LOCAL MUSIC AND THE ROLE OF CRITIQUE / by David Bernabo

There’s a variation of a conversation that has been floating around for ages. It deals with local music and what’s missing. There’s a version that talks about a lack of quality in various musics and another version that deals with lack of infrastructure to support “creative music.” Recently, there is also talk of a lack of audience. I’m more interested in the infrastructure discussion since it feels more actionable, if that is possible. In talking about infrastructure, I’d like to discuss audience, too. I have these conversations way too often, and it feels like it is time to document them. To this end, 34 people completed a survey with questions surrounding the role of critique, success, definitions of creative music, and local record labels. The survey-answering audience is admittedly mostly rock or indie-focused, mostly white, and mostly male, but there is representation from jazz, experimental, electronic, and classical scenes and many of the answers are similar across genre lines. This piece and a few follow-up pieces are culled from the responses and from personal opinion. The survey and this article also gauge interest for a possible project to provide a resource for critique, longform investigations, interviews, and streaming music.

Infrastructure

When I say infrastructure, I mean tools that can aid the creation of music: venues, promoters, distribution for recordings, critique of performance or recording, rehearsal space, record labels, managers, PR. There is much to discuss here, but I would like to start with the concept of critique. Critique is not an inherently negative term. Critique is not pointing out the flaws and the dislikes. A critique is a detailed analysis and assessment of something. The good and the bad.

There’s a premise that critique can shape music in a positive way if the recipient is open to it and the source is reliable. We’ll take a look at where critique exists, where is can exist, the barriers, the utility, and potential impact.


The Critique

Is music criticism actually needed for a healthy music scene? Let’s look to restaurants and dining reviews for an example. (Yes, I’ve been preoccupied with food due to the Food Systems film project - http://www.foodsystemsfilm.com/)

It can be argued that Pittsburgh’s food scene has expanded in the past five years. That expansion includes both an increase in the number of restaurants, an increase in the audience for restaurants, and an increase in the publications that are writing about food. This is both a local and national trend. New restaurants are popping up every month, and serious discussions are starting to happen in and outside of the press about whether Pittsburgh can sustain the customer base, the employee base, and the quality of food when new options are straining focus. In recent history, restaurant reviews have been a staple in the dailies - I was able to locate them back to the 50s/60s in the Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Press - but now there is a critical eye that is catching up with the rise in quality and number of restaurants. It can be assumed that an expanding scene requires discerning taste buds to provide reflection and critique of the changes - hopefully, it keeps the hype in check. It also makes for a healthy ecosystem of creators, reviewers, and consumers.

(I'm including a few selections from local artists in case you like to read and listen. This is a long article.)

Can critique exist in local press?

In the local press, the dailies, weeklies, and blogs, the presentation of music is treated differently, sometimes, than other arts and crafts. For art, film, and food, there are avenues for criticism. Film and food press are generally presented as a review of the product, where art is a mix of preview or review of an exhibition event. When looking at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Tribune Review, Pittsburgh City Paper, and many transitory blogs, music is written about as a preview for a concert. The preview is essential to alert the audience to an event, but the preview has a limited ability to pass judgement on the event. Music is often described by comparison to other artists, reference to genre, maybe a lyric or two, and mood words. Background history is provided, but an in-depth critique seemingly cannot be accommodated by a preview.

Occasionally, a local music act warrants a feature article, which exists as a longer piece that combines the author’s thoughts, background information, and an interview. These types of articles provide better context for the environment that exists around the artist’s work, but often these types of articles are reserved for national acts with a larger audience.

Sometimes album reviews are published, but the dailies and weeklies lack either the audience, the time, the scope, or possibly the funding and page count to print in-depth album reviews. An extremely valuable role is fulfilled by the dailies and weeklies and that shouldn’t go away. There are arguments that the dailies and weeklies should take a more critical approach, but with the current climate of print media, it is an unrealistic expectation.

but that doesn't mean they're not trying.” - tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE

With the rise of blog culture, there were spurts of review-heavy locally-minded blogs like Draw Us Lines and the initial iteration of Burghsounds.com. These sites focused on indie rock, folk, and rock. Burghsounds also provided a data-driven platform for all types of music to be catalogued and dispersed through automated social media inputs and feeds. Neither site is currently maintained. More often, the internet is a place for lists and pooled resources, which are beneficial like Nelson Harrison’s Pittsburgh Jazz Network e-mail list and website. Hughshows, which along with PJN and NakYouOut (which also covers non-music events), has been one of the most consistent presences. In the case of HughShows, the site has accumulated thousands of short-form interviews and live show photography. Pittsburgh New Music Net has consistently previewed classical/new music concerts. Sound Scene Express fulfills a number of functions - concert calendar, previews, short-form album reviews, short-form show reviews, but does not offer a comprehensive critique. There are resources for local music out there, but none of the existing platforms provide an in-depth analysis of the musical content, the context for the music, histories of scenes, and artist intent.

This is not a condemnation. Many of these sites are based on the passion of one person or a small team, much like daily and weekly papers at this point. With slim resources, written focus needs to cater, to some degree, to the market and truly depends on the interests and time of the writer. Since many of these blogs are passion projects, there is little to no funding, which also makes justification of the endeavor difficult. But that isn’t to say that the audience for music is not interested in critical music writing.

“I think that a more active documentation of local music would be fantastic; not just little reviews in the City Paper but thoughtful, articulate critiques, interviews, artful music videos, etc.” - Anonymous
I think it would encourage a different kind of thoughtfulness about how we listen to things and a greater awareness of what exists and in what context it exists in.” - Anonymous
“there are a handful of blogs but activity can be sparse. i don't think there is a true source of someone who will sit down with a record or a live show and review it outside of a single quick listen through and write a paragraph of generalizations. it's rare to find a critic now that doesn't just treat it as a job and not as someone actually expressing their impression of a piece or performance.” - Bengt Alexsander

The utility of critique

Given the lack of options for local music discourse, the questions are: Do musicians want critique? Would an audience read music critique? Would it make any difference to the music being made?

Impact on the music

“I think the lack of critical review in the press probably has the biggest impact on the music being made here. Not because other people's opinions are always what count or are the most important thing, but because a total lack of any real criticism tends to result in complacency on the part of the artist, and that is creative poison. The Pittsburgh music scene is great and I have always been proud to be a part of it, but I do feel as though people sometimes have a bit of a skewed perception of it due to the absence of critique. It would force people to gain a bit of third-party perspective, which is an extremely important thing (whether they agree with that perspective or not). If someone is constantly being told that everything they do is great and flawless, they'll eventually just get lazy and stop really pushing themselves because they assume there are no areas that need improvement. Critique is crucial in any creative process because it makes people second guess themselves and ask themselves if they can do better work (and if the answer is yes, then it has served as the catalyst for that better work).” - Matt Ceraso
“Ideally it would raise the level of awareness and performance. If people felt like the work they did would actually be seen and contemplated maybe each show would become a more special thing. Maybe people would see playing, and even attending shows, as a unique opportunity instead of a mostly forgettable option of how to spend a Thursday evening.” - Anonymous
“Increased critique on local music would mean people would have to push themselves to create better quality and put more polish on their work and performances, like in New York. It would also drive more of the industry and industry standards here. In terms of sound, sometimes we end up playing shows in spaces that can't hold us, or don't want to deal with our sound or events that don't even pay. So increasing the quality, professionalism and competition would help all other elements in the local music scene to develop. Such as more music specific venues, etc.” - Bethany Berkstresser
“[Critique] could create avenues for recognition or creative competition. I'd be more motivated to participate if there was something obviously available with clear benefits.” - Paul Zito
“people would create in less of a vacuum and honestly learn from the others in the community.” - Alexis Icon
“I mean, it is nerve wracking a little bit to think about people potentially being very critical of something that feels so important to you. Ultimately critique is about the craft and not a reflection of the person, however intertwined those feel sometimes.” - Anonymous
“Like a Behaviorist, I'd like to see reinforcement given to people I think are truly imaginative & hard-working. Unlike a Behaviorist, I don't want to generate any punishment for people whose work I don't like.” - tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE
“Constructive criticism is always a good thing. However, it depends what form the "critique" takes. I lived in Nashville, and the cutthroat nature was terrible. Can you get famous there? Absolutely. But the Pittsburgh scene is unique given the level of cooperation and eclectic nature. I don't think most folks that participate in the scene here want the Nashville/LA/NYC attitude with the exception of those that have delusions of grandeur.” - Andrew Belsick
“I don't think criticism will make any difference, and that's how it should be. Criticism is post hoc, after the fact. There's very, very little of that. And does review serve much purpose? I don't even know.” - Anonymous
“Concerning print media, I think the City Paper does a good job of providing local music coverage, as well as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Several blogs fill this role, as well. I think we are adequately-serviced for a city of our size. I don't see how an increase of criticism at this low level will affect the quality or the quantity of local music.” - Jeff Betten

Impact to the audience

“More words mean more people reading which MIGHT lead to more people listening.” - Hugh Twyman
“I think critical thinking and writing would be beneficial in that it would reify the work of Pittsburgh musicians and composers as meaningful and worthy of discussion as viewed through a wider national and international lens.” - Edgar Um Bucholtz
“Pittsburgh could definitely benefit from more local, artisanal, delicious, smart critical writing about Pittsburgh music-makers and concert-events. people are not encouraged to think nor write. they are encouraged to consume. there is a multi-national corporate war waged against the local. this includes local entertainment/music-making. anything we can do to ourselves resist and encourage others to resist the multi-national corporate pull is for the better. resist the giant sucking corporate cloud. it wants all our brains and bank accounts.” - Edgar Um Bucholtz
“I think critique would help create visibility for artists and bands, thus bolstering the sense of awareness and community of what's actually out there. Covering a variety of styles may have a positive effect on the music community as it could have the potential to inspire artists to go outside what they may see as the status quo.” - Trevor Richards

There is a spectrum for the value of critique, but the overwhelming response (and granted, the questions may be a bit biased) was that additional avenues of critique will push artists to evaluate their craft, potentially generate a bigger audience through increased exposure for bands and context for local music, or at the very least provide more things to read about local makers. This is consistent with conversations that I have had for the past 10 years, so what are the barriers to implementing a consistent place for discourse?

Barriers

Available writers, time, money, interest, Pittsburgh. These are the barriers that cropped up in discussing what is blocking the creation of a resource for critique. Let’s start with Pittsburgh, the city.


Friendly city

Post-steel bust, Pittsburgh has tried a number of things to get back on its feet. Healthcare, education, and finance have become big business. A Richard Florida approach to economic redevelopment and resulting neighborhood rejuvenation has resulted in a number of changes and a few examples of gentrification with its positive and negative effects. Along the way, local arts were also promoted. It feels like it started with a mindset that “any activity is good activity” and “any work is good work.” We were a city that was proud of itself or possibly forcing pride, and it was counterproductive to discourage any of the products of our collective creation. That of course is a blanket statement. Opportunities (grants, private support, etc.) have not been shared equally, but I would argue that a mentality of politeness remains and contributes to the lack of critique in Pittsburgh.

“The great thing about Pittsburgh is that anyone is willing to try anything because they're pretty much shielded from negative criticism, so there's a freedom there, but it's what also cripples Pittsburgh and prevents the sort of dialogue that we need to have in order to help bands prosper creatively and financially.” - Joe Mruk
It is less competitive and there is this blue collar aspect of Pittsburgh rock n' roll that generally gives the music a free pass to be what it is.” - Anonymous

Pittsburgh is a small town. Everyone knows each other. That is great, but it also makes it hard to say anything negative about someone’s work since your comment could bite you later when you are promoting your own work. There are certainly examples of retaliation and modest blacklisting in the history of local music scenes here.

Many of the scenes that have enjoyed sustained longevity have a strong community at their root. Take the scene that rose up around the Mr. Roboto Project. There were shared interests - mainly political and some musical - that tied together a group of people. An audience was strengthened and, musically, the audience was open to a number of types of musics. In the beginning of Roboto, the bookings covered a number of types of music, while focusing on punk and hardcore. There was discourse, but those discussions often surrounded political ideas, ideas of how a community functions, what the community promotes, and what the community rejects. But even then, I do not recall much formal discussion about the actual music, outside of the always-present interpersonal exchanges. Communities do not need critique to thrive, but I am curious how critique would impact a community.

Many of the community-driven music scenes since have appeared friend-based, many call them clique-y. Inside the clique, it would be a faux-paux to criticize one’s creative output since so much emphasis is directed toward the promotion of a whole. This was especially the case in certain scenes that aimed for higher exposure inside and outside of Pittsburgh.  

“In my experience, many of the sub-scenes suffer fear of offense at the expense of community building and expansion. Certainly criticism will always be floating in the air, but many times it serves little purpose. CDR Pittsburgh is making great moves to form a critical space for artistic interplay and discussion that gives me a lot of hope.” - Kevin Bednar
“Everyone's band is the best band ever or else they don't exist. You can't criticize a band without making enemies, having entire swaths of people hate you and not give your own music a chance. If you're in a band, no matter if you like another band or not, you want to be nice, because you really want them to put you on a show and have some of their fans hear you and like you. I think the total lack of a blogging culture in Pittsburgh is rough.” - Jeremy Zerbe

Writers

“With the consolidation of media over the years, the talent pool for writers gets smaller and smaller and the workload gets bigger and bigger. I have seen concert and record reviews that make musical references that are WAY off base in Pittsburgh publications.” - Anonymous
“I never really got down with reviews that much, and I used to write them for a bunch of websites. Previews are good for promotion and reviews are good for criticism, but unless you're dedicating yourself to the local scene, you're just writing a shittier, smaller version of Pitchfork / Stereogum / Consequence of Sound / etc. I used to run the Pittsburgh Trestle and had people do previews, simply because no one ever was willing to say anything critical about bands for a review.” - Jeremy Zerbe

There are people interested in exploring histories of local music and analyzing the current musical landscape in Pittsburgh. There have been really terrific pieces in the local press that take the time to investigate the subject. In order to facilitate more in-depth analysis, space needs to be given to writers. Generally, when space is given for an idea, a portion of people take advantage of it. Let’s assume that there are interested writers, how can we discuss music in a productive way? Can music be discussed objectively?

“music writing is not easy. the key is to know the field of music, have a grasp of the English language and be generous and encouraging but also honest.” - Edgar Um Bucholtz
“You can discuss harmonic complexity, you can talk intonation and expression. You can discuss rhythm (either being good, or creatively flexible). But quality does not and should not dictate taste. You can like bad and dislike good music, while still recognizing their objective quality.” - Josh Loughrey
“There're many different types of music & many different ways of appraising them. Critiques can be based around skill of player, intensity of player, sincerity of player feeling, originality of composition, authenticity of tradition, even tune catchiness, etc, etc..” - tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE
“We'd really have to have people hone their criticism to something useful, and living in a world where criticism has never really existed, that would be hard. Just like anything else, the only criticism that is good is when someone comes at it with context. You wouldn't want someone who hates horror movies to review the latest Rob Zombie flick. [. . .] I think certain aspects are objective. Some production doesn't fit some bands (and that's not to say everything has to sound produced to the nines, just that it has to sound like the band sounds). I think some lyrics are objectively bad. I think some chord progressions and orchestration choices are objectively tired, unless they're being used to a certain end (be it irony, an homage, etc). But I don't think that objectivity is what we need, because that can bland everything out. What we need is CONTEXT.” - Jeremy Zerbe
“You would need an intelligent informed listening and performing audience of musicians and critics. Whenever you cross Objective/Subjective lines always be open and honest, especially about personal Bias. It helped to become Constructive.” - Derek Bendel
“i would prefer if it's someone i respect as a musician and understands it on the same general level, but part of the fun of writing is being able to connect at a base level with a general audience in addition to one that is looking for a deeper meaning in the piece.” - Bengt Alexsander

Money

As discussed earlier, one of the downfalls of these types of endeavors - blogs, discussion meetups, print journals - is funding. Since many blogs start as passion projects or a desire to connect to a community, the perceived benefit of churning out review after review has diminishing returns. Being paid for what you do (in this case, writing) can sustain that waning enthusiasm. Despite best wishes, we live in a culture where art is dependent upon charity, grants, or a primary job. Local films generally loose money, the lack of a local art market means few artists make their living from their work, and while bands can make money playing a show, bands cannot play enough shows or play enough profitable shows to sustain a living (cover bands aside). Art is rarely financially sustainable.

Likewise, establishment of a trusted source of critique of said art would also require funding to avoid the fate of a founder’s loss of interest or reprioritization of lifestyle. This is why many people suggest the dailies and weeklies as the source of critique - those entities are funded and, more importantly, are consistent. Every day/week, they deliver what they promised - continuing coverage of music, national and local. If a platform for discourse is built, it will need funding to hope for a sustained presence.

University publications, where funded by the school, meet parts of this criteria, but the writers sometimes lack the historical context needed to adequately analyze a city’s music. It does not help that CMU and Pitt are very successful as insulating students from the city. Port Authority’s continual budget crises and route cuts also do not help.

If we are looking for funding to encourage writing, we need to look at who benefits from a larger audience for local music. Certainly, musicians - increased audience for shows, increased album purchases, more integrated community - but in this scenario, musician presumably have little money or at least need to spend the money on improving their craft. The public, but here we are assuming that the public is unaware of much local music. Venues. Increased audience for local music concerts would lead to increased alcohol sales for bars that present music. Bigger audiences would mean more ticket sales, which would make a venue's percentage larger or a flat fee more frequently reachable. There is some concern that the audience for local music is decreasing steadily. One sign of this trend, which has been growing for about 8 years, is the spread of DJ/dance nights at venues that also host bands. Currently, DJ nights are attracting higher crowds than local bands, given some variation for different venues. I don't view this as necessarily a bad thing, but I do wonder if the audience for local music will sink to a new standard and maintain that level.

I would like to propose an experiment where four to eight venues that produce local music donate $40/month to fund an initiative to foster creative music dialogue. With $160 - $320/month, writers and a site maintainer could be paid a modest sum to publish interviews, investigative articles, and reviews. The website and its writers would require autonomy in decisions of what to cover and how to cover those subjects. A trial run of three to six months may be enough to see if an impact is made - does an audience grow? can this entity (probably a website) interact with local festivals to provide in-depth coverage of what is happening? would local music sales increase? would the music change? Would this experiment warrant a partnership with an established culture site like NEXTpittsburgh or something of the sort?

“I think a consistent and well curated blog could help. One that has regular postings on the most relevant artists and happenings. If we have one, I don't know of it. I also think live documentation, organized and presented with context (images, sound, sound-bytes, ability for comment/feedback) would be good as well. I could see a festival helping. Things like SKULL FEST have given that slice of pgh quite a bit of traction. But it's just one slice.” - Geoffrey Maddock
“I think it's mostly laziness on everyone's part. That and a spoonful of exclusivity. "Promotion" of a show in Pittsburgh is making a Facebook event and putting up a flyer at Spak. No one is talking to WRCT or WPTS, giving them calendars of upcoming shows. No local bands are doing premieres of their records, or working with media outlets in the slightest. And the radio stations are all dumb college kids (I was one too) and don't know where to search it out half the time either. Pittsburgh could do really really well for itself if there were one or two GOOD blogs that reviewed everything and worked closely with the two college stations and WYEP. The Pittsburgh Trestle underwrote the local music show on Wednesday evenings at WPTS. But was I ever invited in to talk about up and coming local bands? Nah. But I now write for Consequence of Sound and was called by WBEZ Chicago the other day, and they did a 15 minute segment with me about all the cool small acts that were playing at Lollapalooza the other weekend. THAT is the kind of relationship Pittsburgh needs if it wants to do well for itself. Everyone benefits!” - Jeremy Zerbe

This proposal is an idea. There are other outlets for possible funding: grants, universities, advertising, local radio. And there are other ideas for how to create a conversation about local music without defaulting to a new blog or website, but a site with a variety of writers, linked by a common goal, could be the start of something - music listening nights, concerts in odd venues and spaces, local music conferences, local musician lectures and artist talks. 


Notes:

Survey respondees were given the option of allowing their name to used or to be kept anonymous.

In the surveys, a number of people mentioned transparency and honesty. Just so you know where I am coming from, here is a bit about my history. As a musician, I performed in Boxstep (2002-2004) and then co-led Vale and Year (2003-2006) with Greg Cislon, then Assembly (2007ish to 2011) (alongside DBLD, HiTEC, Tony Blowad, various duos, trios, quartets, and solo settings), then Host Skull (2011 to present) while also playing in the short-lived, but fun Ex-Kids. Along the way, I scored a few video games with Corey Layman, released solo music, recorded solo music for dance, film and theater, composed a chamber piece for Alia Musica. I have released music, one way or another, through Enamel Records, Sort Of Records, Abstract On Black, Contraphonic Records, Antephonic Records, and Wild Kindness. Raymond Morin, who ran Sort Of Records, let me curate a subsidiary called Abstract On Black that released music from John Berndt, Jack Wright, The Friction Brothers, and others. Currently, Host Skull and my current solo projects are releasing music through Host Skull Ongoing Box (HSOB). In addition to music, I also make documentaries, choreograph and organize dance and performance pieces, co-curate the Lightlab Performance Series with Taylor Knight of slowdanger, and exhibit 2D, installation, and video art work. Here are some music selections.