SXSW Panel: Pitchfork’s Schreiber, Hollywood Bowl’s Rees, and More on State of Music Curation

With more ways than ever to discover, consume and create music, those who excel at filtering the flood are enjoying increasing amounts of capital -- both cultural and financial. Fenway Recordings founder Mark Kates gathered a team of influential music curators -- including Pitchfork Media founder Ryan Schreiber, and Hollywood Bowl/Disney Concert Hall senior programming manager Johanna Rees -- for a kind of State of the Union on curation at SXSW on Thursday.
But first, is the term “curation” even accurate for music? Rees kicked things off by issuing an objection. “I’ve never liked that term,” she said. “It makes me think of this sort of non-profit, artsy-fartsy world.”
Panelist Steve Blatter, SVP/GM of music programing for Sirius XM Radio, countered by saying he liked the term, adding that it lent an air of dignity to radio programmers. Whatever it’s called, the panelists agreed that becoming a trusted source of new music begins with cultivating a strong sense of personal taste.
“Curation is based around what you like and then the audience sort of congeals around that,” Schreiber said.
For Blatter, however, the editorial decisions of he and his staff are only a starting point before the demands of the audience take over.
“We see it as there being two steps: one is identifying music, where we look at lineups, check Pitchfork, talk to managers and industry folks and so on,” he said. “And then it’s ‘What is the audience telling us?’ What we think as programmers becomes less and less important as time goes on.”
In 2013, the voice of the audience is undeniable, even for curators who build their name on having a strong point of view. Pitchfork, which Schreiber said was founded on the belief that talking about what he didn’t like was just as important as talking about what he did like, notoriously does not allow comments on its website. But Schreiber said feedback still pours in via social media.
“With Twitter now, sometimes the artist themselves will challenge your review, which then puts you in the position of defending what you wrote to the person that you wrote about in public,” he said. “It’s crazy.”
In the live space, Rees said one of the biggest challenges today is getting marquee artists to approve of other acts on the bill, often a prerequisite for their participation. She gave the example of Diana Ross, whom she recently booked to play the Hollywood Bowl, only to discover that the iconic diva wanted Michael Bolton as an opening act.
“I’m like ‘No,’” she said, bravely. “I think there’s an opportunity to book something interesting in that first half. I don’t need someone who will sell tickets. I just want to do something that’s going to be cool and make an impact.”
For curators, having the courage of your convictions is a must. But Schreiber said it’s never the goal to be the only person “right” about a band.
“If Pitchfork didn’t exist, I think a lot of the artists we cover would still be just as big,” he said. “I think what we do is help people find artists earlier than they would have otherwise. But there are so many ways to discover music now that we’re just one of many voices. People only need critics in so much as they trust them.”