how to write a music blog

July 29th, 2009

I have some strong opinions on how to write and run a music blog. I thought I’d share some of my recommendations on that. If you don’t feel like reading my opinions about this, tune in tomorrow for a different post entirely. I realize I’m not the right person to tell you how to start a music blog that’ll get huge but I have a decent readership and more importantly, I think what I’ve done here is good.

Originally, this was going to be a rant called What’s Wrong with the Music Blogosphere, but I thought I’d turn it into something a little more positive. If you’re interested in the technical aspects of how to run a music blog, I’m sure they’re covered elsewhere.

  1. Create original content
    This is the most important thing here. What sets your blog apart if all you do is post mp3s that other people are posting with the same promo photo that everyone else is posting? Write interesting things about the music you like or shows you see. Take and post your own photos. Make original videos or post mp3s of exclusive sessions with bands. Do interesting interviews with bands. There are so many different ways you can create original content. Be, well, original.
  2. Don’t do it for money or page views
    You’re not going to become rich or famous starting a music blog in all likelihood. You might make some pocket change from advertising or you might choose to do without ads, but the point is you should have a blog because you love music and want to share it. If you find yourself changing your blog just for the hits or posting something just because you think it’ll bring page views, reconsider.

    I think it’s okay to want more readers, but the way you get new readers and the way you get page views are different.

  3. Respect artists
    We all do this because we love music and want to promote great artists, right? Posting full albums doesn’t help an artist. Posting without linking to where someone can buy the record or failing to inform readers of an upcoming live date when you post mp3s doesn’t hep the artist. And if an artist asks you to take down an mp3, do it politely.
  4. Write the blog you want to read
    Don’t write the blog you think people want to read. Besides a few comments here and there, you probably won’t get a good idea of what most of your readers want to read, so just write what you think is good. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t ever listen to constructive criticism, just that you shouldn’t tailor your blog to something you think people want.
  5. Have a singular vision
    I really think the biggest benefit of music blogs, besides being able to point readers directly to music (as mp3 or video), is that they can have a singular vision: a consistent opinion or taste. After reading a blog for a while, I’ll get to know what the writer’s taste is and how much trust I put in their opinion. For example, I know I should at least consider any band Frank at Chromewaves highlights. Does this mean I think you shouldn’t have co-writers? Not necessarily as it is possible for people to have similar enough tastes that the site still has a consistent taste, but few multi-writer sites achieve a singular vision. HearYa is one of the better ones at having multiple writers while having a consistent taste.
  6. Know what you’re talking about
    No one is immune from mistakes and no one can known every band, but nothing makes me want to read a blog less than obvious factual mistakes or a gross lack of knowledge of bands.
  7. Share news in limited quantities
    This is a tricky one and I know some people disagree with me on this, but I really think you can assume every music fan reads Pitchfork news, Brooklyn Vegan or Stereogum, so they know when Band Goes on Tour! or Band Reveals Album Art! Of course there are times when news is appropriate. That artist you love is doing a house concert in your area, tickets will sell out quickly and you haven’t anything about it elsewhere? Go for it. An alternative to posting a list of tour dates is to use the tour stop in your town to do a feature about the artist where you write about why they’re good.
  8. Make your blog’s presence multi-faceted
    Promote live shows with bands you support, have bands into the studio, or have a radio show or podcast. I just think it’s more interesting than a straight-up mp3 blog.
  9. Find your niche
    Whether it be a region or a genre or whatever, I think blogs with a more specific focus tend to be more interesting and have a more loyal readership. What could be a more narrow focus than digitized cassettes from one continent? But Awesome Tapes from Africa is incredible.
  10. Ask for what you want
    There’s no point in wondering why another blogger got a press pass to an event or an interview with an artist if you didn’t even bother to ask for it. Do you want to do an exclusive session with a band? Ask for it. You might get rejected, but it’s worth a try.
  11. Be mindful of hyperbole, but be enthusiastic
    Blogger hyperbole is almost a cliche at this point, so be weary of saying everything is the best ever. At the same time, no one wants to read emotionless chatter. Every time I hear someone talk about I am Fuel, You Are Friends, they say they love how enthusiastic Heather is in her writing.
  12. There’s nothing wrong with criticism, but don’t spend all your time doing it
    I really think there’s value to honest criticism. If all you’re saying is that everything is incredible then the value of your praise becomes diminished. On the other hand, if all you’re doing is criticizing, you may come across as ornery or overly snarky.
  13. What’s with all the redesigns?
    Especially in an era where a lot of people read their blogs in RSS readers, if your site is readable and fairly easy to navigate, there’s no reason to redesign it every six months. Spend your time creating content instead.
  14. Figure out what to do when you get burnt out.
    If you post all the time, you’re probably going to get burnt out. Figuring out what works for you when you get burnt out is important. I tend to shift focus a bit, talking about types of music I like but don’t blog about a lot. For you it might be going through some old favorites or reviewing some out-there concert or who knows.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know why in the comments.

noise pop 2009: josh ritter, laura gibson @ great american (photos, review)

February 28th, 2009

Thursday night I went to the Great American Music Hall to see Josh Ritter (myspace) and Laura Gibson and to shoot photos for the Bay Bridged. I also saw local Dave Smallen.

I’d heard a few songs from each Ritter and Gibson, but I wasn’t overly familiar with any of the artists’ music going into the show.

The line wasn’t long when I arrived but that’s because it was already pretty full inside. There was a 20s, hipster contingent, but the age range was wider than an average Great American show, both older, dressed up a little, and younger, dressed in t shirts and jeans.

Dave Smallen was on when I got there with just his guitar and voice. After some angry and concrete protest song[1], I wasn’t looking forward to the rest of the set. After that, though, he mixed it up between serious, often angsty songs with lighter fair–“silly songs” he called them. While the din of the audience chatter threatened to drown out Smallen, I felt he deserved more credit than the audience seemed to be giving him. I didn’t love everything he did but I thought there were some good ones, particularly among his lighter songs.

I don’t want to ruin the suspense, but what was one of the worst audiences I’ve seen for Smallen got even more disrespectful with their chatter during the beautiful set of Laura Gibson, but suddenly became an enthusiastic and great audience for Josh Ritter. I understand how this happens–Ritter fans come for Ritter and don’t really care to see the openers–but I don’t understand why. If you love music, you’d think you’d give other bands a chance to play you music and be quiet for long enough to hear it. Commentary on audience talking aside, let’s move on with the rest of the show.

Laura Gibson came on stage with her band after a short break. She had two musicians with her, each with half of a drum kit. The guy on the left also manned the banjo, castanets and singing saw, while the one on the right played the melodica and accordion. I believe both handled harmony vocal duties.

She played a beautiful set, dominated, at least in my mind, by Laura’s fragile, fluid voice and guitar. Besides the rousing “Spirited” near the end of the set, it was a pretty subdued set of music, carefully put together. I’m excited to see her again in May when she plays the Bottom of the Hill with Damien Jurado–I’m hoping it’ll be a little quieter.

Laura Gibson – Spirited (mp3)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

I probably know more bands than the average person, but there are always bands that slip through for whatever reason. Of course I’d heard of Josh Ritter, but before this show, I’d never really listened to him, except for a quick myspace investigation.

With the audience applauding madly, Jose Ritter came on stage with a grin that stretched from ear to ear. Ritter was billed as “solo, with a string quartet”. He stood with his guitar in the center of the stage, draped in while and yellow light for much of the show. To the right was a string quartet that joined him on some songs.

To a Ritter fan, I’d half to guess that this set was amazing, almost magical. For me, it was a bit like being the outsider while a preacher riles up his congregation. Ritter seemed ecstatic to be there. The crowd was really into the songs. After singing along to part of the second song in the set, Ritter thanked the audience for doing so and there was a lot more singing along for the rest of the set.

The first song the string quartet accompanied, they sounded muddy and a bit like a hodgepodge, but where they played for the rest of the set after that, they added nicely to the sound. The set was made up of crowd pleasers and new songs, solo songs and ones with the string quartet.

I’m not sure I’ll be running to buy his CDs, but I did like Ritter’s songs, especially in this setting. They have nice melodies and he has some nice lyrical turns (“Paul said to Peter, you got to rock yourself a little harder” for example).

You can view more photos over at the Bay Bridged and at my photo album.

[1] There’s a reason that greats like Bob Dylan wrote abstract or narrative protest songs: they work much better than some angry diatribe against specific politics or a specific politician.

commence hipster bickering

November 4th, 2008

Here’s Pitchfork’s list of 500 greatest songs from punk to present (presumably transcribed from the forthcoming book).

Commence bickering. “Whaaat? ‘Casmir Pulaski Day’ but not ‘Romulus’??” “How could they skip ‘Two Headed Boy’ for ‘Holland, 1945’?” “Waaah. They have Kelly Clarkson but not [favorite obscure band]. I’m going to cry!”

mountain goats, kaki king @ the independent

October 25th, 2008

[The Independent had an unannounced, non-posted, no-“pro”-camera policy for this show, so I didn’t get any photos. Check out my Mountain Goats photos from Noise Pop if you wish.]

<rant> The one thing worse than unannounced opening band is a painfully unpleasant unannounced opening jam band. I didn’t catch the band’s name on Thursday night, but walking in to find them playing was an unwelcome surprise. </rant>

The bands that I went to see Thursday night at the Independent were the Mountain Goats (fan site) and Kaki King (myspace).

After the previous band cleared off and her band’s equipment got set up, Kaki King came on stage. After a brief false start, she launched into a guitar part showcasing her well-known talents; this part involving tapping, artificial harmonics and using the guitar body as a percussion instrument. Her band joined her halfway through the song. Her talents kept me fascinated for the first few songs but as the considerable set wore on I found my attention wandering. Her stage banter and crowd interaction was funny, if a bit adversarial.

The Mountain Goats were up after a fair break. With John Darnielle and Jon Wurster in jackets and Peter Hughes in a full suit, the band was different from your average indie band off the bat. But anyone who knows the Mountain Goats shouldn’t expect the average indie band.

What followed was a good set of new songs (including a few paired up with Kaki King from their new split EP, Black Pear Tree and old favorites. Darnielle interjected funny stories and introductions between songs. The band, all professionals and seasoned players, were tight and essentially flawless.

While the show was good, there was still something lacking. The atmosphere wasn’t of a bunch of rabid fans hunkered in a room sharing the experience of one of their favorite bands, like it was at many of those Bottom of the Hill shows (a venue that’s hosted more Mountain Goats shows than any other in the country). It’s not quite fair to blame the atmosphere, largely the product of the audience and venue, on a band. On the other hand, if there’s one person that can put the audience in the palm of his hand and–for lack of better term–control the audience and atmosphere, it’s John Darnielle. In many ways that was the main way this show was lacking. While it still was certainly a good show, still, and one with which a first-time Mountain Goats show-goer was surely not disappointed, it didn’t have that captivating quality that some of their shows have.

Update: Here’s the setlist, courtesy of the Mountain Goats forum.

Love Love Love
How To Embrace A Swamp Creature
Moon Over Goldsboro
Heretic Pride
The House That Dripped Blood
Wizard Buys A Hat
Maybe Sprout Wings (solo)
November Love Song (solo)
Bring Our Curses Home (John & Kaki)
Mosquito Repellent (w/ Kaki)
Suedehead (Morrissey cover, w/ Kaki)
Supergenesis
Sept 15, 1983
Palmcorder Yajna
San Bernardino
In The Craters On The Moon
Lovecraft In Brooklyn
—encore—
See America Right
Baboon
Michael Myers Reslpendent

old-timey vs. bluegrass vs. folk

September 28th, 2008


old-timey musician Tommy Jarrel

With Hardly Strictly Bluegrass approaching, I thought this might be a good time to step back and explain a little bit about the differences between old-timey, bluegrass and folk musics. With things like the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack mixing the three fluidly, it’s not always obvious.

I’m speaking with some amount of generality here. This is more of a primer than an in-depth look at the differences.

Old-timey: Old-time music is a pretty general genre of music mostly from the Appalachian mountains, though music from the Ozarks and other regions is referred to as old time as well. It’s largely derived from Scottish, Irish and English influences, but the banjo, on which much of the music is played, and some of the rhythmic components come have their origins in Africa.

Tunes can be with or without vocals. The instrumentation is varied: from acapella vocals to a full set of string band instruments, but typically, it may have fiddle or banjo and guitar. The banjo may be played clawhammer and the guitar flat-or-finger-picked.

Vocals are often solo (without harmonies). The instrumental melody line is often carried in one instrument throughout while the other play chords or all are in unison. The harmonic structure is often modal rather than following chord progression as such.

Frank Bode and Tommy Jarrell – Susannah Gal (mp3)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Charlie Higgins and Wade Ward – Willow Garden (mp3)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Bluegrass: Bluegrass music is a fairly modern invention, dating from the late 1940s. While it hasn’t always been popular, it is pop music in that it’s been recorded for and broadcast to the masses essentially since its inception.

Bluegrass songs usually have vocals characterized by strong harmonies (especially the high vocal line). While the instruments are similar to old-timey, their function differs: instruments trade off the melody and soloing between vocals lines. They switch roles (lead, backing) rather than being more constant throughout.

The guitar is usually flat-picked and the banjo is usually played Scruggs-style (or three-finger style). Songs follow a more pop song structure (verse, chorus, bridge) than old-timey music.

Bill Monroe – Shady Grove (mp3)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys – Traveling the Highway Home (mp3)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Folk music Folk music has a lot of different connotations for different people.

My teacher George Ruckert gave me the best definition of folk music that I have heard. According to this definition, a song must have:

  • anonymous authorship
  • multiple versions

I’m not talking about Folk revival or folk rock or indie folk, but folk, in it’s most broad and most original sense. It’s also a sense which doesn’t preclude music from around the world–Japan or India or Senagal can equally have folk music in this definition.

As such, folk can overlap both old-timey or bluegrass music, though bluegrass tends to have a lot more composed songs.

A good example of an American folk song is “John Henry”. It seems no one knows where the song came from or if the earliest version of it were in song or in written form–though if you follow balladry, we know that stories like Robin Hood were mostly passed down by song. As you can hear below, there are many versions of this song. It’s important to note that while these versions sound different, the songs are also different in content and lyrics. In fact, in ballad study, like the Child Ballads, song versions are only cataloged by lyrics.

Leslie Riddle – John Henry (mp3)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Bill Cornett – John Henry (mp3)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Ed Lewis – John Henry (mp3)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

AOL CityBest misplaces brain, accidentally replaces with feces, rates SF venues all wrong

August 2nd, 2008

AOL’s City’s Best rates the San Francisco live music venues like this:

  1. Fillmore
  2. Slim’s
  3. Boom Boom Room
  4. Warfield
  5. Great American
  6. Bottom of the Hill
  7. Cafe du Nord
  8. 12 Galaxies
  9. the Independent
  10. Rickshaw Stop

What??

Okay, so I haven’t made it to the Boom Boom Room, but I’ve been to a lot of other venues, including all of the other ones on this list, so I feel like I have a pretty good idea of how wrong they are. I also have to say that for its size, the Fillmore is a great venue.

The most grievous error is that the Warfield should not even rank on this list. It sits very comfortably in the spot as the second worst music venue in the city (above the utterly atrocious Design Concourse–shame on Another Planet and Livenation for continuing to book bands there). It is giant, the acoustics aren’t great, the floor is uncomfortable and the tightly enforced and restrictive areas in which people can stand all make it a pretty unpleasant place to take in a show. I don’t care if Al Jolson played there, it’s going to take someone I simply can’t live without seeing to get me out to a show at the Warfield.

I’ve heard a couple complaints about Great American–that it’s hard to see the stage if you’re a shorter person or that the mix isn’t always great, but almost all of my experience there have been great (no pun intended). I think it should be near the top of the list.

Slim’s at number 2? I mean, it’s okay but it’s not great. “Excellent sight lines no matter where you stand”? Except if you’re near one of many oddly placed poles (or if one of the people on stage is standing behind one). I wouldn’t bring up the booking, but since they cite it as good, I have to say that while they get some good bands in, it’s not consistently great.

links links links (and a couple videos)

July 22nd, 2008

Daytrotter posted their Bon Iver session yesterday. The version of “Lump Sum” is magnificent. “Flume” and “Re: Stacks” are really good. And I’m going to pretend that version of “Creature Fear” doesn’t exist.

Gorilla vs Bear posted one of my more favorite hip hop tracks in a while: “The Prayer” by Cleveland-based Kid Cudi. It’s off of a mixtape and the sample he raps over is from those sometimes Walmart-loving Seattlites Band of Horses.

In case you missed it, John Vanderslice posted a teaser video of recording from his next album a couple weeks ago:

The Bay Bridged announced the Rock Make Music and Craft Street Festival they’re organizing with Whizbang Fabrics and Best Bay Area indie band Tartufi. The same day as the last day of Outside Lands, this will be DIY where that is corporate and free where that is really expensive.

Anyone’s Guess posted this really funny video called “Everyday Normal Guy Rap Song”. Watch out! Explicit lyrics! (Audio NSFW.) It’s got some pretty quotable lines: “I’m pretty good at making spaghetti sauce, motherfucker!”

Did you know there was such a thing as the Bay Area Indie Festival? Hard Rock Chick pointed to an SF Weekly article that accuses the promoter, 3 Udders, for being a disservice to the local scene for still not having paid bands from last year’s festival. The promoter says the article is not fair, but admits that he hasn’t paid bands. I don’t know, I think if you’re not paying bands then you’re not exactly helping things. (Also, I find it funny that he accuses the writer of having “very little knowledge about how the music industry works” and then complains that the SF Weekly ran the article while he dilly-dallied on getting them more info. Here’s how the print publication industry works: deadlines.) The promoter also cites this rebuttal if you want a different biased opinion.

Slate has an interesting piece about Jay-Z weaponizing Oasis’ “Wonderwall” when he covered it at Glastonbury (which was a response to the fracas that ensued when Noam Gallagher said that Glastonbury was for guitar-based music.) It also dives into all the subtle and not-so-subtle things people are saying with cross-genre covers. Is Ben Gibbard being serious, like he says, when he covers Avril Lavine’s “Complicated”? Read on.

this is what’s wrong with indie rock blogojournalism; 4 things you shouldn’t tell me

April 5th, 2008

[Rant post ahead: skip if you don’t like such things.]

I’m seeing an increasing amount of stuff like this on blogs and music news sites:

Weezer Confirm Title, First New Photo Revealed

This is a front page, big font headline on p4k. Why in the world would I care about this? A new photo and they confirm an album title?? Really? [1]

Yeah, I know, I can just not read the article (I didn’t), but stuff like this makes it harder to find the good information. This is what’s wrong with indie rock blogojournalism today.

Here are four things you really shouldn’t notify me of:

  1. Cover art revealed
  2. Promo photo released
  3. Album title revealed
  4. Tracklist revealed[2]

[1] Nevermind that Weezer hasn’t released a good album since 1996 and I really don’t care much about any news from Weezer.

[2] One possible exception to this is a band that tours insanely and/ or has enough of a bootlegging community that their unreleased material is fairly known and the new tracklist includes some of those known unreleased tracks.

SF gets another fricking festival…great…

February 22nd, 2008

SF Weekly’s All Shook Down blog reports that SF is getting another festival, this one a 3 day affair (August 22-24) in Golden Gate Park called Outside Lands Festival[1]. This one has Radiohead, apparently. Others are reporting Jack Johnson and Tom Petty will perform as well.

Apparently it’s another Another Planet Entertainment festival, Makes me wonder: will they also organize another Treasure Island Festival just a few weeks later in September? I also wonder if there’s any friction with Noise Pop who co-organized last year’s Treasure Island but appear to be absent from the organizers on Outside Lands with Superfly (of Bonnaroo, Vegoose) apparently in on it instead.

ANYWAY, go ahead and go into your excited squealing mode. It’s ok. I’ll wait.

I’m not squealing. I’m not a huge fan of the big outdoor festivals. I can see more bands I actually want to see for less money and with fewer other people in clubs, simple as that. (Case in point: last March I saw 11 bands for a total of $98. Three incredible shows, four great shows and four good shows. My outdoor festival experience hasn’t matched that and I don’t see reviews of outdoor festivals with that sort of hit rate.) Also, I like listening to Radiohead occasionally, but I’m not a die hard fan at all. They’re just not meaningful to me beyond making some nice-to-listen-to music.

I’ll post later today or tomorrow about the awesome experience I had last night seeing a couple small bands put on great sets in a nice club with a small audience. That’s the sort of stuff that gets me really excited about music.

[1] see also regarding the name

Entertainment Weekly knows their music…and then gets it all wrong

February 6th, 2008

Entertainment Weekly published the recommendations of a bunch of TV and movie music supervisors.

Here’s one of Dana Sano’s (Music supervisor for Dan in Real Life) surprising recommendations:

THE DODOS ”Out of San Francisco. They kind of have a Jim Morrison-meets-Beirut sound. They released an EP in ’06, but there’s a new record coming in March ’08. I’ve heard one song; it’s awesome.”

The Dodos: cool. I’m totally in support of that. Jim Morrison meets Beirut? What?? The Dodos are a high energy folk group with often finger-picked guitar, bluesy elements and experimental-leaning drumming. Jim Morrison led an organ-driven psychedelic blues-rock band (that was totally and unapologetically shitty). Beirut is a Eastern-European and French influence, brassy indie pop band that didn’t even have guitars on their first album.

And, yes, they did release an EP in 2006, but how about that, you know, how about that album they released in 2006?

Also, while we’re on the topic, you should definitely head over to the Dodos’ myspace or here to hear a new track they have up, “Jody”, the song’s great with an amazing chorus. It’s one of their best yet and that’s saying a lot. Remember, French Kiss is releasing their album Visiter is out in mid-March.