Monday, August 04, 2008

When an unstoppable force meets an immovable object

"JK" is online slang for "Just Kidding", but Forecastle Festival Captain JK McKnight wasn't kidding when he told me that he didn't want me to attend his concert this year. He was angry because, in a critical assessment of this year's bands that I wrote, I praised 25 of the bands, was ambivalent about 7 of them, and negative about 7 of them.
Louisville is a smaller and usually more forgiving market than Chicago or Nashville, so his underwhelming festival attempt still drew plenty of generic media coverage from the Courier-Journal, Velocity, LEO, WFPK and other media outlets, free of charge.
Most promoters, and humans, realize that criticism is part of life, and especially part of putting yourself out there in the public eye. Just Kidding McKnight apparently believes that he should be held to a different standard. I did a similar critical review of every band playing at Louisville's Terrastock Festival this summer.

Co-director Erica Rucker commented on this site, "I tended to like your reviews of Terrastock bands, and you were equally as honest... A review is a critique and does not have to be positive." She also dismissed McKnight's reaction as "childish".
Instead of continuing our conversation, Just Kidding declined to reply to me, and took his case to a freelance blogger. He chose a self-described "journalist" who printed Just Kidding's side of the story without contacting me to get my side of the story.
In his comments, Just Kidding accused me of having a "personal vendetta" against him and the festival, when, in fact, I've never met him, have attended the festival for the past two years and wrote about it for a piece in Spin magazine. Just Kidding continues to use a quote from that Spin issue on the Forecastle website to this day - he doesn't give me credit on his site, or mention it in his one-sided interview, either.

Just Kidding also said that my "narrow musical tastes" resulted in the tone of the piece. Here are some excerpts from what I wrote:
- Spank Rock's 2006 debut, "YoYoYoYoYo," was the best hip-hop album of the decade
- Pomegranates: Instant-classic sounding indie rock from Cincinnati that should sound perfect on a summer Saturday afternoon.
- Extra Golden: Do you like Kenyan music but wish it could be fused with Chicago post-rock?... This is an international cross-pollination that doesn't come around often, so don't miss a musical experience of a lifetime.
- Catfish Haven: This oddly soulful rock band only needs to be heard to increase its fanbase. It would take a cold, dark heart to not be impressed by the genuine feeling, talent and dedication.
- The Del McCoury Band: One of the greatest bluegrass bands in existence today graces us with its beautiful vocalizing, harmonizing and amazing musicianship.

Boy, my musical taste sure is narrow, huh?

Just Kidding went on to say that I "ignored the fact that the bands featured were successful." Coldplay is successful, sure - but have YOU heard of Z-Trip? (For clarification, I have, but I'm a music critic). The GZA's fairly successful - even my mother has heard of the Wu-Tang Clan - but are the Disco Biscuits that successful? Ekoostik Hookah? The Del McCoury Band is tremendously successful in the bluegrass world, for example, but I bet Alison Krauss has a bigger house. Is one more "successful" than the other? On what terms? I think we should consider that "successful" might be a relative concept.

"Z-Trip, for example, is the godfather of electronic music," McKnight said. "The article just shows the writer's ignorance, and it's an embarrassment to him and the publisher."

Jason Clark is a DJ who spun at the festival this year. He commented on, "As an electronic music nerd I have to point out that the 'godfather of electronic music' title probably belongs to Karlheinz Stockhausen, or maybe Robert Moog. The 'godfather of techno' title usually belongs to Juan Atkins. Z-trip, while putting on a great DJ set at Forecastle this weekend, is decades behind being coined a 'godfather' in the electronic music world."

An unfortunately anonymous commenter added, "I would also add Carl Craig or Derrick May (both guys who helped establish the Detroit techno scene and sound that became extremely influential). I wouldn't have said Z-Trip is the godfather; that's just not true. Hell, you could say Brian Eno is much more a godfather to electronic music then Z-Trip."

So, who's ignorant and an embarrassment?

Rucker added on, "A festival is a collaboration of so many flavors and tastes. There is no way to please everyone fully. We were simply stoked to have the amount of coverage we got... My thought on this whole issue (as someone who's been through a similar experience) is that you take your criticism and either use it or forget about it... It isn't going to kill you. The worst thing to do is to try to control your event so much that it loses the ability to have a life of its own."

Furthermore, "The decision to 'un-invite' the writer probably should have been a non-starter. Firstly because, it makes the un-inviter seem sour. Also while Mr. Berkowitz initially did not find some of the bands as intriguing as JK might, he may have been open to seeing them and forming a different opinion of some (and even writing some followup). Further, asking him or any other writer not to attend creates a communication breakdown in an area where most festivals or other events really like to have an opening. Having the press willing to work with you (regardless of the opinion expressed) is usually helpful. In regards to criticism, someone somewhere said it best... essentially the comment was to use the criticism to become better. It doesn't mean you cater to the needs of any one specific audience and it also doesn't mean that you diversify so much as to lose your original intent. It simply means that perhaps there is an area that could be improved. Perhaps it is the scope of the thing that is out of proportion to the talent level. Bigger does not mean better. Plus the higher the overhead the greater the possibility of serious financial loss. Quality should always win over quantity in the area of music and experience."

I obviously didn't go this year, but in 2007 the tobacco company American Spirits was a sponsor. In exchange, they were given a booth in the Activism section. I wasn't clear on how tobacco = activism, and I didn't get a chance to ask Robert Kennedy, Jr., but in 2007 I did walk by the 15-year-old sister of a friend who was smoking. I'm sure she was more excited to see Girl Talk in concert than American Spirits; she appeared to be smoking a Marlboro.

Local musician Justin Davis commented on, "Having been a part of multiple Forecastle Fests, I can honestly say that I miss the days when it was a local/regional arts event nestled in Tyler Park. There were no egos. No one got paid. If JK is unable to take criticism as he attempts to gain wider recognition for his festival, he's in for a world of disappointment."

Speaking of not getting paid, some photographers have an issue about not getting paid by Forecastle that they had to address. Just Kidding at least responded to them, unlike me, whom he ignored.

One reason why I love Louisville is that it's not Los Angeles.

I lived in the latter for almost 8 years, working as a product buyer at the Rhino Records store during the days and performing stand-up comedy at night. Yes, for several years, I got up in front of strangers, peers and the entertainment industry on a constant basis and was judged by them. I know what it's like to be criticized, and I know that the only way to improve your performance is to listen to professionals who might have some perspective - and who might not be your mother. I'm not a failed or frustrated musician - I'm a music fan, I'm a writer, and sometimes I'm funny, but I was not a good stand-up comedian at all. I wasn't the worst - those are the ones who, literally, haven't taken their meds, or are people trying to be a comic for that one month in their life before they realize that it's a lot harder to do than it looks. I was average, at best, and no one needs an average comedian. I killed in front of Larry David one night, and I bombed in front of David Cross one night; I spent many nights in the company of people like Zach Galifianakis and Patton Oswalt, ten years before you'd ever heard of them. They saw me do well, do OK and do horribly. I made Winnie Cooper from The Wonder Years laugh one night, and then scared her when I tried to talk to her afterwards. I did decently in front of the head of casting at NBC, but she never called me in for a meeting. Remember Seinfeld? Sure. Remember Berkowitz? Not so much...

It seems to me that some people in Louisville don't know what it's like to be criticized. I guess some have never had to go through it before. Forecastle's never been successful enough to be on the national radar. The Courier-Journal, Velocity, LEO, WFPK, television news shows, etc. - all have pretty much just gone along and given them free press because, hey, we're nice people! It's not like there's much else going on during that weekend! Neither I nor anyone else at Velocity intended to "go after" Forecastle, but if you want a music critic to discuss your concert and pretend like it's perfect, pretend like the Disco Biscuits are as good an act as the Del McCoury Band or Extra Golden... well, that's just as deluded as telling a journalist "don't come" as a "personal favor to me" and expecting that his newspaper might not ignore your festival next year.
That is, if your festival can afford to return next year.

When I moved back here from L.A., I felt like I'd been released from prison. Here, people are a lot nicer. It's not just a cliche. They just don't need to use you, screw you over and ignore you like they do there. It's cheaper to live, it's prettier, and we have a much better local music community. I've spent a lot of time and energy promoting Louisville music. I do this, I write for the Velocity print edition, and I've also written for LEO, Bejeezus, and as I mentioned, I briefly wrote for Spin about Louisville music. When I ran the Old Louisville Coffeehouse, I booked 130 concerts between November 2005 and Decemeber 2006, until one cranky neighbor shut it down. That's 3 shows per week for 13 months, while simultaneously running a failing business for 14 hours a day, 7 days a week.
And this guy thinks his job is hard?

Is it possible that after 7 years, booking 39 bands this year, getting headliners like Ekoostik Hookah, The Disco Biscuits and The GZA for a music festival in 2008 while attracting what people say was less than 1,000 ticket-buying attendees while Coachella draws 55,000 people and Bonnaroo thrills 70,000 people... is it possible that something just isn't being done right? Just Kidding speaks loudly and often of his dream to land U2 and Pearl Jam as Forecastle headliners. You tell me, Louisville, because I clearly haven't done my homework... are we there yet?

Can we maybe focus on improving what we already have, Louisville? Or do we need to get a new captain, to build a new ship?

c. 2008 Velocity Weekly

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