What Is A Music Critic's Life Really Like?
Walter Peck: Because I'm curious. I wanna know more about what you do here! Frankly, I've heard a lot of wild stories in the media and we want to assess any possibility of dangerous and possibly hazardous waste chemicals in your basement.
Rocks Off can promise you we are not harboring any hazardous waste in our office - although it certainly looks like we might be - but since today is the last day our readers can sign up to ride shotgun with Rocks Off Sr. at Kings of Leon and Band of Horses Saturday, we thought it would be a good opportunity for us to illuminate the day-to-day reality of what it really means to be a music critic. The contest runs until 5 p.m. on our poll page.
There have been a lot of wild stories in the media, so Rocks Off Sr. and Jr. have been emailing back and forth the past couple of days in the hopes of shedding some light on a profession that is often envied and just as often misunderstood, even by our fellow journalists. Rest assured, it's not all backstage passes and free CDs.
Chris Gray: Whenever I meet someone and tell them what my job is, they almost always say some variation of, "That sounds like a cool job." I tell them it is, but it's also a lot of work. What about you?
Craig Hlavaty: Yeah! I always get the "Well that sounds like a cool and EASY job. I bet you get to meet all sorts of people and hang out backstage all the time and see all kinds of fun and messed up stuff."
But I agree with you, it's a lot of work, brain work. We aren't crushing rocks in a mine or digging ditches, fighting fires, or working in an ER seeing lives flash before our eyes. We somehow have to make sense of things, especially with live reviews, that aren't so easily described. Like, there have been times where after a show, like Britney Spears a few weeks back, where I sat in front of the monitor shrugging and stressed that I had to intimate the normalcy of something that should have been grand.
So yeah, it's fun and physically easy, but the fights in our own minds are like torture. But a torture that you will have to pull from my cold dead hands.
Despite this video, music criticism rarely if ever comes to actual blows.
Trust us: It is NOT like this at all.
Chris Gray: It's not easy at all. Besides thinking - it generally takes me longer than the show itself will last for me to write a review, sometimes several hours more - there is a tremendous amount of planning and negotiating (not to mention editing, myself included) that goes into everything that we publish in the paper and on Rocks Off, everything from arranging reviewer tickets and photo passes to scheduling interviews and putting out the occasional fire when we get something wrong. Which, you know, happens.
And while it's true we do get to meet all kinds of interesting people, I think the idea that we get to go backstage and hang out all the time may be the biggest myth of all about this line of work. I think I can count on one hand the number of times that's actually happened. Things have changed a lot since the days of Almost Famous - most of the time, if they're not involved in some sort of fan meet-and-greet, artists generally want to be left alone before a concert (especially by the press), and I'm more than happy to oblige them.
Afterward, at least at shows on the Kings of Leon level, they're usually out the door and on the tour bus practically before the house lights even come up. I remember watching the Rolling Stones' motorcade speeding down Barton Springs after they played Zilker Park in Austin in 2006, when most people probably thought they were going to come out for another encore.
Obviously, it's different on the local level, where we do tend to socialize with a lot of musicians we also have to cover, or at least show up at a lot of the same bars, parties and shows. Where do you draw the line here?
Craig Hlavaty: I have tons of people in the Houston music scene that I would like to call dear friends, but I always get scared that that extra attention at the show, or that free beer is somehow not dear and true. I know the people who are real and the ones who are playing the game. Let's just say, Facebook sucks when it comes to that.
When it comes to meeting artists around showtime, or after, I try to keep it to a minimum. It's harder to pin a band to the wall for a big, awful show if they just gave you a beer or a Coke. Keeping it clinical is the worst part, because it comes personal with local cats.
I can shit on a national artist all day, as long as I feel I temper it with constructive criticism, which in the past year or so I have been doing. I would rather spend 1,000 words being constructive and relating the fan experience than trying to be this ogre-ish figure behind a computer.
Chris Gray: Ah yes, the whole friend vs. "friend" question. I would have to say that although I am friendly with just about everyone I know who is connected to the local music scene, I am actually friends with a very select few. As in, there are probably less than a dozen local musicians who have my personal phone number, and fewer still who use it. A couple of those are my neighbors too. Since I moved to Houston, I have actually found more kinship with other people who work around the music business - other writers, promoters, bartenders - than musicians themselves.
I am fine with that, really. It's not our job to be everybody's buddy. It does help to get along with people, because then they tell you things you might be able to use. If someone comes up to me and gives me a tip while I'm hanging out at a bar, for example, just to be clear I either make sure to ask them explicitly if I can use it (and if I can quote them or not), right then and there, or I will follow up with either an email or phone call from work the next day. Also, most people know exactly who they are talking to when they are talking to me, and if they don't realize that what they are telling me is potential fair game for me to use in a story, then they really ought to.
As for the free beer conundrum, people are always welcome to buy me a drink and bend my ear, as long as they realize it's not going to affect the outcome of whatever I may or may not write about them, their friends, their clients or their music. One bit.
The one thing that really does get under my skin is if I'm at a show - especially one I'm reviewing, which is usually obvious because I'll almost always have my notebook out - or hanging out with friends somewhere, obviously otherwise occupied by something else (or just minding my own business), and someone (usually a stranger) insists on having a conversation about music right then and there.
Normally music is my favorite subject, but there is such a thing as common courtesy. And since I spend all day thinking, talking and writing about it, sometimes it's also the last thing I want to talk about.
What other ways has being a music critic affected your personal life?
Craig Hlavaty: There have been a few times where I have been in really weird situations with local musicians, outside of shows and just partying, when people look up and go "Oh shit, you are a journalist! You could write about this!" and I'm like, "Well, I'm just hanging out. Break as much glass as you want."
As far as how has this life, which I more or less dove into head-first in August 2006, has affected my real, boring, non-music life, well, the one thing I can say off the bat is that when people find out what I do, I have a demo or a CD in my hand within 30 seconds. Which is cool, because people want to share music with me, but it sucks when I have no pockets or my pants are too tight. So many girlfriends that have stuck around have had CD collections in their purses.
As for the other things, I think it helped me open myself to more styles of music, as sort of an ongoing industry education. When I started writing, I had this great Lester Bangs/GONZO idea that I was only going to write about dirty, nasty, rock n' roll and that that would be my beat. Forever. I found along the way that that was boring and I was really just a googly fan and that what really got me off was watching other people freak the fuck out.
I started being more interested in how bands and artists affected their fans, and not so much about how much I thought the band sucked, no matter what it was. Don't get me wrong, I still hate shit, (white-guy reggae) but I realized that the stories of the people who spent parts of their paychecks or allowance to see a band was just as important.
Which was why I found myself in the middle of a pit of Juggalos at an Insane Clown Posse show at Warehouse Live, chugging Faygo back in December. Life is too short to go through it not peeking to see what the other side is doing. Fuck it, I'm part Juggalo now I guess, and that's OK with me.
"I don't wanna hear old sad bastard music, Barry, I just want something I can ignore."
Chris Gray: A colleague of ours once told me some wise words: "It's music journalism. Nobody died." Except when they do.
I think a lot of people get into this line of work expecting some kind of Lester Bangs Experience, and are surprised and even disappointed when that turns out not to be the case. It's not a very sustainable model past your mid-20s in any case, as Bangs himself proved. There's a certain point where sleep become a much more valuable resource than whatever information or insight you can gain through a round of all-night partying.
I think it's easy for us to identify with and communicate the fan's perspective because, on top of being journalists (or beneath), we are still fans. Perhaps not of a particular artist or type of music, but certainly of music in general. And we may work longer hours or have trickier personal relationships than other types of journalists - and I'm not even sure I'd go that far - but for my money this beats hanging around the morgue any day.
I'll give you the last word. Anything else you'd like to add?
Craig Hlavaty: I really really love my job, even for all the hilariously angry comments that I get on blog posts, the sleepless nights worried that I captured a band correctly, or the sweat and chaffing I endure at festivals running from stage to stage. I come from a strange military background, and every show and festival is like a campaign. It's better than drugs, booze, or money, because for every tenth person who sees something I write, I may just open them up to a new sound or experience that they may have otherwise never dove into.
That, and I once got to shake Kenny G's hand.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.