favorite plays » glengarry glen ross"When you die you’re going to regret the things you don’t do. You think you’re queer? I’m going to tell you something: we’re all queer. You think you’re a thief? So what? You get befuddled by a middle-class morality? Get shut of it. Shut it out. You cheat on your wife? You did it, live with it."
Top center, middle right, and bottom left are photos of the production I was fortunate enough to see.
And so they come. To live with Angels and chase their dreams. It ain’t all bright lights and billboards. Some dream of a roof, some dream of a bed, some dream of a job, some dream of enough money to eat, some dream the dream forgetting, leaving, hiding, transforming, becoming, some dream the simple dream of getting through a day without worrying about dying, some dream of families here or there or wherever they left them dream of bringing them and starting over and actually having a fucking chance, some dream of being allowed to live, speak, believe and dress as they please. Some dream of bright lights and billboards but they are few to the many who dream of a place that will accept them, nourish them, allow them to grow into whatever flower or whatever poison they want to become, allow them to scream yell decry pray beg discuss deal buy sell steal give take become or not whatever the fuck they want because it’s possible, it’s possible here. In gas stations and mini-malls. In studios and stages. On the beaches in the hills. In houses bigger than any man needs or deserves in houses so decrepit they don’t deserve to stand. In churches, temples, mosques, in caves filled with bottles and drawings on the walls. In trailers and tents under the deep blue sky. In row after row block after block of ugly motherfucking buildings, identical houses, in jail cells and towers of glass. Day after day I see them. I walk and I hear them. I walk and I feel them. I walk in the Land of Angels, I walk in the Land of Dreams. (497)
The collective music writer Twittersphere blew up rather excitedly yesterday, all because of a video posted by one Chris Ott (see above), music journalist and author. In a way, he had to know his argument was going to be a firestarter, despite the insularity of the music community—to say nothing of the looming end-of-the-year deadlines that most writers are undoubtedly still wading through. In short, his piece did what anyone would expect it to do; I myself discovered the video after my fellow PopMatters writer Corey Beasley embarked on a thorough refutation of the video. I found myself agreeing with Corey, although—because I’m a writer, and more important an opinionated one—I knew I had to air out some of my thoughts about Ott’s troubling video. I’ve already shared some of my thoughts on Twitter, but hey, I have heard pray tell of these “thinkpieces,” so I figure I might as well indulge myself. This is my own blog, after all.
First, let’s get at the problem behind Ott’s video. I know it quite well, as I’m currently living through it.
The Problem: Get Money, Get Paid
There’s a great song by the punk band Bomb the Music Industry! entitled, "Can I Pay My Rent in Fun?" If anyone wanted to know the song that best captured the woes of a budding music writer, I’d refer them to this one.
I have been in the music writing game for about two and a half years now; I joined PopMatters in July 2011, Sea of Tranquility in July 2012, and Hidden Track in the summer of 2013. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words about all different kinds of music. I’ve premiered videos for small labels struggling to get their musicians noticed. I’ve probably generated a decent amount of pageviews for the respective publications I write for.
In spite of this, however, I have received not a hint of monetary compensation for my work. At all.
Now, to caveat: I have been compensated, albeit not monetarily. I get most, if not all, of my music both for free and in advance. I’ve gotten the chance to meet and interview musicians I greatly admire and respect, which certainly would never have happened had I not had the backing of a respectable publication. I’ve had the opportunity to have my writing broadcast around the world. I’ve gotten feedback from other like-minded music fans and fellow writers in places spanning Kenya, Jamaica, Germany, New Zealand, Ireland, Canada, and, of course, all across the United States. “Exposure” is a cop-out used by many a cruel employer to justify unpaid internships, but in music criticism it’s absolutely necessary, given the proliferation of sites that feature content about music. I can’t think of any writer who just dropped into a top-tier, paying publication without any prior experience writing for smaller, non-paying publications. I’m eternally grateful for these experiences, and I thank all of my editors for providing me with these opportunities. I wrote music reviews and other related pieces for personal blogs before I ever got published on a legitimate site, and probably still would have done so had I not been getting regularly published. In the actual world I live in now, I write about music and get a sweet collection of perks to boot.
That being said, however, there is the matter of time, and the fact that it really is money. I have a four remarks to this end.
Firstly, the time and effort I put into music writing—which is quite a lot, considering that I take my “line of work” seriously and want to give my outlets my best possible work—is time that I cannot devote other important things in my life, like my schooling, which costs money, and jobs I may have, which usually require a work week’s worth of time. Simply put, I cannot devote my time to generating as much content as I can for the sites I write for because if my time is not being repaid with money such that I can reasonably sustain the work life of generating said content, it isn’t worth it. Like the unpaid intern, I wish I could just be benevolent and write my little heart out for my publications despite the lack of pay; after all, I got into music writing because I love it, not because I was hoping to make it career way down the road. I have other aspirations to that end.
Secondly, I’m aware I’m still a youngin in the field (though, to be fair, I’ve seen a fair share of writers with comparable experience to myself have much better luck in getting paid work than myself), and it’s not unreasonable for me to have to wait to get paid for my work, even still.
This is a problem that plagues most music writers, even those much older and more experienced than myself. There’s a narrow set of publications that actually pay their writers. A substantial majority of the writers that I know who do make a living off of music writing usually write for multiple publications, and are constantly pitching other editors for pieces to add supplementary income. It’s not a perfect life.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the best music writers genuinely do deserve the pay. The best writers aren’t just great writers who listen to music and churn out reviews. Being a good music writer means keeping up extensively in current music trends, whether broadly or within the specific genre(s) the writer specializes in. A good music writer keeps up with other publications, reading their reviews and getting a sense of the way things are going in the field. A good writer will have a depth of knowledge in the genres she writes about, such that her reviews place the music in a context, rather than a mere, “Oh, well, this is rather nice.” All of those things that make a good music writer require a level of work far beyond being an attentive listener. And, unfortunately, more often than not the amount of research and work that’s put into being a good critic is not met with payment commensurate with the time spent doing so. Keep in mind that contemporary music, particularly pop music, doesn’t have a major voice in academia; the void that’s filled in charting cultural analysis is met by music writers. I’m not waxing hyperbolic; I don’t think, “Guys, music writers are like, professors in disguise, lol.” But the title “critic” isn’t just a label affixed to writers who love picking things apart; it’s an accurate tag that gets at the fact that the best music writers are charting the way humans express themselves through popular culture, and they’re doing so in a unique, eye-opening way. If that isn’t worth cash money, I’m not sure what is.
Fourthly, and lastly, there is the basic fact that writers do contribute to the profit of music magazines, however little these profits may be. I’m aware, for example, that I don’t do any of the editorial, financial, or managerial work for my publications (not out of a desire not to do so, but only because I haven’t been offered), but my writing forms the content that advertisers can slap their ads on and pay the magazine to do so. I speak very obliviously with regards to profits and advertisers; I genuinely don’t know how much revenue advertisements on a magazine like PopMatters generate. I have no illusions that I am any of my publications’ cash cow. Nevertheless, it is a truism that I am to some degree responsible for money coming into the magazine—just as much as any of my fellow writers—inasfar as my writing is the platform for which ads can be presented. Generally speaking, it is not unreasonable for someone responsible for aiding in the bringing in of revenue to ask for a slice of the pie, as the saying goes.
I hope I’ve made it quite obvious that music writing and getting paid do not form an optimistic Venn diagram. I’m no idealist about that matter. However, the line Chris Ott takes to the above issues is rather bizarre, and more importantly deeply problematic.
The… “Solution?” Chris Ott isn’t "Part of Your System"
The theses of Ott’s video, seen above at the heading of this piece, are:
(1) Music writing is facing severe cuts and layoffs, cutting out previously existing opportunities in the system. (i.e. Everything I’ve just said above.)
(2) However, seeking payment for music writing is a fundamentally misguided venture, not because the market is difficult, but because the music magazines that are actually able to pay writers can only do so because they’re in bed with investors, venture capital firms, and multinationals looking to diversify their portfolios.
(3) Many of the paid articles that do get published are “pointless” and “not relevant”; Ott offers the example of Liz Pelly’s NME article entitled "Why I Love Massachusetts." He deems these bands “not worth remembering,” as they are “dumb, twenty-something beer music.”
(4) Old e-zine culture (which Ott was a part of, as a writer for Pitchfork before it became the juggernaut it is now) was about “needing to communicate when [e-zines] didn’t control the means of communication.” Now that e-zines like Pitchfork do control the means of communication, however, they use it for tastemaking purposes and sustaining what are functionally giant PR campaigns.
In short, his solution to the problems of the shrinking music market: it’s not a big deal, because you shouldn’t expect to be paid anyways. Just do it out of love—never minding the problems I’ve mentioned with using that justification above.
To take each in turn.
First, an overview. I’m typically less inclined to buy this type of condescension when it comes from someone who (A) has published books that pay royalties, which Ott has, and (B) has written for publications that pay, which Ott has. Telling writers just hoping for the table scraps of an e-zine’s revenue that they’re wasting their time because the system ain’t as great as it seems is easy to do when you’ve reaped the benefits of the system yourself. As Corey Beasley put it well,
Mark Richardson of Pitchfork responded to Ott’s article as a response to a question a reader sent to him. The reader is an aspiring music writer. Richardson writes in his last paragraph,
Not a lot of people get to make a living writing about music. If you are thinking you might be one of them, it makes good sense to arrange your life so that you will have another way to make ends meet if that doesn’t work out. But if you can free yourself from just worrying about money and write about things that you truly care about, and if you do your best to render into words this thing and figure out why it matters and why it might matter to someone else, I think you might be able to make some money writing about music, and in a way that could be a part of a happy life.
Richardson’s caution here is sensible, particularly as someone who does make a living writing about music responding to someone struggling to make it in the field. He, unlike Ott, doesn’t try to hide that he enjoys what he does, and he is equally open about the fact that making it in music writing doesn’t amount to just giving it a good deal of elbow grease. To pretend that palm-greasing, “I know a guys,” and, hell, good old-fashioned luck don’t play a role in certain writers getting paid work over others would be beyond disingenuous.
Now, to each individual argument:
(1) Obviously, I agree with this point. See the first section of this piece.
(2) If competitive debate taught me anything—and it taught me quite a lot—it’s three key words: “Consider the alternative.” Usually, when someone rails heavily against something they see as really, really bad, they’re probably not considering what the alternative to the thing they’re criticizing is—they’re too blinded by how awful and terribly the thing they hate supposedly is. Ott’s problem is that in saying, “Don’t write about music for money, you’ll just stuff some CEO’s gold-lined pockets with more Benjamins” is obvious: um, well, what exactly do other, “normal” jobs do? Unless I find a mom-and-pop shop that pays well enough to sustain reasonable living and happens to correlate exactly with what I want to do—here I thought getting paid for music writing is a fantasy—I’m probably going to be working for a guy who works for a guy who works for a guy who answers directly to some CEO living in a multi-million dollar house, whose bed is lined with polar bear fur and has Cristal always on the ready. Corporatism is a real thing; Ott is right in that regard. But it’s a real thing in nearly every sphere of the marketplace, not just for Pitchfork, Spin, and Rolling Stone.
Inasfar as it’s the case that no matter what job I get I’ll likely be contributing to the worker/CEO pay disparity, then what’s the harm in me trying to get paid doing something I genuinely love, e.g. music writing? It’s not clear to me why doing so would be necessarily bad. Perhaps there’s some sort of music writing puritanism lurking behind Ott’s video, i.e. “Well, music writing is so sacrosanct that it more than any other line of work it should be entirely separate from corporate interests.” Ott doesn’t say that, but if that’s what he’s thinking and unwilling to say, I don’t think I’d be alone in saying that such thought is ridiculous. I don’t think any Pitchfork writers love having Converse ads emblazoned in and around their article; I wouldn’t either. I do, however, like that websites like Pitchfork and PopMatters exist, and that they can only exist in a world with ad revenue is perfectly fine with me, despite whatever externalities may come as a result of that. Insofar as Ott seems to agree that it is sad to see so many music writing opportunities go by the wayside, due in part to all of the problems I outlined in the first part of this piece, it seems entirely sensible to me that due to an oversaturated market—the major problem in regards to finding a paying music writing outlet—it is reasonable and perhaps necessary for writers and editors to seek ad/corporate money. We’d have a lot less music writing otherwise.
(3) I have to invoke the sage The Dude here: “Well, that’s just like, your opinion, man.” It’s particularly unclear to me why the burden for Liz Pelly’s article was to make a definitive statement about a scene that will resonante throughout music history forever. Richardson is on point when he says,
I don’t think she was really trying to say “This scene is going to be huge and needs to be paid attention to” but more “Here are interesting things going on in this place, where people are trying to carve out an individual space to be creative with music, a space that, having been involved with them, I can tell you about now.” He wonders if this should be international news in the NME and in my opinion this is exactly the kind of thing an NME reader might be interested in: a tight-knit music scene making their way, trying to do their own thing halfway across the world. That’s kind of what music magazines do, as far as what I see.
I’d further add: who is to say Pelly’s article won’t be a point of interest some time down the road? I doubt Ott has such clairvoyance; I sure as hell don’t. Moreover, though Ott may find Pelly’s music choice to be “twenty-something beer music”… well, so what? One’s personal opinion against a type of music written about isn’t conclusive evidence about whether or not that piece is good. Dashboard Confessional is my “twenty-something beer music,” and I friggin’ love it; but were I ever to write a two-page spread on Dashboard Confessional and turn-of-the-century emo, it would be out of a place of love for the music, not because I’m expecting everyone to think I’m totally on the money about Dashboard. (Don’t worry: I’ll spare the world the Dashboard thinkpiece.)
(4) I don’t like tastemaking any more than Ott does. I don’t think having access to funds means a magazine or e-zine has to resort to branding narratives. Perhaps magazines cross over this line sometimes; though I love the album, I didn’t like the “Pitchfork push” for Deafheaven’s Sunbather, for example. Hype is an annoying thing, regardless of the publication. That being said, however, Ott never makes it clear to my why corporate money necessitates tastemaking and branding. By his own admission, venture capitalists and multinationals view these as throwaway investments (at a paltry thirteen million dollars, no less); it’s not as if the success of an investment in Pitchfork is contingent upon them making a push for a band a particular VC likes. (Additionally, consider some of the bands Pitchfork has bestowed Best New Music on this year: Death Grips and Blood Orange don’t strike me as the objects of rich, old white guys’ affection.) It would be beyond stellar if Pitchfork could sustain itself independently… but it can’t. I can’t think of any publication, print or online, that could. Full-page car, clothing, and perfume ads line every copy of Rolling Stone I’ve read recently. It’s even harder for the internet, where one’s readers aren’t paying for the ability to read the content.
So yeah, tastemaking is bad, but Ott’s going to have to do a lot more work to convince me that it’s an inexorable component of receiving corporate money. NME has corporate money, and their drive to get us all to believe that Oasis are still the rock band of the ‘90’s isn’t exactly a fruitful narrative, either in popularity or in revenue. (I happen to like Oasis. But that’s a discussion for another day.)
It really, really sucks that the amount of work I and music writers globally do usually isn’t compensated monetarily. The factors that cause this are many, the big one being the oversaturation of the music magazine market. I genuinely believe, or at least hope, that editors usually are put into a position where they want to pay writers but cannot due to the insufficiency of ad revenue in most instances. Anyone hoping to get paid doing music writing has to know the realities of the market, and should adjust her expectations accordingly.
However, just like most jobs in most fields, even that ever-desirable goal of getting paid to do music writing isn’t perfect. Money will probably come from advertisers who will slap their logos distractingly over, under, or near your articles. It’s not clear to me, despite how clear it seems to Chris Ott, however, why the sacrifices professional music writers have to make are different than those of a paid worker in any other field.
Consider the alternative. Clarity often comes in the comparative.
This remarkable beauty is one of those rare, powerful instrumentals that says more things than most songs that have lyrics and vocals.
-“Love finds a way.