and concepts never before attempted. The reaction should be for better access, because access to the direct thoughts of a musician is pretty hard to beat.
The Talkhouse, and similar content, provides the ideal access, except without the filter of journalism. It’s a facade, and we have to see through it as substandard. Funnily enough, the Drake quotes in Rolling Stone that he became so angry about, along with his entitled reaction—(“my cover,” he called it)—are a problem. Drake should be working with Rolling Stone or other journalistic publications because he doesn’t have other options, because the public should demand the filter that writers and editors provide. We should know that if Drake is giving you something directly, it might be awesome because it was made by Drake, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us what Drake is like, and it won’t ask Drake to answer the tough, sometimes essential, questions. It tells us what he wants us to think he is like, which might be interesting, but it is something very different than what editorial features are supposed to be. It is Drake’s right to not give interviews or do publicity, but it is also the consumers right to reject that idea and require artists to do such for their hard-earned dollars.
It’s probably not a good sign that a journalist refused to be interviewed by phone for this story. When we start acting like musicians—limiting access, needing coaching, not answering for what we do—then how can we expect more from them? Is The Talkhouse and like-minded content access or just a substitute for access? Is it just an example of artists having too much control over their representation? Somewhere artists stopped trusting writers, and until that bridge is mended, the muck will continue to be thick.
Philip Cosores is Director of Aux.Out. and a freelance writer and photographer working in Orange County and L.A. He contributes to The Orange County Register, Paste Magazine, Vice/Noisey, MySpace, Stereogum, Pigeons & Planes and many others. Follow him on Twitter.