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San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, New York. Now I’m back in Boston, in this crazy house full of mirrors. For the time being, at least.

A few weeks ago, I was asked to write an opinion piece for the German daily newspaper Die Tageszeitung (taz) — the eighth installment in a lengthy “Future of Music Criticism” debate the paper was having. The debate had been touched off by the news that Spex — the most famous music magazine in Germany, sort of the German version of Spin — was axing its reviews section. This is the English version of the article, which originally ran in German last week, here. It also got discussed over at Der Spiegel‘s culture desk, here.

A few notes: I wrote this piece for a German audience, not an American one, so some of the references to German things might not make sense, and some references to American things may seem too simplistic if you’re from the US. I also wrote the piece in a way that’s different from the way I normally write for English publications. If my style seems a bit different, that’s because I tried to write the article in a way that could be easily translated, word for word, into German. I know German pretty well, but not well enough to write fluently, for publication, in it; the next best thing was to write the piece in English, but in a way that it would translate well into German text.

The Future of Music Criticism, Part 8
Die Tageszeitung (Germany), June 15, 2010

by Geeta Dayal

As an American music critic, I find the debate about Spex fascinating. The fascinating thing to me is that there is a debate. In the United States, there would not be much of a discussion. The current situation with print magazines and newspapers is far worse in the United States than it is in Germany. Whole music magazines have died here. And few people seem to care.

I’ve been visiting Germany on a regular basis for ten years. I was always impressed with how strong and vibrant the media scene in Germany seemed to be. For a country of Germany’s relatively small size, it was amazing to me that there were so many good newspapers: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Suddeutsche Zeitung, Die Zeit, taz, and so on. In addition, there were large, successful magazines like Der Spiegel, and lots of music magazines, including several specialist magazines that covered electronic music, such as Groove and De:Bug. Just looking at the typical newsstand in Berlin would make my head spin; there were so many choices, so many papers. I was also impressed that people seemed to really read and respond to print media. I remember visiting Cologne a few years ago and seeing people queue up for the newsstand in the morning, waiting to buy a newspaper. I don’t see that much anymore in the United States.

I also noticed a difference in the way that criticism was treated in a German newspaper. There was more emphasis on commentary in the newspaper in Germany. In the US, a lot of importance is attached to “journalistic objectivity,” and reportage. There are, of course, well-reported news stories in every major newspaper in Germany. But it’s more understood in Germany that commentary, and opinion, has a place in the newspaper too. And the whole concept of the “feuilleton” section simply doesn’t exist in the United States the way it does in Europe. Even in the arts section of the typical American newspaper, the emphasis is mostly on news and reporting, and less on criticism and commentary. I was also impressed with the larger cultural conversation in Germany -– the rapid-fire ways in which different publications in Germany would respond to each other in the papers. In the United States, this seems to happen more in blogging than it does in the mainstream press.

My favorite German city was always Berlin. For me, in a lot of ways, Berlin was like paradise –- a total fantasy world. But on my last visit to Berlin, a few months ago, I realized that the German media was going through the same painful changes that the American media went through five years ago. It’s just happening more slowly. In New York, print media is collapsing quickly, but in Berlin, it’s a slow-motion collapse. And that is why the news that Spex is closing its reviews section is not much of a surprise. In ten years, there might not be a Spex at all. Continue reading

The Archive Project.

Today, I finished a project I’ve been putting off for ages — to properly archive The Original Soundtrack. I started this blog in 2003, and over the past seven years, I’ve written nearly a thousand blog posts about electronic music, culture, and cities. Many of these posts are long essays. On the right hand side of this page, you can now see archives stretching back to 2003. Over the next few months, I’ll be wheeling out some of my favorite posts from the early days of this blog. Just looking at the old blog posts brings back the memories. A few of them make me cringe; others I’m still really proud of to this day. This archive project is also an interesting one for me, because I get to see my own evolution as a writer through the years — as told through the history of this blog.

Also, pick up the excellent summer issue of Frieze, which includes two pieces by me — a big essay on music and a review of the ‘Landscapes of Quarantine’ exhibition in New York.

Three quotes.

Three quotes I’ve been thinking about this morning. They’re all connected in my head.

“James Turrell, the light artist, once told me that after seeing the slides of paintings in the courses he had taken, he was disappointed by the actual paintings. What he had really loved was the light, and in a sense then vowed to make sure his art, consisting of light, would never lose its magic.”

-Arthur Danto

“I see TV as a picture medium rather than a narrative medium. Video for me is a way of configuring light, just as painting is a way of configuring paint….I’ve always said that the most important control on your TV is the color control; it’s usually a much bigger difference than changing the channel.”

-Brian Eno

“In sound design programs now, you can literally sculpt the sound on visual graphs. Sometimes the visual programs are even more interesting than the music that’s making them…”

-Doug Aitken, in conversation with Carsten Nicolai

London Olympics, 2012: Wenlock and Mandeville Take Over

The mascots for London’s Olympics were unveiled earlier today. I haven’t been able to shake this image out of my head since I saw it this afternoon. It’s an epic nightmare, the sort that makes you break out in a cold sweat.

Meet Wenlock and Mandeville. That’s right — Wenlock and Mandeville. Wenlock is named after a town known as Much Wenlock, and Mandeville is named for Stoke Mandeville — English towns that bear some significance in the Olympic games. As names for towns, sure. As names for mascots? These are the sorts of names you’d give to the villains in a Harry Potter novel. Goblins, perhaps.

What message do these mascots send to the world about London in 2012? Picture it: A dystopian, post-industrial city still reeling from the effects of early ’90s rave. A rainbow cuts through a drab brick building, blinding everyone within range. These cyborgs have their hands in the air. They’re waving ’em like they just don’t care. They’re posing in front of the rainbow, ready to pounce, standing in front of what looks like hopscotch circles. They each have one eye; the blog Deadspin helpfully describes them as “Cyclopean eyes representing England’s Big Brother police state.” The Guardian takes it a step further, noting that the eyes actually are cameras: “With a metallic finish, a single large eye made out of a camera lens, a London taxi light on their heads and the Olympic rings represented as friendship bracelets on their wrists, they resemble characters dreamed up for a Pixar animation.” Continue reading

Continuing on the vintage cameras theme from a few posts ago. Here’s a Polaroid test shot of me, in my apartment last night. Taken by my good friend Matt.

Geeta Dayal

Travel.

I haven’t been at home much these days. I’m not as much of a world traveler as my good friend and housemate Amanda Palmer — she got back from Africa on Friday night and flew out to Vancouver this morning to start the North American leg of her tour — but I’ve been on the road pretty much nonstop for months, and it’s a trend that’s going to continue.

Here’s the rundown:

May 29 – June 1: The 10th anniversary of DEMF in Detroit. I’ll be covering it for The Wire.

June 2: I’ll be doing a reading at Joe’s Pub in New York City as part of the inimitable Happy Ending Reading Series.

June 3 – 7: In Montreal for MUTEK. I’ll be writing about it for Rhizome.

June 8 – 9: Back in New York.

June 9 – 11: Boston.

June 11 – 13: In San Francisco for City Centered, a festival of locative art and media.

June 16 – 19: In Los Angeles, to speak on a panel at the Scion Music Conference.

June 19 – July 25: Boston with some New York mixed in.

July 25th: I’ll be at the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, for a talk with the sound artist Halsey Burgund.

A Few More Thoughts on Surviving as a Freelancer

I’ve been overwhelmed — happily so — by the massive response to the Tips for Freelancers, Artists, and Creative Types post I wrote last week. Thousands of people were reading the post and passing it around. I watched as it got retweeted on Twitter over a hundred times. Then it made the rounds on Tumblr and Facebook. Then it got a nice mention on The Awl. Then The New York Times linked to it on their City Room blog. Soon, my inbox was overflowing with emails from writers and artists from all over the world.

A few snarky Internet trolls — there are always a few — surmised that I somehow must be loaded because I have some money in a savings account, and I go to Berlin every six months. This made me chuckle. When I lived in Berlin, my rent was $250 a month, and my day-to-day expenses were considerably lower than they were in the United States. If I sublet out my apartment, and I get a good deal on an airplane ticket, it’s a no-brainer to go to Berlin for a month. If you play your cards right, you can actually save money by moving to Europe for a while. And maybe I should write a post sometime on how to get good deals on airplane tickets; I have all kinds of crazy skills on that front.

Anyway, it seemed natural to write a Part II with more tips on how to survive as a freelance writer or artist. In the meantime, though, I wanted to add some more specifics to a few of the points I mentioned in the original post.

Exercise: Some people have asked me about free yoga videos to download. I recommend the free video practice podcasts at Yoga Journal. They’re sensible, thoughtfully sequenced, and good for a beginning student. They don’t go too fast, but they’re not easy either. If you’re a beginner, resist the urge to go too fast. You can easily injure yourself that way. A lot of people treat yoga as if it’s a high-powered aerobics class. Yoga is great exercise, but don’t rush through sequences. There’s no point. If you want a hard cardio workout, go running or ride a bike. There’s no use in racing through sloppy sun salutations ten times fast. It’s better to do things once, but do them properly. There’s a sensibility — a very American one, I think — that exercising harder and faster will yield better, faster results. If you’re straining too much, or putting in too much effort, stop. It’s not worth potentially pulling a muscle, or tearing a ligament, or injuring your back. Also, try to rest a day in between yoga workouts. It gives your body a chance to recover. More is not always more.

Okay, back to the free podcasts. Each one is about 20 minutes long. They’re all good, but I particularly recommend the ones led by Jason Crandell, an instructor in San Francisco. Here are links to three that I like a lot: Morning Wake-Up Routine, Energizing Sequence, and Evening Relaxation Sequence.

Setting up a savings account: Some people have asked me about setting up a Roth IRA. Here’s a good introductory guide on how to set one up. I set mine up with Vanguard, which was pretty straightforward — I did the whole thing online — and all of my experiences with them thus far have been good.

In between reading books about experimental music, cybernetics, visual art, and so on, I occasionally pick up a boring book about finance. One solid, easy-to-read book, which I recommend, is The Bogleheads’ Guide to Investing. (You can read about 25 pages of it free on Google Books, here.) I don’t have enough money to invest in the stock market, and I’ve seen some friends lose big. Basically, the book advocates sensible, long-term thinking — not livin’-on-the-edge day trading, or anything like that.

The most eye-popping thing I read in this book was an anecdote in the second chapter. The authors talk about a guy who never made more than $25,000 a year, but he had been slowly putting money away for about 30 years, and now he had a portfolio worth 1.25 million dollars. He wasn’t a stock market wizard or anything. “Anyone can do it,” the authors write, “but few choose to do it. It turns out that an investment of $601 at the beginning of each month in stock index funds, coupled with an average annual return of 10%, grows into the sum of $1,249,655 in 30 years.”

Now, most of us don’t have 600 bucks a month to invest. But I wanted to dispel the notion that it takes buckets of money to even start thinking about this stuff. Reading these finance books is about as much fun as listening to your dad lecture you on how to be more fiscally responsible. But empower yourself with information. If you’re a freelance journalist, chances are that you’re used to thinking on your feet, and teaching yourself a new subject every week. If I’m writing about a band I’m not familiar with, I have to go back and listen to their entire discography. If I’m writing a technology article, I might have to teach myself all about the ins and outs of network security protocols over the span of a week. I had to teach myself about all kinds of arcane stuff — cybernetics, Cornelius Cardew, the history of British art school pedagogy, and so on — to write my Eno book. Sometimes all that research was was fun; at other times, it was grueling. So reading the occasional dull missive about money, if you’re used to reading and learning about new things all day long anyway, isn’t all that hard.

Tips for Freelancers, Artists, and Other Creative Types

I’ve been thinking about this post for a while. It’s a nuts-and-bolts sort of post, the kind of thing that’s more utilitarian than it is artistic. Every few days, I get an email from someone I don’t know, who found me through my writing. Usually, they say something nice, and then they ask me how I got started in doing what I do. Then they ask me how they, too, can be a journalist, or worse yet, a music critic. My first instinct is to scream “Run! It’s a sinking ship!” Generally, though, I try to be encouraging.

I am a realist, of course. I make a pittance, but I know how to survive on a pittance. Meanwhile, most of my old college buddies from MIT are pulling in six figures, or close to it, at companies like Google. I won’t comment on how much I make, but let’s just say it’s a whole lot less than that. But I have one thing they don’t have: I have freedom. I travel around the world constantly. I make my own schedule; if I want to spend all of next month in Berlin, I can do it. And I don’t work in some cubicle hellhole; I work from a comfy chair in my apartment, a cafe, a library, or anywhere else that’s humane, with good lighting. I get credit for my ideas (usually) — my byline is under my work. That isn’t the case with most jobs. And that is why doing what I do totally rocks, despite all the sacrifices I’ve had to make.

I was also inspired to write this post because I’ve lived with a lot of artists over the years — I currently live in an artist collective, of sorts — and I’m friends with a lot of other journalists and critics. A lot of us, especially in the past few years when the economy has been tight, are having a hard time. Here are a few tips I’ve put together on how to survive as a struggling artist or freelance writer.

A Ten-Step Guide for Freelance Writers and Artist Types

1. Learn how to cook. You may think I’m joking. This is the most important piece of advice of them all. I would be not be an arts critic right now if I didn’t know how to cook. The fastest way to decimate your income is to go out to eat all the time. Especially in a city like New York. I’m not saying don’t go out to eat; I love restaurants. But make going out to eat an event. Spend a lot every once in a while on a really amazing meal. I was lucky; I grew up with a grandmother who made amazing Indian food and had her own vegetable garden in the backyard. From her, I learned a whole arsenal of DIY cooking techniques. I also taught myself a lot, from cookbooks.

Also: Shop at farmers’ markets whenever possible. Or join a CSA. The produce there is better and cheaper than the neatly arranged, creepily perfect produce at Whole Foods (the overpriced, idealized landscape that Michael Pollan once referred to as “supermarket pastoral.”) Plus, you get to know the people who work at the farms, and make connections with them. A lot of them are really cool. I’ve had long conversations with people who work at farmers’ markets about ambient music and gardening, for instance. One of them even fixed my bicycle when it was broken, for free. Supermarkets depress me, frankly.

2. Don’t spend more than 30 percent of your income on rent. If you can’t afford New York, leave New York. Be honest with yourself. I was always appalled to see how much some of my friends in New York were spending on rent. Sometimes, when I lived there, I’d be spending up to 50 percent of my income on rent. That is no way to live. Figure out ways to collectivize. If you can’t afford to live alone, then don’t. Live with other people — people you like, preferably. Your goal in life should not be to make your landlord rich.

Also, cut down your monthly bills as much as you can. Ride a bicycle instead of driving a car, if at all possible. Eschew cable and watch TV on the Internet instead. (I haven’t owned a TV in ten years, and I don’t miss it.) Think of all the recurring bills you have to pay each month, and try to minimize them. For me, I pay a student loan bill, an Internet bill, a health insurance bill, a cell phone bill, and a gas and electric bill each month. That, in and of itself, is too much, but it would be so much worse if I also had to pay for cable TV, car insurance, and who knows what else.

3. View pitching as a sport. Don’t feel dejected when you get turned down. Who cares? Fix up the pitch and pitch again. Have a thick skin. It’s the only way you’re going to get through this business. Also, don’t be afraid to aim high. When I had a pitch rejected by the Village Voice five years ago, I re-pitched it to the New York Times; the editors there loved the story and ran it as a front-page feature in the arts section. For artists: If you get rejected by a foundation or an artist residency program, then whatever. Don’t cry. Try again. And again. And again. Keep throwing things against the wall until something sticks.

4. Get regular exercise. Do yoga. Ride a bicycle. Studies show that exercise improves mood as much as drugs like Prozac. Plus it gets you out of the house. If you can afford it, go for a gym membership, but my personal opinion is that gym memberships cost a lot of dough and most people I know tend to not go enough to justify the cost. On top of that, many gyms usually make you sign shady binding contracts for one or sometimes two years, which often automatically renew, and can really screw you over if you’re not careful. (If you want a gym, check out your local YMCA, which are often much better gyms than most people are led to believe.) I do a ton of yoga and I ride my bicycle like a maniac. Yoga really helped me to be more focused, more self-aware, more giving, more mindful. It may sound hackneyed and New Age-y, but it’s true. I don’t know what I’d do without it. Yoga also helped me connect back to my own culture; I first learned about sun salutations when I was eight years old. The fact that it keeps you fit is a happy side effect. I know that yoga classes can be expensive. But after learning the moves and going for a while, you can work from DVDs or from free podcasts on the Web.

5. Set up a savings account. Also look into setting up a Roth IRA. Chances are, if you’re a freelancer or a struggling artist, that you don’t have a 401(k) plan. That’s okay. But you need to save. Your money should not all be concentrated in one checking account. I don’t care if you’re saving five bucks a week; save something. Set up a penny jar, for chrissakes. I set up my account to automatically debit money out of my checking each week. It goes straight to a savings account; I don’t see it, so I can’t spend it. I know that if I get screwed and I can’t get work for a while, I’ll be covered — at least for a while — by my emergency slush fund.

6. Sort out health insurance. Echinacea is not health insurance! My friends in Germany are always appalled when I tell them about our travails in the US with health insurance. When I lived in New York, I got health coverage through the Freelancers Union, which was expensive. (It’s not really a union; it’s more like a group health insurance plan with some ancillary benefits.) But it got me through, and I was glad it was there. Believe me, one emergency room bill is enough to justify the cost of insurance. An ambulance ride alone can easily cost several thousand dollars. Don’t put yourself in that position. In Massachusetts, which passed a lot of progressive health insurance legislation in recent years, there are several good, affordable plans for average citizens to choose from. I can only hope that the rest of the country will follow suit.

7. Travel. Traveling opens up your brain. If you live in NYC all the time, and you don’t leave, you’re running head to head with the most competitive group of journalists in the most competitive market on the planet. The media business is centered there; it’s the belly of the beast. It’s likely that a lot of you are coming up with the same pitches, and pitching them to the same editors. This makes everything harder for everyone. Look, I know New York is great. I lived there for six years, and I’m moving back. (It’s like the bad relationship that you keep coming back to.) But often, you uncover a lot of interesting stories when you’re on the road. It opens you up to new inspirations, new ideas, new people. If you must stay in New York, at least take the subway to a different borough than the one you normally go to. Go far uptown. Go to the Bronx. Go somewhere else.

8. Apply for fellowships and teaching positions. Look for additional sources of income. These can be a lifesaver, at a time when publications — even prestigious ones — apparently find it justifiable to pay you beer money for an extensively researched 3000-word feature.

9. Keep a regular schedule, and remember to relax. We forget how to relax, because as freelancers, we’re basically on call all the time. I work on Saturdays; I work on Sundays. I work at strange hours; 2 AM is often when I find inspiration. But try and wake up at around the same hour each day – preferably, you know, in the morning. Try to go to bed at a halfway decent hour. You need sunlight to synthesize Vitamin D and be a happy person.

10. If you suspect you have deeper issues to contend with – like depression – seek help as soon as possible. This loops back to the health insurance thing. If you don’t have insurance, look at options in your town for sliding-scale therapy and psychiatrists or clinics who see patients at a discount. If you’re struggling emotionally, be vocal about it. Call your friends. Talk to people. I’m really serious on this one. For years, I worked as a volunteer counselor for a mental health hotline. It was a really rough job, but it also gave me a lot of good training on how to cope with difficult situations. Friends are great, but don’t feel like you must rely on your friends for help. There are people out there whose job it is to help you. Do not be afraid to use them.