An interview with
Barney Hoskyns (2012)

By Beppe Colli
Mar. 14, 2012

I have to admit that more and more often I think about the current state of affairs when it comes to the world of music - played, listened to, written about - and I wonder if my "apocalyptic" outlook resembles in any way the truth.

Looking for an "insider perspective" I thought that asking British music critic Barney Hoskyns for an interview was a good idea. Hoskyns has a remarkable CV both as a journalist for a long list of publications and as a writer of books. He's also the editor of the online music journalism archive Rock's Backpages.

Though he was, as per his usual, quite busy, Hoskyns kindly agreed to answer my questions, which I sent by e-mail on Monday. I was quite surprised when I received his answers the evening of the same day.

Last time we talked, our conversation dealt almost exclusively with the role of the music critic, with your introduction to the anthology The Sound & the Fury: A Rock's Backpages Reader, which you edited, as a starting point. I only asked you one question about Rock's Backpages, i.e., if you were satisfied with its success in terms of the feedback you got, also in commercial terms. At the time, you answered thusly: "No. We've laid the foundations for RBP as a digital archive of - and perhaps content network for - rock history. But we've struggled like everyone else to bring in revenue and must continue to look for ways to expand the brand and market our content."

 If I'm not mistaken, in 2011 Rock's Backpages turned ten years old, so I think it's appropriate to start our conversation discussing a few specific points. First, its growth. Ten years is a long time, and I suppose in time you've had to redesign your goals, take those frequent market crises into consideration, etc. So, are you satisfied with the commercial response you've had till now when it comes to paying customers, here meaning: readers?

Yes. I like to think we've got the balance right between RBP as an academic resource and RBP as a public-facing fan hub. Some years ago we shifted the focus to the former, targeting universities and colleges as the primary subscriber base and increasing the rates for individual members to the point where, realistically, only professionals (journalists, filmmakers etc) could afford it. But we also implemented a freemium model whereby the more casual reader could access a decent amount of "taster" content.

I looked for Rock's Backpages on Wikipedia, where I found that Rock's Backpages is "popular with (...) institutional subscribers including academic institutions and media organizations". Would you mind talking about this?

Well, as stated above. The study of popular music history has grown significantly since we launched RBP, so there are increasing numbers of students and teachers who use RBP as a secondary or supporting resource for research. We're actively and constantly trying to build this subscriber base, which ranges from major American universities paying up to five thousand dollars per annum and small schools paying a few hundred.

In time, I've noticed a few changes in Rock's Backpages, for instance, there are now free pieces available. Also, though it always had new, original pieces, it now sports a whole section called Writers' Blogs, whose function appears to be to discuss things, and events, "in the moment". Are you satisfied with the "audience participation" you've had up to now when it comes to the blogs?

Not entirely, but it is slowly growing. There are so many music bloggers out there on so many different sites, it's hard to compete with everything else. But there are RBP writers who post regularly and there is reasonable interaction with RBP readers.

While having a look at your blog, I saw that you posted an entry about Simon Reynolds's book Retromania (subtitled: "Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past), which I've read. It's obviously not my intention to ask you to talk about the book. However, I noticed this sentence you wrote: "Reading Retromania made me feel slightly panicked and claustrophobic; it also summed up many of the feelings one has about the exhaustion of pop culture." Would you mind elaborating?

I'll answer it this way. Recently MOJO sent me to LA to interview the Beach Boys – the 50th anniversary version of the group that features Brian Wilson and Mike Love for the first time in 27 odd years. I solicited a quote from film director Oren (Rampart) Moverman, who sent me this by email: "We're witnessing the end of the era of nostalgia – the farewell tour not just to the Beach Boys, but to the whole idea of longevity and survival. It's a last burst of romantic longing, a long goodbye." Additionally – to refer to the name of a long-gone 80s band – I think pop has probably eaten itself! There just isn't much more for pop music to do in the culture, other than provide pleasure. It's simply another lifestyle choice now.

I hope I'm not mistaken if I say that when it comes to newspapers and music magazines the situation in the United Kingdom looks a lot rosier than in the United States. (I see that even a niche publication such as The Wire is still alive and well in paper form.) And I assume this (relative) abundance of paying gigs can act as a tranquilizing force when it comes to music writers' financial well-being. I see you contribute to quite a few titles (Into The Black..., the feature you wrote about Johnny Cash that appears in the April, 2012 issue of Mojo magazine, being a recent example). Does my perception of a wealthier U.K. music press hold water?

I don't know about "wealthier" – we're in deep shit here economically. But the UK has always supported a more obsessive kind of music consumer, ever since the dawn of rock 'n' roll. So maybe we'll cling to the dream a little longer than most.

You've written more than a few books, the recent Tom Waits biography, Lowside of the Road, being the last one I'm aware of. I've read you are working on a major new biography of Led Zeppelin, and I can't help but wonder if there are any major truths to be unearthed when it comes to their work.

I think there is only truth to be unearthed about Zeppelin, given the proliferation of myths and lies about that greatest of all hard rock groups. My book is an oral history in which almost 200 Zeppelin associates (from roadies to record company apparatchiks to groupies) tell it like it really was. Much more interesting than mudsharks and TV sets going out of windows.

Of course, that people will go on having an interest for (all) things past is the unstated assumption when it comes to writing about "old artists" on a professional level. Recently, though, reading something you wrote made me think about the existence of an "age" (but really, cultural) divide between groups. At the end of Dark Angel: The Stone Soul Genius of Laura Nyro, which you wrote for Rock's Backpages, you have a list called Nyro Essentials: 20 Tracks To Download Right Now. It could be said that, while it was once common for music fans to have the reading and the listening parts go hand-in-hand, nowadays it's quite likely that most people will start and stop at the downloading stage, with no real interest to have additional information giving them more points of entry to the music, so having them go beyond "instant satisfaction" and subjective likes/dislikes. What's your take on this?

The fact that most (and certainly most young) music consumers merely want to download tracks and can't be assed to find out much about artists they like makes it all the more important that we try and keep alive a space for study and information – so that there is context and meaning for anyone in the future who might want to know something about a band or an artist or a scene or a genre.

Writing about Neil Young's Archives, Vol. 1 for Rock's Backpages you define "this exhaustive project" as being "taylor-made for the boxset culture that Dadrock had become". Would you mind elaborating on this notion of "boxset culture/Dadrock"? Maybe I'm reading too much in there, but, you know...

I guess picking up from the last question, it may that my generation (I'm in my early 50s) is the last to have sufficient investment in the transformative power of "heritage music" to consider shelling out for a box set.

Writing about the recent Paul Nelson biography by Kevin Avery (Everything is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson) you also mention two recent posthumous collections of the work of Robert Palmer and Ellen Willis, and then you quote Bruce Springsteen telling Avery: "You're working on a promise to keep, not just to yourself, but to Paul." Then you add: "Anyone who thinks great rock writing is an outmoded irrelevance should heed those powerful words." It's not clear to me if here you're referring to "past" or "current" rock writing.

I'm certainly saying that great rock writing exists in the present, though it isn't always easy to find. Nonetheless, the investment in pop/rock music as a life/society-changing phenomenon has dwindled from the days when the likes of Nelson were writing about the likes of Springsteen.

While having a look at the list of writers on Rock's Backpages, looking for articles listed under Barney Hoskyns, I looked up and clicked on Nick Hornby. So I read his piece titled The Thrill Of It All: The Advent Of MP3 Blogs (pretty recent, by the way: 6 September 2009). It ends thusly: "All I know is that if you love music, and you have a curious mind, there has never been a better time to be alive." What about music writers?

Not sure if I follow the question: a better time to be a music writer or to read music writers? Either way, I'm not sure I agree with Nick. The glut of music online has undoubtedly cheapened it and inured us to its power. We're all gourmands at an all-you-can-eat feast, but we're so stuffed with music we don't know what to listen to next.

Beppe Colli 2012 | Mar. 14, 2012