In Which the Blogger Explains Himself

Blogmeister Douglas McLennan asks the question, Why do professional writers who have regular print gigs bother to write a blog, sans pay? It’s a good question, and one I’ve been asked, but not one I’ve answered publicly, though it’s fairly easy, with multiple answers.

First of all, let’s examine the premise that I’m a successful writer in a print medium. Last year, in an attempt to make the Village Voice more profitable for sale, free-lancer rates were slashed; my per-column pay was cut by 52%, which is the largest cut I heard of at the Voice. Since the paper was sold, the music editor has been fired, as has the editor who hired me, Doug Simmons, 20 years ago. Were I to send in a column now, I’m not sure who I’d send it to; I suppose Bob Christgau is still there, but I’m afraid if I check I’ll learn he isn’t. (I got a letter from Chuck Eddy urging me to sign the new contract, and before I could respond, he was gone, let go because under him the music section had been “too academic.” Has there ever been anyone in the Voice music section more “academic” than myself?) These layoffs come, not because the Voice was having financial problems – on the contrary, its recent profit margin, 29%, has been the highest in its history. But the company merged with New Times Media, known as the “Clear Channel of Alternative Weeklies”, and its new board members are simply soaking it for as much income as possible, integrity and artistic quality be damned.

For me, a Village Voice without Doug Simmons is not the Village Voice. I’ll say nothing against the paper – it saved my life, gave me a career, allowed me to print a million apparently outrageous opinions, and was a great job for 11 years, out of the 19 I was there. I’ve published my anthology of Voice articles, almost all taken from the 1989-to-1996 years that were my glory period there. Now, one has to admit that except for the building, the Village Voice I used to work for no longer exists. Given that I was already immensely dissatisfied with my paltry 600-word limit, which prevented me from doing any writing I was proud of, I guess it’s official: I don’t write there anymore.

This is typical of what’s happening throughout the print industry. Nevertheless, I still have other writing gigs. My favorite is my bi-monthly “American Composer” column for Chamber Music magazine, which I dearly love because I don’t need a news peg to hang it on, and can write about any (American) composer I want, as long as they’ve written some chamber music. I still write program notes for the Cincinnati Symphony, though there it’s extremely rare, as you can imagine, that I get to write about any composer on whom I’m a certified authority. Still, I enjoy sorting out the intricacies of Mahler’s Das Knaben Wunderhorn lieder and extolling Carl Nielsen’s symphonies, and am happy to do that for money. More importantly, I’ve got three book projects at various stages, and those are what the blog really cuts into, justifying Alex Ross’s definition of blogging: public procrastination.

Even so, I have to admit that, even if I were never paid, I would write up a storm if given an outlet. My reason is the same as Henry Cowell’s (who wrote about 225 articles over the course of his career, about a tenth of my total so far). I am a composer, and not only is my music little-known: the very genre I write in, speaking as broadly as possible, is virtually unknown to the public, and is, to the extent that it is known, widely misinterpreted. I could, as a composer, simply write about my own music, which I would be thrilled to do, but few would pay attention. I know what Cowell knew: that there is no such thing as a famous composer in an unknown genre. No one composer can benefit from publicity unless his entire scene becomes a public phenomenon. Listeners need comparisons, context, parallels. And to tell the truth, I, like Cowell, have a strong sense of social responsibility and an inconvenient altruistic streak. I write about the musics of John Luther Adams and Eve Beglarian because I love their work and think you should be familiar with it. Public neglect of them grates painfully on my sense of fairness.

More urgency is given to my writing by the number of people I represent. If you do not hail from the same Downtown scene I have spent my adult life in, you doubtless conclude that my opinions are highly individualistic, curious and occasionally entertaining, perhaps, but marginal because so completely idiosyncratic. It isn’t true. When I get together with composer friends – Adams, Beglarian, Mikel Rouse, Mary Jane Leach, William Duckworth, Art Jarvinen, might not mind being mentioned in this regard – we all share pretty much the opinions and concerns that I express. I just happen to be the only one in the group that writes about them. I represent no maverick view, no lunatic fringe, but the very mainstream of composers who, influenced by Cage, Feldman, and minimalism, turned away from the modernist path. Were I to stop writing, a major wing of contemporary music would fall off the map of public discourse almost entirely, as far as any regular coverage is concerned. No one is waiting for “the new Kyle Gann” to appear more eagerly than myself, and he or she is welcome to the bulk of the burden.

And so, from a mixture of self-serving and conscientious motives, I blog, gratis. And there are other reasons:

1. To keep in practice, in case a paying gig comes along. I do fantasize about leaving academia and becoming a full-time writer again, though some tremendous social transformation would have to take place for this to become possible again.

2. To remind people that I’m a pretty darn good writer, in case anyone wants to hire me – although I sabotage this aim when I don’t polish my prose very assiduously because I’m not being paid for it, and believe me I notice the difference.

3. It keeps the free CDs coming.

4. Because I truly think that I have some weird brain connection whereby, when I hear music, words pile up in my head, and writing them down is a way of getting rid of them.

5. Someone’s gotta keep Alex Ross in line. If not me, who? If not now, when?

Of course, none of this, except for perhaps the free CDs, explains, to me, why anyone else in the print world would write a blog. I’m a pretty clear-cut case; all those other guys are a mystery.

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Comments

  1. says

    Well, Kyle, aside from some music reviews for sequenza 21, I don’t get free CDs. Certainly not for my own blog, and given that I am doing some freelance medical writing right now, one would think it would be foolhardy to keep on blogging.

    But I suspect we all do it for similar reasons: the need for self-expression and giving ourselves a voice, even if it’s only to bitch about something. Or to call attention to something praiseworthy. Or to help others with something. It’s the same reason why I’ll keep writing letters on behalf of the ACLU in favor of emergency contraception and abortion rights. There are just some things that are too important to get paid for.

    Besides, it makes life interesting. I have one or two groupies that actually read my blog regularly, and even though one of them lives all of three minutes from me, we both comment on each other’s blogs every now and then. Geeky, perhaps, but it does make life interesting.

  2. Paul Muller says

    Writing words is like writing music: you do it because you have something to say. The Internet makes that possible for everyone and we are the richer for it. Pity the Voice and the other print media, they are dinosaurs, 29% profit margin or not.

  3. Noah Creshevsky says

    Your contributions as a writer will outlast the Village Voice. Through your analysis of developments in new music, you have encouraged composers and performers, and have helped to shape the direction of music in our time. You have produced an enduring record for which many of us are deeply grateful.

  4. Christian Hertzog says

    “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”–Samuel Johnson
    I wonder what Dr. Johnson would have to say about blogging?
    I agree with Kyle and Alex Ross, blogging for writers is public procrastination. I owe about 7 concert reviews (for which I get paid), and here I am posting a comment on Kyle’s blog–but I’m so glad you blog, Kyle!