Column 345: Are music critics necessary in the digital age?; Matt Bowen Benefit, The Photo Atlas tonight…

Category: Blog,Column — Tags: , , — @ 12:52 pm October 13, 2011
A brief glance at my current inbox.

Above, just a snippet of one of my inboxes. No critic could ever listen to all the music that's sent to him on a given day.

Column 345: Brother, Can You Spare Five Minutes?

by Tim McMahan,

You see, it’s all about time.

It was about three-quarters through Thao and the Get Down Stay Down’s set Sunday night at The Waiting Room, only about an hour or so before The Head and the Heart would take the stage, that I began to wonder how a crowd this size — a sold-out crowd — had heard of the bands playing on the night’s bill.

It isn’t as if local radio plays music by bands like The Head and the Heart. We don’t have a radio station in our market that plays good new modern music in regular rotation, and never have. There’s no reason to belabor the point. Omaha’s lack of decent radio has been a topic that’s been mulled to death; it ain’t exactly fresh column fodder.

Bad radio. We all know this. Moving on.

So if you didn’t hear The Head and the Heart broadcast to your car radio or home hi-fi unit, how’d you discover The Head and the Heart? The simple answers are the easiest, and usually wrong. There’s satellite radio, good ol’ Sirius XMU. My little Mini isn’t equipped with a satellite deck, so I have no idea if HatH is played on XMU, but even if it is/was, it wouldn’t account for a mob this size.

Could the crowd have been called to The Waiting Room by the Pied Piper we call the local press? Well, as much as my fellow writers would like to take credit for it, the answer is flat-out “no.” No amount of press in any of the local rags or blogs has been able to generate a crowd at a local show. People who read about bands featured in The Reader or the Omaha World-Herald or whatever electronic or pulp-derived reading material that litters the streets or the internet already know who the band is or they wouldn’t be reading about it.

Which brings us to record reviews, and music criticism in general. Lately the idea has edged into my mind that music criticism is becoming more useless as the technology gets better and music becomes more available and affordable. I began writing about music while in college at UNO for one reason: To get free CDs. I cannot begin to tell you the thrill I felt when a box arrived post marked from Lawrence, Kansas, from The Note, a regional music magazine that I wrote for back in the early ’90s. It usually weighed a few pounds, was the size of a record album but about three inches thick, wrapped in carton tape and marked in big letters FRAGILE. CONTAINS MUSIC.

Inside was a treasure trove of albums, singles and CDs from a variety of labels culled together by some intern and shipped for my ears to embrace. Yes, The Note paid me, but I already had a good job. The contents of that hand-made cardboard box was why I was doing it.

Now, a hundred years later, The Note is a distant memory, along with those care packages from Lawrence. Shortly after went online in ’98, manila envelopes filled with music began arriving at my house. Stacks of them. Sent directly from record labels. Those, too, have dwindled. Nowadays, labels seeking pre-release “press” merely email a link that takes writers to a download site, allowing them to copy a digital file to their hard drive — not very romantic, but still a luxury. Now even those downloads are fading.

Services like Spotify have wrung all the magic from the audio top hat. No, Spotify is not free, but it’s cheap and everyone has access to it. In fact, everyone has access to everything.

The critic’s role used to be to convince you to lay down your hard-earned cash on the gamble of buying a record sight unseen… or unheard. Now our job is merely to get you to listen. Just listen. If you’ve got Spotify or any of the other services, you’ve already paid for the music. But having access to all the music in the world doesn’t give you the time it takes to listen to it.

Look, I could write 900 words right now telling you how Eleanor Friedberger’s new album, Last Summer, is the best thing I’ve discovered this year — a kicky, hooky, roll-in-the-audio-hay hit factory, some of the best song writing you’ll ever hear. All in an effort to get you to type her name into Spotify or Rdio or Rhapsody or browse to her SoundlCloud site or even seek her out on Media Fire. No one said anything about buying her record. All it would take is just five minutes of your time.

These days when a local band contacts me about their new record, they always include a link to a SoundCloud or download site, along with a pitch letter that says, “Please, please, please just take five minutes and listen.

There’s only one problem — no one has the time to listen to all the music being thrust at them from every corner of the internet. So while more music is being created by more bands available to more people than any time in the history of recorded music, no one is listening.

It’s all about time. Time is now the commodity. If you don’t spend the time to listen to the music, you’ll never hear it. And if you don’t hear it, you’ll never love it. And if you never love it, you’ll never show up on a Sunday night at The Waiting Room and PAY to see it performed live, right in front of your eyes.

That’s where we are now. That’s where technology has led us. The biggest entertainment decision we make is how we invest our time. Because time is always running out.

* * *

I have not spoken to Matt Bowen since his operation; I don’t know the grisly details behind his condition. I can tell you that everyone of any consequence in the Omaha music scene was and is concerned about him. If you don’t know Bowen, well, you’re worse off than he is. More than a DJ and a bartender, he’s one of the founding fathers of the current Omaha music scene, a member of a number of important early Saddle Creek-related bands including Commander Venus, The Faint, Magic Kiss (which turned into Tilly and the Wall), Race for Titles and, of course, current project, The Third Men. Translated: Matt Bowen is a National Treasure.

And according to the One Percent Productions website, Matt Bowen also is “no longer a person with a full colon.”  Or, for that matter, a full bank account, as ongoing medical procedures has also meant stacks of medical bills. Which is where tonight’s benefit event comes in. Swing by The Waiting Room anytime past 8 p.m. and enjoy some fine spinning by DJ Kobrakyle (and DJ Matt Bowen himself). Take part in the raffle and silent auction. There is no cover but a donation to the Bowen fund is encouraged. So come on down and bring your wallet or our check book and help a brother out.

* * *

Also tonight, Landing on the Moon headlines a show at fabulous O’Leaver’s with The Photo Atlas and New Lungs. Whoa! $5, 9:30 p.m.

And Fierce Bad Rabbit is playing at The Barley Street with Travelling Mercies and Fools. $5, 9 p.m.

And Lincoln Calling is going on strong. Among the highlights is UUVVWWZ and Conduits at The Bourbon Street. Check out the Lincoln Calling website for the full schedule and other details.

* * *

Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2011 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.