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The Problem with Artist-Curated Content

on February 24, 2014, 2:51pm
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The Day Room is a column by Philip Cosores that features stories from the music industry that shine a light and brighten the corners.

Recently, I received a press release for Broken Bells’ new album, and it included two quotes testifying to the high quality of both the band and the release. One was from the New York Times and the other from Bono. This is Bono’s bit:

“‘We have Danger Mouse working with us,’ said the singer. ‘He’s a great soul and beautiful dude and the [Broken Bells] album is pretty amazing. [It’s got] extraordinary, melancholy melodies. As a singer, let me say: This boy [James Mercer] really knows how to be truthful in the telling of the lyrics he writes. There’s something about his voice that is very compelling. The kid’s a star!'” (Bono speaking to Rolling Stone)

Why include Bono’s endorsement in a press release announcing a No. 5 debut on the Billboard 200 and fast-moving concert tickets? U2 and Broken Bells wouldn’t seem to have much crossover audience, but there has to be a reason that the Bono words were deemed more useful than, say, Time magazine, who had previously been quoted in Broken Bells’ press release.

Well, Bono is famous, given Bono has many fans. And, at one point in his career, Bono made great music. So, even though the press release has statistical evidence attesting to Broken Bells’ success, the Bono quote gives some kind of credential that a critic or a consumer couldn’t. After all, who knows music better than musicians, right?

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the talkhouse111 The Problem with Artist Curated ContentNoted journalist and author Michael Azerrad has fitted his relatively new web creation, The Talkhouse, with a statement of purpose that begins by engaging its audience with the idea that no one is better equipped to be talking, or writing, about music than musicians, a very true-seeming idea that just as easily could point to flawed logic. Azerrad lays it out as such:

“Naturally, no one knows more about music than musicians. They talk about their own work all the time, but they rarely get to talk about other people’s music. That’s what the Talkhouse is all about: smart, distinguished musicians from all genres and generations writing about the latest releases. And there’s a twist: there will be comments for each piece — but only from the artist who’s being written about. The idea is to promote dialogue between musicians who may never have interacted otherwise, and for Talkhouse readers to have a ringside seat to this unique exchange.”

It’s strange to think that a year ago, when this was written, it might have been considered a rarity to have musicians voicing their critical or not-so-critical opinions. Since that time, it seems the Internet can’t get enough of artist-curated content, be it reviews, lists, or interviews. And for good reason, as it is mostly fascinating to get insight into the creative process from those with experience in it, and artists do have some special insight into another’s process. But that isn’t why we, the fans, want to read artists talking about artists, is it?

In his recent near-cover story for Rolling Stone, Drake went on record, (or off record—same difference?), about Kanye West, Macklemore, and Philip Seymour Hoffman and got everyone talking for a whole afternoon. Was it because he said something new, insightful, or particularly interesting about any of these people? No, it was because he is a star and was controversial and clearly out of line. The writer didn’t seem to challenge his opinions, but rather just held onto the quotes to use for the magazine’s gain. We like these things because of the possibilities they present. Drake might be involved in some beef that sees Kanye doing a similar quote in the media, and maybe they’ll eventually fight in a steel cage or something. Actually, I don’t know where it ends or what kind of outcome would ever be satisfying to people.

Drake Philip Seymour Hoffman

Also, keep in mind the following recent developments:

Rolling Stone’s year-end coverage was focused on a series of interviews with artists giving their opinions of the best of the year. Noel Gallagher, obviously, excelled at this. As did Henry Rollins. Henry Rollins’ interview alone has 30K Facebook likes as of right now. That is a Henry Rollins interview where he talks about liking Ty Segall. 30K likes. Noel’s “gripe session” is at 38k likes. In 2014. The guy from Oasis that wasn’t the lead singer can talk about what music he doesn’t like and get that kind of reaction.

– On his 44th birthday last year, Jay Z ranked all of his own albums. What is common for critics to do, Jay Z did himself. After all, who better knows the value of art than the man that created it, right?

– On several occasions, The Talkhouse reviews have become news. Now, to compare, reviews are never news otherwise. If Pitchfork gives an album a rare perfect score, that is not news. But, if Lou Reed reviews Kanye West, that all changes. This has happened several times for the Talkhouse, for reviews on Arcade Fire, Drake, and Lana Del Rey. This is sort of like the Grimes Tumblr news story, which is basically what a lot of publications are aiming for. They want to facilitate Grimes Tumblr post scenarios. We’ll go through some of the talking points on these.

Now, the Talkhouse has hardly taken off outside of our small music blog-reading community. There is no real-world effect to any of this. No one has seen their reviewing make their band more famous or taken down a band with a critique. About five reviews have become must-reads and generally not because of the criticism. Many of the reviews seem more about the writer of the piece than the writer of the music, or the music itself. The image at the top of each review splits a picture of the reviewer with the album being reviewed. Can you imagine if a regular critic did such a thing, putting his face up at the top in equal proportion to the album he or she is reviewing?

Image (1) lou-reed-788x1024.jpg for post 381377Lou Reed’s Yeezus review is classic at this point because it is the last thing Reed gave us. Our last glimpse at a man that, unknown to us, had only a few months left to live. But the writing, the actual insights of the review, aren’t great in terms of music criticism, just great in how uninhibited they are. There is also a lot of an older white guy acting surprised that the younger black guy makes music that seems complicated and thought-out. There is a lot of trying to understand, without actually understanding. Reading it, little is learned about Kanye West or the album, but it is rather an intriguing look at what an aging man would get out of Kanye.

Annie Clark, St. Vincent to many, also featured prominently on the site when she reviewed Arcade Fire’s latest. She made headlines not because of the review but because of her fame and Arcade Fire’s. The actual review is less about music and more about being pithy, formatting the piece in Google search list form and then trying to wrap up too quickly. It often felt young, like someone trying to paint themselves as an intellectual when the more wise approach would have been to just write an insightful album review. Also, at one point in the piece she asks the band a question and receives an answer, which is something that most critics could never do, and speaks to a problem that could occur with musicians handling more content themselves: how far is too far?

The Talkhouse has a tremendous range of possibilities, exemplified in write-ups on Drake and on Lana Del Rey. Surprisingly, or not surprisingly, neither do much to expand reader understanding of either’s music, but both seek subversion, a big part of why musicians would write record reviews at all.

Image (1) Ezra-mix-e1343580268769.jpeg for post 236974

Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig doesn’t even attempt a review in any sense in his Drake piece. Instead, he tells a non-Drake-related story about Panda Bear and a club and some random shit. He drops a ton of f-bombs, kind of sounding like a Vice editor in his style, and paints a cartoonish world for the reader to experience, baffled, confused, and thoroughly entertained.

As it plays out, Koenig is actually doing what most Talkhouse pieces do, just on an extreme scale. The story is (jokingly) meant to self-glorify himself, never really talks about music, focuses on his famous friends, and is ultimately revealed to be just publicity for his own band. The story even ends with a link to the Vampire Weekend Myspace. It is a little hard to believe Azerrad published what is either a critique on the whole project or just blatantly not taking the assignment seriously. Either he got the joke and didn’t care that his creation was being made fun of or didn’t get the joke and still published because Ezra Koenig is a big star, and the clicks were virtually guaranteed.

But Koenig’s piece, seemingly in a deliberate fashion, points to a key question: when artists control the content you read, does that mean more insight or more self-aggrandizing? If the artists were the ones writing about music, would it often just be about themselves?

Screen shot 2014-02-24 at 1.28.48 PMThen there is Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz, writing about a Lana Del Rey music video. The opening paragraph:

“When I was fourteen, my parents sent me to Kent, a private boarding school in the northwestern corner of Connecticut. It’s one of those schools where they send America’s pre-fame Paris Hiltons and JFKs; it was almost immediately clear that the place was a horrible fit. I wasn’t a super-rich kid or a super-bad girl. I never got picked up on the weekend in a private limo and the only time I had a sip of alcohol was when I thought a Long Island Iced Tea was some kind of regional Arnold Palmer. The mandatory Episcopalian services icked me out — I even pretended to faint during weekly chapel — and Christianity commingled into the education as well. One particular English class involved a hefty amount of biblical analysis, with religious interpretations permeating nearly every novel or poem on the syllabus.”

Now, not to be too high school lit class, but it is pretty obvious what happens here. Dupuis sets herself up as the hero of her review, so to speak, by casting everyone at this school as obscenely rich, or a troublemaker, or religious, or all these combined. She continues:

“So it’s telling that in a school of less than four hundred kids, I remember almost nothing about Lizzy Grant, who, only a few years older than me, served as both arts and literary editor of two campus publications, and sang in several school choirs. I know her better as Lana Del Rey, the ‘gangsta Nancy Sinatra’ by which she now self-identifies 10 years after graduating from Kent. Apart from a yearbook photo, I don’t remember her as she was then, but I can remember the amorphous hers she hung around at Kent School: slick kids in pleated skirts, silk blouses, and pressed blazers; prefects dethroned for their coke problems. And I can picture her sitting at the table in that same English class, finding the religious connotations in Salinger, mimicking Whitman’s poetry for a Blue Book exam.”

lana del rey born to die feat

Artwork by Cap Blackard

This is the last I will quote of this review, as after this it uses the setup to take down a music video, but what Dupuis does here is, frankly, pretty low. Admitting that Lizzy was “a few years older,” which likely makes her a senior to Dupuis as a freshman, she goes ahead and characterizes her by her impressions of other students. She can’t even remember seeing Grant at Kent, yet has no problem making pretty unflattering associations. Now, certainly this kind of unfair attack isn’t limited to musicians, but I wonder if this was allowed to publish only because of who Dupuis is and that her band was at its buzziest at the time this was posted. If I told a similar tale of knowing a young Justin Timberlake and then likened him to a pseudo-intellectual cokehead, I wouldn’t be published, and I’d probably never write for whoever I turned it in to again.

Why does Dupuis go so low on Lana Del Rey? Who knows, and I won’t speculate. I do know she is a creative writing teacher, as she mentions in another Talkhouse essay, and she is probably a better writer than 95% of published music critics, but she is writing not to talk about music but to aid her own music career. And when criticism is done as self-publicity, it gets into murky waters.

But, aren’t my own reviews promoting myself as a brand? Yes, but the brand is the reviews, and if I compromise the quality or integrity, my brand suffers. If Dupuis does this, a low-blow attack on a pop star who is unlikely to know who Dupuis is, much less read the writing, Dupuis raises her own profile on the back of her enemy. No scenario hurts Dupuis’ music career, as it could at worst be written off as shitty writing from a good musician, so the writing is no risk, all reward. And that makes it pretty worthless for a reader.

noeffects The Problem with Artist Curated ContentThis 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 Emotionsand 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.

Tanlines at Coachella 2013

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.

Conor_OberstYou 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.

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Image (19) saturday.acl_.grimes.15.jpg for post 414935Even 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.

drake cover 650 The Problem with Artist Curated Content

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 RegisterPaste MagazineVice/NoiseyMySpaceStereogumPigeons & Planes and many others. Follow him on Twitter.

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