Saturday, May 15, 2010

Not Looking Back In Anger

One Year of Erebus - A Letter to our Readers

Dear Readers,

Over the past year I've learned a lot about the metal underground in general, and about the black metal part of the underground in particular. I can't even remember (and it's only been a year since this all started) why exactly I became interested in writing for a magazine on the Internet, or why I took it upon myself to write, edit, and maintain this website. In the beginning I suppose it was all about writing reviews. I loathe the majority of reviews I read, as they are truly pitiful, pathetic, and insulting compared to the works they are trying to describe, and as I am also a musician and have had my music misunderstood and critisized (if not mangled) by writers in the past, I had a vested interest in trying to start a tradition of more intense, descriptive, explanatory, respectful reviewing within the metal scene. In fact, my ambition was even greater than this when I started this magazine: I wanted to completely change the status of the 'metal' journalist, and I wanted to bring a different kind of criticism towards the examination of this music that we all love. I feel it deserves it.

Here at Erebus I receive an immense amount of mail from bands or labels in the underground, and as much as I appreciate all the music that is sent my way, I simply can not take the time to review all of it. I listen to everything, however, and when something particularly strikes me or makes me want to review it (in other words: it inspires me on more than one level), I tend to write about it. This is a natural process for me, and writing about these bands and their music is an enjoyable creative outlet for my energies. I approach writing reviews this way - as a type of artform, as personal satisfaction - because any other approach would be downright ludicrous considering the small audience for my writing. I know that a lot of other writers in the underground take it upon themselves to review every single item they are sent, but the end result (as far as I have seen or noticed) of this philosophy is the watering-down of all the reviews they compose, and a corresponding lack of depth in their treatment. As a musician, which would you rather see: a magazine that takes the time to carefully listen to and appreciate your music, and then writes a corresponding notice filled with insights gleaned from your work, or one that gives it a 'good' review based on other considerations: i.e., scene politics, popularity, behind-the-scenes manuevering, and all the other reasons for writing good reviews? Speaking frankly, I would rather see a bad review of my own music if it meant that the reviewer simply considered it to be superfluous. I have received 'good' reviews from magazines that were trying, out of some perverse instinct, to win friends in the underground (a losing cause, that) and those reviews were direct insults. They said to me: 'I don't even care about your music, or what I'm writing about, I just want x', etc. where x represents what their shallow personalities were in need of that week. This is the common status of magazines in general, and webzines in particular: they are addicted to sycophancy, and would sell their integrity (if they had any at the beginning of the venture) for the price of a promo CD. This can not be news to you.

I have alienated my share of underground labels with my reviews, and I learned from doing this that the unspoken name of the game in the metal journalism world is advertisement, nothing else, and that most record labels were actually emotionally distressed when I called them to account for the horrible music they were sending me. They couldn't understand why I wasn't just giving everything good reviews, and why I didn't review everything they sent me, including the tedious compilation CDs that all labels seems to have to put out as their first releases. In sending me a CD with twenty bands on it, which cost them, at the most, two dollars to produce, print, advertise, and mail to me, they expected me to take several hours out of my busy life to 'cover' these releases. In other words, they expected me to work for them in the joyless dungeon of promotion for, I am estimating, less than a dollar an hour - a dollar that they reaped the benefits of, not me. Sweatshop laborers in the Orient would laugh at this and turn away. If I politely refused, they threatened not to send me anything any more. How am I to deal with people like this? No one should be surprised at this behavior, and truly I wasn't shocked myself - I have been made impervious to the strange antics of underground metal labels through all my years of dealing with them as a consumer. What still amazes me, however, is how little some of these companies or corporate entities really care about the music they are selling, and I wonder what kind of enjoyment they even receive from doing what they do all day long. As cynical as I am, I am still constantly being disgusted by the depths to which people sink in their manipulation and exploitation of artists. Is it just a job like anything else? If they hate the underground and metal so much, why do they stay in such a joyless occupation? I have also been somewhat surprised by the ways in which record companies act when you ask them for promo CDs and you mention that you do not have a print magazine to give them for their 'analysis' - some record labels (a lot of the American ones) do not even consider sending a webzine anything, unless they are unmitigated ass-kissers like some of the flashier websites out there, which are nothing but notice-boards for the larger labels to hang their ads on. Labels like Nuclear Blast and Hammerheart, for example, refuse to send Erebus anything for review because we do not have a massive readership, and I can't help but laugh at that, because I remember when both of these labels were just starting out, and at that time they would have begged anyone, anywhere, to review their terrible excuses for music. Can I interest you in some Righteous Pigs vinyl? Hammerheart Records refuses to send us anything to this day, even after I designed the Manes website...I don't know how to react to behavior like this.

I wonder, what is better: an internet magazine that appreciates music, writes earnest reviews, and is read jealously by those who consider themselves the 'movers and shakers' of the industry, or a sixteen-page newsprint solo shot that sinks into the staring eyes and illiterate mouths of the Midwest like so much salt-water taffy? I wonder, which is better: a magazine that is printed at three-month intervals (if you are lucky) or one which is updated almost every single day? A magazine that, at most, has a print run of a couple thousand, or an internet site that has the potential to attract anyone in the world? Most labels offer the tired argument that webzines are simply not truthworthy: they are too easy to set up (anyone can do it - something that they are admitting they are against...I thought this is what the underground was all about, silly of me, really), too easy to dismantle, and that they don't reach as many people as print zines do. First of all, programming a website is not something 'anyone' can do, regardless of what programs like Frontpage and all the other WYSIWYG or DIY editors out there offer, and it is very simple to tell which webzines are in it for the long haul: they have enhanced design aesthetics, a history, good programming, or at the very least a connection to other webzine editors who will back them up. I think it is actually much easier to create a print zine, and I could probably convert all of the information on Erebus into a newsprint format in a matter of days with minimal editing. Creating art for a webzine and a fanzine is almost exactly the same process. Running a webzine is also much more time-intensive, and webzine editors doubtlessly put much more of their own personal time and energy into maintaining their sites than even the most strident of fanzine publishers - it just requires a lot of work to constantly update, change, and program a website. I work on Erebus every single day, for my own enjoyment if nothing else. I bring to the writing of this magazine a simple love for the music that has not been tarnished by all the years of my participation in its promotion, and magazines of this sort - which exist outside of the general approbation or social support of the majority - are all the stronger for being based strictly on the passion of their creators. I know that this is something that every magazine editor or writer will offer, often adding the constant cliche that 'there isn't money in metal' (there actually is, to tell you the truth), but this is just something that you are expected to say if you want to take part in a mass movement like the underground. It's a cliche in itself, it means absolutely nothing, and if everyone out there in the underground was involved in this based purely on their strong feelings, their undeniable passion, then why is the underground always the loser when it comes to the creation of a viable, strong, satisfying social movement? I say this (about my love for the music) because it is the only consolation I have left to wrap myself up in, and at the end of the day, when all of this fades away and my years and years of involvement in the underground has slipped into the mists of forgetfulness - when no one but me remembers my own name - I will not look to the outside for valuation, validation, or approval. I did this because I had to, because I wanted to...and just simply being here, being able to listen to the music, write about it, be inspired by it...that means everything to me.

So yes, websites are easy to dismantle, but how easy is it for a fanzine editor to disappear? In the history of metal, how many one-shot fanzines have there been? Ten thousand? This argument is pointless. Once a person's dedication or energy reaches a critical point, it doesn't matter what format or media he publishes in - he will simply drop beneath your radar. The underground should be about a network of individuals, not a fleeting flirting with amateur journalism, and these individuals will continue to be pillars of the 'scene', no matter how they let others know of their opinions. I have probably sold as many records for labels through my email messages to fans as through my reviews - what's the point of measuring things like this? Lastly, webzines are still in something of a 'potential' state because they can not reach as many people, on an average basis, as some of the larger magazines. I think this will be changing very soon. Besides, you must know as an internet enthusiast yourself that actually trying to reach a webzine, paging through its contents, and reading all of its offerings is something of an act of faith, and definitely an act of enthusiasm, and the people who search out reviews of works on webzines are really only looking for easy excuses to spend their hard-earned money. The immediate empathy or desire that a readily-available review creates directly transfers to record sells...but am I being too literal and commercial for you? I am just trying to be practical.

I wonder...at what point did labels like this sell their souls? At what point did they actually start to think in terms of business strategy instead of reveling in their passion for music? At what point was it decided that ignoring the internet (the internet's just a trend, you know) was a sound business decision? And for those of you who think that I am being 'too hard' on record labels, and that I don't understand the difficulties of running a 'business', so I can't fathom the ways in which these labels have to treat underground magazines...well, you're right. I hope I never understand. What are you going to do about it?

I love writing for this magazine when it means I get the opportunity to make a real, legitimate, connection between myself, my readers, and the musicians I admire. This is something that I enjoy doing in other avenues of life: turning people on to good music. Seriously: there are so many bad 'musicians' selling their wares out in the world now that it's become a nightmare, a real problem for music lovers to deal with. The number of underground labels has virtually exploded, and much like the earlier death-metal expansion of the late '80s and early '90s, the black metal scene has produced an entire generation of slippery fly-by-night record labels and illegitimate 'musicians'. There is something that I have always been convinced of, since I was very young, and being involved in the underground has not altered this conviction in any way: it is the thought that true musical talent, like many other forms of genius or artistic prowess, is extremely rare. The music that is actually worth listening to is absolutely miniscule compared to the amount of music that is produced every year. Most of the people who write, record, publish, and sell music do not need to be musicians, and if our world offered them other outlets for their creative energies, they probably wouldn't be. If you are interested in music, you naturally come to learn about this critical attitude after a while, after you've been down many dangerous alleys of investigation. That is: you learn from experience. When I say bad music, I am not really making an evaluation of 'talent': I don't think I am really qualified to judge such things, and I don't believe there is an abstraction or critical standard to go by in any case. What's the use of trying to 'judge' such a thing? Some of the most beautiful music has been made by people who 'professional' musicians would consider utter hacks. Give me feeling and originality over 'talent' any day. No, what I mean by bad music is music that is simply superfluous: music that will not change, in any way, its listeners' perceptions, will not offer them anything new, and which will not add in any significant way to our understanding of the world, music, art, or ourselves. Music that doesn't express anything, that stays safely within the boundaries of a style or genre or a specific method of composition, might as well not be released. It can be written, it can be recorded, but it shouldn't be sold: and if it is, we as music lovers should have the sense not to support it. Why? Because there are simply too many bands as it is, and all of these musicians writing utterly pointless, useless music only serve to draw off creative energy from uses/paths that would be much more profitable. How many clone bands do we need? This may seem harsh to you, but you have probably not been overwhelmed, like me, by ten different albums in your mailbox in one day from all different parts of the world...which sounded all exactly alike. Something like that just depresses me, and it happens quite often. This is just one example of the ways in which underground bands (or all musicians) frustrate me, however...

Tell me, if you are a musician: why do you write music? Why do you record it and attempt to sell it? Why do you think others should listen to it? What does it offer to me, or to the world? In what way does it satisfy you to do this? Why are you in a band? What are you hoping to get out of all of this?

Over the past year I've also had the pleasure of talking to and interviewing a number of bands that I was interested in, and I've established contacts with a million others. I still really enjoy writing and reading interviews - I still believe in their usefulness - and I don't see that changing soon in the future. Yes, it is difficult for me to find bands that actually interest me enough to where I would want to go through all the torment of contacting them (sometimes this is the hardest part), setting up interview questions, and waiting months for the answers (the greatest part of this is when you give your all to support a band and then they spit in your face by never returning your questions, I love that), and because of all my frustrations in dealing with bands, I have become more wary than ever in dealing with interviews...but still, I enjoy writing them and trying to come up with queries that will challenge the answerers in some way. I know that being in a band often means a constant barrage of interview questions that are all the same...and I know how tiring that can be. The last thing I would want is an interview that's like all the others, and I would hope that the readers of this magazine come here because they can expect to find out things about their favorite bands that they probably wouldn't see elsewhere. If not...why am I doing this? Yury has told me in the past that he thinks we shouldn't interview bands that one could find in any other webzine, and while I feel that limits me, I understand his point. I have easy access, at my fingertips and at my keyboard, to dozens of interviews with the 'larger' bands out there. Why should we throw another on the fire? I would much rather interview bands that really need the support we can give them, and talk to people who are not worn out by being interviewed by annoying drones with all the same questions. Having said that, I am not above interviewing the better known bands out there if they give me the opportunity to do so. I like a lot of these bands, and I often hear things in their music that most other people don't, for whatever reason. Because I am not afraid to reflect this in my interviews, they often come out being original sessions, and I also wouldn't deny some of these bands the chance to speak their minds without the terror of being deluged by robot fanzine interrogations. It's not just pure information that I'm after in my interviews, after all...but rather the desire to satisfy my own curiosity in the realm of subtleties...for those of you who are thinking of interviewing bands: try to not ask questions to which you and your readers already know the answers. You might surprise yourself.

It makes me proud to know that many consider Erebus to be one of the finer magazines out there, and I hope by this time we have come to stand for a certain measure of quality or integrity in supporting underground music. This was always my intention, as I said at the beginning of this editorial, and it's satisfying to see the results of my convictions after a full year of their flowering. I can only hope that I have the energy and enthusiasm necessary to continue in the same way in the future, but as I sit here and look around me, at all of the new music that I have just lately been made aware of, and when I think of all the music that has yet to be written - all the realms that are waiting to be explored - I can't help but be positive...or at the very least excited. One of the most beautiful things about the underground is it's unwavering ability to reinvent itself, and as I have been the willing witness of such things in the past, I can only look forward to taking notice of them again. In the meantime, be sure to keep coming back and supporting this magazine...we wholeheartedly appreciate all the kind words that you, our constant readers, have been gracious enough to offer us, and be sure we will not be slowing down anywhere in the near future. This magazine is only going to get better.

Thanks,

U. Amtey
Editor, Erebus Magazine
31 October - 1 November 2000