Friday, March 22, 2019

Farewell, column

I just lost a job I should have lost a long time ago.

For almost 20 years, I wrote a weekly album review column for a newspaper in a mid-size Ontario town. The man who hired me, and who was one of my biggest champions, died in 2008; he’d retired a few years before that. I’d had little to no contact with anyone at the paper after that (*). I filed a column every week; they printed it. No one ever told me what to do, which meant I could write about whatever I wanted. If I wanted to ignore the new Shawn Mendes and review a soca artist from Saskatoon instead, I could do that.

Remember the film Office Space, where one character keeps showing up for work five years after he was fired, and no one notices? I felt like that, although I was still invoicing and still getting paid.

It was too good to be true—except that it only paid $80 a week. Back in the day, I could supplement that by selling dozens of promo copies to a local CD store, which would justify the time and effort I put into the column; that hustle dried up a decade ago. Since then, I’d been doing it mostly for love, to alleviate boredom from well-paying desk jobs, and to exercise my writing muscles.

I reviewed roughly three to five new records a week, 50 weeks a year (two weeks would be year-end round-ups), for almost two decades. That's between 3,000 to 5,000 records in total.

In early March, the new arts editor asked me to call him. He was shocked to learn I’d been doing the gig for so long. He then apologized before telling me that the column was being retired. The reason? Being the new guy, it wasn’t his call, he claimed, but those above him told him that the column did not perform well online.

Here’s the irony: my column rarely ever went online. I checked every few months or so, and for at least the last decade it seemed to be completely random where and when my column might pop up: sometimes a couple of weeks in a row, sometimes on websites for affiliated papers, sometimes not for months on end. The day it was canned in March—for not performing well online—my column had not been posted online since Christmas. If it had, I could find no record of it.

(That’s why I’ve been reposting my reviews on this blog since I started it 13 years ago, for my own archives and so they’d be accessible to artists. I almost always did so several weeks after they ran on my employer’s site, so that they’d get the primary traffic.)

So getting fired was hardly shocking. Instead, it was funny; the very last record I reviewed just happened to be called You Will Not Die. And it was a bit of a relief: right before March break, for the first time in 20 years, I didn’t have to file two columns in advance before going away on vacation. Phew!

There’s also the fact that, while I’m still an intensely curious listener, I’m a total dinosaur who probably shouldn’t have a music column. (**) I think Drake is downright terrible; I had to admit to myself years ago that I’ve lost that battle, and should stop yelling at the cloud. I refuse to take Taylor Swift seriously. Trap has ruined rap. EDM is one big headache. Metal and punk were never for me. What used to be called indie rock ran out of ideas a long time ago, says this old man. I’m not a poptimist who suddenly re-evaluated George Michael’s music when he died; I still think it was terrible. (***) These are all huge blind spots for a columnist to have, and my mental health is better for not having to care.

I’m now one of those insufferable jackasses who tells you he only listens to jazz and “world music.” God help me. I’ve become a Scharpling and Wurster sketch. I’ve become an LCD Soundsystem song. More likely, I was always both of those. 

In 1999, album reviews still ran in newspapers, glossy mags and alt-weeklies (there were still alt-weeklies then, too!). Back then, I would write my columns with the consumer in mind: along with your time, is this record worth your money? Even when people stopped paying for music (UGH), reviews were still a useful tool for navigating new releases. With streaming, of course, algorithmic playlists became the new “recommendation engines.” We didn’t need people for that anymore, apparently.

In 2019, having an album-review column was downright archaic. It felt like I was running the last video-rental store in the province. Hell, even music blogs have all but disappeared. Nobody wants to read about music. They just want a playlist to do the work for them.

I still buy CDs and vinyl, but I’m not a total Luddite: I’ve discovered some amazing music from algorithms. The multi-faceted world of Shabaka Hutchings (Shabaka & the Ancestors, The Comet is Coming) and the new British jazz scene (Theon Cross, Nubya Garcia) all came to me when Sons of Kemet popped up as a recommendation several years ago, long before that band was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize. But I still had to research to discover different threads and to learn more context that increased my appreciation of the scene—a scene where threads and connections are important, not random bits and bytes. (****)

I still learn about a lot of music from Pitchfork, Aquarium Drunkard, NPR Music, Said the Gramophone and others (as well as my fellow Polaris Music Prize jurors, for whom I am eternally grateful). I recently fell back in love with campus radio. But it takes work. Streaming doesn’t make active listening easier for fans of new music; it makes it overwhelming. We still need filters. I needed filters when I was a filter. There’s a reason “curation” is such a buzzword.

In my post-columnist life—which is all of a couple of weeks now—it’s been a pleasure to spend more time with recent records that I filed away as soon as I finished reviewing them. There are a bunch of new things I’m excited about without feeling that I have to be excited about them—or even be all that articulate about them (hello, Dominique Fils-Aimé!).

And, like every cliché of a 47-year-old former hipster dad, I’m suddenly listening to a lot of Wilco lately. But that’s because Jeff Tweedy’s recent memoir was so good—or maybe I’m just entering my Sky Blue Sky years after all. (*****)

The editor let me run a farewell note at the bottom of the last column I filed. I don’t know what, if any, feedback they got. I received some nice notes on social media; one person said they grew up reading my column. Several artists and publicists have expressed their gratitude. In the past, I’ve had strangers stop me on the street or at festivals in the town where the column ran, to tell me how much they enjoyed a certain record I’d recommended. (******) That’s a wonderful feeling.

I’m now writing an online Toronto city column for the West End Phoenix. I’ll still write reviews on this site. I’ll no longer feel I have to hold the hands of mainstream newspaper readers. Will that change my writing style? We’ll see. I like to think that my experience writing with those readers in mind made my book so accessible and popular.

Thank you for reading. Now. Then. Tomorrow—possibly, maybe.

* To be fair, I'd get a couple of notes a year from a copy editor. And someone would actually notice if I didn't file at my normal time.

** I'm also the only person in the world (other than Juno voters, FWIW) who thinks Everything Now is Arcade Fire's best album. In the eyes of my peers, this alone is reason enough to set me out on an ice floe. 
*** Not sure why I didn't mention this the first time, maybe because I considered it obvious, but "rock" music is also all but dead to me, especially if it's made by four white guys. 
**** This is a score for the algorithm: I'm not aware of anyone else in Canada who reviewed the first Sons of Kemet record. However, despite the fact I often stream the first Comet is Coming record, the new one that came out this month didn't show up on the weekly new release page I check every Friday. So unless I was reminded by someone else acting as a filter, I'd likely have forgotten that it was coming out. That's a score against the algorithm. 
***** I draw the line at The National, though. That's too fusty even for me. 
****** Shout out to the stranger at the Hillside Festival who thanked me for the Angelique Kidjo nod.

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