Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Music critics make compromises for "essential evils"

William Hoffman

"They are not your friends," said the drug addled rock critic Lester Bangs preaching journalistic integrity across the table to his newest prodigy — or rather Philip Seymour Hoffman playing the rock critic in the award winning film "Almost Famous."

"These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of the rock stars, and they will ruin rock and roll and strangle everything we love about it," Hoffman said in the film.

Cameron Crow pretty much hits the nail on the head with this film following a young aspiring music journalist who joins an up-and-coming band on a road tour across the US for a piece in Rolling Stone Magazine. Of course the kid is corrupted by the appeal of sex, drugs and friendship that the band give him for free in order to use him. But while this movie may be an accurate portrayal of music coverage in the late '70s, it simply doesn't hold true today. 


Journalism is a profession of relationships. If you're not good at talking or working with people you might want to reconsider your career path, which is why it's so important in this field to form relationships with sources and even get to know them personally. That doesn't mean you call up your local representative and have a nighttime chat about the latest episode of "Breaking Bad." But it is advantageous to know something about their personal life. The same goes for rock critics and their relationships with musicians. 

Legendary Plain Dealer music critic Jane Scott, who died in 2011 at the age of 92, certainly could not have made it to where she did without making some friends along the way. One of those friends happened to be Sir Paul McCartney, who she referred to as "that nice boy." She even collected set lists from shows she covered and memorabilia of all sorts that is not being auctioned off. Exclusive interviews with Paul McCartney aren't achieved by burning all the bridges you come across. 

Although, the most famous and well-known music critic ever, Lester Bangs (the real one), certainly tried to make more enemies than friends. Bangs was a druggy who lived the rock 'n' roll life as much as he preached it, but for all of his faults no one could say he wasn't honest. He never made friends with the rock stars and could rip a band apart or sing their praise with his words freely because he had no bridges to maintain. 

Journalists get paid too little to be expected to pay for multiple concerts a week and all the music that one is expected to review. It's like freelance journalist Gina Arnold said in this week's reading — promo CDs are an essential evil. But even though these small gifts may project the perception of a conflict of interest, many music critics are able to take these free CDs and use them as tools to do their job. 

For my summer internship working at Cleveland Scene Magazine covering the music beat in the Cleveland area, there seemed to be an understanding among the bands and us that even if we take free tickets and CDs, no writer will hesitate to write up a scathing review of the show. That seemed to be okay to the promoters because they still got press, and eventually we would like one of the shows that came through the venue. Our interests feed off of each other and everyone involved knows that one can't do their job without the other. 

In the end conflicts of interest come down to where you would personally draw the line in order to be an accurate professional journalist. 

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