On Being A Music Critic

(Note: I wrote this many, many years ago, when I was a print media music critic, as part of a novel. This text didn’t make the final cut, and hasn’t seen the light of day publicly until today. It’s sort of stunning how accurate it still is, though, with regard to traditional print music media).

The best thing about being a music critic is that most people are genuinely impressed and envious when I tell them what I do for a living. They don’t think about the hearing-loss, the paltry pay, the obscene hours, the rush deadlines and the amounts of second-hand smoke and first-hand bacteria to which I’m exposed while haunting the area’s various and sundry concert venues. They think instead about the piles of free albums that arrive in my mail box each week and the complimentary tickets to shows that are passed my way, always in pairs, making cheap dates truly painless propositions for lucky men (and most music critics are men) like me.

I can also confess that I’ve not had to purchase a single t-shirt, hat, sweatshirt, coffee cup, cigarette lighter or windbreaker throughout the ten years that I’ve been working as a music critic, as bands and labels and venues all believe that free merchandise may help their critical causes. Hey, if nothing else, it looks good for them when a music critic who theoretically gets paid for having good taste advertises their band, record or club on his chest, desk, back or head, right?

This steady flow of promotional material definitely keeps my clothing expenses down, and getting all my music addiction needs covered on top of my modest wardrobe requirements means that my marginal pay can actually be stretched further than might seem possible to the casual observer. Or to my publisher, but don’t let her know that.

My paycheck certainly goes a lot farther now than it did when I had a “real job” in the commercial world. I used to have to buy button-down shirts, ties and dress slacks then (even though no one from outside the office ever ventured into my cubicle), and I spent an insane amount on concert tickets and records. I must confess that I’ve always had a bit of a problem with the concept of “enough” in my life. If it’s worth having or doing, I figure, it’s worth having or doing too much of it. And I live it like I talk it. Always have.

That applies to music, food, relationships, and drinking. Unfortunately, for all of her permissiveness in other areas, my publisher has never given me a liquor budget, so that one crucial life expense has come out of pocket, or at the expense of others outside of the newspaper, all along. And on some plane, it’s sort of weird that the newspaper pays for everything except my drinks, given that alcohol serves as the fuel that makes the music machine run as well as it does. Or at least at the level where rubber and road are still meeting regularly anyway, since you’ve got to be more of a player than most players around here are ever going to be before you get the cocaine cartel working for you.

Bands request beer and booze on their riders, almost as a matter of course. Critics from competing papers (we don’t compete ourselves, we let our advertising departments do that) line up at the bar to compare notes over drinks before, during and after club concerts. Club owners make little to no money on ticket sales after they get done paying promotional costs and band guarantees, but they make a killing on liquor sales, and an owner’s favorite artists are always going to be the ones who bring out the heavy drinkers instead of the kids. Performers bolster their courage with belts before strapping on their basses and bashing their drums, then entice their more-willing-looking fans with their own free drink tickets in the hopes of winning the sexual lottery after the show.

Alcohol flows pretty freely for the music critics, since most bands and promoters and owners are almost as interested in having us say nice things about them in print as they are in scoring after a concert. One of my all-time favorite venues, in fact, was configured in such a way that I could cover an entire concert from my favorite stool, watching the bands on-stage in the backroom through a conveniently-placed window next to the bar. It was a classic arrangement, and as long as I wasn’t ordering premium liquor, I was drinking on the house pretty much every night. My publisher wouldn’t give me a liquor allowance, but my favorite venue’s lovely bartenders did, God bless ‘em.

Most other clubs (and their staffs) weren’t so generous, and none of them seemed willing to stock my refrigerator at home, so I’ve still had more than ample opportunity to spend, spend, spend in my efforts to keep myself, my writing and my life properly lubricated. Fortunately, the late nights I spend out covering concerts are considered just cause for showing up at work late the next day, so I’ve gotten good at throwing up and sleeping off my excesses before showing up at the office around lunchtime to engage in a different sort of regurgitation.

Because on some plane, that’s what being a music critic (or at least a concert critic) is all about. I chew up a show, I digest it a bit, and then I spew the resultant mix of music, blood, beer and dark, critical bile onto a clean white sheet of newsprint so that other folks can experience it as well. Some folks want to read about concerts that they actually attended so that they can know what to think about them, officially, before making public value judgments that might embarrass them should they fly too far from the community’s collective perception of the event in question. Some other folks want to read about concerts that they didn’t attend, so that they can either sigh with relief at having passed on a bomb or grit their teeth with remorse if they missed a triumph.

Some folks don’t care one way or the other, they just read because they’ve got nothing better to do or because they liked the picture next to my review. And realistically speaking, I’m probably writing for more of that last group than I am for the first two, since most of the people who read my paper not only don’t go to concerts, but don’t ever want to go to concerts.

Instead, they just like the fact that they can pick up free copies of their chosen alternative newsweekly every week, skim them during their lunch breaks and then leave them on the coffee house counters for the next hundred half-interested diners, and all without spending a dime. Most alternative newsweeklies make great bathroom reading, too, and not just because of the “adult services” advertisements that keep us in publication, although those don’t hurt.

So what’s the point of writing music reviews for eaters and crappers and self-abusers instead of readers and thinkers and listeners? I like to think (or rather, I need to think, lest I become overwhelmed by the pointlessness of my work) that a concert review is a sort of a news item, designed to keep the community up on current events, filed by me, the trusty scoop reporter. And while a concert may not be as newsworthy as the breaking items that fill the front part of the paper, it is a public gathering that can attract the occasional large crowd, and it’s as apt to erupt in mayhem as any other spectacle that occurs regularly around here. That’s news, right? Right.

Or at least I think it is, and so I report what happened at the shows I cover. Not only how the band looked or what they sounded like, mind you, but how the audience reacted, whether the lights were working, what the doorman said, what the guitarist did on the bar at 3 AM, after all the sane people had gone home. For local acts, such a concert review can increase their prestige and drawing power among the homegrown club-land critters, who are always desperate to be right on top of the next hot thing, usually in the hopes that it’ll take them out of town when it goes. For national bands, my reviews can help market their next stops in our town, or be reproduced in press kits to help them lure promoters and owners at later tour stops. It’s a dog lick dog world out there, and I don’t mind the occasional taste of haunch fur as long I’ve got a free t-shirt or hat to show for my loving ministrations.

Concert reviews aren’t the only things I write, though. There are also album reviews, which ultimately serve as little more than free advertisements for the national record companies that send them to us. Why take out an expensive paid ad when good I (or a thousand other drones just like me) will give you two columns of free publicity for the price of a compact disc and a cigarette lighter?

To keep myself from feeling like too much of a cheap whore in this regard, I also make an effort to review albums by our own up-and-coming local acts, who can’t afford to send me as many promotional goodies. Their mothers and girlfriends generally like reading about them in the paper, so they appreciate the legitimacy that a printed review gives them with those who matter most. Some of them have actually escaped from the local music-go-round, in part on the strength of the reviews that I’ve given them.

It’s not that my reviews made those bands better, mind you, but they did make people outside of our market think that they were. Why would I be raving about them so much if they weren’t rave-worthy, right? Well, yes, I could be on the take or dating the bass player, but how are they gonna know that? And why are they gonna care? They’re dating other bass players themselves.

Preview pieces also take up a fair chunk of my time. These may come as interviews, where I call up an artist and ask him or her the very same questions that he or she was asked fifteen minutes earlier by another critic, then record the well-rehearsed answers and present them as original insights into the minds of the subject musicians. Or they may come as promotional blurbs, which pack the salient points about an artist or band or event into a brief 250-word summary that (in theory) makes it sound fresh, interesting and essential. Go! Now! Buy! Enjoy!

Having done some five to ten of these pieces a week for something approaching a decade, I’ve pretty much exhausted every possible description of every possible musical genre at this point, but I’m sensitive about selling a promising artist short for the want of an adjective. Thank God for the thesaurus and for the promotional write-ups that the better publicists send me accordingly. Just please don’t make me type “jangly guitars” again, okay? Thanks.

My publisher also likes to have me occasionally poop out what she refers to as “thought pieces.” These are articles that examine and attempt to explain trends or movements or insider secrets within the greater music industry, things that may be too macro to be captured in the decidedly micro interview or concert critique format. I’m with her all the way on this in concept, but the problem with thought pieces is that they throw all my weekly rhythms off, because they require a bit more time and research and work to prepare, not to mention requiring me to actually think.

And I don’t have to do that very often in the rest of my writing, since I assess and review things almost as a reflex action at this point in my journalistic career. I don’t even bother to take a notebook and a pen to most shows anymore, since if I’ve got 500 words to cover a four-band hardcore bill, I can make up a convincing 125 words per band without even seeing or hearing them. It’s those damned coffee house shows that get tough when it comes to critical auto-pilot, since you’ve usually got only one artist per show, and people want to know the names of their songs and samples of their lyrics and whatnot. I’ve got to pay attention. I’ve got to take notes. I avoid those shows accordingly.

“If the minimum wasn’t good enough,” my college room-mate used to say, “then they wouldn’t have made it the minimum.”

Works for me. But lowest common denominators aside, we’ve got to keep the boss woman happy, all of us, every one. So I hit the granola shows periodically and churn out a new thought piece about once a month, whether I’ve thought about anything or not, just to keep the peace.

I also try to view these thought pieces as my charitable public service work, since I don’t get paid anything extra during the weeks that I do them, and since they don’t generate nearly as many free promotional items and drinks as concert and record reviews do. In my public servant mode, then, I try to ensure that the thought pieces not only entertain, but educate, since I know full well that the average starving musician hereabout can use all the free help he or she can get.

And I offer that help whether they want it or not, because both the too-too-idealistic and the too-too-out-of-it-to-care sectors of our homegrown music community need to understand just how vile the industry they’re seeking to enter can be. Maybe I’ll even scare some of them away, which, 20/20 hindsight in full effect, I wish someone had done for me.

It’s all about the kids, ultimately. Let’s hope they don’t grow up to be us.

7 thoughts on “On Being A Music Critic

  1. When choosing a career, I don’t think doing what you love is really the way to go. I think that it’s important to assess how well you will do in that career. If mediocre isn’t something you will be happy with, then no matter how much you love it, you will hate it. I chose my first career that way and enjoyed some success, but it was more by accident than anything else. I thought there were a number of perks involved for me if I threw myself into it. I went wrong in thinking it was necessary to be working in a field I loved…listening to popular opinion. It’s a killer sometimes.

    I mean, it’s all well and good to tell yourself you’re the best. To take on being the best. But reality says someone’s got to be below the best…and chances are good that you will wind up there. This is why we learn things like probability. Math is hard, but at least I grasped that concept.

  2. I should probably note that the first person voice in this piece is a character, though it’s all based on the realities of being a critic. Jen: I agree. Early in my nonprofit career, someone told me that if I loved music, then I should avoid working for a music-based nonprofit at all costs. Same with dance, art, writing, whatever. I don’t fully accept that position myself . . . but I know what that person was talking about, as I’ve seen a lot of people who had their passions turned into toils by pursuing their desire to be close to dancers/musicians/writers/whatevers, only to have the objects of their admiration have absolutely no respect or interest in the work being done on their behalf, or the people who did that work.

  3. I’ve always found it impossible to write about music because I don’t think I can follow the tradition of deploying such nonsensical terms as “jangly” or words that shouldn’t be used to describe music like “crispy” or “crunchy”.

  4. There was a young lady back in the 80s who allowed her management to convince her that posing topless in Oui magazine was a good career move. I met her, real sweetie, but not quite prime time musically.

    Met her manager, too. Called him Mephisto in Shades. Still one of my fave lines.

  5. As long as you aren’t the critic who called Neil Diamond the Jewish Elvis. I’m still pissed at that one — because I love Neil Diamond and hate Elvis and was massively insulted for Neil who I’m sure wouldn’t be. lol! Given that this was in Denver 18 years ago, at least I know you weren’t the bloodly culprit.

    Ah, hell, we all wind up wishing we’d done something else with our life. The grass is always greener and all that.

  6. Eric, great piece. This is awesome. Makes me feel the mix of love and fatigue, of hope and enjoyment and drudgery, inherent in working a so-called “dream job” that turns out, like most employement options, to be a daily slog. Thanks for sharing it.

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