Just realizing things

Although basic hints of frustration showed over the course of the past few years, it was during the last six to nine months that I realized writing music reviews on my site had often become more of a chore than a joy. I started writing them on a whim in my first (very tiny) apartment many, many years ago, with no set time period for how long I would continue. Now a decade has passed along with several large life changes (almost all for the good, fortunately), and I feel like I’ve reached a good point to slow my output.

I didn’t come to this decision easily. I wrangled with it for a couple months, going back and forth between wondering how I would continue to discover music on the margins and even how my weekly schedule would change. Looking back, I can’t even really come up with some sort of way to quantify how much time I’ve spent doing music reviews, and if I could, it would probably just make me a bit depressed. In Malcom Gladwell’s new book Outliers, he makes the generalization that 10,000 hours spent practicing a skill will likely make someone a master at that skill. Over ten years, that averages out to only about 1000 hours a year (which I have easily reached if I include time spent listening critically to music), and I’m certainly no master, so perhaps that’s another sign it’s time to hang things up…

Because my brain is wired a certain way, it seems like I always go back to numbers, and in looking through the basic data on my review site, it makes me realize that I’ve been more than a little obsessive over the course of the past decade or so.

I dropped my first music review onto the internet back in late 1997, and since that time I’ve written over 2350 more. A couple years back, I started doing podcasts for my featured review each week, and have now done well over 200 of them. I’ve reviewed CDs by over 1535 different artists (not including various artist compilations) and very nearly 800 different record labels. The labels that I’ve written the most reviews for are Matador (68), Kranky (64), and Warp (60). The artist that I’ve reviewed the most is Squarepusher (9), with The Orb and Autechre coming in a close second (with 8 apiece).

Of course, this sheer quantity led to what I felt was a general degradation in the quality of my writing over the course of the past year or so, although some could certainly argue that it’s been lacking from the start. What I’ve come to realize is that it isn’t the simple act of writing reviews that has ground me down, it’s simply the quantity. I still love music and love writing about it, but to pour out 4-5, 500 word missives a week turns what originally seems like clever lines into cliches at a quick rate and unique adjectives into descriptors that wear out their potency from overuse. A thesaurus comes in handy for awhile, but at some point you feel like you’re saying the same thing over and over again about a CD that has some fine moments but doesn’t really move you as a whole. In fact, I think I’ve used that very line a couple times now. Sigh…

And that’s really where the burnout comes in. I still hear music on a fairly consistent basis that manages to really move me, and there’s no denying that (or even holding back my praise for it). At the same time, when a person listens to sometimes 10-20 different “new” releases a week, a fair majority of those are simply going to filter into a pile that’s either “good” or even worse. Heck, I’ve been in several bands now, and I’m completely used to being ignored. It’s good for your soul (or at least very humbling, or something) to find a CD you spent months (and in some cases, years) writing and recording selling for only a dollar online. As a writer, I don’t feel any particular joy in saying any of the aforementioned about someone’s hard work.

That latter sentence actually ties back into something that I’ve gotten a lot of good-natured (mostly, I think) ribbing about from friends. That is, of course, that my reviews tend to skew to the positive side of things. Going back to the numbers thing again, I even did up a little chart to show how the 2350 reviews on this site break down in terms of numerical rating…

Ratings Chart

Looking back at my output over the years, there are definitely releases that I would have to go back and change the rating based on not only changes in my music listening patterns, but also on how my level of critique has evolved. Essentially, I was even more of a softie when I started out, and that’s probably saying something considering I very, very rarely give anything under a 5 or so rating even nowadays. I think it’s safe to say that you can be even-handed and even somewhat nice in the review business, but the reviewers who get to be well-known are the ones who aren’t afraid to absolutely shred something.

Over the course of the years, I have done just that a couple times, but again it brings me no real joy, so there is that.

In the end, I just feel like I need a bit of a small change. I’m still going to continue to write, but now the focus will be only on things that I really enjoy. That may mean that I write one thing a week, and it may mean that I still write more, but instead of having to write about things that I don’t feel excited about, I’m just going to pour out the words over things that really do it for me. In addition to writing about music, I’ll write about books (occasionally) and other stuff if it strikes my fancy. I’ll also have commenting open and the reviews themselves will tend to be a bit more on the personal (and in-depth) side.

I’m also excited that I’ll finally have a little more time to start going back through my collection and re-listen to a lot of things that I haven’t heard in awhile, since I’ve been known to fret about that sort of thing.

If you’ve been a reader of my site, I thank you a ton for your patronage. Remember to swing by the new site, I think it will be fun.