Mind sludge for morons
When it comes to music journalism, what are your criteria for quality? What are currently your main challenges and ambitions as a writer?
When I read other peoples’ writing, I hold it to the same standard I hold myself to—I want to see that the writer has taken the time to understand the artist. I want to see questions that have emerged out of deep research. I want to witness engaging, expansive dialog that reveals ideas and thoughts of real value. Too many music journalists rely on press releases and Wikipedia pages, resulting in a cookie-cutter approach in which the vast majority of interviews with an artist read virtually identically. It’s a totally soulless, lazy approach that inevitably results in banal crap. Unfortunately, this is representative of most of what passes for music journalism. Thankfully, there are still some people out there with the desire to dig deep. I’m talking about outlets like Wax Poetics, All About Jazz, The Quietus, Perfect Sound Forever, The Wire, and of course, Tokafi.
My main challenge is coming to terms with the universe of artists available to speak to. After the Innerviews book came out in 2009 and achieved success, the floodgates opened for the site, and suddenly I was getting pitched 20-50 times a day for stories. Innerviews remains a vehicle solely for my writing, so in that way, it’s a one-man show. There’s only so much I can take on. That means I’ve had to turn down some amazing opportunities—conversations with incredible legends of music, including people I’ve obsessively followed since I was a kid. It hurts my brain to turn them down, but there’s either no bandwidth available, or I’ve decided that someone lesser known could benefit more from the opportunity.
The ambitions remain the same as day one—to tell a good story, generate real insight, ensure the artist’s voice is reflected as accurately as possible, and give them a platform to speak intimate thoughts about what drives them as an artist and human being.
What do you usually start with when working on a new piece?
I treat each interview as a major research project. There’s nothing casual about Innerviews. I typically try to check out an artist’s entire discography. I’ll comb through archives of previous interviews, reviews and books. I’ll watch as many videos and DVDs as possible. From there, I try to identify patterns, linkages, distinctions, and philosophical concepts I can hang questions on.
Tell us a bit about the selection process for deciding on what to write about, please. What sources will you draw from for research purposes and how much time goes into research, information gathering and fact-checking in general?
I only interview artists I have a deep interest in. I have to be so fascinated and intrigued by the artist’s music that it motivates me to put in the 20-40 hours the average Innerviews piece takes from start to finish. This is of great frustration to some artists that approach me for coverage. They often don’t understand that I’m not 'looking for content' like so many other Web-based publications. I’m not interested in space-filler. I’m not selling banner ads. I’m not looking for click-throughs. I’m not trying to get on Buzzfeed and have my work featured next to the latest LOLcat meme. I’m not trying to find the next big thing. Rather, I’m trying to find the next big idea. I only do 15-20 interviews a year. It’s not a sausage factory.
When I worked at newspapers and magazines in the past, I might have generated 50 pieces a year. There is no way one can put care, finesse, and frankly, love, into that level of output, so I cap it at a manageable level. It’s also highly curated. Innerviews is literally nothing more than a reflection of my personal music tastes.
As far as sources, anything and everything is open. Apart from the more traditional ones I mentioned earlier, the Web and social media are major sources of focus. I also have hundreds of music books and a large library of music that I rely on. Ultimately, the thing that I get the most information from is the music itself.
As more and more people are producing and releasing music, there has been an exponential growth in promotion agencies. What's your perspective on the promo system? In how far is it influencing your choice of articles and topics, in how far is it useful for pre-selection, in how far do you feel it is possibly undermining journalistic freedom?
Speaking for myself only, the influence of promotion agencies and publicists has been diminishing dramatically in recent years. In the age of social media, I’m often in touch with artists directly—far more than publicists and record labels. I’ve been extremely and very publicly critical about various elements of the music industry lately, and have put off many of these people from approaching me. Wonderful, I say. Good riddance to most of them. There are a handful of wonderful people that are involved in music publicity though, and I’m pleased to maintain linkages with them, as I know they’re behind truly quality music without a hidden agenda.
The question of journalistic freedom and its relationship to publicists or promotion agencies is a huge one when it comes to mainstream media—of which I am absolutely not a part. I think you’d have to take that out into the great big world of current events coverage as well. The mainstream media has basically become an outgrowth of the public relations and lobbyist industries. It’s why media coverage in the United States is virtually indistinguishable from outlet to outlet. Everything is so manipulated and tied to political or economic connections. It’s beyond pathetic.
Going back to Innerviews, the site appeals to those with critical minds. I think readers understand this isn’t a site done out of any economic drive. It’s 100 percent ad-free. There is no cookie tracking. You’re not going to visit the site and find Amazon trying to sell you neon-raspberry Justin Bieber rain boots in the right column. And there are no behind-the-scenes twists happening in which I exchange coverage for advertising or any sort of kickbacks. What you see is what you get.
How do you see the role of music journalism in the creative process? Should it amplify public taste, distinguish the good from the bad, inform, promote artists, or, as Howard Mandel put it, “illuminate, educate and entertain” readers? Do you feel that, as part of your work, music needs to be explained or should it retain its “inexplicable nature”?
I’ll start with the last part, and I’m only speaking for myself. Innerviews is for a musically-educated audience. I don’t spend epic amounts of time explaining who an artist is or what their music sounds like. You can get comprehensive biographical detail and music clips with two words typed into a search engine. In fact, I think too much music journalism wastes space on telling stories from baseline levels, believing the reader must know absolutely nothing. I take it from the other angle—the assumption that the reader is a true aficionado of expansive music. I don’t hand-hold. I don’t explain what every name or reference made in an interview is about. I figure if you’ve made it that far into one of my interviews then you can go research that stuff on your own.
Should music journalism amplify public taste? I think you see most music journalism reflecting that, hence the focus on Pitbull, Rihanna, Ke$ha, Toblerone, Twinkie or whoever the fuck the useless one-named so-called artist of the day is. That’s not music journalism, regardless of what the media outlet calls it. It’s entertainment journalism. It’s mind sludge for morons. Real music journalism tells the public about artists and music they aren’t necessarily familiar with. It informs, educates and inspires.