Saturday, July 02, 2011

Music Critics on Old vs. New Media

The Music Critics Association of North America held their annual meeting in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, and a few bloggers were invited to a panel discussion about the differences between "old" vs. "new" media in a basement rehearsal room of Davies Hall. It was fun seeing a number of famous faces, such as New York Times classical music critic Anthony Tommasini above, but with a few exceptions the panel was remarkably ignorant about "new" media.

For example, Tommasini's presentation was about his online videos at the New York Times website where he plays musical examples and lectures on different topics, trying his best to be "Uncle Lenny [Bernstein]." He complained that New York Times readers didn't seem to know about his "multimedia" attempts, missing the point of why people go to the New York Times website in the first place. It's certainly not for Music Appreciation 101A with a lecturer at a piano featuring poorly compressed sound on a computer.

The second panelist was Chloe Veltman above, a British freelancer who writes for The Bay Citizen in San Francisco, and who has a blog that's featured on Arts Journal called "Lies Like Truth." Chloe's presentation was on her KALW radio show about singing called "Voice Box," which she has tried to monetize with foundation grants, fundraisers, and podcasts. Meanwhile, she has been using unpaid volunteers to do much of the actual labor for her, which hasn't worked out so well, so she finally decided to pay "a mere pittance" to Seth, "a tech-savvy, high-risk youth" at KALW to make life more beautiful.

Chloe is a minor figure of fun amongst Bay Area bloggers who find that no matter what the purported subject of an article or post might be, the eventual subject always turns out to be Chloe and how she's underappreciated or abused or just feeling contrary. She is mistreated by editors, by PR people, and choral directors. One of her true masterpieces of inane narcissism was after the San Bruno PG&E explosions where she asked the perfectly absurd question, "But what’s my role as a [cultural] journalist in all of this?"

Chloe was followed by the Washington Post's music critic, Anne Midgette above, who writes for the newspaper and also has a blog. She gave a smart, funny, off-the-cuff presentation about the differences between writing for print and online and how the latter's interactivity really is a new and interesting phenomenon. Later, when talking to San Francisco Symphony public relations staff, she was pointing out the unfairness of mainstream journalists having to abide by "embargo" dates for official information put out by cultural organizations, while bloggers like La Cieca (James Jorden) do not. This brings up the subject of the cozy relationships between official institutions and the mainstream press, something that never came up during the panel.

Following Anne was Lisa Hirsch above, who writes occasional reviews for the San Francisco Classical Voice and has her own blog, "Iron Tongue of Midnight." Working during the day at Google, Lisa definitely knows her tech stuff, and she gave a very practical lecture on the nuts-and-bolts of creating your own blog. She has posted an expanded version on her site (click here) that's full of useful information.

After a break, two more panelists arrived, starting with John Robinson (above), the newly hired Executive Director of San Francisco Classical Voice, which is financed by the billionaire composer Gordon Getty. Robinson's background is in arts administration, lately being in charge of the Santa Barbara Symphony which I didn't even know existed. From what I could gather from his presentation, he is completely clueless about both old and new media, which is not a particularly good sign for that online publication.

The final speaker was John Rockwell, who has had a fascinating career as a classical, rock, and dance critic for the New York Times and other publications. He brought up the subject of Money, as in how the hell was somebody supposed to make a living these days writing about the arts when it was being given away for free by so many people.

Rockwell didn't have any answers, but he did have an interesting lament, "There's no avenue now for people coming out of college to have careers as professional music critics anymore." This seemed a little strange, since there probably were never more than a hundred people in the United States making their living as music critics before the advent of the internet. Millions of people working in manufacturing in this country have seen their professions disappear over the last decades while arts critics are wringing their hands over a couple of dozen jobs.

In truth, the emergence of fresh, interested, intelligent voices in the world of self-publishing on the internet has been a boon for the arts. There's no longer an Official Opinion in One Newspaper, and nothing else. For examples of some of that intelligence, check out Axel Feldheim's description of this same panel and "The Reverberate Hills" by Patrick Vaz, where he will eventually get around to describing the panel when his genius has digested it.


La Cieca said...

I heard my name!

The embargo issue is an interesting one. doesn't get all that many embargoed stories, but when we do, we do, so far as I can recall, abide by the embargo. There have been instances when an embargoed story was sent out to other media but not parterre, and before the embargo, we were leaked the news and rushed it out as a rumor. I don't think it's cheating to use information from an embargoed press release if you didn't get the press release in the first place. (An example of this sort of situation was the appointment of Renee Fleming as Creative Consulant at Lyric Opera of Chicago. There had been vague rumors for a couple of days that she would be taking some kind of adminstrative role with the company, but nothing definite. Then LOC sent out their embargoed press release to an extensive mailing list, and within minutes I was getting emails saying, "you won't believe what I just read.")

A gossip blogger has a definite advantage in this kind of situation when facts are known but cannot for the moment be attributed. Obviously an Anne Midgette or Anthony Tommasini can't very well begin a story "Tongues are wagging that...", but that's the difference between straight journalism and gossip. On the other hand, they have official access that bloggers generally lack. They also don't run the danger of going with a rumor that fails to pan out, which has happened to me a couple of times, but not so often that I am cowed from continuing to gossip.

This is not so much about blog vs. print as it is about the difference between gossip and straight news: Michael Riedel can write things that Ben Brantley could never get past his editor. A straight news blogger I would expect to abide by an embargo, just as this less-than-straight blogger does when he's asked to.

Perhaps the takeaway here is that more arts organizations should put on their press release lists.

Civic Center said...

Dear La Cieca: Thank you for that clarifying explanation, and I love the expression "less-than-straight blogger." I would also like to second the suggestion that all operatic arts organizations put on their press release lists (she even honors embargos!) because the Parterre Box site is funny, smart and invaluable.

Charles Céleste Hutchins said...

The Veltman post about the PG&E explosions is amazing....

Civic Center said...

Dear Charles: Glad you enjoyed it as much as me. The PG&E post really does define the concept of narcissism just about perfectly.

Civic Center said...

In an email from Anne Midgette:


I just wanted to say that I agree 100% with James Jorden, and I believe he knows it. My whole point in mentioning the La Cieca/embargo issue to publicists which I do regularly, is not so much that it's unfair as to let them know (oh so politely) that they're idiots for not sending him ALL their embargoed press releases, precisely because he would abide by the embargo if he were treated like a professional and asked to abide by the embargo. But he's quite right that if he comes by the information himself rather than through official journalistic channels, he has every right to publish it when he wants. I keep saying this to the classical music publicists, and they keep on hitching up their skirts in horror, and as a result all their stories appear first on Parterre Box.

Zzzz said...

When I first saw this article, I thought, "What, there are still music critics?" and it appears that the answer is "sorta". I'm assuming that all the professional spots that are left will probably vanish once the current vanguard retires. Anyways, a mighty fun read as I'm regualarly confronted by "old" media not getting "new" media, which at this point, with how long "new" media has been around is akin to someone not knowing how to type.

Civic Center said...

Dear Hudin: It is feeling a bit old-fashioned, isn't it, and even "new media" is looking a bit shopworn these days. Just think of it as C.W. Nevius touring the Tenderloin trying to figure out what the Hipsters are up to, and you'll have a good idea of the many contradictions.

Brian Hinrichs said...

The ho-um results of this panel seem remarkably similar to the one held at Opera America in L.A. last year, which included Mark Swed, Anne Midgette,Tim Mangan, and Brian Holt discussing the "changing media landscape." Here are my thoughts on that one: