When you are the Internet’s self-proclaimed “busiest music nerd,” time is a precious commodity. Since debuting his YouTube channel The Needle Drop in 2009, Anthony Fantano has spent most of his time listening to new albums, recording video album reviews and generally turning his homegrown site into one of the most respected and popular (over 80 million views and counting) voices in online music criticism. Ahead of his speaking engagement at the Middle East, supplemented with performances by Boogie Boy Metal Mouth, Abadabad and IAN, he carved out a few minutes to talk about music criticism, the Boston scene, and why he may (or may not) check out your demo.
What is a typical week like for you?
It’s new music everyday. Dozens of albums are being listened to every week. There are loads of albums that I’m listening to that I don’t even end up mentioning on the YouTube channel. There’s a lot of writing, a lot of editing and shooting and uploading and social media work, and that’s probably only the main stuff you are seeing every day. Then on the side of that, I’m trying to get my website redesigned. When that is fully functioning, I’m dealing with some of the writers that I have on staff to cover certain songs or videos that have just come out. I might be working with someone on a shirt design or packing shirts or making sure that shirts get shipped or devising what my next classic review is going to be. There’s a lot that goes into every week, and that’s just the kind of stuff that I can regularly schedule. There are things that come up, like last week I went to South Carolina to do a speaking engagement. So I’m always trying to do stuff like that every once in a while. I try to find some downtime at the end of the day to cook or hang out with my wife or got to a concert. I try to listen to some older stuff or personal faves on the weekend and stuff like that.
What is your vetting process like? How do you determine what you are going to do with the volume of albums you are constantly receiving?
Obviously, I can’t listen to all of it. Sometimes I have to make a decision based on what labels and artists and PR people I know typically bring me quality stuff, versus someone who might be sending me their demo and it looks like they haven’t really put much effort into it at all in terms of marketing it or making sure it look presentable. I see it as my job to turn people on to artists who are doing good things. I have made videos in the past about how to get your music out there and so on, but I’m not trying to coach you on how to fix your demo or make it look good. I’m trying to find artists who look like they are at certain levels of talent and presentability and recording quality. If I find a metal band who maybe might have a really good singer and they only have a couple of songs and the recording quality is really bad, that’s not something that I can make a really big deal out of. I’m trying to find artists who are essentially, in my opinion, kind of the total package, and who are doing good things all around, and present those to my viewers. Of course I review more popular artists and I try to touch down on records that my audience is curious as to what my thoughts on them are, but as far as smaller albums that I try to turn people on to that people might not have run across otherwise, I’m sort of trying to find… I understand when you are starting out that your initial records might not be perfect, and there are a lot of diamonds in the rough out there, but I’m not trying to find something that’s too rough per se. I’m trying to find someone who’s doing something stand-out, something that I enjoy, and when I present it to my audience they will be able to, without squinting too hard, see the beauty or what makes what I’m showing to them special as well.
Do you always focus on the music itself? How much other music criticism do you consume, if any?
Honestly, most of the time I’m going straight to the music these days. There are some music writers who I may go to, partially because their writing is good but also because I just respect their taste; I think they are good curators and they pick out good things. I think Invisible Oranges has good taste in metal. I think Potholes in My Blog has good taste in hip hop. But often I’m listening to music and getting how I feel out of it straight from myself. Although, you can’t really escape from opinions on the internet when you have a Twitter account that is about music criticism and you have about 100,000 people following you, because the moment a new album comes out I have people in my feed saying ‘This album sucks!’ or ‘This album rules!’ or ‘This album is whatever.’ Complete strangers are telling me that the album is good or bad before I’ve even reviewed it. Which is fine, people are going to express their opinion at me, but I can’t base my thoughts on that. I have to listen to it for myself and see how I feel.
How often do you engage with commenters and social media?
I try to engage when I have time. Lately, with focusing on trying to get the website together, I haven’t had time, but I’m looking forward to getting back into that mix once the site is where it needs to be. At least looking at the comments is a pretty important thing because one, it lets me know if people are pissed off at me, and two, it sort of lets me know what my audience is listening to and what stands out to them. A PR person might alert you to when a new record is coming out, and that’s fine and good, but the audience will tell you what is actually hot. If 100 people are coming up to me and telling me they are listening to record X and they think it’s interesting, that, to me, signals something. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to like it or that even I’m going to review it, because there are plenty of popular records that I pass on in favor of reviewing other albums, but it’s at least good to stay conscious of what is catching people’s ears.
How do you deal with fatigue?
I think it comes with the experience of dealing with all the reviews that I’ve been having to do for the past few years. Don’t get me wrong; it’s still difficult sometimes because it seems like there is more music than ever. But right now, I sort of have a grasp of the labels and the artists through which I sort of explore and find out about new artists. I kind of have my pipelines and I’m comfortable with them. I’m able to, at least in a way that I feel is efficient, keep tabs on what’s new. In order to get reviews out and cover the things that my audience is listening in, I have to pass on a lot of things. I have to make a lot of quick decisions. Not everybody’s record gets listened to all the way through, and that’s the downside of being in such a saturated market. You may have the power to be an unknown band and put up your 40 minute album, but not everybody has the time or wants to allocate the time because you are a complete unknown and they don’t want to surrender 40 minutes of their life to something they may not end up liking at all. I think that’s the double-edged sword of the situation. You can certainly put your music out there, but because there is so much music out there, not everybody is going to put forward that time to check out your stuff, including critics as well. It’s an impossibility to listen to it all. I think music critics and musicians kind of need to, going forward, go into their respective industries understanding that, and maybe through that there would be a little bit less animosity between the two groups.
I think when you are an unknown and you are starting from the bottom, unless you are working in some avant-garde sort of music, it would be best to work in a single capacity, and work on your craft in three or four minute bits. I’ve said in speaking engagements before, if you can’t make four minutes of music that people want to hear, why are you making 40? To me, an album is a marathon; you have to learn to pace yourself until you’ve really put together 40 minutes of music that is just fantastic from beginning to end. Of course, everybody has their different perceptions about what makes for 40 minutes of great music, and that’s part of what makes music great, that we can have so many different expressions of opinions and sounds, and they are appealing to someone out there. But there are some people who are just beginning, who are lacking the technical and rudimentary basics of songwriting and mixing and composing, and it ends up hurting whatever album they are trying to put together in the long run. I don’t think these rules totally apply to experimental music, because if you are trying to break past the pop song structure, obviously you might not be trying to make three to four minute songs. But I think for the vast majority of people, that advice should be able to be applied to something that they are doing.
Tell us what you are going to be up to at the Middle East on Wednesday and any thoughts about Boston bands or the local scene.
[Wednesday] will be a combination of serious musical discussion and then musical ridiculousness. It’s totally a music nerd kind of thing. We’re going to be talking about music promotion, maybe streaming services. It also depends on what happens that week in music news. If something happens that week, I may overhaul what I’m talking about. I try to keep it current, while also including things that I also think can be enjoyed no matter what time of year.
As far as the Boston scene goes, I think the handful of bands that the promoter handed me to have play before the act, one of which really stood out to me: Boogie Boy Metal Mouth, which was incredibly bombastic and out there and creative.
I try not to center too much on what a specific scene is doing, because it’s all about the Internet for me now. Not that your local scene doesn’t matter anymore, but now that the internet is influencing people’s tastes more than ever, things aren’t working like they used to. Growing up in Connecticut, and having one of the biggest bands in loud music — Hatebreed — come from my home state, when I was growing up, most local bands wanted to sound like Hatebreed. Now when I go out to a local show in Connecticut, I see a whole lot of diversity. There are a lot more singer-songwriters, there are even some electronic music artists, of which there were almost none when I was a kid. There are some successful young rappers coming out of here, a lot of notable emo acts coming out of here now like The World is a Beautiful Place & I’m No Longer Afraid to Die, who have been doing really well. I think they just got signed to a pretty big label and have done some national tours as well. Going in to New York I see the same thing. I think people are way less influenced by what is going on around them immediately and are more influenced by what is going on in their Soundcloud feeds or what they are being turned on to by their favorite music website or something like that. Most locales that have venues and have people who are willing to take a chance and make some music have something at least interesting going on, and while it’s important to market to your local scene and it’s certainly a good way to get your live performance chops up, it’s hard to see… I don’t think scenes are influencing one another in the way that they used to, sort of in the way that in the mid or late 2000s you had that scene of psychedelic noise rock acts coming out of California with The Smell. I don’t know if that has been your experience? Is there a certain direction that all these local bands are moving in based on what you’ve noticed?
I haven’t noticed any collective movement focused on one specific sound. But the scene is pretty insular in the sense that at any particular local show, there is probably at least one other band in the audience to see them. There is a lot of mutual support and bands seem to be fans of each other, but there’s a lot of diversity in sound.
That’s another valuable thing about scenes: the camaraderie and your ability to touch local fans on a really personal level and give them a sense of pride about where they are from, and that’s important in some kind of artistic way. For people who are really big into music to have artists near them who they think are making fantastic music, that’s a really meaningful thing. And the whole networking capability; it’s fantastic to see bands coming out and supporting other bands, because you never know if down the road some of those artists end up collaborating with each other and making some fantastic music.
AN INTIMATE EVENING WITH ANTHONY FANTANO w/ Abadabad, Boogie Boy Metal Mouth & IAN. WED 4.29 The Middle East Upstairs, 472 Mass Ave., Cambridge 617.864.3278. 8pm/$10/18+. Youtube.com/theneedledrop