Polaris jurors talk music in books: An event review

Barclay, Cross, Jennings, Schneider, Wilson, Berman, Bowman

Picking up from where I left off on Monday, I decided to go to the Polaris music in books panel on Tuesday night. Hosted by Steve Jordan, the Polaris founder, was a panel of Michael Barclay, Alan Cross, Nicholas Jennings, Jason Schneider, Carl Wilson, Stuart Berman and Rob Bowman. They have all written books about music, and modestly displayed them on their laps after Jordan told them to come prepared (well, some didn’t).

“These guys have forgotten more about music than you know,” said Jordan.

These men gathered to talk about music writing and about attempting to put a historical knowledge to it. They commented on how they should have added the latest installment to their book posse, Liz Worth & her book Treat Me Like Dirt. Isn’t it fascinating (good and bad) that you can pretty much gather almost all of the people who have written books about music in Canada in one room? Something like this cannot even be attempted in the States. And even a few of the books these authors were representing have gone out of print long ago.

Jordan started off the discussion by asking the authors to describe how they decided to write their books. Barclay put it best about his book, saying they thought nobody else would write it, so they had the market cornered. But he did also add that people weren’t taking the music of that time period seriously, and so the book was a bit of a challenge. Next, Cross also made a good point about how the books he’s written are so quickly outdated that it’s not even worth the effort to write books about music anymore (his last was published in 2000), blaming on short attention span reading. Berman reflected on how he was a fan of oral histories and the way they document scenes, so he let the characters of Broken Social Scene dictate his book. Bowman talked for a long time about his story (Jordan had to cut him off at one point) but it was interesting about how he was saying if you want to be a solid music writer, you need an MBA, and how after his book about Stax Records was published it led to a museum, a Grammy and a few re-issues.

This just proves how the survival of Canadian music books is in such a weird point right now. In the same room, we had men whose books are long out of print, but still helpful, and other men whose books were recent successes.

The panel’s time was starting to get shorter, so they talked about analysis next. “Why are things the way they are?” asked Cross. “There’s always a never-ending list of questions you’ll never explore.” But Jennings did say that if you work on a book, and you’re doing so much research, new doors will always open for you. So it’s not that you’ll wain in your existence trying to find the meaning of music, but you will find many interesting facts and plenty of amazing music in your time.

Next was a question about heroes and villains in the books. Barclay stepped on how his book (with Schneider) was more subjective because “if we don’t like a band, we’re not going to include them.” Even in Bowman’s case, with a textbook, it was selective. “The critics are the ones who form history,” said Cross. So if critics were always writing about bands they liked, it’s harder to chronicle the not so good ones. I continued this discussion with Cross after the panel was over actually, which was interesting.

Jennings also attributed this to how Canadian broadcasting didn’t take Canadian music seriously for a very long time; how radio stations would have a “Beaver Bin,” in which they tossed any Canadian music coming in into it. “That summed up what was wrong with the music industry in Canada,” he said.

The men then got into the discussion of just writing about music in general. “We can all be our own music writers,” said Cross. Barclay added, “it means the death of the narrative.” They then raised the question (I believe Wilson was leading this) of where will narratives come from in the future? If the internet is causing such a problem with writers losing their voices, what’s going to happen? Who will write music books? This also led to a discussion of the death of the album, in which they all agreed that the way public consumes music is going to change the way they care about things, but the concept of an album will not die any time soon. “If you put ‘death of’ before anything, it’s an easy way to get attention,” said Berman. Bowman added, “we may not have hard copies forever, but we will have albums.”

Ultimately, the panel discussion was interesting and exciting for me to hear. Though the prospect of writing books about music in the future is one to still be determined (afterwards, I was discussing with Berman about how he wrote some of his book on his iPhone), but at least the writers now are optimistic for music. (Albeit, once Jordan asked them to think of their current Polaris picks, they struggled, saying the Fall season wasn’t the best.) Sometimes the panel seemed confused as to what exactly they were there to talk about, but honestly once you get a music writer talking, it’s hard to get them to stop. (I’ll listen to anything about this topic though.) I do wish this event was put on to the public.. it was this tiny private function in some club on King Street where it was basically just the writers, their significant others and a few guests that found the list such as myself.

I think music writing in books needs to be strengthened in Canada, and we have a strong base to build off of. I know I definitely hope to contribute to this at some point, and the authors did say books should be written about the Montreal scene and the Vancouver punk scene (“but nobody in this room gets to do that!”). I also wish there was a bit of a question period from the audience. I wanted to hear their thoughts about how some of the books have gone out of print and what that might lead to. But for now, I’ll spend my time dreaming of what I can write someday and hopefully what many others will, too.

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