That’s the way you do it: Copy for nothin’ and critics for free.

February 2, 2009

Over at Popmatters (for whom I’ve written concert reviews, artist interviews and CD reviews), Rob Horning has written a thoughtful column about the very 21st century transactional phenomenon that Popmatters thrives on: writers who’ll give away their work for free in the interest of personal brand-building. Horning cites a recent business week article by Stephen Baker that describes the efforts of entrepreneurs to harness the power of people willing to work for little more than a byline and whatever status comes with a good-sized Google footprint. Baker writes:

“Beyond brand-hungry strivers, masses of free laborers continue to toil without ever seeing a payday, or even angling for one. Many find compensation in currencies that predate the market economy. These include winning praise from peers, earning an exalted place within a community, scoring thrills from winning, and finding satisfaction in helping others. But how to monetize all that energy? From universities to the computer labs of Internet giants, researchers are working to decode motivations, and to perfect the art of enlisting volunteers”

Maybe even more interesting is Horning’s commentary on an article by David Hadju in the Columbian Journalism Review, in which Hadju laments the “weird and totally unwarranted authority” earned by amateur criticism in the Internet age, calling it “one of the baleful consequences of the democratization of expression by the Web.”

Sounds like sour grapes on the part of an old media stalwart, and Horning argues as much. It would behoove him to do so, seeing how he represents a web site that doesn’t pay its writers. As for me, I quit writing for Popmatters shortly after I got my first paying journalism job, but went back to it about six months ago — not for status or any shifty self-branding agenda, but simply because I really  like writing about music, and figure I might as well publish it in a place where it’ll find a wider audience than here at my low-traffic blog. But when a review of mine does run at Popmatters, you can bet I link to it here. And this makes me think that I — and probably a lot of other Gen X (and Y) writers — have self-branding and self-promotion hardwired into our writerly DNA. We do it not so much because we have designs on success, but because it’s just what one does in the 21st century if he wants to make a living as a media professional. It’s hard out there for a copy hustler. But if Horning’s future-looking final paragragh is at all prescient, that might change as consumers of online copy start shying away from amateur content:

“[A]s more outlets for uncompensated content creation proliferate on the Web—Amazon.com and social networks being the most conspicuous ones right now—the perception that it’s all hobby writing and/or self-branding online will become even more entrenched. Sites may have to go more explicitly capitalist—pay writers, collect subscriptions, feature advertising, etc.—to ensure that they are regarded as “professional” and worthy of being read by people who otherwise limit their consumption of amateur copy to those they have friended.”

Anyone who writes for a living would be lying if he said he didn’t hope this was true. And he would be being equally mendacious (or just plain delusional) if he didn’t admit that he doesn’t think things’ll go down like that.


Cover your cyber-tracks.

January 14, 2009

I recently started writing a weekly Work & Money column for the Indianapolis newsweekly/social networking web site Indy.com. The most recent installment includes a conversation with the bright folks over at Firebelly Digital. This week’s topic: Why job-seekers need to monitor their online presence.


BEST OF ’08: “Recent Bedroom” by Atlas Sound

December 16, 2008

[Talkin’ the best songs of 2008]

Bradford Cox of Deerhunter.

Bradford Cox of Deerhunter and Atlas Sound.

It can’t be denied that the indie rock webzine Pitchfork has a brilliant editorial model: Its newsfeed is THE go-to place for the latest updates on the goins-on of bands who for whatever arbitrary reason fall under the “indie” rubric. And its daily reviews, which always include something for everyone (and by everyone, I mean those who are ravenous about expanding their knowledge of music enjoyed by college-educated, middle-to-upper class 20- and 30-something music geeks), appear with militaristic regularity. Best of all, Pitchfork has remained steadfast in keeping its offerings simple.  While competitors like Popmatters (who occasionally publishes your author’s work) continue to beef up their editorial offerings to include everything under the pop culture sun, Pitchfork has stubbornly restricted its purview to indie rock CD reviews and news, with a few columns and some multimedia thrown in for good measure. It is better off for the simplicity.

However, Pitchfork’s approval of certain bands reaches such a pitch that one has to wonder what motivates it. For example: I wouldn’t be surprised if the more casual readers were under the impression that Pitchfork puts out Deerhunter’s records, so enthusiastic has been its promotion of the band. This is not to speak ill of Deerhunter, who, in fact, is a great band. Rather it is to speak of Pitchfork with a measure of suspicion. Why give certain bands such a disproportionate amount of positive coverage? Judging from the editorial voice of Pitchfork, I suspect it’s an effort to bask in the reflective glory of a band that currently ranks high with the young indie rock intelligentsia. Still, to a not-so-young reader like your author, it smacks of shameless promotion masquerading as journalism.

To their credit, they’re promoting a good band. Deerhunter’s Microcastle is one of the best pure pop albums of the year — if not the best. But none of its singles appealed to me as much as “Recent Bedroom” from lead singer Bradford Cox’s side project, Atlas Sound, which also released an album (with an annoyingly long name) this year. Atlas Sound isn’t as good as Deerhunter, but this song is haunting, sorrowful, beautiful.


The loneliness of the rural hometown.

November 26, 2008

muncie-sanborns1From a young age, I knew I didn’t want to spend my life in Muncie, Indiana. Reared on cable TV, I was hungry to see firsthand the worlds that gleamed at me through the box in the living room. Not to speak ill of Muncie, but it lacked the heart-quickening electricity of places where people spoke different languages, cut deals in the streets, rode trains underground and ate rice and raw fish rolled in seaweed.

The older I grew, the more I yearned to leave. Some of my reasons were superficial. For one, I simply couldn’t abide telling old friends who were moving on to Chicago, Seattle and New York City that I had settled down in Muncie.

So I left. But a series of events, some of them unfortunate, landed me in Muncie again during a significant stretch of my mid-20s. And this time, I not only wanted, but needed out — for a very visceral reason: I was lonely.

Being a college-educated, single 26-year-old in Muncie, Ind. is like being an endangered species. And this NY Mag article suggests that living there during that time could have been bad for my physical and mental health.

The article’s author — a long-time New York resident — uses data and scholastic opinions to back up her argument that, contrary to popular belief, New Yorkers aren’t lonelier than Joe Six-Pack and Jane Wine-Box. She argues that rather than atomizing people, New York and other large urban communities draw people together. She says that community virtues are stronger in New York City than in, oh, say, Wasilla, Alaska. And she says that this may make New Yorkers both happier and physically healthier than, oh, say, people living in Muncie, Indiana.

I’ll be returning to Muncie tomorrow for Thanksgiving. And when I do, the gray, ineffable mist of loneliness will descend upon me. It always does. I always assumed it was because the place is literally a ghost town of memories for me. But maybe that melancholy is radiated out toward me by Muncie itself. If cities are less lonely than their small-town counterparts — and if major metro areas rather than Middletown, USA are the “ultimate expression of our humanity” — maybe that is the source of my Muncie-borne malaise.

This is not to suggest that Muncie is incapable of fostering meaningful, authentic, fulfilling relationships. If you’re a member of a large, healthy, tightly-knit family, or if you are active in a large community through church or or an educational institution, then you probably can live a perfectly healthy, happy life in a place like Muncie. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy any of those luxuries. And believe me, it got lonely.


Bad Idea: McCain smear photos.

September 15, 2008
This isn't the Evil McCain photo. Click on the link in the post reffering to the photographer's web site for that.

This isn't the bad picture. Click on the photog's web site for that.

After reading her bio, what surprises me most about photographer Jill Greenberg — the freelance photographer who purposely took unflattering pictures of an unwitting John McCain during a shoot for the Atlantic Monthly, and later posted those bad shots along with hackneyed far-left commentary on her website — is that she is 40 years old.

Not that 40-year-olds should be exempt from criticizing political figures or expressing contempt for their ideas. It’s not what Greenberg has said so much as how she has chosen to say it, which is much more befitting a marginally intelligent, poorly informed and deeply insecure teenager than an obviously talented middle-aged photographer. The consequences of her actions will be much worse for her than her target. From looking at her website, this reality hasn’t caught up with her yet. The woman certainly has sizable balls, if not brains.

In the periphery: This guy’s YouTube video on the subject is unintentionally funny for at least the first 23 seconds or so.


Popmatters, Redux.

August 11, 2008

I was first published (excepting a contribution to a nonprofit, locally published book of poetry and fiction) in 2003 on Popmatters, a “cultural criticism” Web site devoted to music, movies, film, books, etc. They’ve got a great racket going over there, because as far as I can tell, all of their writers contribute free of charge. Perhaps some of the longer-standing ones get paid. Anyway, it’s beside the point. I stopped contributing to Popmatters back in 2005, shortly after I began working as a reporter for a newsweekly in Indianapolis. Since quitting that job, however, I’ve been itching to write about music again. So I e-mailed Popmatters, and they were all like, “Hey, Matt, we’d love to have you back,” and I was like, “Cool.”

My first CD review (which I plan to write exclusively this time around — no concert reviews or interviews like before) was published a couple of days ago. It was of Darker My Love’s “2.” Read it here. And watch the so-far-mediocre-but-not-without-promise band’s new video here:


How sports columnists are like porn actresses.

July 28, 2008

Football and murder sell lots of newspapers.

When I worked at the Indianapolis Star, the online team sent a daily e-mail to the entire editorial staff with a list of the previous day’s most clicked-on stories. And with a few exceptions (like when the House voted on a gay marriage bill) crime and sports topped the list. No crime was more popular with readers than murder, and no sport was more popular than professional football. The numbers were astounding. Nothing else even came close.

Which, of course, is why someone like Bob Kravitz (who I never once saw in the newsroom in my nearly three years at the Star) reportedly makes six figures to write either transparently formulaic or cynically inflammatory (often both) columns about Indianapolis pro sports teams, especially the Indianapolis Colts.

A young, fro-coiffed Bob Kravitz.

A young, fro-coiffed Bob Kravitz.

Make no mistake, Bob Kravitz is an excellent sports columnist. But that’s like saying Perez Hilton is a terrific celebrity gossip blogger, or that Gianna Michaels is a first-rate porn actress. It doesn’t take much talent to excel at writing a sports column, it just takes audacity and narcissism.

Kravitz was recently the subject of an in-depth profile in Indianapolis Monthly magazine. As usual, writer Tony Rehagen did a fine job. But does Indianapolis really want to hear Kravitz’s life story told Horatio-Alger-style?

I’m afraid to say, yes it does. I read it. Why? Maybe because to some degree, I envy people like Kravitz, Michaels and Hilton — people who all obviously share a drive to succeed in careers that have little or no redeeming value beyond a little fame and a good chunk of cash. I envy them because I could never muster the discipline to work high-paying but personally compromising jobs I knew were ultimately meaningless. I’d rather settle for less money, even less fame, and absolutely no job-related health problems or pangs of conscience.