Something Else
By Beppe Colli
Nov. 26, 2002

Maybe you already know the story about the "perfectly good carburetor". Here it is anyway: Once upon a time, the president of a giant automaker company (Ford? Mercedes?) asked the company engineers to examine all the mechanical parts taken from all the company-built old, broken cars they could manage to locate in the whole country. And this is exactly what they did. Their report? All parts were useless - broken and rusty - except for the carburetors, which worked like a charm and could have worked for a long, long time. Those who had designed and built the carburetors were beaming. Alas, the president ordered to cheapen the carburetors: What's the point in having one functioning part if the rest of the car is just reduced to scrap metal?

Ok, similarities can only be taken this far - and I'm never convinced by "conspiracy theories" - but to me this little story is a pretty accurate portrait of the current situation when it comes to the state of music criticism - and criticism in general - in the bigger picture of the media system: If all things are meant to be disposable, why should criticism be any different?

I have to confess that I was expecting a big debate at the time when Almost Famous - Cameron Crowe's movie about his start in the music press - was released. Things started in a promising way, but before long the discussion turned into a critics' poll - pros or cons Lester. The comments I've read about the recent changes in the Rolling Stone format - bigger pictures, shorter features, lotsa brief reviews - ranged from the nostalgic to the derisive, but all seemed fairly uninterested in confronting the bigger picture.

Of course, there are many who consider this matter a closed case. A friend to whom I had sent an article about this topic wrote to me: "Thanks for the article. I found it laughable really, like a concerned doctor wringing his hands over the survival prospects of a patient who has been dead for two decades. What planet are they living on?". In a way, he's right. But things that are already bad can get even worse. A draconian word count in a review doesn't mean much for a record by an artist that's all over MTV - but it can be lethal for a left-of-center CD whose music most readers will find difficult to "get" (it seems very strange to me that some web-only mags feature only very short articles and reviews).

I personally lament the change in many "players magazines" that used to feature long, extensive, informative interviews with people from all around the musical spectrum and whose pages today offer for the most part short articles about "how to" get a current sound or properly use a piece of equipment. (Don't get me wrong: I'm the kind of guy who finds articles about the amount of pitch correction applied to Avril Lavigne voice a must-read. Ha! Do you remember when most female vocalists on the radio started sounding as they'd suddendly developed severe asthmatic conditions?) And yes, I understand these are probably the articles that the majority of readers (and advertisers) are asking for - a factor that one can only underestimate at one's own risk, given the perilous waters of the current economic climate. Still...

Sure, there are quite a few indie mags around. What I find annoying is seeing that the amount of space given to artists/labels/distributors (not to mention the choice of adjectives) is often suspiciously proportional to their advertising muscle. Which in the long run can make one quite diffident about new trends, records of the year and sold-out shows (especially when performed in a room that's just bigger than the living room in my apartment).

Yes, it's preatty bleak out there. But suicide can wait. We can still say that some magazines are better than others. Ditto for some particular writers. And then there's the Web, where some nice discoveries can still be made. One more webmag - well, why not? There's work to be done. Let's give it a try. It won't be a Change Of The Century - let's at least hope for Something Else.

© Beppe Colli 2002 | Nov. 26, 2002