You’ve heard it before: music criticism as we know it is dying, replaced with editorial positions at Apple or lifestyle reporters masquerading as music journalists. But in one tiny corner of the publishing industry, at least one form of writing about music is surviving — even thriving. For over a decade, Bloomsbury Publishing’s 33 1/3 book series has been breathing life back into liner notes with 160-page, 4×6-in. treatises on an eclectic spectrum of 104 albums, from a nuanced account of recording Neil Young‘s Harvest to John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats‘ novella about Black Sabbath‘s Master of Reality.
On Mar. 3, Bloomsbury Press will throw a launch party in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood for How to Write About Music, a guide to reviewing albums and live concerts, interviewing musicians, and completing a longform piece of music literature like, well, a 33 1/3 (there’s an entire chapter devoted to it). It almost serves as a symbol of the series itself: a chapter in a book on how to write about a subject whose future existence is debatable. But how does such a niche market keep calm and rock on?
Two words: Harry Potter. But first let’s back up. Founded in 1999, 33 1/3’s original publisher, Continuum, was initially known for publishing similarly-sized books on philosophers like Jacques Derrida, Alain Baidou, and Slavoj Zizek. In 2003, however, series editor David Barker decided to focus on a hipper, more immediate medium. “He’s an obsessive music fan who thought, ‘This is a really cool idea, why don’t we apply this to albums,'” says series editor Ally-Jane Grossan. “He reached out to his favorite music writers, and as you can imagine, everyone thought it was the best idea ever.” So Warren Zanes‘ entry on Dusty Springfield‘s Dusty in Memphis became the first 33 1/3.
In 2010, however, the series started to wind down, since Continuum was still first and foremost an academic press, and the series had begun to move towards more ‘creative’ explorations of the albums, instead of relatively academic exegeses of them. The stable of writers Barker had sourced at the outset of the series protested its possible discontinuation.
It wasn’t until Bloomsbury, fat and happy with the surprise windfall from the mind-bogglingly successful Harry Potter series and optimistic about academic publishing — which has a more consistent track record, since books are continuously being bought for college courses — acquired Continuum. They’ve been commissioning books ever since; the latest call for submissions ends in August of this year.
“[The series] makes up such a tiny, tiny, tiny part of my job,” says Grossan, who commissions books in popular sound studies and politics. “The reason we’re able to continue and publish so many albums is because we’re doing smaller printings, and going for such a niche market. It doesn’t produce New York Times best-sellers, but we’ve been featured in the New York Times in two major articles in the past year.”
And therein lies the appeal and lifespan of 33 1/3: cultural cachet, at least within a certain audience. “In creative content industries where there’s a disproportionately large amount of labor to the economic reward, there is also the perception of prestige that comes with the publication of the title, and the prestige will have positive effects on your career downstream,” says Daphne Carr, who wrote the 33 1/3 on Nine Inch Nails‘ Pretty Hate Machine and was the series editor of Best Music Writing from 2006-11. “For academia, if you publish a book that’s well-received in your field, you’re more likely to get a tenure-track job.”
Aside from personal and intellectual fulfillment, this delayed career gratification is the only incentive to write a 33 1/3. In the series’ early days, authors would be paid $2,000 per book, half as an advance and the other half once finished. These days, “the standard rate is zero dollars, all of which is paid immediately,” says Carr. “That’s the more academic model of book publishing.”
Authors are compensated with royalties, which can be meager — Grossan won’t reveal the exact amount pulled in by one of their most successful titles, Carl Wilson’s book on Celine Dion‘s Let’s Talk About Love, but will allow that it has sold several thousand e- and physical books since it was published in 2007 — as Bloomsbury has to recoup the printing cost, which is equally low. Carr estimates production costs per book line to be between $2,500 and $10,000, not including printing; and if the book is picked up by a professor for his or her coursework, and if that course has 500 students enrolled, the book is recouped right after orientation week.
Meanwhile, for those who have graduated to paying off student loans and so may be less interested in writing a book for free, the allure lies in what originally inspired Barker to start the series. “It’s very sexy,” says Carr, who admits she assesses people’s 33 1/3 collections the same way one might analyze a person by their record collection. “It’s beautiful to have them all on a shelf. The Union Square Barnes & Noble would have a big shelf of them. Things that catch people’s eyes get purchased more easily, but I don’t think that was ever part of the marketing scheme for 33 1/3.”
Music critic and NYU professor Amanda Petrusich, who wrote the 33 1/3 on Nick Drake‘s Pink Moon, has a slightly more nostalgic but equally realistic view. “Music books in general have a somewhat limited audience,” she says. “It can feel a little bit like an echo chamber, critics talking to each other in those books. I think these books function as liner notes, since we can no longer read the insides of our LPs. I’m thrilled and surprised they’re still going.”
The party may not last forever, however. The task of keeping the 33 1/3 ship afloat is continual at Bloomsbury, says Grossan. “Jonathan Lethem’s book on [Talking Heads record] Fear of Music [released in 2012] was slated to be the last volume in the series, but David Barker and I put together a proposal and Bloomsbury decided to let us experiment. Just imagine trying to explain Sleater-Kinney to a room full of British publishers who have just concluded a discussion of the potential market for a linguistics monograph on the semiotics of Che Guevara.”