The Broken Book

Buying the annual edition of Best Music Writing, published by Da Capo Press since the ‘90s, was always such a rush—who’s the editor this year? (Nick Hornby? Really?!) What writing made the cut? Can you puzzle out a theme? The idea of collating each year’s great music writing from the perspective of a different pop critic heavyweight was a genius move, giving as many props to the curator’s perspective as it does to the writing or the state of popular music in that particular year. Daphne Carr was the series editor from 2006 onward, the steady hand adding discipline and continuity to an inherently metastable format.

As with just about everything to do with music journalism, the fiscal tides turned against this initiative and DaCapo threw in the towel after the Alex Ross-selected 2011 edition (which, among other things, includes Ann Powers’ gutsy take on Wagner). So that seemed to be that, another humiliating blow to music journalism in an era where anyone can write whatever they want, quality standards optional, and the pay is penurious for professionals if there is any at all.

But a savior for the Best Music Writing franchise appeared and she was Daphne Carr herself. Vowing to continue independently, she assembled a crack editorial board (including Powers and Ross), improbably lined up ?uestlove to curate the 2012 edition under her own press imprimatur, and instigated a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign to crowd-source the effort. (Full disclosure: I was a contributor.) Over $17,000 was raised, exceeding the goal, and everyone kicked back for the second life of Best Music Writing.

Only, nothing happened. Months went by, a year and more, deadlines came and went. When the Kickstarter contributors started to inquire, first with concern but then with frustration, we were met with stony silence. Last week, articles started to appear at GigaOM and Noisey and even in the L.A. Times about the debacle. One doesn’t have to get between the lines too far to appreciate the writers’ suspicions that Carr squandered the cash.

And lo, Carr suddenly reappeared to the contributors once these online articles posted with an e-mail explaining (too opaquely) that the project has been halted and that she miscalculated the capital needed to get the book published. She promised to repay the contributors over time.

So what is up? Is Carr off the hook? Her behavior after the completion of the Kickstarter campaign does not inspire confidence: There is simply no excuse for her to have gone dark for so long about the project, and she owes a fuller accounting to her benefactors of how the money was spent.

But is she guilty of anything other than (choose your descriptor) overenthusiasm, bad judgment, associating with the wrong partners? Did she… . steal the money? No, I think this kind of speculation is off base. (So she is involved in the Occupy movement, how is that incompatible with giving the project her best shot?) One doesn’t have to try hard to find folks involved with the project who will vouch for Carr’s effort, veracity, and good intentions. I’m also not certain that expecting her to repay contributions is the way to go, but that’s up to individual contributors to decide. (Calling folks who do want their money back “shitlords” though, is not alright.)

This is a sideshow though. Seeking culpability for the Best Music Writing situation solves nothing and doesn’t address the distress that many factors— but the internet is a big one— have brought to the vocation of critical journalism. Robert Sietsema, long-time restaurant critic at the Village Voice (and former member of the foundational Lower East Side band Mofungo, who deserve a reissue effort), recently pulled the curtains open on restaurant reviews in a commentary in Eater. It’s a challenging but familiar situation, competing against amateur crowd-sourced review sites like Yelp (Sietsema is too generous to mention the biases built into these sources) and the drastic decline in spend for professional reviews.

The Best Music Writing Kickstarter campaign let us test the idea that crowd-sourcing could be a benign force that could sidestep some of these challenges, and the bets on the outcome based on the results of the campaign speak to an enthusiasm for new models of publishing arts criticism. But it crumbled. And a new pathway to communicate and support rock criticism crumbled as a result. That’s the real story here, the real tragedy. People didn’t just lose some money here, they lost something fundamentally more important: A new way forward.