Arts Desk

Should City Paper Cover More Singer-Songwriters?

While City Paper's punk cred appears to be well intact, the same can't be said of our singer/songwriter cred. Last month, I looked back at the paper's print music coverage in 2011, in the hopes of copping to our biases and identifying genres I felt deserved more of our attention:

Our music coverage remains heavily titled toward indie rock, punk, garage rock, and post-hardcore. Hip-hop probably comes next, but while Oddisee, Black Indian, and Pro'Verb got squibs in print—and X.O. got a full review—plenty of the year's most notable mixtapes never got mentioned beyond Arts Desk. I'd like to see more full-fledged mixtape reviews in 2012, especially since the line separating mixtapes from albums keeps getting blurrier and blurrier.

Two of the biggest success stories in local EDM didn't nab print mentions (although they were all over Arts Desk): Volta Bureau and the Future Times label. Oops. We missed some notable experimental releases, too. Our go-go coverage was mostly pitiful. And not enough of [Mike] West's and Mike Paarlberg's and Steve Kiviat's excellent online jazz and classical and world-music coverage (respectively) migrated to our weekly edition.

Then I added this parenthetical: "For the most part, we ignored the area's abundance of pop-folksy singer/songwriters, but, yeah, that won't change in 2012."

Fast-forward three weeks, and some local singer/songwriters are strumming a sad tune about the remark. Scroll to the bottom of the comments on my earlier post.

One musician, Ted Garber, took me to task on Twitter (actually, he called me "#douche"). Then he sent me this note:

Dear Jon,

Per our volley on #Twitter:

I find your recent comments from December 2011's WCP issue indefensible. The first time I ever heard about the Washington City Paper was from the "area's abundance of pop-folksy singer-songwriters" who vehemently encouraged me to read and support it when I started as a full-time professional musician in 1996. I still remember the full-length features written on some of my first mentors, including Kevin James and Daryl Davis. These same types of artists founded and continue to fund The Washington Area Music Association (WAMA) and The Songwriter's Association of Washington (SAW). I am well aware that, as with any editor's desk, you and your staff have biases. However, admitting to one's inclinations is not the same as flippantly bragging about them–mocking hardworking professional artists with open disdain for their craft. Moreover, rather than confessing to an inherent bias which you seek to counter, you proffer that you and your staff plan on continuing this predisposition throughout the coming year: "Yeah, that's not going to change in 2012." You, sir, made it personal. Hence, it should come as no surprise that so many have taken it personally.

I would expect more from a paper that so many of my own clan helped to tout and proliferate. Furthermore, I am truly shocked and furious that a chief section editor would not only permit such a lop-sided leaning among his own staff but that he would have the Capital City know that the bias is grossly intentional and perpetual. Your comments mock and defame an entire faction of our city's rich and eclectic musical heritage.

I am not writing out of sour grapes–some "reckoning" for the feature article or album review I never received. I am fortunate to have made a living solely from music since 1996 without any help from The City Paper, not even a plug or an honorable mention. No, I am writing to you out of respect and admiration for my fellow "pop-folksy singer songwriters" that you consciously ignore. As with any other professional artists, these people often work exceedingly hard in exchange for little to no pay. As with artists in every other genre, they devote their time and their efforts to a career path most deem too difficult or too thankless. They don't choose the genre of music that radiates from their soul any more than a person chooses his or her sexual orientation. They are following their compass. They make joyful noise for the world. It is their calling. It is mine. If you clearly do not intend to aid in this calling, at least do your best not to hinder it. We are all part of Washington's music community. Should we not be able to look to our local media outlets as a resource?

I hope you will consider my comments as a fellow member of the local music community and someone who has always had great respect for the long-standing Washington City Paper. I hope its fine tradition endures. I go on record thus.


Ted Garber

Here's what I told Garber:

My personal tastes aside, I'm honestly not opposed to City Paper covering, critically, any genre that's made locally. (Certainly, as a reporter and not a critic, I try to write a lot about the economics of every kind of local art.) But because my reviewers are generally pretty specialized, there are sounds that we favor and sounds that we end up ignoring (indeed, consciously). If a critic with the right chops and the right voice wanted to write about singer-songwriters for City Paper, I'd be open to it; it hasn't happened in the two years I've had the job. So, in all likelihood, "yeah, that's not going to change in 2012."

So there you have it.

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  • jim h

    It is touching that people think the City Paper is still relevant enough to waste time writing letters to it (and yet, here I am) and actually caring about what they cover.

  • JM

    i.e.: "I personally don't like acoustic music, so I'm not going to bother finding a contributor to review it. Thank you."

  • Mario

    Singer-songwriters, by their nature it seems, are a narcissistic lot, especially the ones performing solo. I am as open to any music genre as anyone, but I find 95% of them insufferable. There are some truly entertaining ones (Otis Gibbs), but by and large I simply don't care that you had a messed up childhood, have had a tough time making friends, or that you worship Leonard Cohen. Millions do; get over yourself.
    So, no, CP doesn't need additional coverage of these folks.

  • John

    As long as I remember the City Paper has not covered singer/songwriters in the area. As a result, people in DC don't turn to City Paper for information about "pop-folksy singer/songwriters." It's kind of sad, too, because there are a lot of fantastic singer/songwriters in the area. For someone to suggest that 95% of the local songwriters are "insufferable" that's crazy. The same could be said about 95% of indie artists in general that means songwriters, bands or whatever. To conclude that a talented indie band or songwriter shouldn't receive coverage in a local media outlet such as City Paper because there a lot of other artists that are "not good" is unfair.

    At the same time, the City Paper needs to appeal to it's existing readers and grow it's readership base. I think the best way to see if something is "worth" covering is to actually write about for a period of time with metrics in place to determine the impact of the coverage. If at that point there is no evidence that the particular topic should receive continuing coverage, so be it.

  • Jon Carroll

    Dear Jon & WCP~

    You seem to have acknowledged the full dress of the issue, addressed it with articulate and consultative dialogue, than stitched it all together once more into a nice hat that more closely resembles a burlap sack then crammed it back over our head.

    My problem, after all, is how the term singer-songwriter is presented as a sonic signifier as well as a genre dismissal. Not that all recordings begin or end with a song, but most do. And regardless of what that song is saying and how it’s being said, anything with lyrics is a written song whatever the genre. And someone is singing that written song.

    To name a mere few: Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Paul Simon, Lou Reed, Coldplay, Bowie, Beefheart, Band of Skulls, Lola Jesus, Junip, Jesus and Mary Chain are each and all songwriters or bands with songwriters. Take your pick of most any recordings, and unless it’s strictly instrumental--and sometimes even then--you’ll see a song with lyrical content in there.

    Are some edgier than others textually or sonically? One might easily neglectfully overlook one while knowingly dismissing the other. Some more pop-ier? Some folk-ier? Folksy-pop, maybe not an established genre--but what does that exactly mean?

    If WCP is referring to acoustic, folk, spare or simple 3 to 4 chord starkly accompanied performing songwriters, you might state so more articulately, more specifically. You clearly wax colloquial in a time when labels are so blurred (you do acknowledge the mix tape/album ambiguity) that we’re ever-compelled to clamor for descriptive certainty. So this could be a discussion of semantics, but I fear it concerns something more formidable and more consequential.

    Is one to perceive WCP’s reiterated policy statement as an unwillingness to write about, promote or cover any artist whose principal element purveyed through their art is lyrical content? Should WCP then recuse itself from critical regarding the lyrical content within any of the genres they do cover, or at least admit that lyrics are the least and last aspect worth regard?

    It would be refreshing to sense a more positive eagerness to welcome a field of potential critics to cover “singer-songwriters”, rather than beholding your skepticism-laced frontloaded naysay based on your two-year history with the paper. In any vibrant arts city--especially this Capital one—any apparent ongoing intransigent policy or a status quo smells very uncreative, inartistic, unadventurous, unliberated, stodgy— etc. and ew.

    Art reviewers--music reviewers in particular—can sometimes understandably frustrate and unnerve an artist for they enjoy the privileged license to impart the first and last official word regarding works whose very creation was something in which they had no direct hand. That’s not meant disrespectfully, or as a dismissal. Critical review is essential to a healthy artistic process, within and without, published or not.

    Many a critic’s names have become household words. The great Edmund Wilson was a well admired and respected writer, although mostly known for his abundant critical reviews and pieces. He had enough inherent and cultivated taste and judgmental skills as well as earned erudite credibility to be a trusted source for literary appraisal. He, too, had a dismissive side. He, too, felt some types of writing were not worth consideration. He also believed that all writing--even critiques—should be good enough to be considered literature.

    I’ve heard other music critics state proudly that their primary concern is to provide their readership with something colorful, enticing and entertaining. H.L. Mencken, Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis (certainly a novelist first) each discerning to barbed degrees, always manage to be fun to read.

    Yes, a critic’s job contains multitudes. It should never be taken lightly. Perhaps you feel that critical commentary on the work of singer-songwriters doesn’t offer enough fuel for that sort of fire.

    Critics have the ironic power of the written word with which to express an informed, informing and seasoned opinion of a work with the intention of aiding and influencing the audience’s approach to it, possibly hastening a decision whether to approach at all. It can and often does pass as entertaining reading. In fact, words and their crafted scan and sequence combine for an eerily powerful commodity. Any songwriter known for their songs would more than likely attest to them being if not the most important aspect of their work, than the one requiring the most focused and intensely invested effort.

    The creative process is a painstaking and subjective one. So is the act of critically reviewing, assessing and assailing, praising or poo-pooing the resultant work. Each process can be fulfilling, endearing, gratifying and righteous or unsettling, dyspeptic, vindictive and torturous.

    But for WCP to proudly brandish categorical and sweeping subjectivity as a policy statement (furthered in the guise of speculation that no one with “the chops” will likely come forth to mollify the situation) is pure bigotry, somewhat poorly articulated, at that.

    Today’s social networking platforms can create the unfortunate illusion that one’s proximal and encircling universe is the only universe. A newspaper (a City Paper) has the task (and you largely rise to it) of transcending that phenomenon and unifying—magnifying-- a city’s diverse art scene into our one proud corner of the sky. Within that though, exclusionary policies based on vague terminology will prove counterintuitive. You notably and generally do excel at this mission--the title of your piece was the inviting inquiry, “so how’d we do?” which is, on one hand, amiable, admirable and encouraging--unmistakably in the spirit of convivial inclusion and pluralistic awareness. One the other hand, it contrasts into an unfriendly and unbecoming light the reiterated intent to banish a huge--and I believe legitimate--faction of our arts community to the literary elsewhere.

    ‘What is hip? Tell me, tell me if you think you know…”

    I’ve been around long enough to know what isn’t: bigotry and uninformed dismissiveness. We might all strive to be cooler in that regard.

    Thanks for indulging my far too many words, and many thanks for all you do! I’m digging the 2011 list of salient artists and recordings from 2011.

    I can also chime, apart from this bit of a blip, job well done!

    May yours and other area publications along with the efforts of all the artistic players in the Washington DC area continue to be a hearty, mindful and soulful collaboration toward an ever-more realized, flourishing and thriving artistic community.

    ~Jon Carroll Songwriter, Musician

  • Dan Fisk

    The uproar in the singer-songwriter community (of which I am a part) over these comments has been massive. Hundreds of comments and threads on dozens of FB pages and blogs have bashed the CP for their ridiculous choice to willfully and proudly ignore an entire genre. I only wish all of those comments were collated in one spot to show you the reach.

    As a professional "pop-folksy singer songwriter", I do the best I can to support local music of all forms, promote other artists, DC-based music websites, and local media that covers the arts. I do this because I know that we are a music community, and the better the DC Music is as a whole, the better chance each one of us has individually. A rising tide lifts all boats.

    Ted Garber and Jon Caroll have hit the nail on the head, and I won't beat a dead horse. Moving forward, I hope the CP respects the "pop-folksy singer songwriters" as much as we respect the rest of the DC Music Community.

    ~Dan Fisk
    Pop-folksy Singer Songwriter

  • soul singer

    You think WCP doesn't care about folk, what about Soul artists? The only reference to soul music in WCP is typically found in the classified section looking for musicians.

  • Marco Delmar

    I think the central issue is not whether or not CitiPaper chooses to cover all genres, but that as a publication it should not overtly appear to favor one type over another (see Washington Post Weekend section). After all, real music fans have an appreciation of all kinds of music, not just one over the other. I grew up with both Neil Young AND Black Sabbath in my collection, and enjoyed both equally for very different reasons (and moods). Why limit ourselves in any way? Anyhow, there are a great many talented young bands and an equal amount of equally talented singer/songwriters in the area, and we should celebrate and encourage them both to our enjoyment. This area in particular has great diversity, probably more so than many major cities, due to the international bent no doubt. If CitiPaper just needs some scribes to help cover folk/soul/jazz/Metal/etc.. I'm sure they can be provided in quantity and quality.

  • Brian Franke

    Jon and CP,

    I will chime in briefly here as a DC area singer/songwriter, but make my voice heard on my music blog with my full thoughts on this matter.

    What it comes down to is how the author (Jon) presented himself and the City Paper. I can use some choice words, but as we can see here it was a very poor choice of words based on the reaction.

    The problem I have is for a professional journalist (I think?) and paper (maybe), there have been no legitimate reasons given for why singer/songwriters should not be covered by this media outlet. However, the author in this article says, "I'm honestly not opposed to City Paper covering, critically, any genre that's made locally" and "I'd be open to it". So my challenge to him is TRY IT. Come out to a show or even one of our meet ups (advice: it may give you a chance to redeem yourself sir).

    But if there are real reasons to not cover this wonderful and tight knit music community, then spell them out. If the CP just plainly states, "our Art Desk only covers X, Y, Z genres" due to these reasons (and not your biased reasons, that looks terrible for a media outlet), I'd be less upset. But they have not defined who they are to the music community other than making an off hand remark that by the way, they haven't apologized for yet.

    I will write a blog post soon on these articles, but to my fellow singer/songwriters, thank you for standing up for yourselves!

    Brian Franke

  • Ken Avis

    Since arriving in DC 15 years ago I've been picking up the City Paper weekly. I still do. Mainly to find out who's playing....thanks to the adverts. Occasionally there's a good article too and a refreshing take on some issues.

    The music section I tend to skim with vague interest as the coverage seems so narrow and pretty irrelevant to most of what is actually going on in DC. Its not just the acoustic music that's missing, but the jazz and so much else. Sadly it's just not the "go to" resource it could be and its a weaker publication for it. There's a gap it could be filling. Sad to read that the editorial staff just prefer to turn a blind eye.