An interview with
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.
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
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
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
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
"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
"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