How not to launch a new music publication

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the establishment

By Jake Cleland

Last week, LA critics David Greenwald and Daniel Siegal asked for $54,000 to start a new music publication called UNCOOL, its mission statement being a dedication to long-form music journalism, the lack of which is often griped about by writers salty to have been curbed by word limits.  

It’s a popular fallacy in music criticism that length is inherently better. More opportunity for detail, for grit, to really get into the dense, obscured core of what drives our culture heroes and their prodigious creative ejaculate. Problem is, so few writers earn that length, either by being staid, solipsistic, narcissistic, obsessed with their own style or downright boring. The thinking seems to be that length lends a sense of imperative, that whatever the subject is it MUST be important to have supposedly earned so many words, but the truth is that you could write books decoding the meaning of varnish drying on a workshop table and unless you’re prodigiously skilled, it’d be no more interesting than sitting there watching it dry in person. Dave, to his credit, has hired “the best music writers working” to labour under this sole doctrine, but whether they are or not (personally I know and like at least three of them) the problem is the best music writers working, according to Dave, are predominantly straight white males. And this un-simple fact has caused a minor riot at the most crucial stage of UNCOOL’s development.

If you agree with the tacit conclusion that the best music writers are straight white males, congratulations, you are only as morally bankrupt as the majority of music critics, editors, publicists, A&R reps, HR departments, CEOs, and most of the rest of the developed world. Full disclosure: I’ve known Dave via Tumblr for a little while, along with Daniel Kolitz, Jamieson Cox, and Chris Ott, all of whom will be contributing to UNCOOL, and like Dave I came to all of them because of their incredible writing (and in Ott’s case, most recently, video blogging). So to avoid this becoming another bundle of kindling in UNCOOL’s trial by fire – because the team is, despite the following, genuinely very skilled – let’s address the broader issue of diversity (brought to you by, yes, another straight white male!).

First of all, Dave responded to the shitstorm in the worst possible way: by rattling off a list of prior co-workers to represent how steeped in diversity he actually is. WRONG. If you should find yourself in a similar situation, here’s what you should do: own up to it. Admit that, in fact, your staff is not very diverse at all and that was an oversight and you’re gonna have a long hard think about how to practically fix it. Whatever you do, don’t deny that there’s an issue with your hiring policies by pointing to how many women, gays, and people of colour you’ve known in the past, because it’s as good as an admission that you’re an ignorant bigot.

Look, I get it. You start a new thing and you get a chance to pay some writers you like to whom you happen to be in close proximity. Yes, my heart goes out to you if you only know straight white males. God, it’s so much effort to dip your hands into the hegemonic basket and pull out something NOT simmering on the surface, isn’t it? Well, fuck you. Try. Or god, at least examine why all you can see as far as options for your crack team of music writers are people resembling you. I mean, could it, possibly, perhaps, if you’re frank with yourself, be because you privilege the perspectives of those like you? That other perspectives are alienating because they don’t line up with yours? Hey, it’s only natural, man. Tribal mentality, we all gotta stick together, and who doesn’t wanna be part of the biggest tribe of all? Good lord. We can’t change the past but we can change the future and the onus is on YOU, dear reader and maybe if you think you’ve got it in you ENTREPRENEUR, to dismantle the privileging of your perspective and seek out others and try to appreciate their value with an open mind. It’s 2012, for cripes sake – it’s no longer good enough (not that it ever should’ve been) to coast along without acknowledging that the people in positions of influence are mostly there for the most unmeritocratic reasons.

And before you consider it, let me disabuse you of the notion that I’m preaching diversity for diversity’s sake (tokenism.) This is not about filling a quota. But get this: there are experiences fundamentally outside the grasp of straight white men which sorely deserve representation given how little chance they have to get voiced on any major platform. I mean, straight white dudes have been writing about their deep and meaningful connection with music since literally the dawn of music criticism. It’s produced a lot of good writing, no question [and ocean-loads of crap writing too – Ed]. But damn, don’t you think by now that there are some game-changing life-altering voices who’ve undeservedly gone ignored because they were drowned out by the interminable boys’ club? And think about the new music! The broader critical landscape is moulded by straight white men so NATURALLY music that appeals to straight white men is what seems like the totality of the musical spectrum. Maybe if a balance actually existed, anemic room spray like Grizzly Bear wouldn’t be so fucking popular. [In other words, the reason why most critics like Elvis Costello is because most critics look like Elvis Costell0, as David Lee Roth once pointed out – Ed.]

This is not to say that if you’re a straight white male then you shouldn’t write about music, or gender or racial politics, although if you choose to do so you better step back and recognise you’re not the authority in that space. But if you start a publication and find yourself in a position to hire the best writers you know to embark on a venture of “serious journalism”, ask yourself why your first thought was for people just like you. When you’re called out on it, be accepting that maybe the establishment you’re attacking head on is built on the fucked up biases you’re trying to deny. And then change.

Jake has a fair amount of additional commentary around this story on his Tumblr blog here.

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