Hello and welcome to the November issue of “Trust Me, I’m A Scientist”! Thanks as always, for your feedback. Below are some of your best letters from the past month.
SonicScoop and TMimaS at the 131st AES Convention
October was a fun month. On the 22nd, I had the opportunity to moderate a panel at the Jacob Javits Center along with SonicScoop editor Janice Brown. We teamed up for the special presentation “Platinum Engineers: The Studio As An Instrument”.
A lot of you gave us positive feedback – as we left the stage, we heard from a lot of you, including an editor from one of the leading pro audio magazines even told us it was the best panel he’d seen in 10 years of attending conferences. I’m glad to hear we did something right! But in reality, if the presentation was a success, it was only because of the strengths of the panelists.
My favorite part of the whole thing was hearing confirmation of what Janice and I suspected all along. There is a real demand to hear from a new generation of engineers – The ones who are collaborating on some of today’s most relevant new releases, and adapting effectively to a rapidly-changing musical economy.
For more on this story, read our individual interviews with each of the groundbreaking producer/engineers who were kind enough to be our guests.
The Best New Music, As Chosen By Musicians
Based on email, one the favorite pieces in the last issue was our seasonal Record Release Roundup. Several of you wrote in to express your fondness for the idea of enlisting musician reviewers; A breed who are widely known for being some of the most hype-resistant people on earth.
“Refreshing to hear from people who actually make music” remarked Chris from Portland. Several more of you wrote in to suggest worthy releases we may have missed. I offered to publish any musician’s 3-sentence review of a record we didn’t manage to cover. Guitarist Rich Bennett of Brooklyn NY is a veteran of a slew of fantastic cult bands including Friendly Bears, Mahogany, and Monocle. He took us up on the offer and wrote us this Rock n’ Roll Haiku:
Hong Kong In The 60’s My Fantoms is a beautifully idyllic pop record, sitting amidst an atmosphere of old casio synthesizers, drum machines and lovely female vocals. Oscillating between pastoral scenes and library-esque electronics, the album enjoyably breezes by, leaving memories of a magical place reachable only through these tracks.
Remember that our Fall Release Roundup will be coming out the first Monday of next month, so if you’re a music-maker with a favorite record you’d like to review, please send us your submissions in the next 3 weeks!
On Pitchfork and Gearslutz
The amount of mail for all other articles was eclipsed by the mountain of responses to last month’s salaciously titled “Are Readers Abandoning Pitchfork And Gearslutz?”. While the title was clearly provocative, the contents were less so. By and large, your responses reflected that.
Interestingly, we received letters from the moderators at most of the major pro audio forums. They were largely supportive, and eager to share their experience with the ebbs and flow of traffic on their own sites. Some however, suggested, that forum traffic might be dwindling “across the board”, if you’ll excuse the pun. Most notably, Pro Sound Web’s forums became a virtual ghost town after a mismanaged site migration.
One of our most cogent responses came from a former moderator of another of the most heavily trafficked audio forums. He preferred not to be named so that he could speak freely:
Interesting and provocative article you have written! Although I have never been a member of GS, I read it frequently, mainly to confirm my bias against it!
The demise of Michael Joly and the microphone modder wars in general on GS has no question lead to a decrease in the entertainment value of GS, and probably the decrease in traffic you noted. Certainly I don’t enjoy it as much anymore.
But that illustrates a larger problem with GS: they never developed a “bright-line” test for commercial use until it was much too late, and the policy they promulgated thus seemed too harsh to the users. Jules intentionally fostered a chummy environment between vendors and engineers on his board, but that only works where the playing field is level – that is, when the engineers have a substantial amount of knowledge so vendors can’t BS them.
As GS grew, that was no longer the case. The user base became decidedly amateur; many of the well-respected pro engineers left, and the neophytes became potential prey for bad vendor behavior (and there was plenty of bad vendor behavior that sorely provoked Jules) Which is a big reason I wouldn’t participate on GS; those with actual expertise get pretty tired of constantly being challenged.
So to preserve ad revenue and protect his user base Jules had to clamp down, which created a predictable response. The issue is now how can GS attract expert users again?”
He also specifically mentioned my favorite forum as an example of one that’s pretty well-run.
“[Tape Op Message Board] is better overall but for some reason they don’t get much traffic. I can’t figure that out given the quality of their print magazine. It could be that their users realize that once you figure out where the aim the microphones and how to use a compressor, there really isn’t that much to talk about, at least on a daily basis.”
That’s as good of an analysis as any I’ve heard. It’s also be worth noting that perhaps that board is more useful and easier to manage because it’s significantly smaller. On the other hands, we could look at the success of the forums at HomeRecording.com which maintain a friendly and helpful atmosphere on a fairly large scale.
A lot of our readers said they’ve been actively searching for new outlets that are a more natural fit for their worldview. Ira Henderson of Austin, Texas wrote had an assessment that was representative of many of our letters:
“I just wanted to let you know I really enjoyed reading your article on GS and Pitchfork.
It makes sense to me, because they both seem to have become so bloated… [I’ve read but] never really liked Pitchfork much because they just came off as obnoxious, and some of my favorite albums got bashed on there.
…Gearslutz seems out of control. It can make budget-minded, solo-musician, home-studio owners like myself feel like crap sometimes because we don’t record on a Neve board and a Studer tape deck. I record on a 1/2″ Tascam 8 track tape in my living room.”
He echoes our reader’s three biggest complaints regarding that particular website: A low “signal-to-noise ratio”, a lack of diversity, and a potentially dangerous fetishization of recording gear. But what makes Ira different is that he was so inspired, that he decided to start his own forum this fall.
His new niche website, VintageAnalog.net is devoted exclusively to trading tips, information and deals on analog tape machines. The forum is clearly still in the birthing stages, but Ira is hopeful it will become a tight-knit, vibrant community for keeping otherwise hard-to-find information alive. We wish him luck. In the meantime, several of you wrote to say that say that some of the day-to-day conversations you used to have on forums have since migrated to social media. It’s a progression that’s affected traffic all over the web.
Keeping it Clean
Very few of our readers resorted to outright trashing of either website we covered we covered in this story, but there were some amusing snipes at each: one reader called Gearslutz “ a questionable monolith of misinformation,” another wrote “it’s like the comments section of an audio website, without the actual website.” A couple were nastier, and quite honestly, even funnier. I won’t print them here.
Even though I don’t personally rely on Pitchfork or Gearslutz as a source for clear-eyed reporting and expert opinion, I did want to make sure we gave them credit for the things they’ve done well. I have tremendous admiration for their ability to excite and expand. I was also hoping some of you would write in taking a more pro-Pitchfork or pro-Gearslutz stance that I could run in this section. Unfortunately, among the scores of emails you sent, there just weren’t any.
My ears perked up when one reader let me know that someone took it on himself to post the article to the Gearslutz forum, where it caused a brief stir, inspiring dozens of responses in just a few short hours. I visited the site hoping to find some impassioned words commending the value the forum and its recent practice so that I could relay them here.
One poster did make an admirable case. He responded to criticisms of censorship by arguing that the very fact the article was being discussed on the forum went to prove that Gearslutz is an open and transparent community that values free thought and honest discourse. Unfortunately, I was unable to directly quote him here. In a crushing blow of irony, the site’s moderators deleted the entire thread without a trace mere hours later.
Before it was deleted, commenters seemed somewhat split on the value of the forum in recent times. I wish someone had made the point that since the moderators have begun taking a hard-line position on controlling the opinions and information posted on the site, it has become somewhat more civil. If you don’t mind the very narrow focus this leads to, it can be a benefit.
Although this article did inspire feeling of schadefraude in a few readers, I hope the real takeaway is that it’s always appropriate to talk about how we can improve our discussions about music and technology, and how we can make better, more moving records.
But what about Pitchfork?
The most amusing and valuable critique the article did receive came from Village Voice music editor Maura Johnston. She posted a link to the story on her blog along with a charmingly dismissive summary:
She also embedded a video clip of the hilarious intro to Ghostbusters, where Bill Murray’s “scientist” character (Peter Venkman) repeatedly zaps a test subject he doesn’t like to impress a young woman.
I loved it.
Johnston edits the Voice’s Sound of the City, and writes fun junk-food analyses of music and pop culture for a variety outlets including popdust and idolotar. Some of her most entertaining pieces read as halfway between gossip column and record review, and rarely fail to stir up the blood. She also mentions that her “dream job” is to be “chief fact-checker of the internet.”
I asked Johnston to elaborate on her preference for the traffic-tracking service Quantcast for this section. That site shows a more modest downward trend for the website Pitchfork than Google or Compete. According to their data, Pitchfork has only lost a few tens of thousands of readers over the past year, bringing the site back down to an average level of traffic similar to its 2008/2009 levels. She emailed to say:
“Quantcast is by no means new – It’s been used by larger web sites for a very long time… Quantcast-participating sites put a tracker bug in their source code, so it’s more reliable than Compete, which uses a sampling of an audience to extrapolate greater traffic trends à la the similarly flawed Alexa.
…I’d always trust stats that result from internally installed traffic-measurement tools over [those that are] free and open to the public. “The industry” will never have better third-party measurement tools because it simply isn’t in its interest to do so for multiple reasons, [like] keeping up appearances [and] revenue streams.”
She also suggests that a few of our guesses at the reasons behind for any downward may be flawed:
“The Bon Iver rave and the festival booking? Ask any Fader or Vice reader if they care about the correlation between promotional events and glowing writeups – although you should probably do so when they’re not drunk on SoCo or whatever liquor brands those magazines’ marketing arms are touting. And c’mon, that record was very widely loved!”
(I might argue that we could sure use some additional magazines that will cater to the many new-music fans who may never feel appropriately served by Fader, Vice, or Pitchfork, but that’s a whole ‘nuther rant!) In closing, she says:
“I think that there’s a case to be made for [Pitchfork’s] Best New Music not being the magic bullet it once was, for sure. The market has expanded and more people have turned to smaller niche sites (not to mention social networks, which have probably done more traffic damage to content sites across the board than anything else.) … But Pitchfork is hardly in nosedive mode. After all, if it really was, wouldn’t the most obvious indicator be people not talking about it?”
A fair point for sure.
I’m just glad we didn’t bore you guys to death with this 4,000+ word essay! As a new writer, I was heartened to hear how many of you read every word. I also loved hearing your many takes on the story, so thanks for sticking with it. I hope you enjoyed the little mental ride.