In honor of CityBeat’s 20th anniversary, music editor Mike Breen and music section contributor Brian Baker (both of whom have been with the paper since the first issue) did an e-chat to discuss their experiences writing about music for the past two decades, from interview horror stories to the joys of covering Cincinnati musicians.
Mike Breen: So 20 years. We were both working (or, rather, volunteering) at Everybody’s News when we found out EN’s editor John Fox was leaving to start a new paper. I remember when he first told me, when it was still hush hush, and asked me to come aboard as the music editor while I was still in college. He pulled me aside as we were leaving the EN building after a day of work, told me (in hushed tones) about his plans and said he’d like me to be the music editor. I was excited because I believed in John’s broader vision — providing a liberal/progressive voice for the city, celebrating the arts and striving to create quality journalism — but also because I was going to finally be paid for my work. Do you remember when you first heard word about CityBeat's formation?
Brian Baker: Vividly. After John left EN, no one paid the slightest attention to me. I don't think they ran a single review of mine after his departure. At some point that following summer, John James, who'd been doing the Positively Yeah Yeah Yeah column, called me at my design day job and said John Fox wanted to have lunch to talk about something he's got planned. So the three of us met at this little seafood place on Reading Road and John (Fox) laid out the blueprint he had in mind for CityBeat. It sounded like a great idea, and my reaction was the same as yours. A byline and a check? Pinch me, I'm dreaming.
But John offered a single caveat, and it would have rather lasting implications. He said, "I can't use you as a reviewer, I need you as a feature writer. Can you do that?" I said yes, and that really changed everything regarding my writing career. In a very tangible sense, everything that's happened to me over the past 20 years is due to John's insistence that I write features, and I owe him a great debt because of that one simple clause in our contract.
MB: I remember months before the first issue of CityBeat I spent days putting together request letters to mail out to hundreds of record labels asking to be added to their mailing lists. Which is funny to think of now — we weren’t using email and, as opposed to receiving most review copies these days as downloads, we started getting dozens of CDs (and even cassettes at that point) a week. It’s crazy to me to think about doing research for reviews and stories in the very earliest days of CityBeat; I had a handful of “encyclopedias of music” books, but mostly we had to just rely on those press kit folders, which usually had a press release, a bio and then a stack of stapled-together photocopied reviews and interviews from other outlets. Now you can literally press a button and see every review and feature story ever written about an artist. It’s certainly easier now to be lazy.
What do you think has changed the most about writing about music over the past 20 years?
BB: No question that the internet has made the research part of our jobs a whole lot easier. And today's connectivity makes it almost (although not quite entirely) impossible for publicists to duck our requests for material and interviews. But remember tearsheets? Sending physical proof of my features and reviews to labels and publicists used to be enormously time-consuming, especially after I started picking up outlets other than CityBeat. Now it's like everything else: email a link.
Here's the thing about the new research paradigm. Back when my daughter was in 4th grade, her class and one other were doing a project on newspapers, where they split into groups, had editors and writers and each made their own version of a newspaper. Isabelle's teacher asked if I would be interested in talking to both classes about working on a real newspaper, which I happily agreed to do. The one point that I really tried to hammer home to the young journalistic minds in the group is that the internet has no editor, and you have to be incredibly careful with pulling what you think are facts from websites that may actually be offering little more than glorified opinions. In some ways, the internet has made everything incredibly easy, and in other ways, it has added in almost arcane levels of complexity that never existed before.
As I am often fond of pointing out, computers didn't make everything better, they made everything different.
MB: We’ll move on from computer-related stuff after this, but I want to vent about internet trolls so just humor me for a sec (haha). As I’m often fond of pointing out, the best thing about the internet is that everyone has a voice. And the worst thing about the internet is that everyone has a voice.
In the earliest days, we had one computer in CityBeat’s office that had web access, so people had to share time. My earliest memory of interacting with a “reader” online was when some asshole kid sent me this scathing note about something I’d written about Goth or Industrial music. He was a dick to me, so I was a dick right back (some things never change!). He threatened to “tell my boss” the mean things I said to him, which may have been the first time I did a computer-related “LOL.” It’s weird to think of now, in a time when online trolls are just par for the course. It’s probably the thing I hate most about the job, and it was evident in my very first experience communicating with someone online about something I’d written. (I should give credit to my first “troll,” singer/songwriter/funnyman David Enright, who, since the internet was still developing and Facebook was many years away from giving voice to everyone’s vitriol, made hand-written fliers eviscerating me, CityBeat and CityBeat’s music section for being lame. He stapled them onto telephone poles all over the Clifton area. I wish I’d saved one.)
We’d always talk about how we sort of wrote in a vacuum — we’d write stuff, throw it out there and assume people were reading it, but, outside of the rare “letter to the editor” or meeting people in the flesh, we had no idea how people were reacting to the content. Now we can kind of see in real time what people are reading (online) and get instant feedback if it hits the wrong or right chord. But people seem to mostly respond only when something pisses them off, which is fine, but it’s almost always rude and insulting, which is maddening.
Anyway, you (wisely) stay off of social media, and I imagine you are spared a lot of this more annoying feedback. But over the years, what have your communications with both subjects and readers been like? Are they only mean to me or do you get some of that too? (For the record, most artists are very cool, even if a review isn’t especially glowing, and very few are anything but kind and polite when I meet them in person.)
Also, and this is mostly for my own curiosity really, why do you avoid social media?
BB: I think I've had maybe one or two weird trollish kind of events, and in both cases I tried to reframe my case for the sake of clarification and when that went nowhere, I just surrendered, which I'm guessing is probably the money shot for most of these boners, so you're welcome. The anonymity of the internet has made self-imagined giantkillers out of intellectual/emotional pipsqueaks, and it has become an occupational hazard for those of us who would dare offer an opinion to a great unwashed mass that now has the means to respond from the bliss of their ignorance at the click of a mouse. On the other hand, it has also given us an opportunity to have fascinating conversations with people who actually relish the thrill of debating divergent opinions without having to declare a winner. A fair trade, I suppose.
My experience with the artists that I review and interview has always been, as you noted, very positive. And when I get introduced to people at shows, events, county fairs, beauty pageants and hog calling contests, and they realize I'm "that guy," they're always overwhelmingly nice, typically working up to a comment that goes, in general, "I've always loved your writing," and it's always nice to hear. A woman recently wrote in with some rather lavish praise about my online coverage of MidPoint, and her compliments were were well received by my always conflicted ego, although I was slightly bemused by this admission: "I've not read any previous articles by Mr. Baker..." So thanks for your kind words on my MidPoint reviewage, and if you're so inclined, there's 20 years of this stuff in the archive. Knock yourself out.
As for my social media blackout, I'm neither Amish nor am I a crotchety old duffer who doesn't understand the platforms and just wants these damn kids to stay out of my internet yard. My avoidance of Facebook has become something of a cause celebre; I didn't join because I couldn't see the benefit weighed against the time involved in posting/monitoring/responding, and now I'm one of a dozen people connected to the modern world who is not on Facebook.
At least part of the reason for the rest of it is the electronic array in the Bunker is just a couple of steps above the radio that the Professor made out of two palm fronds and a coconut shell on Gilligan's Island, and my phone is the Flintstones to everyone else's Jetsons. I have, in fact, grown rather weary of swearing at my 10-year-old Motorola flip phone (I know, I know), and I will soon be upgrading to something more befitting the second decade of the new millennium. And when that happens, I will probably be tweeting and whatnot with the rest of humanity. Until then, you kids stay the hell out of my internet yard.