Why I’m Leaving No Depression
In the summer, I met someone for coffee. I care a great deal about what this person thinks of me, so when he slid a CD across the table rather apologetically and asked me to review it on No Depression, I was shocked. I didn’t ever anticipate him asking for a favour like that, or my opinion on something.
Well here we are in November and I still haven’t written that review. To tell you the truth, it’s because assignments like that, with such big expectations attached, sometimes paralyze me. A normal record review would be fine, but I take them all seriously, and want to put as much effort as possible into making them great. Not just to be a good writer and improve my skills, but to offer artists who are desperate for coverage something meatier than your average 100-word dashed off assignment for a weekly.
That review is likely going to be the last thing I write for No Depression. There are many reasons it’s time for me to sign off, but it is, finally, time.
No Depression, as those who watch the site closely know, has gone through a series of changes recently. They are positive, for the most part. While the new model of paying columnists and feature writers has meant a site cleanup, the disappearance of community members’ foolish antics, and a more corporate model that privileges advertisements and promotional segments over discussion boards and blogs, it’s a new model of paying columnists and feature writers. A novel idea these days, to pay your content creators.
Unfortunately for me, this new model signifies a sea change in roots music, one that I’ve been watching play out over the last few years. I knew this was coming. I’ve talked about it at great length, mostly with my partner, who, like me, is part of a small music community that is getting squeezed dry, lifeless, out, by external forces that often have nothing to do with music. Anyhow, I’ve watched it. I began studying roots music around 1998, and went full-on in 2002, parlaying my interest into a master’s degree and then a PhD. I took it everywhere I could: I hosted radio programs, playing unknown roots musicians; I organized concerts; I created panels at conferences, took my friends out to shows, burned music for new friends, got press passes and interviewed singers, reviewed records, booked a venue for a year, flew across the country to volunteer at a folk festival for ten years, started a new festival, played the music at home on my own instruments, I gave talks, I published papers, I began editing a folk music journal. The list goes on. Whatever. The point is, I was dedicated. I believed in this music, and further, I believed that at the heart of it was a small group of good, like-minded people who eschewed wealth and notoriety for the opportunity to collaborate and share their music with others who felt the same way. It was a micro model for how I wanted the world to be.
Every semester, I teach my students that popular music moves in cycles, and it’s happened so often that we can now pretty accurately pinpoint what’s going to happen next. Something rises to mainstream popularity, and the thing that is least like it, usually something weird, starts bubbling underground, exciting people because it’s the opposite of what they’re forced to hear every day. It’s different, challenging, even dangerous. Think punk vs. Captain and Tennille. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” vs. “More Than Words.” The point is not the music; it’s the reaction against something that went through the commodification process, starting as an organic, community-driven, dynamic art form moving into the processes of homogenization and commercialization. This is what has happened to roots music in the last ten years. After O Brother, off it went, gathering momentum as the decade progressed, picking up musicians who shaved off the less appealing elements and smoothed it into a nice, palatable genre that, while still interesting in its engagement with other musics and diverse practitioners, can often rely on only a soaring pedal steel and a set of lyrics about intense heartbreak.
I’m going to piss a lot of people off by saying this. I know. I don’t care. I’ve spent nearly six years on ND watching you hold on to something that is slipping away, becoming exactly what you fear. My proof for this is in the number of students that turn in essays on The Lumineers, Mumford and Sons, and Ed Sheeran. None of those artists would exist if roots music hadn’t started in the ’90s as a subversive reaction against new country, and gone through the burning-off process that left pop-infused banjo dance music floating at the top.
You’ll argue with me, saying, Gillian, roots music has always existed, because it’s real American music that lies at the root of all other popular music. And I’ll say yes, sure, but punk has not vanished since the day it emerged, nor has disco, but they did slip underground and go unnoticed for a while, and also came bubbling back up as new generations resurrected them.
In short, I’m tired of roots music. I’ve thought this for a while now, and been afraid to say it because my whole fucking career is predicated on the genre. But I’m tired – and not because I lament its commercialization. I’ve got enough objective distance to know this will happen to any form of music, no matter how much I might like it. And to be honest, I don’t care if what I like is popular or not; that does not fit into my criteria for putting on a song.
I am tired, however, because I cannot continue to align myself with a community that is no longer community-minded. It has increasingly become all about the money. I could bemoan the fact that I’ve written 175 pieces for No Depression and never been paid, or that I’ve sent many pitches in since ND started paying for features and never had them answered – which, in all fairness, is difficult for an editor to handle. Most editors do not answer emails. On the other hand, the absence of that community spirit is precisely what generates these broken connections. The only way I, as an editor of another publication, can keep it going is to constantly be in contact with my authors, letting them know I appreciate their work, that I want more, that we are looking for the specific thing they are able to write about. But here we are in a world that has fetishized the “economy”, a lumbering and ineffective framework with which we cannot measure the artistic merit of any given work. Yet all we can do is offer our artistic output to a world whose only means of rewarding us is to pay for it, and the primary way to money is to get “exposure” in the form of online time and space. We’re all competing for rapidly depleting attention, in a world that valorizes an entrepreneurship that yields big cash, rather than quality works of art made by dedicated individuals. There aren’t many organizations left to support, whether financial or structural, creative work.
That’s where roots music is at, I think.
Aside from my own compulsion to move on, after 17 years in a field that encourages specialization to the point of insanity, I need a rest. This year was a big wakeup call for me health-wise. It turns out, as I slide uncontrollably towards 40, I can’t work 15-hour days, 7 days a week. It turns out I can’t stare at a computer screen and not get up for four hours at a time. It turned out I had a brain tumour, not one to worry about, but one that made me seriously reprioritize. It’s getting increasingly harder to work for the reasons I had set out, when I am burnt out. Most depressing to me is that I never minded writing for ND without pay, because I knew I was giving deserving musicians a shot at some good exposure, to an audience they might not otherwise reach. Now that has been taken away by the reformatting of the site and newsletter. There are no more review sections, places where someone unknown might be lucky enough to get a headline. Why would I write if I have no chance of capturing the attention of some readers and potential fans?
So here we are, at a moment when roots music has become big business, a place where it’s hard to get noticed unless you’re at the top, and the community spirit of it has been subsumed by intense competition, an overabundance of producers, and fractured relationships. I’ve seen this play out in many places, including ND.
I’ll continue on the things I’ve started, that mean something to me: I mean, I’ve spent enough time on my book that I can’t not release it. I found the festival I worked on to be one of the last bastions of support and love amongst a small community of musicians and fans. But other projects will have to go.
I’ve spent my whole adult life advocating for things that I think are neglected and deserving of more attention. On the one hand, that work has led to valuable connections, opportunities, and the feeling that I’ve more often than not made the right choices. On the other, it’s led to health problems, and a life in which I am stretched too thin and not doing anything of quality. My right choice now – the one that I feel will best make use of my skills and sit right with my internal ethical code – is to focus my energies on projects and issues that are in need of pressing, concentrated attention. Maybe you think I’m too negative, in which case, great. I’d love to know that optimism and energy still exists in any form of music making. And I’ll be around to check in occasionally.
So I’ll sign off with one more record review, and one final, important note: one of the best things that happened to me this year was opening my No Depression 20th anniversary edition and finally seeing what Hal Bogerd looks like. The biggest mystery in my life has been solved.
Much love to you all.