To say that Ben Rayner and Joshua Ostroff are exhausted would be an understatement. The pair has endured three days of burning sunshine, fast food and little-to-no sleep, and the wear and tear is evident. They look no different, though, than the thousands of other burned-out 20-somethings around them – with their hair cropped close to their heads in cool pseudo-buzz cuts and funky specs perched on their noses – as they’ve spent this July weekend enduring less-than-perfect rock festival conditions. It’s been worth it, as the music swelling up from all sides has been blasting almost nonstop, and the prospect of an all-night rave has the two ready to grab their glow sticks and dance until dawn, tired or not. There’s nothing, really, that sets them apart from anyone around them except that in a few hours’ time, when the smell of smoke hangs heavy in the air and Woodstock ’99 burns to cinders they’ll both have front-page stories to file.
The Toronto Star‘s Rayner, 25, and The Ottawa Sun‘s Ostroff, 23, join T’Cha Dunlevy at Montreal’s The Gazette, Stuart Derdeyn at Vancouver’s The Province and Bartley Kives at the Winnipeg Free Press as examples of a new breed of music journalists currently changing the way metropolitan dailies cover music. Reporting stories “from the inside out,” adopting a style more in keeping with local alternative weeklies and looking critically, often harshly, at music are characteristics of this new style, as these writers go about setting mainstream rock reporting on its ear. No longer is it enough just to watch a concert and post a half-baked review; young readers are too informed for that and they have other options. These writers know they have to bring more than the facts to the table. They take an active role in the music culture they analyze, and their opinions speak to a younger audience.
The reason for this change, which many in the music industry feel has been far too long in coming, is partly economic. With the launch of the National Post, the battle for readers at local dailies has intensified. Young people have always been the hardest for newspapers to attract, and with most major cities boasting at least one alternative weekly, they’re having an even harder time reaching those 18 to 25 or younger. The marketing department at the Star, whose Monday-to-Friday 18-to-24-year-old readership was 133,000 in 1999, hasn’t seen many changes in numbers over the years, but it would like to. As older readers die off or become less desirable to advertisers, it’s increasingly necessary to bring in young readers, and if young people are happy with the coverage now, they’re likely to stay. One has only to check out The Hamilton Spectator‘s Alt-Spec section, with its progressive entertainment coverage, or the Star‘s Boom! (formerly Life on Young Street) pages, where young adults write about their own issues and ideas, to see the trend toward youth marketing. But it’s in their music coverage that the papers have really tapped into what the kids want.
Rayner, a graduate of Carleton University’s journalism program, was hired two years ago by the Star after a stint as pop critic at the Sun, and from the start his coverage has been very different from his predecessors’. Rayner is part of the culture he writes about. He goes to raves, listens to techno and electronic music at home and is comfortable waxing nostalgic about punk history with members of the new breed of indie rock bands. In Rayner’s style, there’s an element of Nick Kent, the legendary music critic for the British music weekly NME. It’s an approach that suggests this isn’t just a job for him: the music he covers would be part of his life whether he was writing about it or not. His work often appears on the front page of the Entertainment section, though he sometimes leaves older readers scratching their heads.
“There are two ways to go,” he says of music writing. “You either describe it to people as if it’s a tribe of kids in Africa, or you attack it as a participant and critique it from within. If you’re a part of a scene, you start seeing things in that scene that someone who is not a participant – someone who is just making a few phone calls, canvassing other critics and talking to a couple of musicians – doesn’t. They’re not aware of the intricacies. They just have a different outlook.”
This is something kids pick up on, this journalism-from-a-distance that comes from writers who aren’t involved in the music they cover. Younger people are accustomed to music writing in the alternative weeklies, where writers are younger, hipper, more in the loop. They don’t want to read a middle-aged, often uninformed critic trying to write about jungle, hip-hop, acid jazz or trip-hop. “You know when you read something by someone who knows and lives electronic dance culture and then you read something by someone outside,” says Rayner. “It’s a very tangible difference.”
It’s this sort of reporting that allowed Rayner to bring life to his Woodstock ’99 coverage. Although he provided the facts, there was a spirit to what he wrote, a very modern cynicism that those in their early twenties understand. Writing about the “testosterone-seeped metal savagery and the escapist, no-message digital hedonism of pre-millennial dance culture,” Rayner tied it all up with an Elvis Costello quotation asking “what’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding?” that perfectly captured “Profitstock.”
Writing for youth culture has its limitations. When Rayner wrote a front-page entertainment story on electronic music for the December 18, 1999, edition of the Star, Sean K. Robb, lifestyle and entertainment editor atChart Magazine, Canada’s national music monthly, fielded an unusual call from his mother. She wanted to know if Robb had read the article, which he had. “Well, did you understand it?” she asked. Robb admitted that it was dauntingly full of terms like trance, ambient and drum ‘n’ bass, but, yes, he’d understood. Robb is 26, though, and deeply involved in the music business. His mom, who isn’t, gave up reading halfway through, frustrated by the lingo and obscure references.
Rayner looks slightly pained when asked about alienating some of the paper’s readers, as though he’s used to answering that question. He says that the Star has given him the freedom to write about what he chooses, that his editors trust his judgement, but you can tell he’s had to justify his choices more than once. His defence, though, is one that seems to have infused much of the Star‘s music coverage of late. “You can write for the Star‘s audience,” says Rayner, “or you can write for a new audience and hope the old one can get on board.”
Trying to bring new readers on board isn’t easy. With the increased usage of freelancer Jennie Punter, the paper’s editorial managers seem to be admitting that, while they like what Rayner’s doing, they want some mainstream coverage, too. Rayner openly admits that when he was the lone pop critic at the paper, he had so much on his plate that he simply cut out an entire tier of artists. He opted to overlook middle-of-the-road rock acts like radio staples Eve 6, Nickelback and others he deemed uninteresting.
Punter has picked up a lot of those bands, and Rayner has been able to concentrate on the artists he wants to cover and on the reporting of pop culture itself. His selectivity and what some see as his elitist attitude have, however, earned him a reputation in the business. While some publicists rave about Rayner, as do many underground artists in the community, there are those who find him less of a wunderkind than a pain in the ass. One well-respected industry insider opined that Rayner was “one of the most frustrating pop music critics in the country,” noting that he rarely answers his phone at the Star, or returns messages. Nor does Rayner show as much interest in artists who have achieved mainstream success as some think he should.
Rayner, who works mostly at home, shrugs off the criticisms, noting that he gets 25 to 30 messages a day at the Star and that he has to trust his own judgement. He returns phone calls for at least an hour daily, but there’s no way to get to everyone and still find time to write. This has meant a few bruised egos and certain acts not getting the coverage they once expected, but it has also given the Star‘s music pages a fresher, more vibrant feel. There’s still Bryan Adams, but he’s right next to Moby and The Chemical Brothers. Rayner’s editors, for their part, have let him make those choices and, while the numbers are not yet showing it, the feedback indicates Rayner has done what he set out to do – attract a younger audience.
“The best compliment I’ve gotten at the Star is that everybody’s kids read my stuff,” says Rayner. “People have come up to me and said, ‘I don’t know what you’re writing about, but my daughter sure likes it.’ So even though the management might be confounded by a lot of it, they realize that a lot of people out there read it.”
For Lucinda Chodan, entertainment editor at the Gazette, getting kids interested in the paper’s music coverage is the first step in a long battle. She knows that young people are an elusive audience in the newspaper world, but the four weekly alternative papers – two in English and two in French – are a huge part of entertainment culture in Montreal and are popular with young readers. So when the Gazette‘s former rock critic left the section in 1997, Chodan was happy to poach T’Cha Dunlevy from Hour, one of the city’s alternative weeklies.
Dunlevy, 29, a former hip-hop DJ, fell into music writing because he thought hip-hop coverage at the weeklies was weak and that he could do a better job. He spent three years on the hip-hop beat at Hour, developing a strong portfolio and an interest in other forms of underground music. Dunlevy – who, like Rayner, is part of the music scene he writes about – has brought a new respect to the Gazette‘s coverage and given its entertainment pages an edge that is usually found only at weeklies. He does stories about raves and electronic dance culture, phenomena that had received scant mention before he arrived, and he has written extensively about local bands and DJs who might otherwise have been overlooked. He admits that he sometimes finds it hard writing for a mainstream daily, as he’s used to writing for a club-going audience that gets his references, but the Gazette is letting him experiment and make his own judgements about what its audience will understand or be willing to learn about. “It’s actually surprisingly free,” he says of his position at the paper.
For her part, Chodan wants to bring in new readers and compete with the weeklies, but she says this isn’t the only reason the Gazette hired Dunlevy. Aside from improving music coverage at the paper, which, unlike movies and art coverage, had never strayed far from mainstream releases, Chodan also believed there were legitimate musical forms being overlooked in the Gazette. “We, like many newspapers, were caught in a time warp,” admits Chodan. “We had hired writers when they were in their twenties, and as they got older their musical tastes changed very little. They didn’t keep up with the times.” She needed someone young enough to understand the latest musical trends and provide proper critical analysis so that readers could also understand and appreciate them. But Chodan also sought a writer who could cover some mainstream artists. She laughs as she tells me that on the day of our interview, Dunlevy had just filed a column on one of the many ska-punk bands in the city before running off to interview jazz-pop vocalist Harry Connick Jr., two very different stories, but both necessary in the section. Dunlevy, with his DJ background, indie credibility, mainstream knowledge and strong writing skills, fit the bill.
The Province has felt a similar need to diversify and make itself relevant to its younger readers. The paper has a strong suburban base, and record sales in those areas prove that interest in hip-hop and electronic music is strong. That’s why music critic Stuart Derdeyn has never had trouble bringing the underdog bands he champions to the Province’s pages. At 35, Derdeyn is older than most of the new breed of music writers, but he can still go on about Cold Cut and Ninja Tune Records or the latest hip-hop release with a knowledge and a passion that are refreshing by traditional newspaper standards. Many dailies in Canada have been slow to include coverage of hip-hop and other new musical forms, but during Derdeyn’s 10 years with the paper, he has tried to incorporate these genres alongside more mainstream coverage. This has helped the paper keep up with its main competitor, The Vancouver Sun, in music writing, as well as target the interests of its suburban readers. The papers themselves are targeting different audiences, but both seemed to be skewing their music coverage toward a “hipper” sensibility in the past few years. “It’s really important that dailies relate to their readers and provide them with what they want,” says Derdeyn. “A lot of times it takes just one person to say, ‘This is what I want to do,’ and convince the editors in charge that this is what should be done.”
Convincing those editors isn’t always easy, as Rayner can attest. He remembers editors at the Ottawa Sunconstantly asking why he was covering another indie band or little-known artist. His pushing editors to let him write about artists he thought deserved coverage made things easier for his replacement, Joshua Ostroff, who recently left the paper to travel around the world and write about music as a freelancer. Ostroff wrote about electronic and rave music and other genres Rayner had advocated for in the Sun with little interference. Ostroff also brought to the paper a voice that one industry member described as that of “a cynical little fuck,” writing scathing reviews of stars like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Silverchair with the unrepentant snideness of a 20-something music fan in a style typically reserved for zine writers. It’s this cynical voice of a young generation that some believe is exactly what papers want.
Well, maybe not exactly what they want, but by bringing in music critics with stronger voices, that’s exactly what they’ve gotten. Perhaps one of the strongest and most honest voices in Canadian music coverage today is that of Bartley Kives at the Free Press. Kives, 30, prides himself on saying precisely what he thinks, regardless of how many music industry members he rankles. Often, music critics fear angering artists or publicists, so reporting is limited and reviews are rarely scathing. Kives brings a strong point of view to his music stories, which he bases on solid reporting.
His reviews are always tough. Describing a recent Alanis Morissette show, he wrote, “nouveau-Alanis is a watered-down ’90s version of the bong-blowing raga rockers of yesteryear.” Not exactly typical of the respectful treatment Morissette gets in some papers, but Kives’s outspokenness has made him popular with the Free Press‘s young audience and gives edge to his appearances on CBC Radio’s Definitely Not the Opera. Kives is hopeful that the new writers are a sign that things are changing. Having a stronger basis for criticism and a willingness to use it is an important factor in changing how music writing is practised.
“When I listen to music I really think about it. I try to figure out what it means and how it fits into a broader cultural picture,” says Rayner of his own criticism, which has been biting at times. It’s a willingness to step away from being the nice guy and from always championing artists that has helped Rayner find his own voice. He’s able to explain a work, and often its pop-culture significance, rather than simply describe the music and rehash the band bio. And when the artist isn’t meeting his standards, he’s the first one to say so. This has meant scathing reviews for artists, such as the Matthew Good Band, who are CanCon mainstays but whom Rayner finds musically lacking. It has also meant that pop culture itself has been on the receiving end of his disenchantment. He soundly trounced Canada’s major concert tour, Edgefest ’99, in a blistering July editorial calling it “less of a triumph of quality Canadian music than it is largely a testament to the power of seven-figure marketing budgets, CanCon regulations and the concurrent drawing power of the bigger-name imports who’ve been brought in to shore up the less commercially surefire homegrown lineup.” In his wrap-up of 1999 he noted that it was the year of “lobotomized pop made by mannequins with no real connection to external reality for listeners either too young or too purposely blind to realize how dreadful things really are.”
But even the most sardonic music reporter at a daily has to write about things that aren’t necessarily cool, which is why Rayner finds himself at a Mel C concert on October 4, 1999, looking out of place watching The-Artist-Formerly-Known-As-Sporty-Spice without a four-year-old on his arm. He’s taking notes, standing back from the crowd, and at one point turns to another critic and remarks that it’s like watching your little sister in her first rock band. Tomorrow, this line will appear in a review that is surprisingly gentle considering Mel C is an artist many would have thought of as an easy target. It’s a thoughtful review from a writer known for his pessimistic streak, but who also fears becoming just another cool, caustic music critic. It’s this trait that has probably kept Rayner from moving too far away from the interests of the Star‘s audience, but he’s still leery of making it his signature. For a young music critic, it pays to be factual and fair, but not to be seen as too nice too often.
He’s been lucky to establish a recognizable voice so young, but when being young and in the know is a major part of your appeal, it’s not always easy to picture your future. Like all music writers of the moment, Rayner knows he won’t be 25 forever, and 10 years down the road he too might be that guy trying to figure out what the kids are listening to. “I hope I jump ship before I get out of touch. I don’t want to be one of those idiots who’s totally out of his depth, trying to grapple with whatever’s new,” he says, adding as cynically as ever: “I hope that won’t happen, but I’m sure that it will. Everyone turns into their dad eventually.” For now, though, the dailies won’t let your dad write about music.