Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Professing Professionalism

Michelle Mercer and me at AWP
I'm just back from an extended trip to Chicago, which included a speaking engagement at the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. On a panel that included Emilie Pons, Michelle Mercer, Howard Mandel and Alan Stanbridge, I addressed the need for professional standards in music criticism and journalism.

Thanks to Michael Jackson, Chris Tarry, Neil Tesser and everyone else who came out to fill the room and ask interesting questions.

Here's a copy of my presentation:

First, some context for my comments

They don't come from any bias against technology as it applies to our art form: I wrote my first online article in 1992. I was an early blogger, and eagerly spread my work in digital form as soon as there were people with the tools to receive it.

Neither do I have an age bias, even though I've been in the business now for 35 years. Through the Jazz Journalists Association, I have mentored a number of young music writers, and I happily consume and encourage the work of younger compatriots.

Michelle Mercer, me, Emilie Pons, Howard Mandel

My point of departure is Orrin Keepnews' curmudgeonly 1987 essay, "A Bad Idea, Poorly Executed…" in which he decried uninformed, overly opinionated and badly written jazz criticism.

In the main, Keepnews argues for professionalism and style.

I share his viewpoint, and I've modeled my career—in large part, unknowingly—on his design. I urge you to read his essay, as it has its own argumentative muscle and examples (mostly based on his years as a producer for people like Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk, and on his time as a label executive). 

But here are my own tenets for good music criticism: If you're going to write about the music, it's not enough to enjoy the music, even if you can summon the linguistic energy to communicate your passion to others. Sadly, that is still what gets some people their jobs in music writing. 

There was a time when it was commonplace in some types of arts coverage—where the art was considered mainstream, or lowbrow—where coverage was assigned to anyone who expressed an interest in it. For example, the longtime film critic at the newspaper where I worked for a decade got the job because he liked going to the movies. The growth and rapid evolution of film schools in the '70s and '80s—and the calibre of knowledgeable young film aficionados they turned out—killed that notion for film. 

Unfortunately, it's still the case that jazz assignments—to say nothing of pop music assignments—go to writers who have an interest… and often, it's an interest that doesn't extend far beyond receiving review copies and complimentary concert tickets.

The most egregious recent example involved someone I actually know. He's a fine newspaper writer, but knows nothing about jazz. And, as it turned out, he has some odd ideas about femininity, too. Assigned to review a concert in Montreal by the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, he spent an inordinate amount of space pondering the significance of Ms. Schneider's bare arms. Needless to say, the artist, a large number of her followers and a large segment of the music journalism sector was outraged that this happened in a blog posting associated with a major daily newspaper. 

Back to my tenets. 

Before you write about music, here is an incomplete list of the things you should do: 

Spend time observing musicians recording. You're going to be writing about recordings; you better know how that works. Believe me, in most cases, it's not what you think.

Listen to musicians talking about music. Again, what goes on during the creation of this spontaneous art form is not necessarily what you think.

If possible, spend some time on the road with musicians. Drummer Matt Wilson loves to quote a music truism: They don't pay you to play. They pay you to get there.

Observe musicians onstage from a vantage point other than the audience. Even after all these years, this is still an education for me. I watched Al Green from the wings a couple of years ago, and the interaction between him and his bandleader, and the bandleader and the other musicians told a story the audience didn't get to share in.

After you've done all that, then you listen. And you listen some more.

Then you analyze what you've heard. You think about it in the context of all those things you've observed.

And you put the music in an historical context—both long range and short range.

And… then… you write.

When I recite those tenets, a lot of listeners are surprised that the writing holds such low priority. Isn't it all about the writing? The table stakes in our business should be the ability to write stylishly… to be able to employ metaphor and rhythm and tone.

My colleague Howard Mandel taught me that it's as important to have your language soar and stomp and whisper as effectively as the musicians do in the music you're addressing. 

Some of you may think I'm missing something from my tenets… What about playing music? Do you need to play music to write about it?

Personally, I cannot imagine not playing music. Why would you want to write about something professionally if you weren't interested in it enough to do it yourself? That's not to say you have to do it professionally to write about it, but it does help to understand the language and the way people work together in an ensemble to blend their voices and imaginations. 

So, with all that in mind, where are we going wrong? What are the dangers out there in music writing today? As I've mentioned, the "reviewer" problem is not new. Keepnews railed against it 25 years ago. 

The problem is exacerbated … and proliferated … by technology.
Time was that a dull-eared reviewer with leaden prose was a voice in the wilderness. Those who were cheerleaders for one artist or another sometimes were quoted in press materials, but otherwise their work seldom was seen beyond their immediate region. Now, they show up in Twitter feeds and through Facebook links. Publicists spread them around like a virus. 

Under the guise of "citizen journalism"—a term that covers a multitude of sins—anyone with an MP3 player and an opinion can now get equal footing with professional music journalists. If that were the only issue, there wouldn't be a lot of cause for concern, but the shift toward digital technology has combined with the harsh economic climate to shutter a number of print publications—from local arts papers to international magazines. Even those that survive are adopting new ways of competing… few of which promote exceptional music writing.

Perhaps the most egregious is SPIN magazine's decision to replace its short album reviews with review tweets. That's right, 140 characters to inform consumers about up to 75 minutes of music that an artist might've spent a year creating. 

Now, a well-crafted short review can be a thing of beauty. The great Robert Christgau turned it into an art form of its own in the pages of The Village Voice

A tweet review? Can it ever be more than a witty bon mot or a catty snarl? Invariably, it plays to the worst instincts of the bad reviewer, making everything sound as reductive as Mr. Blackwell's Worst-Dressed List. 

On a practical note, this movement is dangerous, too, because while it diminishes the importance of the art it also squeezes underpaid freelance writers even more. Will writers be paid as much to learn, listen and analyze if the result is a mere 140 characters? 

More likely, the professionals will be pushed away from the traditional sources of revenue. It's already starting to happen. The result is that some of these people will find other things to write about. Most curious people don't limit themselves to one interest. 

For the rest of us, it's imperative that we get as creative as musicians have had to become since the birth of digital media and find new avenues—and, yes, revenue streams—new ways of connecting with audiences who want to go beyond sales pitches or 140 characters. 

Perhaps—at least it's my hope—the additional effort will winnow the field, and the committed professionals among us will prevail. As someone who grew up loving the prose and the passion of music writers like Ralph J. Gleason, Greil Marcus and Robert Palmer … and buying the music they turned me on to … I can only hope that's the case.