Saturday, June 28, 2008

Todd Hutlock, from his “2002 Year End Thoughts” on Stylus:

Oh, yeah—I’d be remiss if I didn’t revel in the irony that I paid for a lot of that stuff by selling tons of garbage promo CDs sent to me by labels seemingly blind to musical history and in desperate grasp for the next big teen “thing.” Thanks, guys—couldn’t have done without your awful business sense and lack of taste and originality!

Minus the specifics (blindness shmindness, and next teen things sometimes pan out), I used to feel this way myself. I saw the work of other people as my lunch, turned in large numbers of gifts for rent money, turned the eager beginnings of people who will no doubt grow to good things into cases for my own mixes. I wasn’t alone. A lot of music writers lived like this once upon a time; it was more lucre at a point when (let’s be honest) anyone with half an ounce’s worth of nerve could make a little bit of money as a critic (or, as or more frequently, content provider). Biz was biz, which in the ’90s meant what it meant for the decade as a whole. Maybe it’s that Minneapolis was cheap; before moving away for good in 1999, I lived for $232 a month in a three-bedroom downstairs unit in an old duplex, had plenty of privacy and liked my roommates. I didn’t need to make that much money to live on; when I went to Seattle in August 1999 I subsisted on a pretty low checking account and was only flagging for a bit before I got a job with the Weekly. But I know for sure that I would never have been able to do those things without the extra income provided by selling promo CDs.

Like a lot of music writers, my budget has been crunched in the past couple of years. The lowering of rates, the tightening of space, and venues closing their doors (whether permanently or just to me) all contribute. I was broke after moving to New York in 2006, and stayed that way until well after I came back to Seattle. These are the kinds of things that were easier to navigate back when you could sell promos more or less freely--when there were a lot of them around. There aren’t anymore; most of the promos I get now are digital.

And I prefer it that way.

Over the past two years I’ve become a slightly different kind of music fan than I was for a few years prior to that. Once I was a promo whore. Working at First Avenue, I photocopied a directory of phone numbers to record labels. For two years, whenever I wanted something, I consulted the stapled-together Xerox. It enabled me to get on more promo lists than anyone, much less someone who wasn’t writing very widely and often, in the writing, didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about. Eventually, I was getting 50 CDs a week. That’s a lot of pocket change, especially when you work (as I did in my final months in Minneapolis) at a used-CD shop and can trade in for stuff you actually want. Doing calendar at the Weekly the first time re-upped my sources; going back to edit the section, at minimum, quadrupled it. Eventually I got selective.

I once received an email from a publicist that included, in part, the words, “I know you hate publicists.” I don’t hate publicists, not in the least. Many of them are extremely kind, courteous, and frighteningly knowledgeable about music. (A few seem to love the stuff even more than I do, bless them.) Many more have helped me with something or other that I remain grateful for. A couple are dicks--big deal. That doesn’t mean, of course, that I answer publicists’ email with anything you’d refer to as “frequency.” This pisses some of them off, and the others seem used to it. It is, I think, a good system: we all know that the time you respond is the time you have a real answer, and especially if you get a lot of promos (or are presumed to) you’re given some slack. So it appears to me, anyway.

The point, though, is that this is at least as difficult a time for publicists (the workaday ones, not the ones for big stars) as it is for writers about music. Probably worse, actually, because they’re still paying postage on packages when they send them. But a lot of them aren’t anymore. And this is one of those things that’s so resolutely good I concur even if it means I can’t get sellback bucks anymore.

Part of this has to do with the 2006 NYC move. Before departing Seattle, I’d emailed some 500 contacts (not friends, mind you--people whose press releases I’d kept in a work email folder) and told them where I was going to be working and that while I’d be freelancing some, keeping my name on their lists was at their discretion. Frankly, I was beat. All those promos all the time--I was going to work for an MP3 retailer and wouldn’t need CDs, hardly. And indeed, what I was sent in my eight months at eMusic could have filled a postal crate, nothing more.

What happened then is a handful of events that in memory coagulate down to one visit to Kim’s on St. Mark’s Place. It was a Tuesday, and I went down to see what was available. The new Built to Spill had come out. I hesitated a second and then said to hell with it and paid for a copy. I’d long bought stuff at regular retail but it almost never was new. (And if it was, it was usually for work.) I only really liked a couple songs on You in Reverse, but it felt like a dam break: back to being a regular consumer, buying new albums every week because you want to hear them--and because you haven’t heard them.

Especially after I got back to Seattle and started making a little money again, I became a Tuesday habitué. Moving into a house one small block from Sonic Boom Records helps that. I’d made a vow that I wouldn’t buy more than one book a month this year, and while in strict terms I’ve been delinquent for the most part the experiment is a success. CDs I’ll need a little more time before I cut down on.

One thing I wanted to mention in my 2007 Idolator Pop essay was how much more satisfied I often am with albums partly because I know I bought them. (I thought it would sound self-congratulatory, and maybe this post does too.) That’s certainly not always the case: I acquire quite a bit on MP3, I still get free downloads from eMusic as a contributor, and obviously I still do get promo CDs (thank you all). But so far this year I’ve paid for at least a half-dozen titles I already had the MP3s for. Sometimes these were acquired from editors for assignments; sometimes a colleague would sneak one over. But with a sonic feast like Portishead’s Third or Flying Lotus’s Los Angeles you need the full treatment.

I’ve been delinquent in my album listening for a number of reasons, mainly to do with a couple big things I’m doing that require more attention than usual. And my hours have been unsteady, though I’m trying to fix that this weekend. But I do feel more invested in this stuff, in both ways, than I used to. And I’m glad I do, because there were a lot of moments when I started to wonder if I wasn’t just starting to see it as a numbers game--I didn’t think so at the time, but you want to guard against it.

This is starting to slide over a bit, so let me take it further: I’m planning a half-year albums list in the days to come, and will probably elaborate some on this, but 2008 is, to my ear, pretty solid so far. I’ve liked a good number of albums, and find bounty in tracks all the time. There’s even a narrative shaping up, at least in my hearing, and I’ll talk about that when I have the list done.