(UPDATED) Guest post by Eliot Van Buskirk of Evolver.fm.
MP3 bloggers were the revolutionaries of music criticism, taking on established outlets like Rolling Stone and Spin by being faster, cooler, and more musical — in that they could embed what they were talking about. Readers could hear it for themselves as they read the blog, rather than looking for it on Napster or waiting for a trip to the record store.
If writing about music is like “dancing about architecture,” as the now-hackneyed phrase would have it, music blogging is like walking through buildings with an architectural expert.
Fluxblog, Said The Gramophone, and Drowned In Sound were among the early pioneers of this much-needed form, dispensing expert listening advice in a fairly standard format: paragraphs about the music and what it means to the blogger; some historical and social context about the band’s scene; and maybe an image. [Update: Adams points out that DiS started as a fanzine in '98 and became a reviews, audio, and community site in 2000.]
As someone who has worked full time on the web since ’97, I sympathize with the plight of the MP3 blogger: What only we used to do has become what everybody does.
For MP3 bloggers and online music reviewers such as Drowned In Sound founder Sean Adams, this has meant (as noted by Crumbler) encroachment from services like Rdio, which turn every listener into a “channel;” Facebook’s ability to embed just about any music from YouTube alongside a pithy sentence; collaborative Spotify playlists that let anyone publish their taste to the web and let others contribute; and countless other services.
Essentially, they let regular civilians do what only MP3 bloggers used to do: Identify music worthwhile of publication to the global consciousness and then publish it. Everybody can be an “MP3 blogger” of sorts, by merely logging in to Spotify with Facebook.
Even Drowned In Sound has gotten in on the act with playlists like today’s “Best of Q1 Digest” – one possible reason it’s doing pretty well, with over 1.1 million unique visitors reading over eight million pages in that same quarter.
To find out more about what we might lose in this era of mass, instantaneous curation, I friended Sean Adams on Facebook for a text interview, edited here for length and clarity.
Eliot Van Buskirk, Editor, Evolver.fm: Hey Sean, thank you for accepting my entreaty to virtual friendship. I thought you might want to weigh in as one of the Original Music Bloggers on what it means that average civilians are exerting their taste in a somewhat similar fashion. What did you mean when you wrote [on Hype Machine founder Anthony Volodkin's Facebook page], “Are Jams Killing MP3s? When You Stream Music, You Are Killing Mega-Blog Dreams! Everytime someone tweets a YouTube, a blogger retires?”
Adams: I was making a slightly facetious comment, but one which has a glimmer of a serious observation.
Evolver.fm: So, what is the problem with average civilians acting like MP3 bloggers?
Adams: There was a ‘need’ for blogs at one time, as the only outlet for music online. As we transition to services which turn individuals into ‘channels,’ the need for a blogger to post pithy things and then a track has shifted toward being an organizer and time-saver for those slightly less in the know.
Adams: There’s no problem with it, but I do think you need to have listened to a certain amount of music to be able to state that something is the best thing around right now. And to be able to say so in an historical context is somewhat important too.
Evolver.fm: I enjoyed/enjoy the pithy comments part of MP3 blogging. Do we lose that if every music fan becomes their own channel?
Adams: There is so much blind love and excitement, with people reposting tracks faster than the time it would take to listen to the entire song, let alone form an opinion on it. I think there is a loss of editorializing and providing context. There’s a lot of music that, without any introduction to urge you to spend time with it, lacks instant surface appeal.
Evolver.fm: In a way, we’ve gone to a sort of binary mode for music criticism. 1=listen, 0=don’t listen.
My favorite band is probably still The Fall, which I hated for the first months I listened to them, but I only owned like 40 cassettes, and theirs was one of them. I feel like that never happens to anyone anymore.
Adams: I think one of the biggest problems with music right now is people devouring things for short periods of time and constantly ‘upgrading’ to the next, newest, shiniest, hottest, jammiest thing. I was fascinated by the reaction to my repeated tweets about The Antlers album last year [which Drowned In Sound picked as the best album of 2011].
It wasn’t an immediate album for most people but months later I was getting people thanking me for urging them to invest their time (the most important element for our modern times) in the record. It was interesting to see, when we made it album of the year, people who hadn’t listened to it finally giving it a go (or another go).
This was probably my favourite thread on DiS last year. Several months after the album came out, people set aside some time to really give the record a chance. It was about the 15th thread about the album – very similar to the slow build of The National’s Boxer. Not that Burst Apart was some radically obscure album or that far off piste for most of our users music taste.
Evolver.fm: This is a very good point, and I like the concrete examples. But can’t MP3 blogging survive and thrive, even though every Tom, Dick and Harry is posting their favorite jams on Rdio, Facebook, and everywhere else? Or are people’s ears gobbled up by that stuff before they get to consider something that someone has put more thought into? Are you arguing that people should “Leave it to the professionals” to an extent?
Adams: People seem to be trying to escape the shallow, instant fix. I am not arguing “leave it to the professionals” — not at all. In fact, I am quite contrary. However, when people are just spreading things that have been heavily marketed, they seem more like pawns than fans. Not that I’m saying people are thoughtless, but I never see music as a popularity contest.
Radio1 in the UK have a weird way of looking at stats to chose what gets playlisted, and it means music has become an unhealthy competition, and very few people can compete. So rather than saying “leave it to the professionals,” I sort of feel like the professionals are leaving it to everyone else. I hate mobs, and I’ve never believed that the most popular thing and the best thing ever correlate.
I think that we’re losing something. Perhaps it’s the idea that music should challenge people a little bit, every now and then.
Evolver.fm: Nicely put.
Adams: But then this is my favourite book. I’m also concerned that there are sites and services getting millions invested into them, which also don’t help artists build a long-term career. These sites basically rely on other people’s creativity to populate their services. It’s like a new slave trade, in which they’re selling their users to investors for huge sums of money.
Evolver.fm: Yes, the new Tom Sawyers. But if the mob is always on the lookout for something new, doesn’t that leave you with an important role of being Patient Zero on a new band, or one that has perhaps been overlooked? Or is there just too much din?
Adams: One of the most retweeted things I’ve ever posted was “Firsties Is Killing Music.” I hate this constant churnover of new music. In fact, I’d argue that an obsession with the new has been more damaging to music than piracy. This constant desire to upgrade, regardless of quality or the depth of relationship you have, seems everso fickle for both bloggers and music fans.
Evolver.fm Update: In fairness, I should mention that I didn't make it clear to Adams that I might post our interview as an interview instead of pulling quotes for a story. Read about that and more in his response to this interview.
Stay tuned for the second segment of Evolver.fm’s exclusive interview with Sean Adams of Drowned In Sound.