2008 Best Concerts Year-End Lists: Why Bother?

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They say that year-end lists tell more about the list maker’s emotional journey in the last 12 months than they do about the year in music. Knowing the truth in that thought, I took a more sociological approach when I looked at some of the most popular music blogs/sites to see how they listed their favorite concert experiences in 2008.

I wondered…

Would it show me what I already knew?

Would it show me things I wish I never found out?

Would it show me some kind of new fantastic revelation about live music culture?

As I compiled my list and started exploring the sites, I found answers to some of those questions and found new questions to ask. Most of all, I loved learning, as an amateur sociologist, how and why music writers and fans are classifying, remembering and ranking their favorite live music experiences for 2008.

Patterns, List Styles
One of the first things I noticed was a variation of patterns. Each site approached the year end lists differently, adding their own twist and ranking perspectives. I found that a few lists only included venue shows and left out festivals while others had several festivals, and listed different sets within the same festival. A few fans comments challenged this by asking if a festival is it’s only show and shouldn’t be listed more than once. When it came to ranking, some used the top 10 format while other the listed their top 20 or even 30.

As a writer for Popmatters, I’ve always enjoyed being a part of their Best(and Worst)approach to the year in live music. All the Events writers have a chance to chime in on different catagories ranging from “the best rawkers to worst heckling moments” we’ve covered in 2008. It’s a fun mix of humor and honestly refreshing criticism. As always it was great reading how my fellow music writers were impacted by the concerts they covered.

Top Bands
Groups like Of Montreal, King Khan and the Shrines, Fleet Foxes, Radiohead, My Bloody Valentine and Monotonix showed up on several lists. Rookies or veterans, all these bands figured out a way to captivate using live horses, LED light shows, X-rated stage-jiving, layers of feedback fuzz or heavenly harmonics. All of those bands are of the rockin’ type except Fleet Foxes, and Stereogum’s Amrit Singh takes a astute stab at figuring out why they were top performer this year.

Album buzz vs. live fizzle
The hyped buzz of Vampire Weekend’s debut album didn’t translate into a great live show like Fleet Foxes debut did. And it was Monotonix who charged on the scene via their You didn’t hear the buzz of the trio from Tel Aviv and their 2008 debut Body Language, but their explosive live show created sufficient buzz in my body going into 2009.

The Long Tail live music experience
The Long Tail seems only to be getting longer and deeper while niches increased. These lists also showed that both fans and critics alike are still going to shows but the variety of their experiences are fracturing and splintering into more niches with every show.

The diversity of concert experiences is good, but I wonder, is this good or bad for the community of live music? Or is this just the expected result of concertgoing in the age of myspace, DIY bands and the fall of the major labels? What kind of impact will this have when we try to relate with one another via live concert experiences in the next 10-20 years?

Rethinking the summer music festival
The impact of the summer music festival on the communal music experience can’t be underestimated. I mentioned several times in 2008 how the summer festival scene has grown and become over-saturated. I questioned the negative effects wondering about unique music experiences versus our music experiences becoming a assembly line product.

But looking at these year-end lists, I realized that the festival scene might actually sure a positive purpose and be an ally that brings large amounts of fans and artists together where the standard venue experience tends to segregate music fans.

When I read through the lists I felt a sense of shared excitement about several of the festival shows because I remember being there, too. Though I had never met most of the writers of these year end lists, or the fans who left comments about the show, nonetheless I still felt a strong sense of connectedness and solidarity around shows like Saul Williams and Radiohead at Lollapalooza where thousands of fans took in the music on a large sensational and diverse scale that you would not get in a smaller venue.

I still believe the saturation of the market is not good for the music scene because it takes away from the uniqueness of the show for each individual fan, but I now have my antennae up looking for other possible sociological benefits in 2009.

Here are some other interesting facts:

  • Each list had a unique disclaimer explaining their listing format/choices
  • Some used breif summarys while others listed shows with original review links
  • Some just listed in-door concerts excluding festivals sets entirely
  • Most lists had a balanced mix of genres and shared the same artists in those genres
  • Only one list described the impact of audience demographic and concert setting
  • Some used only a photo gallery to sum up the year of concerts
  • Some let only the fans do the talking, while others didn’t even ask for fan comments

    All of these things are important to cataloging our favorite live music experiences. But this list of facts also showed me that we catalog our concert experiences in many different ways, showing me how important it is to spend time thinking about the significance of our live concert experiences, and not turn into mindless concert consuming machines.

    Was it worth it?
    As an amature sociologist, I learned how others are feeling about their 2008 concert experience and why. Taking the time to do this also kept me from falling into the trap of secluding myself with my own concert experiences, which is an easy trap to fall into, and counterproductive to the communal necessity of the live music experience. I hope to connect with and learn from more fans and other music writers in 2009.

    Music writers rule or drool?
    Looking at all these lists also made me wonder if music writers are doing their job. Are music writers and their concert reviews reflecting, enlightening or challenging our beliefs and preconceptions about live music? Are they doing too much of one and not of enough of another? Whenever I’m left feeling jipped after reading a review, I always wonder if a reviewer was just short on time, had a block, wasn’t inspired, or being told to cover the show by their editors. Some of these lists really made me wonder if I was reading an honest rundown of their favorite shows.

    I’m not calling anyone a liar, I’m just saying that music writers, especially concert reviewers can fear rejection and that fear can make us write a review or create a list that might not be entirely truthful or honest to our actual experience. It’s easy to like and list what everyone else does when it comes to popular, or especially indie music, and I just wonder about the personal and editorial motivations and the emotional back stories of some of these lists.

    Does it matter how many concerts you went to?
    I know numbers and demographics are important to sociological studies but since I am an amateur here, and time is of the blogging essence, I don’t have any “official” numbers for every list I looked at, but I still wondered how many shows each writer saw in 2008. Did they hit a wall at a certain time of the year or at a certain number of concerts? After a certain amount of concerts did these reviewers burn out or lose perspective? And really, how much does the number of concerts a writer saw factor in? (If you have the official numbers for anything I’ve mentioned here—by all means pass them along.)

    It’s your turn now
    If you were to make a list of your favorite concerts what would that list say about you? I challenge you to think about how you remember your favorite concert experiences and see if you’ve changed from last year. There are many ways to remember our favorite concerts. What’s your method?

    How will you remember your favorite concerts of 2009?

    Here’s a list of some of the blogs/sites I used in this post:

    Chicago Tribune: Greg Kot’s Turn It Up Blog

    Chicago Sun-Times: Jim Derogatis

    Stereogum

    Rolling Stone

    Popmatters: Best (and Worst)In Show

    Pitchfork Photo Gallery and Reader Poll

    Muzzle of Bees

    Pollstar

    Idolater

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    Cleveland Critic Sues Newspaper, Orchestra

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    Now things are getting interesting…

    Last Thursday, as reported by the New York Times, on Decemeber 11th, Dan Rosenberg the music critic who was removed from his Cleveland Orchestra beat struck back by filing a lawsuit against the paper(which he still works for) and the Cleveland Orchestra management.

    I have to say I am a bit surprised that Rosenberg would go to such lengths, although I do understand the reasons why Rosenberg might want to sue.

    But it is a gusty move. And as the case moves forward we’ll have to see what kind of “campaign of vilification” that Rosenberg says was waged because at this point his charges are pretty bold, and the two sides seems to be at odds about why he was removed from his original beat.

    “Mr. Rosenberg, 56, charged the defendants with defamation. He accused orchestra management of tortious interference with his job, and the paper and Ms. Goldberg of age discrimination and violating Ohio’s free speech principle. The suit seeks damages of at least $50,000.”

    This makes me wonder what it means for all music critics. Is it ridiculous to sue your own paper or is this a case of a courageous writer putting his foot down?

    I know some of you are classical music buffs so if you know about any other cases where a music critic sued his own paper and the orchestra he was critiquing please drop me a line.

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    What Do You Hate About Music Critics?

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     Go ahead. Tell me.

    I can handle it…

    just as long as I don’t end up like music journalist Don Rosenberg.

    Though, I’ve never been “removed” from a beat like Cleveland Plain Dealer music critic Don Rosenberg who was removed from his Cleveland Orchestra beat in September, I have been the recipient of harsh criticism for writing about a performance truthfully and honestly.

    And I can tell you that, like any self-respecting journalist, I’d rather write truthfully and take the scorn from the artists or fans, than blow smoke up an artist’s rear end just to avoid getting reamed out.

    I’ll always remember receiving a Myspace message from a band leader (who I won’t mention) who felt my live review was “plagiarized crap” and then proceeded to call me some nasty names.

    I had given positive reviews of the band’s music and recent album, and I still am a fan of the band, even though his comments were out of line and he did eventually apologize.

    Since then I’ve been able to better understand what he was trying to say and that the message he sent me also came on the heels of inner turmoil within the band. He also explained the message was more of a sounding board for his emotions at the time than a attempt to set me straight.

    Yes, making music is an emotional process made and consumed by emotional beings who usually have a hard time keeping ourselves under control. But I don’t think musicians, fans or critics should use each other as sounding boards for their respective emotional rage.

    So what is the purpose of a live concert review?

    As wiser music critic once told me, the best live reviews should do three things; Enlighten, Entertain and Educate.

    Whatever combination of those three a critic is using, the review should be a reflection of the emotional response between the band and the fans. A good review captures that connection, or says plainly that it didn’t happen, and why.

    If that’s accomplished, then fans, artists and critics should look at a review not as an antagonizing sword trying to someone down but as a brief chance to have an emotional moment reflected back at us.

    And if done right, that reflective moment should capture the emotional atmosphere in the venue, explaining how the fans responded to the playing–or lack thereof–the band.

    Of course, every review is going to have its subjective flaws (and I’ve always wondered what the ratio even is for reviews written and then read by artists or fans) but either way, having a constant negative approach to criticism isn’t good for music writing: for an artist or a critic.

    Reading this story I gathered that Rosenberg was telling the truth. He was balancing the positive with the negative. And this quote from his friend Tim Smith, who broke the story on his Baltimore Sun blog, is spot on when he reaches way back quoting novelist Somerset Maugham. I’m not sure if Maugham ever wrote a live concert review but in this quote he seems to have been able to see it from the critics point of view.

    “Like Somerset Maugham wrote: “People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise.” Smith continues, “Any orchestra’s player, conductor, board member, lofty patron or ordinary ticket-buy who only wants to read praise has missed the whole point of the artistic process. Not to mention a free press. Then again, any newspaper that would silence a serious, bona-fide voice because some people don’t like hearing it may need a refresher course, too.”

    Ever since the story broke, other critics have rallied around Rosenberg via Smith’s blog and other spots on the web, expressing their outrage and concern for the future of music criticism.

    But what about the fans?

    What happens when the fans are forced to read censored music criticism and not enjoy the beautiful balance of a deft critic who can both unleash an entertaining word-lashing and deliver beautiful praise?

    I know that the strength of a music writer come in his or her ability to go both love and hate on their favorite music.

    There’s already a girth of watered down music writing out there. Censorship is nothing new, but what I’ve found during my time as a music writer is that most types of censorship also involve an underlying element of fear to tell it like is.

    And this fear gets propagated when writers give into the fear of alien thating fans and the artist. And the sad part about this emotional deception is that giving into the fear seems like the right thing to do because we trick ourselves into it’s wrong to offend anyone, make them feel bad. We’d rather give into a emotioanl myth than risk tarnish their reputations versus telling the truth.

    And in most 20/20 hindsight situation, the truth would have served everyone better.

    I’ll be honest with you, too.

    Whether large or small, I struggle with this fear of alienating (or the universal writer’s fear of rejection) when writing reviews or crafting interviews. Even writing this blog drove me nuts but I forced myself to write what I felt was honest and true to my experience(or you can tell me if you felt a draft up your back-side while reading this.)

    I don’t like to make anyone feel or look bad just to do it. What sane person does?

    And I know the fact that I struggle with this doesn’t make me a bad music journalist.

    It’s actually the opposite.

    Every time I sit down to write a story about what I’ve felt(or didn’t) about a music performance, I’m choosing to put my emotions and thoughts out there in hopes that there’s a bit of truth in what I’ve written that connects with readers.

    And when I started writing about music, I thought this struggle would get easier.

    But the opposite has happened. It’s gotten harder.

    But it’s a good harder.

    It’s made me a better writer because, beyond being a prerequisite for journalism, I know that this struggle to tell the truth is a prerequisite for any one who cares about people and music.

    And when it comes down to it, if I really do care about people and music, than telling the truth is my only option.

    And hey, even though telling the truth takes more physical and emotional energy(even when I don’t get it exactly right), it’s always better than bending over to blow air up any artist’s rear end.

    Have you read any concert reviews lately that read (or smelled) like they just passed through the rear end of an artist?

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    Two Thundering Reviews: Jessica Simpson

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    Are there always two sides to every story? And can we all view an artist performance differently?

    When I read this story about Jessica Simpson’s courageous set at Country Thunder in Wisconsin, I thought back to how an artist’s performance can be taken and conveyed in several ways—depending on several factors—by the fans and especially the concert reviewers.

    For example, I’ve read many concert reviews where the reviewer seemed to be reviewing a completely different show than the one I was at. He saw things that I seem to have missed and reading the review seemed almost like a fictional account. But the opposite has also happened; where what I read was exactly as I remembered it and the review was a perfect 500 word snapshot of what happened at the show—from the artist performance to how I felt during the show.

    But this Jessica Simpson story was an interesting one because video was involved and the accounts of her getting booed and/or applauded seemed to support both stories. Very interesting…

    Have you ever had this experience?

    Or did you attend Country Thunder and see the Simpson set? If you were the ones booing or applauding, you don’t have to admit it in public; you can email me in private if you want to, I won’t tell anybody.

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    The Culture of the Wait: Kanye West vs. Ryan Adams

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    Warning: the language that Ryan Adams uses in this 2004 recorded voicemail he left to Chicago Sun Times rock critic Jim Derogatis is nasty and abusive, it is nonetheless highly entertaining, and a great introduction to this post.

    I love when music fans express their disgust for a live show. It’s even better when a magazine prints the fan’s expression in their “letters to the editor” section.

    Here’s a short comment from John King of Fishers, IN, a Paste Magazine subscriber/reader who attended a Ryan Adams concert and was extremely pissed at Adams’ behavior so much that he wrote a very funny and honest letter to the editors at Paste after he saw that Paste had decided to feature Adams’ on their cover.

    Ryan’s A Jerk

    “I recently attended a Ryan Adams show to which the performer was 45 minutes late because he was “at the mall shopping at Hot Topic” and “enjoying some good Chick-Fil-A.” Adam couldn’t maintain the show energy, taking extended breaks between songs,” indulging heckler with inane responses, changing his shoes, and then, after a bit more than an hour of music, the man tool a 30-minute break. So imagine my delight when I arrived home from the show to find him gracing the cover of my new copy of Paste (#37). As much as I hate to deface an issue of your great magazine, I’m about to give Ryan Adams devil horns and a fu Manchu.”

    Then there’s a more recent example with Kanye West’s Bonnaroo performance last weekend. West’s Sunday set was moved from 8pm to 1am and then didn’t even start until 4:45am. According to AP, the crowd reportedly started yelling “Kanye sucks!” as the wait ensued and then a large majority of the crowd dispersed to their tents to sleep, tired and angry and without seeing the one show they came to see.

    While I’m not sure if John King will ever attend another Ryan Adams concert or deface another Paste Magazine cover, we all know—as this West Bonnaroo story shows—that there is a limit to how much fans will put up with, and it’ll be interesting to see how this impacts the rest of West’s Glow in The Dark Tour , which returns to West’s hometown in Chicago for Lollapalooza in August.

    We’ll be digging more into these types of situations, a part of the live show experience that I like to call “The Culture of the Wait.”

    So what’s your limit in the Culture of the Wait?

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    Opposing Thumbs: Do U TXT MSG?

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    I’ll admit I was a tough convert. And I have to thank my sister for showing me the glow, of my cell phone at a live show, that is. Even though we had a long (somewhat helpful) argument about the difference between hip hop and rap on the way home, I have to give her full credit for introducing me to texting when she texted me during a sold out show at the Abbey Pub. I was covering the Peanut Butter Wolf show, my wife Colleen was taking pictures at the front of the stage and I had wondered into the balcony to get a better view of the crowd and the DJ.

    I then realized I had lost track of time and had also gotten separated from my sister and my wife. Then I felt a buzzing in my right pants pocket. I reached in and pulled out my cell phone that I had set to vibrate.

    I read the glowing text message from my sister asking where I was. Feeling a little strange I typed a short message telling her where I was in the balcony. I looked around to make sure no one saw me texting, as if I was committing some nasty sin. I sent the message and in a few minutes my sister was next to me and then we corralled Colleen in the same way. It was a first for both of us. My first time texting at show and her first hip hop show.

    And ever since that night, I’ve had to rethink some of my previous views towards the controversial practice. I have written about the practice in a negative way when I described the crowd at a Gym Class Heroes’ show last year. And even though I’ve been converted to the occasional live show text, I still look at certain fans just as Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters does as described in a Dallas Times article about texting at live shows. I also agree with the other artists quoted who believe that texting in just another way of mixing technology and taking in a concert in a new era. Like other technology, cell phones and texting have advantages and disadvantages, and I don’t believe it’s all that bad now that my sister has shown me the glow, even though she still doesn’t fully understand the difference between hip hop and rap.

    I’ve even started to do experiments with texting and video at live concerts and see how they can be used to show me the myriad sensory experiences of a live show. Stay tuned for those on future posts.

    Do you text at live shows? Does it annoy you or do you accept the merging of the two?

    Let’s experiment! Send me an email with some of your favorite texts you’ve received or sent during a show and we’ll see how concertgoers are really communicating during the show.

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