Writing about people you know
I'm talking about musicians here or people you know otherwise involved in the music. And I'm talking about eai. My personal guess as to how many serious fans this music has, worldwide, hovers around 5,000. Totally a guess, of course, but I doubt it's very far off however one would define the term. Erstwhile, pretty clearly the pre-eminent label in the area, rarely sells more than 1,000 copies of a given disc. Partly this is due to distribution issues, partly--and increasingly--due to the simple fact that the music is downloaded rather than purchased. But live events, in NYC, ones that feature relatively prominent names, might draw 100-150 if you're lucky. Even if the artist has something of a cachet in the pop world--Fennesz, for instance--maybe 200 people show up for a performance in one of the biggest, most "art" conscious cities in the world. So I feel fairly safe in saying that there are about 5,000 around who have a rough idea of what, say, Keith Rowe's been up to in the last five years and care a little bit.
These days, if one so desires, one quickly gets to know a large proportion of both musicians, label owners and fans in the area. It's hard not to. Unless you're a social hermit, you interact with others on discussion groups, attend concerts and say hello to people there. Give yourself a year or two and, without trying hard at all, chances are you've come to know a large number of folk in the biz, some of whom you likely consider "friends". Many of them create or foster the production of music! How about that? And since the percentage of people who write about music among the non-musician fans of this genre is pretty high (sometimes it seems that this is the case more often than not), you're often called upon to write about stuff created or distributed by people you know or consider friends. Horrors!
The appearance of impropriety rears its misshapen head and you occasionally find yourself called out for venturing a positive opinion of someone you're otherwise acquainted with, accused of log-rolling (if you yourself have something to gain from a similarly appreciative response) or shilling, or what-have-you. Of course, this is a very real possibility, at least if you've no shred of integrity. But what's a poor eai writer to do? Restrict himself to comment on only those releases with which he has absolutely no personal connection? If you're writing about some spawn of a vast conglomerate, that could be quite easy. In this tiny neck o' the woods though, well, some releases would simply never be written about at all! We're an incestuous bunch, that condition forced upon us by our meager population. When you're members of a tiny, isolated village, sometimes ya gotta marry your cousin.
Now, as suggested by some (I'll namecheck Adam Hill here as one who has argued these matters very well and passionately in the past--if he sees this, I hope he'll comment), you could preface each review with a caveat stating one's relationship with certain individuals involved in the given project. One: that's pretty clunky. I've done it on occasion when the relationships went beyond the normal bounds. My write-up of "Duos for Doris", for instance, contained one such. But Two, at least on my part, I never make any secret about who I know, who I like personally etc. Again, I daresay most who read my stuff at all know me reasonably well from discussions going back to the rec.music.bluenote boards and freejazz.org almost 10 years ago as well as more recent lengthy participation at JazzCorner, Bagatellen, I Hate Music, etc. If you know Rowe's music at all, chances are you know I'm writing a bio of him (and may even finish it one day). So, if I review a disc Keith's involved in, I trust the reader has this information already in mind and can judge my opinions accordingly.
Then there's the simple practical test: If I consistently love the work of someone who 90% of other fans consider to be abjectly mediocre, there might be good reason for suspecting I'm listening through rose-tinted ears. That's not been my experience, however.
That said....I can't deny that my perceptions of someone's music is often biased to one degree or another by either what I think of them personally or, if I don't actually know them, by what impression their (perceived) personality has made on me. It can work both ways. If I know and enjoy a person and, especially, if I have prior experience with his/her work, I find that I'll try "extra-hard" to glean some deeper understanding--in a positive sense--of a given performance. I'm not sure this is "wrong"; I have a working opinion of the person and I'm trying to "fit in" this performance in front of me. I think we all do something of the sort. But does this mean cutting extra, possibly undeserved slack for some? Yeah, could be. Does it preclude a negative review? Of course not. Hell, part and parcel of this area of music is that failure happens. On the other hand, if an individual takes the stage and exhibits persona aspects that entirely rub me the wrong way, let's say wearing leather pants and cowboy boots and a cross around his neck, are those attributes going to be something I'll have to work hard to get past? Well, yes, I suppose so. If a disc arrives bearing portentous track titles by a single (faux) named "artist", sure, my hackles have been raised. Still, I do everything I can to give a fair listen and a fair response. I think I achieve this more often than not; others may disagree.
This subject crossed my mind several times today after spending a lovely few hours yesterday afternoon talking with Annette Krebs at dba (btw, a great bar on 1st Ave between 2nd & 3rd Sts--check it out). I've enjoyed Annette's music for several years now and had previously met her at Musique Action in Nancy in May, 2002. I'll go so far as to make the presumption that we're now "friends". I'm looking forward to hearing more music from her over the next several decades. Should I not write about it? Should I preface future reviews with "Annette and I had several hot ciders on a rainy Sunday in NYC a while ago."? It seems silly. She was actually very appreciative that when I wrote up her most recent disc for Bags earlier this year, I was indeed critical of several of the tracks (I think I used the term "hermetic"; not a plus for me) and that, too often, people say that everything was great, everything wonderful, that it's refreshing to get honest opinions. Well, of course. Giving your honest opinion is what you do with friends anyway, isn't it?
As always, I welcome dissenting thoughts.