In its Sunday Arts & Entertainment section each week, the News & Observer runs approximately one page of starred album reviews. If the words you read about music in 2007 were limited to this page, you would conclude that the music scene in the area covered by your daily paper of record was nearly nonexistent. In 248 CD reviews on page 2G of the Arts & Entertainment section (5G on June 10), the News & Observer published 10 reviews of local records. The class of 2007—if you're an adherent to 2G—was John Brown, Gary Brunotte, Martin Eagle, Dave Finucane, Donna Hughes (from Trinity), Martin & Johnson, Pratie Heads, Scott Sawyer, Will Scruggs and Steep Canyon Rangers (from Asheville). Surprising?
No, it's not entirely surprising if you read the rest of the News & Observer's patchwork local music coverage last year. In January 2007, the paper's pop music critic, David Menconi, picked his own Great 8 class of 2007, the crop of bands in the Triangle he deemed worthy of recognition: The Annuals, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Darien Brockington, Des Ark, Dirty5Thirty, The Never, Southern Culture on the Skids and The Old Ceremony. Three of those bands released albums in 2007. According to online database searches, none of them were given full, stand-alone reviews by the News & Observer.
On Friday, the News & Observer will publish Menconi's picks for 2008's Great 8: Bowerbirds, Bull City, I Was Totally Destroying It, Megafaun, Red Collar, Scene of the Crime Rovers, Alina Simone and Small World. Six of those bands released albums in 2007. According to online database searches, none of them were given full, stand-alone reviews by the News & Observer.
Local music, it seems, is not good enough for the News & Observer, especially if it's rock 'n' roll that can't be tamed with a tidy, feature-length profile. Of the 10 local albums reviewed in 2007 by the N&O, none were rock albums. Owen Cordle, the only consistently interesting and provocative music critic at the N&O, squeezes local jazz into the pages with sharp, honest criticism, and Jack Bernhardt occasionally manages to sneak a treasure from this state's roots trove onto page 2G.
But that's about it. Josh Love reviewed nearly 50 albums vaguely classified as indie rock for the N&O in 2007, and none of them were local. The Rosebuds landed a nice profile by Menconi in May, but the band's third LP, Night of the Furies, was never reviewed separately. Meanwhile, their Merge labelmates Spoon and The Arcade Fire and tourmates The National were reviewed. Same for Little Brother: No The Getback, but there was a nice Common analysis on Aug. 5. KT Tunstall was reviewed on 2G, but Alina Simone wasn't. David Karsten Daniels didn't get much mention, but Josh Ritter got a full review and a fancy photo. And, in a year-ending token of separate-and-unequal recognition, the N&O's music critics suggested 30 albums that would make good Christmas gifts. The Polyphonic Spree, Bettye LaVette and others claimed the spotlight on 2G. A handful of local picks was sequestered onto the facing page. You know, just so you didn't buy something local and surely inferior.
But why does this matter? Does any music scene need or even desire validation or recognition from a news source, especially the biggest daily newspaper in the market, to thrive? Not necessarily, and it's dubious at best to suggest that such exposure would improve that scene, though we'll probably never know. Rather, it's the chosen-few perspective of the Great 8, juxtaposed with the newspaper's near-complete avoidance of the scene from which those bands are pulled during the rest of the calendar year, that is most damaging. Most Triangle bands go completely unnoticed, while some (their friends, no less) are anointed in stylized featurettes. Last year's Great 8 were treated like clubs in a high-school yearbook. Carolina Chocolate Drops was The Latin Club, and Southern Culture on the Skids was The Auto Club. This year, each band will get its own light-painting portrait and exclusive performance video. That is awesome, we think—at least until we hear barely a word from the arbiters of ultimate taste until next January. If the News & Observer's occasional word is to be taken, the music community is just a valley of mongrels with less than a dozen noteworthy breeds to platform each year. That's just not true.
And these neglected bands aren't the type who play one show every two months just to say "Yeah, I'm in a band." Consider the Indy's cover subjects this week, Birds of Avalon. The Raleigh quintet toured harder than almost any other rock band in America this year, but—according to the News & Observer—they hardly exist. BOA was mentioned in lists of upcoming rock concerts in May, June and July 2005 and July 2006 and again in two stories about the fall of Kings Barcade (co-owned by BOA guitarist Paul Siler) in April 2007. And, in June, Menconi finally managed to call BOA "squall-rock," followed by a notice in August that they would soon open for Ted Leo and The Pharmacists at Cat's Cradle. But if you're wondering what the N&O thinks of the band's Volcom Records debut, Bazaar Bazaar, we suggest oracles or a McDowell Street stakeout. They certainly didn't waste their column inches on it. Likewise, Cantwell, Gomez and Jordan have been mentioned only 11 times but never with substantial description.
Recently, the music section of the Indy began running "Eh, Whatever," an occasional feature included as part of our weekly "Hearing Aid" concert guide, written when we feel touring bands playing the Triangle are not worth seeing. The Triangle music scene is teeming with music you should hear, and that's why we feel comfortable passing judgment on incoming noteworthy nationals, both favorably and unfavorably. We've written lots over the past year about venue troubles, from kids with house shows in Raleigh being evicted to the evolving strategies of Local 506 in Chapel Hill to stay open. Still, bands keep forming and finding places to play, whether it's a community space with a bike co-op in Durham or a narrow bar with a floor PA in Raleigh. This is not a dead scene that depends only on outsiders—be they Barry Manilow or Ryan Adams—for entertainment. We hope that, in the future for 12 months a year, the News & Observer will acknowledge as much, and treat the rich local music that surrounds its offices with the care, enthusiasm and devotion it deserves.
Until then, we'll see you at Local 506 for the News & Observer's Great 8 showcase featuring Red Collar, Megafaun and I Was Totally Destroying It on Saturday night. We hear Local 506 has excellent Holy Water.
CORRECTION: The number of "vaguely ... indie rock albums" reviewed by Josh Love in 2007 was nearly 50.