Exclaim!’s Stephen Carlick talks life as a music critic

Exclaim!’s Stephen Carlick talks life as a music critic

The internet has democratized the conversation, but critics soldier on

In the art universe, the artists are always “the interesting ones.” Everyone wants a piece of the band, the director, the writer, or the poet. However, in terms of success — in perhaps its narrowest definition — it’s still the critic who has the authority. If something is “critically acclaimed,” we immediately know it’s worth our time. But what is it about a critic that compels us to trust their judgment?

Earlier this month, The Ontarion had the opportunity to speak with Canadian music critic and senior editor for Exclaim! magazine Stephen Carlick to ask him about the significance of critics in Canadian music and the challenges of taking on such a polarizing role.

Tiann Nantais: What do you think qualifies somebody to be a critic?

Stephen Carlick: I think a lot of people have strong feelings about this. Should a critic be an expert in the field that they are critiquing? So, should a critic be a musician, should they have some expertise or some music training? I don’t know if that is entirely necessary or critical, so to speak.

I think it is important to be immersed in the culture of music. So you need to be going to shows, you need to be an expert in the genre that you’re writing about.

It’s very apparent when somebody’s writing about hip-hop and they literally only listen to Drake and Kanye West. Or, you know, sometimes a critic will write something about a band and they’ll refer to a guitar as a bass, or they get something very simple wrong like that, and it’s like, okay, you need to know at least that much. When we’re talking especially about popular music, it’s less about theory than it is about feeling and the culture, and what a band is doing and how that’s changing or reshaping the conversation with that genre. So I think what’s really important is that a critic be engaged with the culture about which they’re writing.

TN: Have you ever received backlash because of a review?

SC: Oh yes, all the time. People don’t like to be disagreed with and people don’t like to be criticized, and that’s fair. I don’t love negative reviews that are gleefully negative, I’ve never liked that sort of writing. But I think that there is something productive about critiquing art, and in my case, critiquing music. And so of course, I’ve written a bunch of negative reviews in my career and I’ve certainly heard about those. So an example was in 2013, when Daft Punk put out their last album. It felt seismic, and I stand by it to a degree that I gave Random Access Memories a 10/10. And within the same month I gave the latest Boards of Canada album a 7 or a 6. And I remember someone commenting on the Daft Punk review, “This fucking guy gave a Boards of Canada album a 7/10, he doesn’t know anything about electronic music.” But people are always going to disagree with you, especially with negativity.

TN: Do you ever find it difficult to review pieces or to give negative reviews because you have relationships with people in the music industry?

SC: I mean, that’s a tough thing because the Canadian music industry is quite small. And the thing is I can promise a review; I cannot promise a positive review. And so for that reason we have definitely upset people that we have relationships with. And that’s just the way it goes. If you’re going to be a publication with any kind of esteem, you’re gonna have to hurt people’s feelings sometimes.

Or for example, I have friends in bands. I would never personally write about those bands because that would be a conflict of interest. I have no problem with Exclaim! giving my friends a negative review, or Exclaim! giving them a positive review, but I will not be writing that review.

And I take it very seriously when I talk to writers about that: if you feel that you couldn’t be negative about this band without hurting someone’s feelings, then you can’t be writing about it because that wouldn’t be right.

 And you know, you’ll loosely meet people sometimes, and at that point I feel like I can still be critical about their work. The Canadian music industry is too small to not bump into people. But you just have to use your head and just be critical about that sort of thing.

TN: Can you tell us a bit about your job, and maybe something most people wouldn’t expect that you do?

SC: So I’m also an editor at Exclaim!, that’s my primary role. So most of my day is checking my email, listening to music that people are talking about, that people are sending me. I get word that the album is coming out first and then I get sent the album. So my listening habits are very odd because I’ll get an album three months before it comes out, fall in love with it, play the hell out of it, and by the time it actually gets released I’m like, “Oh yeah, I’m so sick of that album.” But the rest of the world is hearing it for the very first time. So it’s super weird because it kind of puts me out of touch in terms of release dates and that sort of thing.

My day to day is listening to music, talking to writers, setting up interviews with them, writing myself occasionally, although I usually do that after hours. I edit reviews that come in, I make sure that I have writers going to concerts and photographers going to concerts and submitting reviews the next day. I keep all sorts of charts like, what concerts do we have scheduled, what interviews do we have scheduled, has that interview happened, did that interview go well? How are we going to write about that?

I’m still trying to think of something surprising. It’s hard because I’m so mired in what I do that I don’t know what about it is surprising. It all seems normal to me. I guess the thing about my listening habits is odd. I think that’s something that people might not think about in my job.

TN: Can you think of an example of a review that the magazine published that launched an album or launched a band?

SC: I think media has changed so much in the last few years, or in the last ten years. The last real example I can think of in that regard was Pitchfork in 2003 or 2004, launching Arcade Fire. And we were part of that too, we put Arcade Fire on the cover before they released Funeral. We were a part of launching that band into the stratosphere. 

I don’t know if any one publication has the power to do that anymore. There’s so much media saturation, so many blogs, so many micro sites, and people on Twitter and Facebook all talking about music, that it’s actually less about the power of one review or the power of one interview, than it is about just everyone talking about a thing.

At this point, as a music fan, not necessarily as a music critic, but as a music fan, when I’m looking for new music, there’s so much I’m getting hit with all the time that it’s sort of the rule of three. It’s less about this one Exclaim! interview launched this artist’s career and now they’ve made it. It’s more about, someone reads about it on a blog or something, and then a friend mentions a new artist to them and they’re like, “Oh yeah, I think I’ve heard that name.” And then maybe they read the Exclaim! review and that’s the tipping point; now I’m going to check out that artist. But I don’t know if just any one review by any one publication has the power to do that anymore. And that’s sort of a good thing. If anything the internet has kind of democratized the conversation about music.

Editor’s note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Photo courtesy of Stephen Carlick

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