The Stranger recently received a letter to the editor wondering why the band Big Thief wasn't previewed in our pages or on our website. After you read it, I'm going to answer the letter-writer's queries and explain how and why things get covered in the section of the paper formerly known as "Up & Coming," now known as "Music Things to Do." You can also find the show previews in this section on our music calendar.
Like many, I have come to rely on the Stranger as my number one resource for sorting through the many great live music options in Seattle and greatly appreciate it's [sic] star-flagging of "not-to-be-missed" performances and events. I was a bit dismayed that this Friday's upcoming performance of Big Thief at the Neptune was not among those highlighted upcoming performances, despite coming off of two stellar albums ranking near the top of many music critics "Best of the Year" lists, among them Pitchfork and NPR. Unless perhaps their previous live sets left something to be desired, I find it almost unfathomable that this one would have not been flagged as a "must- see" performance and that tickets remain unsold. I am not sure if the Stranger is being somewhat "cooler than thou" in not recommending this obvious show but to me it invalidates the whole exercise if this was a conscious editorial decision to not highlight this band coming to town. While there is no accounting for taste, it makes one wonder what criteria are used to alert readers of upcoming events worthy of mention. Being a multiple "Best Album of 2017" should be good enough to get the nod. Keep up the otherwise great eye for what is cropping up in town. Please note I have no special connection to Big Thief and just feel they got unfairly snubbed. This is my Kanye West moment.
Thanks for writing, dear reader. As the editor of Music Things to Do, I have to make many difficult decisions every two weeks about which shows to cover. In any given 14-day period, 300-350 musical events—give or take a dozen, depending on the time of year—are happening in the Seattle area. We have 30 blurbs to dispense for this time span. As you can see, we only have space in every issue for about 10 percent of what's happening. Inevitably, some worthy shows will go unblurbed. This reality makes me sad, but I hope that, if the paper keeps going and/or we don't lose the electrical grid, we'll get around to writing about every blessed act that comes through town—perhaps even Big Thief.
Our talented and diligent music calendar editor, Kim Selling, compiles the list of events going down in the aforementioned two-week period. (Collating this info requires the patience and fortitude of a saint.) Allow her to elaborate on this process.
My average work day consists of many things, but it generally begins and ends with me being the human receptacle for 200-300 emails, including requests for event listings, artist interviews, concert ticket solicitations, press passes, and editorial pitches. As much as I would love to provide exposure and conjure support for many Seattle musicians of every genre, it is damn near impossible to write in-depth blurbs about even a generous handful considering the size of both my workload and our creative community. I am not, as many faceless people on the internet would like to believe, a hipster gatekeeper resting heavily on the laurels of my millennial snobbery, only highlighting my friends and turning a blind eye to all others who don’t fit within the confines of my personal music taste. I am simply one person who cannot talk to every damn person who makes music in this town—it’s just not possible. I don’t even have time to respond to every email I receive.
What I do usually have time for, considering the fact that I run the Stranger Things to Do music calendar, is listing as many shows as I possibly can (including Big Thief). If you’re reading this and would like your upcoming event to be on our site, please use our submission form here and we will do our best to get your info online in a timely-ish manner.
Selling informs me that The Stranger has 4,706 active events on our calendar right now (that includes everything, not just music). During a season peak, we usually have over 5,000 active events. These are amazing figures, considering how doomsayers in the mid '00s were predicting that the indoor smoking ban would kill nightlife. Anyway, as much as we would like to, we can't please everybody every issue.
All right. Here's the part where I peel back the curtain and show you how coverage occurs at one of the few remaining alt-weeklies in these Divided States. (I can assure the letter-writer and everyone else that it's not about proving how we're "cooler than thou." We're long past caring about that.) Every other Friday, Ms. Selling sends me that legendary list mentioned above. I send said list to my stable of freelancers and to editorial staff; they pore over the entries and on Monday, they send me pitches about which shows they wish to write about. I spend most of Monday reading their pitches while also taking into account the shows about which I want to write. And then I dole out assignments, 30 per issue.
Okay, so how do I decide which shows get that much-coveted ink and those sweet, sweet pixels? Great question. It's complicated. Convincing pitches formulated by freelancers play a big role here. I want the writing in this section to be enthusiastic, interesting, and informative; those goals are more likely to be attained by critics writing about acts about whom they're excited and knowledgeable. Therefore, I strive to assign stuff to writers who are champing at the bit to express themselves about their subjects. Everybody wins in this scenario (theoretically): our readers, the musicians, the venues, and The Stranger. Sure, it's sometimes fun to eviscerate a band, and that does occasionally happen, but the overarching goal of Music Things to Do is to alert readers to the region's most compelling shows.
Another factor shaping the Music Things to Do section is diversity of genres represented. I strive to present a mix of musical styles. Many factors go into this editorial blend, and sometimes the coverage isn't as eclectic as I'd like. But I do try to attain a balance among the varieties of music at the city's disposal.
I also try to find a balance of local and touring acts in the section, as well as a symmetry between established and newer acts. I don't calculate the percentage of each in every issue, but the concept is always in the forefront of my mind when making editorial decisions. Some artists play so often around here that it's not desirable to write about them every time they plug in. Interesting artists who are coming through Seattle for the first time will have an advantage in getting covered. Often, The Stranger will re-run blurbs from past issues for those musicians making return visits, or we'll reprint promo copy, acknowledging that it's not original Stranger content. The main thing with our music calendar is that you get as vivid an idea as possible of what to expect at any given show.
Finally, it's undeniable that my tastes have an influence over the content of the section. This is pretty much true of any culture-oriented publication/website. If an editor says otherwise, he/she/they are essentially deeming themselves inhuman, an automaton mechanically dictating editorial real estate according to an algorithm. So, yes, I rely on my 35 years of journalistic experience and five decades of music listening (with all the biases accrued therefrom) to help me assess the deluge of acts coming through town every fortnight. Which means I may choose the Scientists over Ghostland Observatory or Childish Gambino over Miguel. (These are false binaries merely presented to give you a rough idea of how selections sometimes are made.) But do know that every decision is carefully weighed, with many factors besides my own tastes considered. If artist X doesn't get previewed this time, there's always a chance they will for their next Seattle date.
So there you have it. All the mystique over what ends up in The Stranger's music section has been obliterated in one handy blog post. Be careful what you wish for.