Interview with Philip Sherburne

Dec. 12, 2012

For our first in a series of interviews dealing with current topics in the music industry, clubbing and publishing scene, we chose a very special guest - Philip Sherburne.

As the first topic is music journalism and the role of the music critic then one of the best choices for our first interveiwe is Philip. For anyone who doesn't know, Philip has been around for over 10 years as a journalist, review writer and critic of the musical scene. With his explorative approach and way of writing he has ensured himself a position as one of the most experienced opinion makers inside the dance music scene and his words and opinions are valued and sought after by many. During his long career he has worked, or is still working, for some of the most influential media, such as New York Times, Spin Magazine, Pitchfork, Wire, Resident Advisor, XLR8R etc...

B: Could you describe a typical day in the life of a music journalist? What amount of music do you go through, on a daily basis?

P: A typical day in the life of this music journalist involves a lot of sitting in front of my computer—usually from around 10 a.m., when I wake up, until 10 or so at night, when my girlfriend and I make dinner. I'm listening to music all day, but a lot of it isn't for pleasure, necessarily. More and more, I seem to spend most of my time skimming through promos to see what might be worth listening to later, or what I might want to write about -- streaming, leaving feedback, downloading, filing into iTunes playlists. (Every month, I create a new playlist for albums and a separate playlist for singles and EPs.) The tricky part is to actually find time to really listen to the good stuff. In an average month, I download about 3-5 days' worth of music (I know this because my monthly iTunes promo playlists tell me), and of course stream or sample tons more, and then there are all the records that I buy. It's a lot to keep track of. Sometimes it feels like too much, but I guess that's part of the job. I do wish I had more time to listen to podcasts and mixtapes—that's the part I never seem to get around to, just because I always have something else in the queue.

B: Internet has enabled practically anyone to publicly express an opinion and play the role of a music journalist or a critic; all you need is an internet access. What's your opinion on this "sort - of - decentralization" of the media which is taking place through web sites, blogs and social networks? Could you explain the needed qualities of an "opinion maker"? How do you comment on statements in favor of a thesis that "the internet is becoming a slow death of the music journalism/music criticism".

P: By and large, I think the "decentralization" (good word – better than "democratization") has been positive for music journalism. I wouldn't be writing today if it weren't for blogs, which is where I got my start (even though when I started out, they weren't even called blogs yet). And communities like the I Love Music boards ( created a springboard for many music journalists that came from outside the traditional newspapers and print mags.

That being said, there is plenty to lament about what blogs have wrought, and while you could probably write an entire book about it, I'd sum it up as the lack of original thought (and voice). This began with the many MP3 blogs whose only mission was to be the first in posting new songs, usually with little "writing" worth the name, and it has accelerated with the institutionalization of streaming promos as a way to get page views – that is, labels offering "exclusive" content to websites, which are then presented as quasi-news. The sad truth is that the publications are addicted to this type of content, in large part because they rely on the labels/artists' own social media followings to bump up their page views. When publishes a stream of the new Skrillex track, it's banking on the fact that Skrillex will send thousands of followers to the site to check it out. Where publications once gave publicity to artists, now it's an unhealthily symbiotic relationship whereby artists are actually giving publicity to the publications.

Another contributor to the waning of original thought and voice is the aggregation model, where as soon as one website breaks a news story, every other blog in the game cranks out its own version of the story, often without attribution. Too often, online media is just an echo chamber of non-events – witness the scores of breathless blog posts every time Deadmau5 blows his nose.

B: Some have claimed that the music critics are not to be trusted, mostly because of their personal taste bias. What do you think about that?

P: I don't trust a music critic who doesn't have strong personal tastes. Why do I want to listen to someone who doesn't have a strong opinion on what they're writing about? Obviously, opinion shouldn't be the be-all and end-all; good writers should offer context, analysis, and vision. They should be able to tell a story about the music, to connect it with the wider world. And I think that really good critics only develop by being honest about their own tastes and questioning them continually.  

B: How much influence do the web portal editors, music industry or their PR services have on the writing process alone?

P: PR has a huge influence on what gets talked about, certainly in the bigger and more generalist publications. Some of this goes back to the symbiotic relationship I mentioned earlier, whereby websites and PRs have become codependent when it comes to things like streaming previews. And I suspect a lot of writers also don't spend every waking moment searching out new music, buying new records, etc. It's a lot easier to wait for things to turn up in your in-box. More than anything, though, I'd say that there's a hive-mind mentality in music journalism. Unconsciously or no, writers and editors gravitate towards what is already getting "buzz," and PR agencies can help stoke that. I'll admit that sometimes this even affects me: I discover some new artist on an obscure label, and I'd really like to cover it, but internally, I wonder, "Does anyone else care?" There's a sense that if you write about something totally unknown, you're just shouting into a void. That's less an issue for something like a 12-inch review, of course, but if it comes to writing a news piece or a feature, you do sort of want readers to have some idea about what you're talking about, or at least you want some obvious hook in the headline that will attract them. Maybe I'm just neurotic, but I do spend a lot of energy agonizing over the perceived relevance of what I cover, especially in more generalist outlets.

B: How do you see the future of music journalism as a profession; do you see a trend which might indicate some specific direction?

P: Are food stamps a trend?

Philip Sherburne with Jeff Mills

B: What's your favorite music book?

P: That's a good one. It's actually been a while since I've read any music-related books, though I have been meaning to read William Hermes' Love Goes to Buildings on Fire for a while. The one that was probably most influential for me was Simon Reynolds' Energy Flash, which I find myself returning to quite frequently as a resource (even though I don't agree with all his assessments in it). Kodwo Eshun's More Brilliant than the Sun is also hugely inspiring, both in terms of language and thought.

B: One to watch - who's you "next big thing"?

P: Oh, I hate playing this game—and anyway, I usually get it wrong, because my own tastes are so particular and weird. 

B: Can you tell us something about your personal musical preferences?

P: I realized recently that most of the music that really moves me has a kind of psychedelic quality to it. Of course, that's a terribly vague generalization. But I have always been most drawn to music with an air of mystery, where I can't really figure out exactly how the sounds are being made, or even what discrete sounds are in the mix. I tend to like my music hazy and suggestive (except, of course, when I don't).

I have never really cared about lyrics, to the extent that it's often hard for me to even distinguish them. They just go in one ear and right out the other. I suppose that has something to do with why I've been more attracted to electronic music, murky post-rock, etc., than pop or hip-hop over the years. I've never really understood music criticism that focuses heavily on lyrics—that feels more like literary criticism to me. I'm far more interested in the sounds in a piece of music than the words it uses (although I realize that for plenty of pop and rock music, the words are indeed crucially important—I just don't hear them).

B: What's your opinion on current trends in clubbing? Is there a global trend going on or it varies regarding countries or regions?

P: To my chagrin, I don't go out so much these days. I work so much, and by the time Friday night rolls around, I just don't have the energy. Of course, part of that's because in Berlin, the DJ you want to see may not play until 5 a.m. or later, and I just can't manage that any more. I'm getting old! I'm also not so attracted by nightclubs in general; I prefer smaller, friendlier places, I guess. I am looking forward to seeing what options there are in Barcelona these days, especially with the economic crisis there; I hope that it could inspire some interesting alternative options.

I do think that clubbing varies radically from region to region and even from city to city. That's one big reason that Americans and Europeans have such different ideas about electronic music—the club infrastructure in the U.S. (and Canada) is just so totally different from Europe. When I lived in San Francisco, bars closed at 2 a.m., and clubs closed at 4 a.m. (but you couldn't drink alcohol after 2 a.m. anyway). Try imagining that sort of scenario in any European city.

B: As a DJ, how do you see the future of the independent music business? 

P: I don't know as a DJ, really—I'm more and more just a hobbyist. But in general, I suppose that independent music will more or less keep on as it is. There are hard economic times for everyone, but people seem to keep finding ways to survive. I am encouraged by services like Bandcamp (even though I hate the name), which allow artists to sell their music directly to fans, sometimes at a flexible price (in which case, I almost always pay more than the minimum, at least if I like the music).
I love vinyl, but I would like to see more vinyl releases coming with a download code. And while I love vinyl-only labels, and spend a lot of money on collecting them, I do wish that more of them would also sell digitally, even if just, say, three or six months after the vinyl release. I can't afford to buy everything on wax, given the shipping—and with pressings limited to so few copies these days, it's more and more frequent that releases sell out within days, and then your only chance of getting them is paying exorbitant prices on Discogs.

B: What about the growing music piracy? Positive things, negative things about it? Is it in anyway good for artist's promotion? What are your thoughts on ACTA, SOPA - PIPA and similar laws in future?

P: I don't really know if piracy is good for "promotion" or not—I would say no, especially since Soundcloud offers artists the possibility to give previews of their music on their own terms. I'm incredibly discouraged by piracy. Not so much the person who downloads one release now and then, but the websites that upload everything the same week it's released—I think that's unconscionable. I also hate the entitled attitude that so many music freeloaders have—that whole "Music wants to be free, and you can't stop me anyway, maaaaaan" thing. Artists deserve to get paid for their work.

B: Do you ever download anything illegally and if you do what do you download?

P: The only things I ever download illegally are out-of-print records, from blogs like Mutant Sounds. I don't feel too badly about that. And in some cases, those downloads do eventually lead to other purchases. For instance, a year or two ago I read about Laurie Spiegel's The Expanding Universe and downloaded it from a blog; then I bought the LP for 50 euros on Discogs; and this year, when the reissue came out, I bought the vinyl+download reissue. So that's a case where downloading an unauthorized copy of the album eventually led to money going to the artist's pocket. That's a rare case, of course, I'll admit. But I am encouraged by the reissue culture these days, seeking out amazing, old, rare records, and making them available for whole new generations of listeners, with the artists themselves profiting. I hope it continues.


 Interview By Mario Kolonić Pytzek

Copyright ©2012 Burek and the authors.

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