Tuesday, March 18, 2014

On the challenges of writing about music in 2014

Excuse me, if you will; a moment of introspection.

This piece could be just as easily titled “On the challenges of parenthood” or “On the challenges of owning a house” or “On the challenges of having a job you like” or “On the challenges of being a music obsessive who also is interested in other things”. Or “On the challenges of being alive”.

It’s all related to time. Growing up = losing your grasp on time.

I’ve written about music as a hobby for 20 years.  Every time I write, I feel the specter of time over my head. It says, “why are you writing about this one when you’re further behind on this other one?”, or “when are you going to write your dream project”, or “you aren’t as good a writer as you would be if you had more time”, or “why are you writing when you should be doing [fill in the blank]?”

I read an interview once with Nick Hornby where he talked about his early career as a music critic and how no one can write about music for too long without getting burnt out on it. 20 years hasn’t burnt me out on music at all. If anything, it’s the opposite. The more time I spend writing about music or reading about music or listening to music, the more excited I get about doing more writing, more reading, more listening. Every week I learn about another musician I want to hear more of; some weeks I learn about several.

Feeling the crush of time makes me always feel like I’m missing out on a great band or album. It makes me always feel like I’m wasting my talents (so to speak) even when I’m happy with what I wrote. It makes me think again and again about writing something, without ever actually writing it. It makes me spend too much time writing about how little time I have, apologizing for not writing enough, and coming up with plans that I’m sure are going to help me manage my time better, but never do.

It can’t just be about aging. It is true that we have instant access to more bands and albums than ever before. If I wanted to, I could stay up all night just listening to bands I've never heard of before, who sound great. It used to take effort to hear a band that I read about in a magazine, words that were written months before. We've gained and lost from that change.

As time goes on, I get more interested in more types of music. This has been my trajectory since birth. I plan on it being true until the day that I die. But the more I get into, the harder it is to write about it all. Actually the harder it is to write about anything, because to write (or at least, to write well) you have to slow yourself down and pay attention, stop yourself from hunting and gathering at hyper-speed.

I am disillusioned with the current state of music criticism, even while I am part of it. This leads to a kind of paralysis tied to self-doubt. Should I write about music on a blog? Yes, I should, but I hate most blogs; they’re so shallow. Your average music writer for a blog seems to listen to an album once or twice before deciding definitively on it. I want to listen ten times, at least, before writing a word, and still never be sure if I'm right. 

Should I write about music for a print magazine? I do, but it takes forever between the writing and the publishing, and the word counts are so small, and it always ends up feeling anticlimactic when it’s published and I hold it in my hand. Should I write a book? I read books, I love books, I collect them. But what to write about, and how?

Most years lately I end up delaying writing about many, many albums until I get to the end of the year, when it’s free time for everyone to share their opinions left and right, to an increasingly suffocating degree. I can vote in some year-end polls, write a few short year-end blurbs, and feel like I wrote about more music than I really did.

I can feel like I contributed to the overall conversation about music, even though the number of times I actually wrote about music in the year is minuscule compared to the number of articles I wrote in my head.

And the new year will start, and I’ll feel hopeful that this year will be different. This year I’m going to write more, I’m going to choose more carefully, I’m going to edit myself better, I’m going to make every word count. I’m going to turn my barely-used website (4 posts in a year?) back into something people want to read. I’m going to get out those ideas that have lingered in my head for years, and make them work. And at the same time I’m going to keep up with all of the great music that comes out. I’m not going to feel like I missed out.

This conversation with myself is going to continue for the rest of my life. I don’t see any way that it won’t, unless I figure out the magic formula or give up. And I’ve always declared that I won’t give up. I’m going to be the 80-year-old in the concert audience with all 20-year-olds. I already feel like him sometimes. I’m going to stay interested in new music and old music and all music. I’m not going to tell people, “oh I’m so out of touch, I don’t even pay attention to music anymore.”

I’m going to be writing about music, because I don’t see any other way. And I’ll probably still be telling myself, next year is going to be better, next year I’m going to get it right.

(Or maybe this year will be that year?)

1 comment:

  1. G'day Dave,

    I've been meaning to take a look at this blog of yours for quiet a few years now.....I'm not sure why it's taken so me so long....but better late than never!

    I've always looked forward to, and enjoyed, your annual 'Best Of Indie Pop' feature on Pop Matters, and over the years you've introduced me to many great bands and albums (most notably The Proctors, Literature, Bart & Friends, and Lucky Soul), and also rated many of my favourite bands and albums in a given year, giving them the recognition that they deserve but never seem to get. I think you should turn this into a Top 20 each year.

    This is a very interesting post. I'm probably around 15 years behind you in regards to having the passion to write about music, and doubt that I'll ever have your knowledge or drive to be so regular, or prolific. However in the last 2 years I've also been moved to start a (minor league) music blog that I hope is largely positive and uplifting about bands and their albums, rather than just snide and downright disrespectful. I doubt that anyone comes across it other than friends, nor am I really bothered if they don't, but good music is to be celebrated and praised in my eyes.

    To be frank, my blood often boils when I read an album review that has clearly been written after just a couple of listens by some smug critic who follows the oh so predictable batch of comparisons to MBV, The Smiths, The Cure, etc. (none of whom I really like as they were before my 'musical' time), and then conclude at the end that the band has obviously done nothing original here. It's often very tempting to jump to the comments section and let fly, but it would probably only feed an already inflated ego and validate that they are 'creating discussion' instead of often being disgustingly rude and ill informed.

    I'm looking forward to taking time to read a lot more of what you have written here, and also to continue to read what you write moving forward. I reckon you do a fantastic job of describing what to expect when you do listen to an album, as well as largely inviting the individual to come to their own conclusions as they listen to it. It's what I wound see a music writer as being supposed to do. Hopefully the wheel will turn, and the critics will move on leaving writers like you to do it properly.

    All the best