it would be best if i began by saying outright that i find this to be one of the more irritating bits of writing i've ever come across (and i spend a fair amount of time trolling the right-wing internets). nick southall is a critic who states -- almost with pride -- that he is "not an engineer or a musician." still, he seems to think himself uniquely qualified to tell musicians how to make better records.
indeed, the title of this odious turd of a piece is: "top ten ways to make better records".
i am a musician. and i'm a lucky guy, because nick is graciously writing this piece for my own benefit -- and for the benefit of all musicians who try to express themselves. after not liking a lot of records, he's "come to the inevitable, ineffable conclusion that musicians are often fumbling in the dark during the recording and production process." he continues: "many musicians don't know what their best material is, and even if they do, they don't know how to make the most of it half the time anyway, and so the ostensibly simple process of making good records gets repeatedly cocked-up by people who ought to know better, if they could only remember the things they loved about records when they were just fans themselves."
let's try to absorb all of the bullshit in that last bit of paragraph. musicians don't know how to record music, how to differentiate their good works from their bad ones, how to "make the most" of their best songs, how to avoid cocking up the "ostensibly simple [!] process of making good records," and to top it all off, they don't even remember what they love about music (because they're so distracted by making it). jeez, these musician guys sound really really stupid. aside from working in the service industry, is there anything they CAN do?
hang on one second. hold down the meatballs! the obvious question is: what makes a critic, who admits to having nothing but second-hand knowledge about the whole process of recording, think he can the supply advice that will shelter musicians from their own bad taste? granted that musicians are totally dumb, what makes this guy so fucking clever? amazingly enough, it's precisely because he's not a musician that he feels his thoughts will be of value. "as a music journalist, and more importantly as a music fan, i've spent a lot of time paying a lot of attention to a lot of records, researching how they're made and talking to the people who make them." if only we could all just talk to musicians, we wouldn't even need his advice. sadly, you go to war with the army you have, so onward and upward.
as far as the specific advice he offers is concerned, there are few surprises. record live if your band sounds better live, a 40 minute cd is better than a 75 minute one (hat tip to j-temp for his previous work on the absurd concept of "exhausting" music), don't overcompress stuff ("it sounds crap"), don't get too stoned, be creative with sequencing, and so forth. it's not that he gives any advice that's particularly BAD; it's just all so OBVIOUS. he writes as if "be economical with time" were some sort of epiphany worthy of publication. that southall thinks any of this advice is uncharted territory for musicians only goes to further establish how out of touch he is with the actual experience of being creative.
but beyond nuts and bolts idiocy, there's something so essentially arrogant and stupid about the whole project. the entire piece is written from the premise that nick is better at listening to music than the people who make it -- which is to say, it's a load of self-serving, narcissistic nonsense. one more time: critics are not special. being a critic does not make you smarter, and it doesn't help you understand music in any noteworthy way. all they do is listen to songs, and then talk about whether or not they like them. everyone does this. as a profession, it impresses mostly fellow english majors, and practically nobody else.
creativity is about embracing risk. criticism is about SHIELDING yourself from risk. nick doesn't understand the difference (because he's not very smart). he thinks his experience evaluating music makes him better equipped to understand the process of making music (imagine a homeless man advising a room full of chefs on the culinary arts -- and justifying this by saying, "i've eaten a lot of bad shit in my day."). and so nick offers advice only on how to avoid fucking up, which is easily the least effective and most self-centered approach an artist can possibly take. creative people take risks; critics fear them.
his tenth and final piece of advice is: "don't be afraid to follow, or ignore, any and all advice you may be privy to, including this. it's your record after all." again, hold down the meatballs. has he just revoked his original statement that musicians are "fumbling in the dark" when it comes to being musicians? is he trying to insulate himself from the possibility that someone would find his advice condescending? is this a recognition that the very idea of such an article necessitates it being an utter waste of time? his world-weary knowledge of records is slamming right into his disingenuous populism. this is fingernails-on-a-blackboard cognitive dissonance. really impressive stuff.
in a discussion about the traffic in los angeles, larry david once said, "sometimes it gets so bad you can hardly breathe." when it occurs to me that dime store fools like nick southall actually hold sway over the success of "independent" musicians, i think i know what he means.