“Is this the prick who ripped my new album?” Steven Tyler shouted through the phone.
No “How’s it going?” Not a “Good to talk to you.” Skipping a salutation of any kind, Tyler charged into our interview with a wild cross-examination of my lukewarm take on Music From Another Dimension, Aerosmith’s 2012 album. For those who gave up on Aerosmith after “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” — or after “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)”–the LP is a big, sloppy compromise that pairs sweet, dirty rock grooves with overly-pretty doses of pop pandering.
I hadn’t planned on discussing Music From Another Dimension. I intended to toss Tyler a few softballs. This wasn’t an exposé or nasty takedown. I was using the chat to gather quotes for a preview of the Boston Strong charity concert benefiting victims of the 2013 marathon bombing. But the frontman knocked me on my ass with his opening. Stunned, I could only manage, “Um, yeah, I guess . . . ” I awarded the album a C+ in my review in the Boston Herald, what else could I say?
At the time, I had been the staff music critic for the Herald for six years. I had written about every one of Aerosmith’s local shows during that time, spoken to at least one of the “Bad Boys from Boston” every five or six months–so often that guitarist Joe Perry told me the release of Music From Another Dimension was imminent in 2007, 2008, and 2012. But I didn’t think anyone in the band actually read anything I wrote about them.
Steven Tyler is an icon. He dreamed up “Dream On” and “Walk This Way.” He sat next to Jennifer Lopez and her magnificent hair for two seasons of American Idol, at the time the most popular TV show in America. The man was in Singapore about to perform for 30,000 Singaporeans. And yet he was also on the line with me, wondering why I called his new record a “cocktail of whiskey rock and Bartles & Jaymes pop.” Oops.
Before I could formulate a reasonable response, Tyler broke the dead air on the line with a great, big laugh, a near-manic cackle, and told me the album had parts he didn’t like either.
Put back on equal (or relatively-equal) footing, we dove into a surprisingly deep investigation of how tricky it is to make a strong Aerosmith record. When your best-known songs go from “Sweet Emotion” to “Cryin’,” “Toys in the Attic” to “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” you can’t please the whole fanbase. We talked about our favorite bits of Music From Another Dimension and stuff that missed the mark.
I came away from the conversation with a new respect for Tyler and his self-awareness. I also hung up with a fresh understanding of the critic’s power. It’s a kind of magic that allows a commoner to challenge royalty, to drag these immortals with their gold records, popcorn blockbusters, and New York Times best-sellers into dialogues that humanize them, and in turn lets us recognize our own humanity. Years later, I now see the role of the critic vanishing. I worry about the consequences.
During my time at the Herald, I pissed off many of the city’s icons. Joe Perry once cold-called me at my desk, actually navigating the paper’s switchboard, to shout about how I mischaracterized his mercurial relationship with Tyler (being a legendary nice guy, Perry quickly gave up the fight). After I penned what I considered a glowing review of a J. Geils Band reunion concert, frontman Peter Wolf phoned my editor, furious over a perceived slight—I called Geils a “bar band,” which I invariably meant as high praise (see Bruce Springsteen, the Replacements, the Hold Steady). New Kid on the Block Joey McIntyre chided me for writing that he was interchangeable with any other boy-band member. Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls plucked my notebook out of my hands at the Boston Music Awards to scribble an obscenity in it before coyly smiling and tossing it back. It took me a while to realize, but pop stars, rock icons, and underground heroes cared what I wrote about them.
Without slighting my position, I know I barely peeked out of the shadow of the Boston Globe. Steve Morse, the Globe‘s pop-music critic since Saturday Night Fever, had Peter Wolf, Boston lead singer Brad Delp, Allman Brothers manager Bert Holman, and Live Nation New England president Don Law fete him at his retirement party (Springsteen, James Taylor, and Jimmy Buffett sent tributes via video or email). I was never Morse, never even close. That era ended long before I got into the game. And yet somehow, awesomely, Tyler knew me well enough to call me a prick from 10,000 miles away.
Nobody was more surprised than me to find I was the last pop music critic standing at a major print publication in Boston. I outlined in a Columbia Journalism Review piece, Boston’s arts coverage, along with the rest of the nation’s, has taken a big hit in recent years. The Boston Phoenix, which won a Pulitzer Prize for arts criticism in 1994, shut down in 2013. Over the past few years, the Globe‘s two staff pop-music critics and a music editor left, and the paper did not replace them with full-timers. For a short run in the summer of 2016, I held the only daily full-time staff music writer position in the city. Then, under its former owner, the Herald cut the staff covering film, music, and theater beats. For the first time in decades, the city didn’t have somebody at a paper solely devoted to the pop beat.
“Boston is a music city–look at how many music schools are here, and at the number of people purchasing concert tickets,” Morse once told me, referencing the New England Conservatory, Berklee College of Music, and the area’s ridiculously busy clubs, theaters, arenas, and stadiums. “There should be much more coverage. There should be more critics.”
Now that I’ve expanded beyond the business of writing about people with tattoos and tinnitus in a daily paper, I look around and see there’s almost nothing left of that business. Dwindling print and emerging web magazines cover the music scene comprehensively. Thanks to Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and Boston’s own Vanyaland, we’ll always know what Springsteen and Amanda Palmer are up to–and we’ll get smart, forceful opinions on their albums and performances. But music coverage at papers might be dead long before print journalism. Okay, not “long before”: Print seems to be on borrowed time.
The vast majority of daily papers cover a fraction of the concerts, albums, films, TV shows, theater productions, and gallery and museum exhibits than they did 10 years ago. A quick look at the rolls of professional organizations–the American Theatre Critics Association, the Jazz Journalists Association, the National Society of Film Critics–shows less than 10% of members holding full-time jobs at papers, down from approximately 50%, depending on the organization, around 2000.
The outlook is more dire when you look beyond the numbers, partly because the numbers themselves don’t provide accurate data. Lost arts writer and editor jobs can’t be quantified, because often these positions have been saddled with new roles–“In some cases, the jazz critic is also a copy editor or has some other main job at the paper and covers jazz as a sideline,” Jazz Journalists Association president Howard Mandel says. Those who have managed to hold on to staff jobs likely write reviews, do advance features, cover breaking news, and act as an editor, copy editor, and/or photographer.
Even film critics, the premier arts and entertainment position, have been cut en masse. About half of the National Society of Film Critics members worked full-time at dailies and alternative weeklies in 2010. This year, fewer than 10 of its 60 members have full-time gigs at papers. Most work for niche or personal sites such as RogerEbert.com or emanuellevy.com.
“I’m pretty sure critics are getting paid less writing online,” says Liz Weis, the executive director of the National Society of Film Critics. “Just as college courses are being taught more and more by low-paid adjuncts with no tenure, film reviews are being written more and more by stringers.”
Online arts outlets, from full-fledged magazines to blogs run by a single person, prosper. (Okay, prosper might be a mischaracterization, considering 1 in 10 turns a profit–maybe “proliferate” is a better word.) They produce vital, smart, passionate work, but they can’t replace the loss of arts coverage at papers. While Pitchfork and Vanyaland might turn electro-pop fans on to the next Passion Pit, they can never introduce the next Passion Pit to a reader who only picked up a paper for details on the Whitey Bulger trial. Indie rock sites cater to indie rock audiences, horror film blogs cater to horror film fans, and so on. These destinations circumscribe art forms and further the notion that a piece about an awesome, up-and-coming electro-pop act shouldn’t be bookended by a story about a medical breakthrough and a column about Lebron James.
I know the industry and the pressure it’s under. In staff positions and as a freelancer, I’ve written for broadsheets, tabloids, alternative weeklies, web-only publications, and international magazines. Over the past 20 years, the line coming out of the publisher’s office hasn’t changed: “We’re running out of money.” I never doubted the line.
The economic outlook of newspapers is dire. John Oliver’s best segment (if you work in journalism) from 2016 tracked the decline of the industry: staff cuts, the abandonment of beats from arts to education to the state house, the shift from important and complex stories to clickbait headlines.
The ultimate pull quote came when a journalist asserted to then Tribune Co. owner Sam Zell that a paper had a responsibility to cover more than cute puppies. Zell responded, “Hopefully we get to the point where our revenue is so significant that we can do puppies and Iraq. Okay? Fuck you.”
Zell summed up the approach of many modern publishers with his puppies-and-profit-over-smarts-and-substance plan. Oliver landed square on the truth when he said, “News organizations badly need to have leaders that appreciate that what’s popular isn’t always what’s most important.”
It’s easy to argue that arts coverage is more important than photo essays of newborn puggles. It’s difficult to say it is more valuable than investigative journalism. It’s the rare artist profile that should bump a story about an alderman taking kickbacks or a sex-trafficking ring. But I’ve also never seen a recap of the Green Bay Packers’s seventh-round draft pick or celeb blurb that engages and challenges the spirit. Can these kinds of features be popular? Yes. Are they important? No. But clever analysis of former linebacker Terry Crews’s comedic timing on Brooklyn Nine-Nine could serve as a gateway to an exploration of the legacy of vaudeville. A thoughtful review of a Miley Cyrus concert could address discrimination and misogyny in pop music.
Arts critics have the power to get big ideas, strange and radical concepts, into major metro dailies and small community papers. You can’t shoehorn a rumination on John Rawls’s veil of ignorance or a theory about how the entertainment industrial complex co-opted the counterculture of the ’60s into a synopsis of a state budget proposal. But existentialism, introspection, and examinations of moral philosophy pair naturally with criticism. Every piece of good arts writing dips, if ever so slightly, into the human experience, into what it means to be alive. No piece of fantasy football draft advice or gossip item about Cyrus’s marriage can do that.
“Because they spend their lives thinking about art, critics tend to stand outside of the mainstream ideological discourse rather than being captured by it,” says Tyler Sage, a fiction writer and film and literary critic, whose work has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement and the Los Angeles Review of Books. “Because of this, the best art criticism is at the same time cultural criticism.
“This means that when serious criticism starts to disappear,” he says, “either being replaced by popular consensus, such as with Rotten Tomatoes, or captured by the industry it’s supposed to stand in judgement of, the way a great deal of internet film criticism has been replaced by lists of what makes a movie supposedly great, what’s lost is a primary mechanism through which a culture meditates on itself.”
This power is abstract, yet it provides real value to readers, and to the broader society. Americans seem loath to slow down and reflect on life; arts writing can help them do this. But forced self-examination isn’t the only role a critic serves. Critics concretely bolster the arts and culture.
Arts writers provide a historical record of their beat like any other reporter. When holes start appearing in that historical record (or when it is abandoned completely), arts organizations can suffer. Newspaper coverage serves as promotion for community theater companies, small galleries, unknown rock bands, and others without PR or advertising budgets. Both authors and musicians have told me print reviews spark interest from publishers and record labels, even when sales lag.
Rob Weinert-Kendt, editor-in-chief of American Theatre magazine, has seen the same thing in his world.
“Critical coverage can have an impact on smaller theater companies’ survival,” Weinert-Kendt says. “Often if they don’t have third party coverage of their works, they can have a harder time getting grants they desperately need.”
Critics don’t just bring new fans but also new cash to the arts. So when every artist interview is reduced to an Access Hollywood soundbite, when jazz records, foreign films, literary fiction, and, yes, new Aerosmith LPs are passed over for more drek about Tom Brady and Gisele, the arts can suffer. With their champions being banished from the mainstream, I worry about music, film, theater, literature, and more. I fear the end of the newspaper critic may spell the end of art in the national conversation.
In the ’80s, TV moguls experimented with a few novel ideas: channels solely devoted to news, sports, and music. The former two–CNN and ESPN–became massive successes. Any basic cable news package now comes with not only CNN and ESPN but also a half dozen similar channels from Fox News and CNBC to Fox Sports and CBS Sports. The music video station, MTV, initially exploded, becoming the most important cultural force in any teenager’s life. But the all-music format couldn’t sustain itself. By the turn of the century, MTV and spinoff VH1 basically stopped broadcasting music in favor of an emerging format called reality TV.
News and sports didn’t trump music only on television: music (and other arts) have been disappearing from the mainstream. Domestic movie theater attendance hit a 25-year low in 2017. Attendance of art exhibitions and performing arts events have repeatedly declined over the past two decades, according to research by the National Endowment for the Arts. The number of liberal arts colleges decreases annually, and those that remain put less emphasis on what used to be considered core curriculum subjects such as English, philosophy, music, and visual arts. Politics and sports dominate in so many spheres of public life; now newspapers have decided to give in to this rather than fight it.
While newspaper and magazine departments from New York to North Dakota have been hurt by repeated layoffs, arts staffers tend to go first: By one estimate, 80% of all arts writers in print have lost their jobs since 2000. This doesn’t just mean the pop music critic gets walking papers before the statehouse reporter. It means the pop music critic gets chopped before the person covering high school basketball. It’s a trend echoed in our public school system’s hierarchy of values—math classes and the football team stay, the drama club and jazz band don’t.
Marshall Fine, the general manager of the New York Film Critics Circle, spent 25 years with Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper publisher, a lot of it arguing that arts had the same value as sports. He remembers his paper once told him it wasn’t cost effective to send him to the Toronto Film Festival, where he would see 20 movies in four days, even though it had just sent a team of writers and photographers to cover a New York Giants game in Europe.
Even in New York, the absolute artsy-ist place on the planet, sustaining coverage in print has been impossible. The Village Voice, once the bugle horn of counterculture, spent the 2000s axing the arts writers who built the brand, then finally shuttered in August. Long before last summer’s bloodbath at the Daily News, the paper dropped its TV and music critics back in 2015. The New York Observer, once a bulwark of literary arts coverage, lost most of its critics and much of its soul after being acquired by Jared Kushner in 2006. The New York Times, the apotheosis of arts in print, ended regional coverage of galleries and theaters in 2016, and theater vets believe a slashing of off-Broadway coverage is in the works.
“I used to bristle when someone would say he or she ‘read the review,’ meaning the Times‘s review,” says Linda Winer, who worked as a theater critic for the Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News, USA Today, and Newsday. Last year, Winer left Newsday after 20 years, dismayed at an increasingly clickbait-focused media.
“Now that so many other papers have relinquished the idea of regular on-staff critics, I find it hard to argue against the cliché about this being a one-newspaper town,” Winer says. “Missing [in the media landscape] is the idea that theater is a beat, a living, changing, and breathing subject, not merely the occasional big-ticket opening.”
Outside of the person standing next to me at a concert, I was almost never asked, “Hey, aren’t you Jed Gottlieb from the Herald?” But the guys who worked at my oil change place somehow recognized me. They mostly wanted to talk about ZZ Top concerts I’d reviewed or Greg Allman interviews I did, but occasionally they’d ask me about some local band I’d hyped (likely Kingsley Flood or Mellow Bravo). For some reason, I was as shocked to discover they read up on my local favorites as I was to learn Steven Tyler studied my copy. But they did. They may have spent more time with our football and Whitey Bulger coverage (they definitely spent more time on Brady and Bulger), but they also dug rock ‘n’ roll, from stadium acts to those lowly bar bands. They thumbed through the whole paper, which is the goal.
The Herald regularly endorses conservative political candidates, but my editors rarely tampered with (and sometimes encouraged) stories that cut against that agenda. I did a feature about R&B singer Frank Ocean admitting his first love was a man, and the impact that had on LGBT R&B artists in Boston. I wrote about a poem Amanda Palmer penned from the perspective of Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. I covered national stars who lugged guitars down to the Occupy Boston camp to perform for protesters.
Thousands skipped these stories on the way to the Patriots scorecard, but hundreds read them. Maybe they tore the paper to shreds bellowing, “What is this world coming to?!” But at least they knew what the world was coming to. They may have cursed Palmer’s gall or the Occupy movement’s mutiny, but a story from the art world engaged them with society. Arts coverage educates newspaper readers by a sort of stumble-upon effect, a sort of magical osmosis that can insert Palmer and Whitey and Brady all in our consciousness. That’s a wonderful thing.
Big sections of the United States think they only want to read about politics and sports, and still art survives in the cracks (for now). Kendrick Lamar and Donna Tartt, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Lady Gaga, these instigators move the world forward in tiny fractions and with sea changes. Newspapers should lead the charge to celebrate and critique these artists, not run from it.
Just before Globe critics Sarah Rodman and James Reed left, each eulogized a music club shuttered by capitalism (the short of both cases: Luxury condos are worth more than raunchy R&B bands or DJs spinning Barbra Streisand’s cover of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?”). Rodman wrote about the end of Somerville’s Johnny D’s with an exhaustive intimacy, connecting generations of musicians and fans through the evolution of the 47-year-old venue. Reed captured the closing of Cambridge’s River Gods–home to amateur, infamous, and eccentric DJs–with deeply personal, often funny, and embarrassing reflections.
Even to readers who had never been to Johnny D’s and River Gods, the narrative was clear: These colonies, populated by misfit toys brought together by their love of local R&B or bizarre Bowie covers, inhabit magical, endangered spaces. The pieces implicitly asked readers to recommit to their own sacred art haunts or abandon “Bachelor in Paradise” in order to seek out their own neighborhood’s creative centers, and maybe be inspired to create something of their own. These stories can only be written if there are editors or writers at a paper who are regulars at these spaces, if they themselves are connected to a community’s creative heart.
“When a city loses its critics, there is less news and views about the art form they cover circulating locally,” Mandel, the Jazz Journalists Association head, told me when I began to report on the loss of critics for Columbia Journalism Review. “Most often, news of lesser-known artists is lost, replaced by news of national and international pop culture celebrities issued by their publicity machines . . . A local critic knows something that is simply irreplaceable about the local audiences and readership.”
Artists and their managers have noticed the drifting arts coverage. Many newspapers struggle to book interviews with A-listers the publications had no problem landing a decade ago. But Boston, and so many other cities, will miss out on more than the chance for Steven Tyler to call their critic a “prick” and then laugh uproariously about it. They will lose their link to the most vital communities and individuals in our cities. Then they will give up their standing and authority in these communities and with these individuals.
Papers won’t know how or why to chronicle the local punk rock dive or arthouse cinema, improv troupe or weekly poetry slam (yes, those still exist–Boston has two that have been going on for 20 years). And if those dives, cinemas, theaters, folk clubs, galleries, and weird, wonderful art spaces close, the papers will be complicit in their deaths.
Boston papers continue to make use of talented freelancers who write great stories. Pound for pound, the Herald‘s arts section, which I still freelance for, remains one of the most robust around, with my editors still dedicated to smart, diverse arts coverage. I sincerely thank them for that, because it shows they understand Boston has a unique, relevant arts scene. The Globe and a handful of other outlets around the country have even experimented with getting nonprofit arts groups to fund staff critics. The most notable effort has come from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, which currently partners with nine newspapers including the Globe to help fund the salaries of classical music writers.
While more arts writing is a wonderful thing, the idea doesn’t appear to be scalable. Since the Rubin Institute began the project in 2016, there hasn’t been a major surge in similar funding. Already strapped for cash, most arts foundations haven’t jumped at the chance to fund critics looking to write about Steven Tyler or Shonda Rhimes, let alone sexploitation author Doris Wishman or short story master Kelly Link.
Every major metropolitan newspaper should have someone on staff that Tyler can yell at. But they also need to know how and why to find the next Aerosmith–the next rapper or writer, filmmaker or gallery owner about to change society–and introduce the fresh face to people who just stopped by for the box scores.
Jed Gottlieb spent nearly a decade as the senior music and theater critic at the Boston Herald and has written for Newsweek, Ozy, and the Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him at @jedgottlieb.