Best of the Archives #2: On Being A Music Critic




My professional career has covered a lot of ground. I’ve been a congressional liaison and contracting officer for the Nuclear Navy, run a historic house museum, managed food and retail operations at a massive state university, raised money and done public relations for an HIV/AIDS community service provider, served a quirky economic research institute in a variety of executive and governance roles — and that list still covers less than half of the items on my curriculum vitae.

One thing I’ve noted over the years, though, is that when I’ve interviewed for positions or mentioned certain facets of my professional background to people who don’t know me, one of my jobs almost always piques people’s curiosity more than any other, and that would be “music critic.” I’m not quite sure why that is, though I suspect that the interest in that particular role is anchored in people’s perceptions that it’s cool to get paid to go to concerts and listen to music, since most folks have to pay for those experiences, and don’t get to blather in public about them when they’re done.

Today’s deep dive from the archives was originally written in 1998, I think, as part of a novel in which music making and criticism were key plot elements. In the final editing process, though, I decided that as good as this text was, it was also way too much “tell, not show” for the narrative at that particular stage in the book. I ended up cutting it and setting it aside to use elsewhere, but then I forgot about it. I stumbled across it again in 2010 and put it up on the blog, and was pleasantly surprised at how accurate and resonant it still seemed as a standalone piece. And then I forgot about it again.

I re-revisited this piece again yesterday, and it still seems good and spot-on to me. I suspect today’s paid music critics’ experiences are much like mine were in the 1990s — only with less second-hand smoke in clubs and fewer freebies in the mail — because as more and more “amateurs” are willing to write about music and share their work online, there’s little incentive for magazines, newspaper and websites to increase professional critics’ compensation, nor to improve their working conditions. It doesn’t make much commercial sense, after all, to pay top dollar for something that gazillions of music geeks will gladly do for free in exchange for “exposure,” that awful word with which media companies entice writers to give away their time and art. (This is not a critique of those who write music reviews for their own pleasure without compensation for their own websites or ‘zines or other commerce-neutral outlets; it’s a critique of the commercial organizations that use such volunteer labor to provide content for their advertising activities, making money on the sweat equity of others without compensating them).

Note that today’s piece is written in the first person, but it was originally intended to be part of a fictional work. While the details of what being a music critic looked like and felt like are accurate, they’re a composite of a variety of experiences, and are spoken by a dissolute character in a novel, and not by me. Should this teaser entice you to read more of the novel that birthed it, I most heartily encourage you to find a used copy of the paperback edition of Eponymous online, and not to acquire the digital/e-reader version, as it contains some egregious formatting errors made without my involvement or knowledge at the time. I’m not getting paid for it, at this point, either way. Out of print, out of mind, apparently.

And with that as long introduction, click below for today’s archival selection, if you dare . . .

The novel from which this text originated, long, long ago . . .

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