What's New?
The PoD Roundtable
moderated by Bill Shoemaker


Shoemaker: Generally, journalism is besieged on many fronts. Newspapers and magazines are fighting to retain readers; sustainable business models are largely elusive for print and Web-based media; and social media runs amok. Journalists and critics writing about jazz and constituent forms of experimental music face a shrinking market for their work; general readership outlets don't care and specialty outlets are cutting pages and catering to the Whatever generation. Do we face more of an existential threat from these trends or from the "reviewers" at Amazon and similar point of purchase sites?

Warburton: “Besieged", "fighting", "threat"… you make it sound like a war! If it is, I'm not quite sure who I'm supposed to be fighting against (shades of W's good old "War On Terror") – I don't have to get up at 5.30am five mornings a week, clamp a pair of headphones on and listen to ultra-quiet improvised music, and I'm certainly not paid to do it (the website, I mean: Wire reviews do provide a little pocket money). Nor are there thousands of people out there waiting on my every word – I can count the number of "hey, what happened to PT?" emails I received after my 2007 "sabbatical" on the fingers of one hand. No, I write about this music simply because I enjoy doing it, for the most part.

I'd say a good album review should a) inform, b) entertain and c) sell. "Sell" not as in "buy this or else!" (but I sometimes say that if I really like it), but as in making the reader curious enough to want to listen to it. That's where the entertaining comes in: dry, dully serious and deadly earnest reviews, however positive they seem to be, don't do much for me; I like to hear, or imagine I can hear, the guy's speaking voice. (Lester Bangs!) A sharp sense of humor always pleases and a good turn of phrase often sticks in the mind – I've even gone out and bought albums by musicians I don't particularly like just on the strength of a review I enjoyed – though I do regret buying an awful Jimi Tenor album on Warp after reading Ian Penman's purple prose in The Wire. "Inform" of course means giving the reader some background on the artist, the label, and where the work in question fits in to his/her discography, or to a style / genre / school in general. "Specialists" though we are, we can't automatically assume everyone reading our work has a wall full of ESPs, Emanems and Erstwhiles.

None of the above applies to the so-called "reviews" that Amazon customers are invited to submit (saved the company a pretty penny, that: my pal Philippe Robert down in Nice used to earn a decent living writing Amazon reviews until they pulled the plug a few years ago) – most people out there can't write their way out of a paper bag to start with, but it's not as if the powers that be at Amazon give a damn about that. Since when did reviews sell albums, anyway? I've had the good fortune to have half a dozen of my own things reviewed in The Wire, but I can tell you in all honesty that not one of those reviews made the slightest difference in terms of actually selling discs (based on what I've found out from labels and artists I've spoken to, a full page pullout review does, but the standard 300-word capsule reviews certainly don't seem to). Most of the people who bought the trio disc I did with Edward Perraud and Arthur Doyle did so because it was on Durtro – "if David Tibet likes it, it must be good" (I wonder how many of them traded in their copies after listening to it); and in a couple of cases the disc had already sold out even before the review appeared!

So, to answer your question, I don't feel threatened in any way. I do think though (and at 46 maybe I'm too young to be thinking it) that the world has gone to hell; the proliferation of so-called "social networking" sites, MySpaces and Facebooks has resulted in a flood of mediocrity, a real drop in quality in terms of communication, news and culture. Warhol would have loved Facebook.

Kelsey: Wow, things have changed, not only in a meta sense, as you describe, Bill, but just in regard to my own work. Even in just the time since we did Part One of this discussion!

I intimated earlier that I was considering starting to blog, and shortly after we finished Part One, I did. It's totally changed the way I look at these issues.

Almost overnight, I've become a totally different kind of writer, thanks mostly to the freedom I have to write about whatever the hell I want. In the last two months since my blog opened for business, I've written something like 40,000 words on subjects I probably could never written about for the print outlets I've worked for in the past. Wanna write an entire article on how the jazz biz slipped progressive music the bone in the early '80s? Go for it! Wanna review Episode 10 of the Burns Jazz thang, even though it aired eight years ago? Help yerself, boy-o! Wanna review basically any record ever made and get it read immediately? The Web is waiting! No worrying about massaging my views in order to get them past an editor who has to worry about offending advertisers. I'm free. Pure and simple. It's great.

And I'm free, as in I'm not getting paid. That's pure and simple, too, but I can't worry about that right now. These days I'm seeing my writing in the same light as I'm seeing my music ... meaning, I do what I do, put it out there, and hope things work out.

For the first time, I understand where Dan is coming from when he essentially says writing negative reviews are a waste of his time. Better to spend your writing on things you feel positive about. I'd always been pretty old-school--the magazine assigns me reviews, or sends me a list of records I've never heard of, with the proviso that I write about them whether I like them or not. Hence the negative reviews. It's not much fun.

I even carried that mindset over to my writing for Web sites. I was either too stubborn or too dumb to recognize an alternative.

For my blog, when I write "negatively," it's on a subject of my choosing, and usually in service of making a larger--positive--point.

As for the implications of the current environment on professional journalists, that's every bit as up-in-the-air as the implications for musicians. In both areas, I do what I do and let the chips fall.

Smith: This subject is complex enough that it deserves a lengthy dissertation that I'm not entirely sure I'm inclined to construct. Commenting on the state of the commercial media is outside of my knowledge as the only general circulation periodicals I read are Harper's, Walrus and The Guardian Weekly. None of which is useful from a non idiomatic musical point of view. As for the Canadian daily papers, I long ago abandoned them as a source of cultural enlightenment.

How to know about this music? Not critics for sure. For us it was off of a Saturday morning to the record shop, Brown's was the name, down near the centre of Bristol. Hear what had arrived from America. Hopefully a new Blue Note or Riverside. And then a lunch treat at our favorite pub – The Naval Volunteer, to discuss our finds. Later, much later, in Toronto, jazz was everywhere, live in the clubs, on the radio nightly. No need to be informed, as we were an integral part of the feast. Even later, I would have, for several years, my own radio show: Some Other Stuff - CKLN FM 88.1 On The Far Left of Your Radio Band. Every Thursday from ten until Midnight. And the Jazz & Blues Record Centre where John Norris and myself, over all those years, opened up the covers and let the music out. Once I remember a radio station lawyer warning us that we mustn't announce that the recordings were out of print, rare, or that we would play the entire side. That we had to inform the listeners that they could not tape the music off the air.

As for web based information (the new media?), it seems to me that there are the same problems, albeit exaggerated, as with print media. Reviewers who write promotional material with the intention of selling product or journalists, serious scribes, whose only concern is producing useful information in a literate manner. Just this morning, inspired by your question, I opened up Amazon.ca to check out a recently purchased CD of the Sonny Rollins - Don Cherry Quartet Complete 1963 Stuttgart Concert and saw that it was asking for "customers" to respond. Judging from some reviews I've read over the years I'd say that an enthusiastic amateur has as much right to opinion as some so-called jazz critics. Although coming from my own elitist position I never find it necessary to seek any of their opinions.

The following two examples will serve as illustrations about my feelings toward "jazz critics" in general:

Some years ago a widely circulated jazz magazine, under the illusion of egalitarianism, published two separate reviews of the same CD. So depending on the style of music, one reviewer would be considered an "expert", the other, with luck, an antagonist. A shallow commercial trick somewhat in the style of the battle of the bands, putting Bebop against Swing, focusing on the readers stylistic bigotry. In no way creating a healthy interactive dialogue.

The second example is in part testing out the unknown where I have no idea who the players or the reviewers are.

Over the years I've developed a penchant for piano-less quartets, initiated by the wonderful music of Chet and Gerry way back there in the fifties, through Steve Lacy – especially with Don Cherry, and again Don with Ornette, and was interested in a particular CD under investigation. Not only was it the format mentioned, but the unknown players according to the writer were young, fresh, the current sound of surprise, and he made constant reference to the afore mentioned pioneers. I bought the CD. Mailorder. He turned out to just be an inadequate wordsmith, in love with the sound of his own voice, with no inner knowledge of the music in question. There are even players living on my tiny island with as much talent as this quartet. Shame that there's not an adequate or accurate apprenticeship required to enter this particular arena.

So in conclusion I question the idea of there ever being a "market" for jazz criticism, as journals always paid pittance, if anything at all, to writers. I think that participating in this PoD Roundtable discussion is somewhat similar to us lads back at the pub after our morning visit to the record shop; engaging in healthy interactive dialogue but without the pint of Worthington E.

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