Considering the Success of the “33 1/3” Series and “How to Read Music”
It’s no secret that Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series has, since its beginning 12 years ago, become a critical darling. The series is often highly praised for publishing affectionate fans’ notes on well-known and obscure music, or just unusual takes, such as John Darnielle’s novella about a troubled teen obsessed with Black Sabbath in his 33 1/3 book on that band’s Masters of Reality album.
33 1/3 kicked out the jams in 2003 with books on five classic albums: Dusty in Memphis by Dusty Springfield, Forever Changes by Love, Harvest by Neil Young, The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society by the Kinks, and Meat is Murder by the Smiths. Between 2003 and 2012, 86 books appeared in the series – ten per year – covering albums by artists as different as James Brown, Bob Dylan, Prince, the Pixies, Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, and Celine Dion. In 2014, the series published its hundredth title – Susan Fast’s take on Michael Jackson’s Dangerous – and the hits just keep on coming.
This September and October, we’ll see Bryan C. Parker on Beat Happening’s Beat Happening, David Masciotra on Metallica’s Metallica, Walter Holland on Phish’s A Live One, and, in the series first album devoted to jazz album, George Grelle on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.
Yet, in spite of the popularity of the series, there was a moment a few years ago when 33 1/3 almost went the way of the eight track tape.
In 2012, Continuum decided to allow the series to wind down and published what was to be its last volume: Jonathan Lethem’s take on the Talking Heads’ Fear of Music. Much like vinyl, though, the series proved to be resilient and made a successful comeback. A now-famous part of this return to the bins included opening up the proposal process, so that anyone who wanted to submit a proposal about a favorite, or culturally significant, album, could. When David Barker, Bloomsbury UK editorial director, started the series, he was commissioning the titles himself, looking for authors from many other fields and offering them as much freedom as possible in their approach to an album. (Full disclosure: I worked as North American publisher of an imprint at Continuum when the series was born. I was fortunate enough to have sat in on weekly editorial board meetings with Barker and others, where we talked about the new book proposals and the forthcoming books in the series.) But when Bloomsbury purchased Continuum in 2011, Barker and the commissioning editor for popular music, Ally-Jane Grossan, proposed a plan to revive the series. “Bloomsbury loved the idea, and we issued an open call for new proposals in early 2012,” Grossan says, adding, “We received 471 proposals during that open call.” This response to that call clearly demonstrates the immense popularity of 33 1/3.
One of the unique aspects of the series is the involvement of the fans. As Grossan says, “33 1/3 is one of the most democratic publishing imprints in the world. The editorial process is very visible on the blog (www.333sound.com), even though David and I do the actual selecting. He and I carefully whittled down the 471 proposals to 94, and we posted the list on the blog … The blog serves as an open forum for the series, and we welcome input from fans and haters alike.”
Out of that 94, 33 1/3 published 18 titles over the next year (2014).
“These books tell a unique story about an album that is beloved but not always necessarily well-known,” says Grossan. This approach to music books has won critical praise, a loyal fan base, and steady sales – each volume has sold more than 3,000 copies.
The tenth anniversary of the series has now come and gone, and it continues to receive hundreds of proposals during the open submission period. In addition to the four titles coming in September and October this year, books tentatively slated to release over the next year include: Buzz Poole on Workingman’s Dead, Rolf Potts on The Geto Boys, Paula Mejia on The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy, Jovana Babović on Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out, Rebecca Wallwork on New Kids on the Block’s Hangin’ Tough, Emily Lorde on Donny Hathaway Live, and Kembrew McLeod on Blondie’s Parallel Lines.
For the many music fans who’ve wondered what a winning 33 1/3 proposal looks like, Grossan and Marc Woodworth, editor of Salmagundi, offer a peek at such proposals in their edited volume out earlier this year, How to Write about Music: Excerpts from the 33 1/3 Series, Magazines, Books, and Blogs with Advice from Industry-Leading Writers.
As Woodworth points out in his introduction, this is not simply a manual on how to write about music. “Read this book as a manual on how to write about music if you must,” he writes, “but also as an example of how to bury a manual on how to write about music in subterfuge, replacing it instead with a series of examples of how to think against a tradition of responsible and reliable criticism, in order that this tradition might be replaced with the literary traces of human passions. Because: the answer to the question of how to write music criticism in the twenty-first century is to write it exactly the same way that you would write a series of profane haikus to your love object, or in exactly the same way you would write a suicide note—as if the language of your music writing were extremely important to you, as if this were the only way to make contact with your readership.”
In order to illustrate the depth of passion that writers bring to their subjects, the editors excerpt from reviews and essays by leading music writers ranging from Ann Powers, Jessica Hopper, Chuck Klosterman, Alex Ross, Rob Sheffield, and Lester Bangs, among many others, with chapters devoted to writing about albums, reviews of live shows, personal essays, and interviews with musicians. The most entertaining and valuable part of the book are the sidebars between chapters, called appropriately “go-betweens,” in which music writers offer advice about the real work of music writing, such as pitching, making contact with editors, and writers’ biggest mistakes. The book closes with a chapter devoted to two successful proposals to the 33 1/3 series.
How to Read Music serves a nice primer to the business of music writing. Will it make you a better writer? It won’t. It will, however, illustrate the difference between writing and the business of writing. As most of the contributors point out: indeed, find your passion and write about that passion, but you’re only as good as your next gig. At least initially, until you establish your voice and your identity as a music writer, you’ll spend as much time – probably more – pitching and trying to collect the money you’ve earned as you will writing.
How to Read Music is not the end-all, be-all reference book to your life as the next Ellen Willis or Lester Bangs, but the estimable voices sharing their advice candidly in this collection serve as encouragers to the challenging territory of music writing in the 21st century.